Tom McCarthy wrote an insightful introduction to Deborah Levy’s novel, Swimming Home, in 2011. In it he says that Levy’s “fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone (to borrow Burrough’s term) it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated.”
This is the first time I’m learning about William S. Burrough’s book Interzone, but its premise that McCarthy addresses in relation to Swimming Home cannot be ignored. I’m usually most interested in character development when I’m reading, but as I read this novel, I couldn’t help but think that almost every character was reaching their development climax by the time I was introduced to them (Nina is the exception). I was also obsessed with picking apart symbol and literal; dream and reality. I couldn’t tear myself away from pondering why, or why not, or could it be?
Now, this is not to say that this obsession is rare. It’s quite the opposite, but when revisiting McCarthy’s introduction after finishing the book, I realized that Deborah Levy put symbols, fantasy, paranoia, and the elements that I’ve been taught to dig deep for, to find meaning for, slightly in the open for me, while the characters purposely and consciously keep themselves in the dark. There are flashbacks which make time seem fluid, all the while we move forward in a linear fashion. When a ghost appears, my conclusion was not “she’s crazy” (okay, maybe a tiny part of the conclusion is that), it’s of course! How else? There’s talk of home, aliens, poets, and instances of infidelity. Bubbles are popping, discomfort is rampant, depression hints at its grasp, and although I had a premonition that things were not going to work out, I didn’t have a yearning for those things to work out, like I sometimes do when reading other books. I also got the feeling that the characters knew, on a symbolic level, that the vacation was not going to be blissful, and were just waiting for the situations to unfold out of their control.
Let Knowledge Serve the World. Now she thought she would change the school motto to something that warned the girls that knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see. The new motto would have to take into account the idea that knowledge was sometimes hard to live with and once the clever young girls of Cardiff had a taste for it they would never be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
Knowledge can be a slippery slope, because of its ability to enlighten and destroy, confirm and deny. In Swimming Home, knowledge seems to be avoided in conversation and “out loud,” while at the same time is something that each individual internally obsesses about. The denial of a truth does not make it less true, and while denial can sometimes be a seamless ride, it can destroy the physical, mental, emotional, and sometimes it really explodes and destroys all three at once. Each character has something chipping away at them because of what they know, or what they may think they don’t know, and how the denial, or struggle to come to terms with knowledge, manifests is the interesting part of the story. Is the solution to come clean, to let the knowledge flow into the open air? Or are we more free when some or all knowledge is hidden or barred from seeing light? Is the solution to expose half-truths, and bits of knowledge? Is living in dream better than coming to terms with the knowledge that presents itself in reality? Is the answer to just avoid reality, where knowledge lurks at every corner, and slip into our dreams where we have knowledge but it can’t really hurt us? Am I speaking nonsense because writing this blog post has led me down the path of philosophical thinking and I can’t properly sequence my thoughts?
Swimming Home is full of profound statements, some blatant, and some that may not seem that way at first but later on hit you with extreme force. It also contains less-than-astounding events, confrontations, and conversations that build on the platform of fantasy, desire, and humanity that makes a novel fulfilling. It’s also a reminder that escaping the past is a task requiring more effort than it’s worth; we might as well just let the past live in a sectioned off hole in our heart or mind where it won’t cause too much trouble. Deborah Levy’s prose is calming, which makes for a beautiful combination when paired with the story’s subject matter and devices. I’m satisfied that my rambling questions were not really answered, and I’m content with knowing that after a second, third, and hundredth read, I will enjoy Swimming Home just as much as this initial read.
This is why when I kiss my daughter goodnight and wish her sweet dreams, she understands my wish for her is kind, but she knows, as all children do, that it’s impossible to be told by our parents what our dreams are supposed to be like. They know they have to dream themselves out of life and back into it, because life must always win us back.