Novel Thoughts - Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories, 2012)
Updated: Apr 2
(Novel Thoughts is my blog of quick reads on craft and technique in the novel, reacting to every novel I read).
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a novel that demonstrates many of the opportunities available to multiple points of view.
Long after plays had first employed soliloquy to leave us alone with the thoughts of multiple characters, novelists began to experiment with narratives presenting multiple perspectives.
For playwrights, the decisions are quite clear cut: unless the writing is engaged in soliloquy, we are seeing multiple characters in action, not experiencing multiple points of view. The novel’s trick of free and indirect speech means we gain a sense that we are witnessing the behavior of a character, at the same time as occupying the linguistic world of their consciousness. Levy uses it as Virginia Woolf did before her.
With free and indirect speech, we are suspended somewhere between the witnessing power of the author’s interpretive rhetoric, her organizing narrative, and the illusion of a character’s agency and perspective. Levy uses free and indirect speech to weave together a story from the experience of seven characters over seven days.
While there is nothing new in this conceit, it is worth noting that most novels adopting this complex approach to multiple points of view, tend to be much longer. Compelled readers want to believe in characters, and many authors need space to employ all the tricks of personal history, individual senses, exposition, voice, and the habits of behavior that give readers the illusion of a character's reality.
The pacing of a longer narrative tends to give readers time to fully inhabit a point of view before being carefully positioned, through the mechanics of structure and plot, into a new perspective. Longer narratives also allow room for all those characters to develop their narrative arcs. When we ask the reader to believe in the interior world of seven characters instead of just one, extra effort is involved, both on the author’s, and the reader’s behalf.
Swimming Home is unusually short, almost the length of the average novella, and gains power from the stylistic tricks of compression applied to multiple points of view. It is a novel featuring poets and poetry, and compression in writing is a notable quality of poetry. Poets know that the less you say, the more there is to interpret. Stylistically, compression could mean many things in prose, but relies on the astute selection of weighted details to communicate the maximum amount of information about a character, place or idea. A description, statement or concrete detail might have a literal value, but needs to work as hard a possible through its symbolic or metaphorical possibilities. Juxtaposition is key to maximising these effects.
One of Levy’s favourite tricks of compression is a sense of synaesthesia through juxtaposition. After Kitty Finch has scrawled the words of a poem by Apollinaire on the hand of Joe Jacobs, we read from his point of view:
Her voice was hard and soft at the same time. Like the velvet armchairs. Like the black rain inked on his hand.
Kitty’s presence is transferred through Joe's senses like the ink she has inscribed on his hand. Her voice is also the feel of the armchair, and the feel of the armchair is soft and hard, like her. Levy elides smell and sight, touch and sound, again and again. Literary synaesthesia is a particularly strong choice for a novel that is, in part, about losing the connection between your mind and body.
It is also a novel very much about the profound impact one stranger can have upon another. Time and again the sentences use a violent kind of juxtaposition to register the impact: “Kitty leapt into the cloudy water holding her nose. Mitchell sat up and immediately felt dizzy.”
Photography is another influence on Levy’s style. A framed photograph forces viewers to interpret and read meaning into the moment selected and captured. When she leaves the direct thoughts and impressions of her characters off the page, Levy likes to take literary photographs of them, bringing characters together in one frame so that we read their body language and interpret their relationship to one another.
A certain level of exteriority is common to the technique in most novels. Famously, writer’s have experimented with the maximization of exteriority (see Hemingway), or interiority (See Henry James). Free and direct speech vacillates between what is seen and what is said, but when Levy lingers on what is seen, it is often to suggest more than the kind of prosaic action which dominates a genre thriller. The slightest gesture and painterly detail are the objects of her attention.
One danger of compression is the occasional moment of hyperreal melodrama, as all the ingredients mixed tightly together create something heightened and rich. But I'm nit-picking. With rapid shifts in point of view, Levy's effect is to press the lives of her characters close together in the pressure cooker of the hot Mediterranean sun, and show how our sense of autonomy is a mirage. As the novel’s epigraph suggests, our lives are more dreamlike than we might believe. On a technical level, as well as an emotional one, this novel feels like a rare accomplishment.