Deborah Levy’s doppelgänger and talismans


Deborah Levy’s doppelgänger and talismans

LOUIS GAIGHER, a Levy aficionado, had a sneak preview of her latest book, which will be published soon.


READERS of Real Estate (2021), the third and probably final instalment in Deborah Levy's remarkable ‘living autobiography' (‘living' in the sense that she writes it in the midst of life and not with hindsight), already know of the delight she (aka, the narrator who stands close to her and with whom she shares biographical data) derives from model horses, sea urchins, movement (upward and outward) and Paris.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

In August Blue, Levy's new autumnal and playful novel, she doubles images, objects, motifs, places, and figures of the living autobiography. This novel, in fact all of Levy's fiction, reads as if she were polishing random elements and images  then exultantly and playfully watching magic and meaning ignite from the juxtaposition and undercurrents that take shape. Writing is the answer to a challenge, and as a writer Levy operates like a Hannah Höch and the playwright she used to be at the beginning of her writing career, in her early twenties.

In Real Estate, Levy lists her real estate portfolio. Her ‘unreal property' is the homes and spaces of her desire that remain out of reach and her legacy is her oeuvre. Her tangible assets are three antique Afghan hand-painted merry-go-round horses made of wood, three e-bikes (on which she and her friends ride freely around north London) and a flat in a dilapidated building up a hill. The apartment block's corridors she calls “the corridors of love" because, like love, the floors — having been covered with grey plastic for years — also need urgent restoration. This is where, and in two writer's huts provided to her by almost fairy tale-like helpers, she creates a self-appointed life of greater freedom in her fifties, with humour, daring and cheerfulness. She does this in the midst of turbulence after the unravelling of a marriage of 20 years. She is in the process of becoming the writer she always wanted to be. (Commercial and critical success also followed inevitably.)

Doppelgänger in trilby hat

In the opening scene of August Blue, Levy multiplies her Afghan wooden horses. They manifest at a flea market in Athens as two cheap, mechanically dancing toy objects of desire. Elsa M Anderson — celebrated pianist in crisis, whose performance of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto in Vienna derailed shortly before and who is now privately tutoring wayward children of the rich — looks longingly at the two toy horses but a woman in whom she recognises herself (‘Perhaps she was a little more me than I was') thwarts her by snatching them up. In retaliation, Elsa grabs her doppelgänger's trilby hat.

A year of near-encounters follows as Elsa, with blue-dyed hair and always sporting the trilby, moves at a trot between Paris, London, the Greek islands and Sardinia, continuously aware of her doppelgänger. The double's appearances are unnerving: identity unravels with multiple doppelgängers at large. Who is the real deal and who simulacrum? But a doppelgänger (or avatar) also gives you a wider reach into the world and makes you more resistant. As with Levy's barefoot, South African childhood self who joins middle-aged Levy and her two daughters in 2018's The Cost of Living (the second and strongest part of her living autobiography), it is advisable to be on good terms with doubles and predecessors and take their advice to heart.  

In addition to the doppelgänger's appearances, the plot of August Blue is determined by documents waiting in Sardinia for Elsa's perusal which will reveal her biological identity and provenance. As a six-year-old protégée in foster care, Arthur, her teacher who is now dwindling, adopted her. She knows nothing about her parents: “Perhaps I was conceived on a dead donkey with rotting eye sockets. What did I know?'

August Blue is set in the time of Covid lockdown, blue face masks and sanitised hands. Continuity and identity are slipping away slightly. “If my identity is so fragile it depends on a flat white to keep it together," Rajesh, a Levy avatar, notes in her typically witty way like an oracle, “I can't see the point of all those years I've spent reading difficult theory and philosophy." Moreover, argues Rajesh/Levy, our epoch has not equipped us for the destabilisation of identity caused by the pandemic: “Capitalism sold a flat white to me as if it were a cup of freedom." Also, the Brexit blues and a shift in national identity are pressing down on her. Is a doppelgänger, despite its uncanniness, perhaps the ideal travel companion in a time when differences and otherness are viewed with distrust and discomfort? 

In Levy's books, material objects such as the toy horses, pianos and the trilby operate as talismans, scene-setters, deployers of memory, and symbols. In Things I Don't Want to Know (2013), the memoir/travel journal/essay that introduces living autobiography, and in which she writes mainly about her early childhood in South Africa and a sense of impediment and unidentified grief, she traces her awareness of and concern with objects to her father, Norman Levy. He was a treason triallist who died in 1964, when Deborah was five, having been in custody for four years. According to him, objects were to be understood, respected and not treated with disdain: “To fill a kettle through its spout and not take the lid off was to humiliate the kettle." This is still the way she treats objects.  

As with her sense of objects, Levy is finely tuned to appetite and the sensory joy, comfort and social cohesion that food provides. Who can forget the scene in The Cost of Living in which Levy presides over a feast for her daughters and friends consisting of a chicken that fell from her tote bag after a difficult rainy day and was run down by a cart, with a single sprig of rosemary for remembrance? Or the heartbreaking scene of the bubble gum-flavoured ice cream with which she's trying to quench her dying mother's thirst in a London hospital? Or the sweet oranges she knew as a barefoot girl in South Africa in Things I Don't Want to Know?

Creepy dish

Sea urchins, a somewhat creepy dish in a Parisian restaurant in Real Estate, make their comeback in August Blue. Elsa, bikini-clad, dives for sea urchins on a Greek island. She wrings them loose from rocks and pierces them with a kitchen fork. Some of their prickles get stuck in her fingers, the fingers that were insured for millions of dollars.

Elsa is reminiscent of the female protagonist Levy tried in vain to sell to filmmakers in Real Estate: ‘she is allowed to mess up, to be foolish and profound, kind and cruel, to exist with full complexity and paradox’. To find her voice, Elsa could take inspiration from Things I Don’t Want to Know. ‘To become a writer,’ writes Levy ‘I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.’

It's this uncouth, unforced, intimate voice, which never tries to win favour through self-denigration, that renders the living autobiography so poignant and enjoyable and makes me consume with pleasure everything Levy writes.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Speech Bubbles

Om kommentaar te lewer op hierdie artikel, registreer (dis vinnig en gratis) of meld aan.

Lees eers Vrye Weekblad se Kommentaarbeleid voor jy kommentaar lewer.