Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.
On the surface the Booker longlisted Swimming Home is another study of middle-class woes set in a really rather nice Provencal villa in the hills above Nice in 1994. Two couples, African ‘emporium’ owners Laura and Mitchell – awkwardly tall and overweight, respectively – and the famous poet Joe Jacobs and his war correspondent wife Isabel with their daughter, Nina, lounge around the swimming pool. Their thinly veiled dislike for one another is destabilised by the arrival of the young self-proclaimed botanist Kitty Finch, first glimpsed beneath the pool’s surface, her body warped by the water, naked and painfully thin. All this is observed from a neighbouring balcony by Dr Madeleine Sheridan who knows rather more about the history of Kitty’s mental health than is immediately apparent.
Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.
She is allowed to stay in the spare room by Isabel for reasons that are not at all clear. Like so much else, we cannot be sure if Isabel’s motivation is as opaque to her as it is the reader. As the book progresses it become clear that Levy is doing something far more interesting than the normal literary investigation of summer implosion in a pretty setting. Small misunderstandings paralyse because they momentarily undermine convention and thus disorientate. Yet Kitty’s frequent nakedness is so gross a breach that it goes almost unmentioned. Kitty strips people both literally and figuratively and thus precipitates a crisis. The couples’ unconscious and intuitive dissembling is derailed by a character ill enough to be both open to everything and willing to highlight anything. There is, however, some connection, some deep understanding, between Kitty and Joe, rooted in his writing, with which she is so obsessed, and a shared mental anguish, bound up with the poet’s confused Mittel-European heritage.
How could she tell her that she and Joe were transmitting messages to each other when she didn’t understand it herself?
Levy has cited John Cheever’s story The Swimmer as a strong influence on Swimming Home, and the correspondences abound once one is aware of the relationship. Cheever’s muscular prose is echoed in Levy’s lean translucent sentences which are anything but lucid. In her lambent style Levy alludes to so much, but renders so much mysterious. She emphasises the manner in which the desire for simplicity is its own negation, because that desire leads to repression, to communication without any substance but misunderstanding and anger and pain. Mitchell and Laura are far less carefree than they seem, Joe and Isabel so detached from one another, each, in their own way, slipping into depression. Perhaps the most interesting relationship is between Joe and Nina, who becomes central as the novel progresses.
They never talked about his own childhood or his girlfriends. This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.
This needling discomfort is mirrored in the reader. Throughout the book flashes of sincerity melt in the heat of the Summer and in the sheer danger of expression. Levy doesn’t allow a smooth transition between the internal and external for either her characters or the reader. This is part of what makes Swimming Home so unsettling. As with Neddy in The Swimmer, whose initial choice to swim the county seems to lack any clear rationale, so Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the theoretically transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires and dreams. That uncertainty is constantly brought to a head by Kitty, whose unpredictability disorientates everyone.
No one felt able to intervene because they did not fully know what it was they were seeing. It reminded Nina of the day she watched an eclipse through a hole in coloured paper, careful not to be blinded by the sun.
The violence lying behind, the seething plasma of desire, tamed by repression and the everyday: that is Levy’s concern; and behind that, death. Tom McCarthy flings Freudian terms about with abandon in the introduction, and he is right to highlight the shadow of death and neurosis beneath Levy’s writing. That darkness runs through Swimming Home, but it does not suffocate, even if it unnerves. It is the sheer lack of control that strikes one so forcefully. This can be seen in Levy’s physical concerns. Our bodies outrun us in both youth and old age. As Nina becomes increasingly aware of her body and its effect on others, so Madeleine becomes aware of her aches and pains and her increasing invisibility. The romantic intentions of the local café waiter Claude, so enamoured of Nina, stand in stark opposition to the disinterest of the waiters in Nice to Madeleine’s desperate and over-primped entreaties.
Madeleine’s determination to strip away the layers of others’ deceit is as destructive and ill-willed as her aging. There are no simple answers to the problems in Swimming Home. Psychoanalysis hovers in the background, but does little good. So often to analyse is to obfuscate and destroy. That probably goes for reviews as well. And in that spirit I have to admit to certain, very limited, reservations about the ending or epilogue, where the surrealist family dreams of the epigraph return. It feels tacked on, as is the risk with epilogues, and lacks the weight of the rest of the book. Had the book ended in 1994 there would have been a symmetry to what is an intensely graceful work. But this is a small reservation.
Swimming Home deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist. It provides few answers, but does so with such economical prose and circling, gestured characterisation, falling towards a deep sadness. As only the third novel released by the small subscription-based publisher And Other Stories it is a real triumph (and beautifully produced). Definitely recommended.