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In the Soft Typewriter of the Womb

Deborah Levy interviewed by Darran Anderson.

3:AM: Do you usually begin a story with an image in your head, a character or line of dialogue? Can you remember the moment Swimming Home was first conceived?

DL: Perhaps Swimming Home was first conceived when I came across an obituary for the writer Ann Quin who drowned herself in Brighton age 37 in 1973: it said something like ‘Ann Quin went for a swim and never returned’. I found myself thinking quite a lot about Ann’s sad last swim past the palace pier. And then one morning, while I was swimming in my local pool, it occurred to me that a swimming pool is just a hole in the ground, or, as Joe observes in Swimming Home, ‘a grave covered in water’. And then all the other themes I had been chasing came together.

I was recently speaking to John Calder who published Quin’s first important novel, Berg. The more he told me about her life, the more I realised there is a part of my book which is an entirely imagined séance with Quin.

Short stories often start with an image. I have just bought a strange potted plant with umbrella-shaped blooms that grow down rather than up — which is to say it is doing something interesting with gravity. It’s like a small shock every time I look at it. Perhaps it will obliquely turn up somewhere in a fiction.

3:AM: Swimming Home opens with an epigraph from La Révolution surréaliste. There’s a part of it — ‘We are all at the mercy of the dream’ — that made me reconsider Surrealism in a much more threatening and darker way than it’s commonly portrayed, which is often parlour tricks and optical illusions. You visit dreams a lot in your work: at the risk of sounding esoteric, do you think they are attempts by our subconscious to tell us something, as the Surrealists believed (and your short story “Roma” suggests), or may dreams even be a further attempt at concealment/self-deception?

DL: Dreams are a sort of cop-out in literature, because anything can happen but without consequences. In a novel, if various risks have no consequences and there is nothing to lose, it’s not interesting to write that novel. Yet, of course, dreams are an extraordinary part of being alive — someone with a dull imagination can have a wild dream in which they are the director, actors, lighting designer and producer. It’s cheaper than going to the Odeon: a dream is free cinema. I do believe dreams tell us things we don’t want to know we know. But when I use dream in my writing it is usually to create an uncanny effect — it is there to disturb the reality levels of the fiction. Tarkovsky is the master of this sort of game; David Lynch too. Sometimes dreams can be quite matter of fact — so it’s not as if dreams are always weird. As for The Surrealists, when I was a young writer, I was more inspired by surrealist art, poetry, film and performance than by the novels of Jane Austen. It was so liberating to stare at images by Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Lee Miller, Valentine Penrose, Eileen Agar, Kay Sage, Claude Cahun. I could see that these women had found a language (modern, playful, melancholy, witty) and I was attracted to it — and everything by de Chirico and Duchamp.

3:AM: Kitty (Swimming Home) appears to the others as a cipher on which they project their own desires or insecurities, but there’s a darker suggestion that all of the characters are projecting their own identities on to others and themselves. Do you think there’s a degree of unreliable narrator or fiction (as Billy and Girl and your story “Cave Girl” explore) to “the self”? Is it a comforting story we tell ourselves?

DL: Yes, everyone projects their anxieties or desires on to Kitty Finch. I have her walk around naked for most of the book, so in a sense she is a blank screen for them to do so.

We don’t have to be writers to be unreliable narrators. The story we tell our selves about our lives (mother, father, brothers, sisters, lovers etc.) is an unreliable story because it changes over the years. We go back and edit this story: we point our finger and blame others, and then we change the direction of that accusing finger. We add to memory and subtract from it too — we cannot forgive someone and then for some reason we can, and so the story changes again. These days I reckon the most boring kind of unreliable narrator in the novel is the postmodern narrator who aims to discomfort us, but is stuck in literary behaviour that is as predictable as that of any realist novel.

3:AM: You’ve written directly about Freud, via Lacan, and his thinking seems to permeate some of your writing. One aspect is the underlying unconscious drives of Eros and Thanatos, or desire and destruction, in Swimming Home. I’m thinking most explicitly of Kitty being mistaken for a corpse or a wild animal in the pool, but it’s also there in the water theme, Mitchell’s hunting, and even Isabel’s acquiescence in letting Kitty stay, not in spite of her being a threat to her marriage but because of it. It appears the twin drives Freud identified are at work to the extent it reminded me of a William Burroughs quote: ‘Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage’. Do you think there’s any truth in this view?

DL: Burroughs was right about so many things…this is my favourite quote:
‘Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry’. We are all born in the soft typewriter of the womb.

Yes, Freud and Lacan, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Nico, and the beauty of animals and gospel choirs permeate some of my writing. Language is porous, it soaks up everything and discards what it does not need to do the job. I do give The Death Drive an airing in Swimming Home — in fact I start that conversation with the reader from page 1. Death is something all children think about from age 5 onwards: we learn that we are mortal and begin the difficult existential task of accepting death. Children tend to sleep with the light on around that time: I am always so very moved that they are raging against the dying of the light, and they’ve only just begun life! The drive to live is very developed in us all. At the same time, Freud told us that the death wish plays a big part in our lives too. In Swimming Home, Kitty has read the death wish that lurks in-between Joe’s every day relentless cheerfulness. She believes that she is in telepathy with him and she reckons she might be able to save him from his own dark thoughts. Swimming Home asks if that is possible. Whatever, I would have liked to have saved Ann Quin — come back Ann, swim home.

3:AM: Swimming Home is very subtly innovative, especially the way the perspective shifts from person to person. I didn’t notice it initially until the sudden jolt of ‘Kitty stared at the sky smashing against the mountains’ but it breaks the book out of the solipsism of a single narrator to a much more modernist or even cubist multi-angled view of the story. Alongside the crucial reference to Apollinaire in the book, and considering your earlier work, what attracts you to Modernism? Has it influenced what you’ve called the narrative design of your books?

DL: I can’t understand why everyone isn’t attracted to modernism. How can we disagree with the idea that there is subjective as well as chronological time? One of the things that really fascinates me about the novels of Anita Brookner is that I regard her male and female characters as 18th century characters living in the 20th century. This is not a dig at a skilled writer — it genuinely interests me. How can anyone who is engaged with literature be arrogant and dumb enough to dismiss the writing of (in no particular order) Whitman, Baudelaire, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Pound, Stein, Eliot, Genet, Beckett, Woolf, and Mansfield as an irrelevant experiment? I was born into a world that was utterly changed by modernism. Modernism is the soft typewriter of the womb that made me. How can point of view not be multi-angled? Don’t they have to blinker horses with a leather blind to stop them from having a multi-angled point of view?

3:AM: You’ve recently embraced more traditional forms of narrative, but managed to use them in an experimental way. Did you see Swimming Home (and The Unloved before it) as an attempt to subvert genre or use it as a Trojan Horse? Or did the story come to you before considering the genre?

DL: I regard all narrative as a Trojan Horse. What is hiding in its belly, and what is hiding in its mouth? By the way, there seem to be a lot of horses trotting through this interview?

It’s always a very good thing to put a few drawing pins under the self-righteous bullying butt of narrative — we have got to keep it alert, and make it scream a little and make sure it does not settle into an armchair with a kitten on its lap. Narrative loves itself too much and wants you to adore it too. Sometimes narrative is so begging, it actually passes around the chocolates and chuckles as it warms its hands by a crackling fire. All the same, it is clear to me that we are wired to figure out how one thing connects to another thing. Narrative is a design tool and it does not belong to a bunch of literary conservatives who love to tell us what it is and how it should work.

3:AM: I was intrigued by your method of writing Swimming Home where each character had a back story that you eventually stripped down, almost in the way a sculptor might chip away to find the figures that exist within the marble. It heightens this sense of the colossal weight of the unsaid in the novel, whether it’s because of trauma or self-interest. You’ve mentioned the influence of Marguerite Duras in this process of writing by omission, it seems a brave way to write as you have to assume the audience will recognise the absences are as important as the presences. Do you have to fight the temptation to tell the audience more?

DL: Yes, I pared down the back story and it left quite a loud echo on every page. But everything the reader needs to know is embedded in Swimming Home. The same is true of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel, Jealousy. Well done, Alain! Take a look at how Marguerite Duras works with time, how she unfolds and spins time like a physicist in The Lover, to understand that this is a genius at work. At the same time I am with Duchamp when he said the audience always completes the work. If omissions or absences are part of a coherent connecting whole we recognise — fair play. We understand that the writer is working for us and continue having a conversation with the book long after it has come to an end.

3:AM: It’s said of Kitty, ‘She was not a poet. She was a poem’. This seems to highlight the difference between poetry and prose, in that prose seems an attempt to understand and rationalise while poetry retains or suggests something indecipherable and mysterious. As someone who writes both, how do you view the difference between the two?

DL: It’s such a relief when prose has some of the mystery of poetry. But prose that is crazed or intense all the time is like being trapped at a party by someone who has not gone out for a year. Prose in Swimming Home has to describe the heatwave in the South of France and the dying trees in the orchard and the rings a teenage girl slides onto her toes. Kitty being perceived as a poem instead of a poet by the man who desires her is amongst other things, an attempt to disempower her…so long as she is a poem and not a poet she is less threatening, has less agency and is perhaps being staged by Joe as being more mysterious than she is actually is.

3:AM: There’s a very interesting line in the book — ‘Give me your history and I will give you something to take it away’ — which reveals a central paradox: our experience, what makes us essentially, is precisely what fucks us up. To be human is to be troubled and vice versa. Do you see the human condition as Sartre saw it as being ‘condemned to be free’, or is that too pessimistic a view?

DL: To live without hope is not something we should try at home.

3:AM: In your collection of short stories Black Vodka, you explore love in a variety of ways. In the final story “A Better Way to Live” you write in an incredibly life-affirming way (echoing Molly Bloom’s section of Ulysses), ‘We say Yes in all the European languages. Yes. We say yes, we say yes to vague but powerful things, we say yes to hope which has to be vague, we say yes to love which is always blind, we smiled and said yes without blinking’. There’s a sense that we need love and must embrace it and there are suggestions all through the book that this is because we have an emptiness within us in terms of identity. Yet writing seems a peculiarly solitary undertaking, how do you balance the need to immerse in life with the exile of the writer being on the outside looking in?

DL: I would prefer to be paid to go on archaeological digs in hot countries. Okay, I would have liked a life that was more like Picasso’s and to have spent my day hammering bulls horns to a bicycle saddle in the sun, and to have a handsome man bring me a plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil for lunch. It would be essential that this handsome man is not a poem and has something to do, such as defending civil rights while I figure how to get the horns in the right position on the bicycle saddle. In the meanwhile, I am totally up for doing my share of cleaning the kitchen floor, I love cooking with my children and hanging out with my friends — but probably I feel that the world becomes bigger and not smaller when I am writing alone. It is never lonely.

3:AM: If you could pick three books to save for a post-apocalyptic society, what would they be?

DL: Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard.
Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud.
An art book that includes all the paintings of Dorothea Tanning.

3:AM: What’s next in terms of your writing?

DL: A novel about hypochondria. Working title is Hot Milk.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His 33 1/3 study of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson will be published by Bloomsbury in October. He is currently working on a study of fictional cities and a novella called The Circles.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 12th, 2013.