“Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy – It Happened on the French Riviera

Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy (2012) – 157 pages

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There are many, many writers who are adept at producing smart, stylish, smooth sentences, enough of these writers to put us all to sleep.   So sometimes a writer comes along who creates lines that are deliberately choppy so we wake up and pay attention.  That is the vibe I get from Deborah Levy who is both a novelist and a poet.  Even the characters in “Swimming Home” seem choppy.  I don’t mind, being somewhat choppy myself.

I usually like reading novels by poets, because they do interesting things with the words. “Swimming Home” is no exception.  This novel has an edge that held my attention throughout.  Good poets also tend to be economical and meticulous in their use of words.   Even though this is a short novel, it is not a quick novel.  Each character is sharply drawn with a few strokes, and the chapters are written from the points of view of the various people who are staying at the villa

All is not well at the tourist villa located in Alpes-Maritimes on the French Riviera.

At the beginning of “Swimming Home” a body appears in the swimming pool of the tourist villa, the body of young woman Kitty French.  Don’t worry, she is plenty alive as she gets out of the pool in all her naked glory and throws the lives of the others at the villa into disruption.  Kitty is kind of mental, probably crazy.

“She was not a poet. She was a poem.”      

But she does write poems and gives a copy of her poem “Swimming Home” to the renowned straying middle-aged male poet staying at the villa, and no one can understand why the poet’s wife invited Kitty to stay in their spare room.  Everyone, including the reader, waits for the inevitable to occur between the old wayward poet and the crazy young lady.

It is dishonest to give me a poem and pretend to want my opinion when what you really want are reasons to live.”    

In so many ways “Swimming Home” is more of a continental European novel than an English novel, beginning with its locale on the French Riviera, although sone English royals have been known to go there.  “It is hard for an old woman to get a waiter’s attention when he was busy serving topless women sunbathing in thongs.”  Yeah.

“Swimming Home” is so sharp, tart and subversive that I’m surprised that it was short-listed for the old Booker award at all.  It would have been even more surprising if it had won, but instead the awards committee played it safe once again and chose the English kings and queens historical novel.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds fascinating. I must say, it was an odd Booker shortlist last year: unusually intellectual, including Will Self’s difficult novel, Umbrella.

    I like the poet’s response to the woman’s poem.

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    • Hi Kat,
      I’m sure you have noticed that there have been many more reviews of ‘Swimming Home’ than the other Booker shortlists. Why read a 500+ page tome about old English royalty when you can read a 157 page risque novel sited on the racy French Riviera?

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  2. Your review makes it more appealing than many of those in the serious newspapers managed to do at the time the short list was announced. They made it sound terribly pretentious.

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    • Hi Karen,
      No, I don’t think ‘Swimming Home’ is pretentious at all. A lot of the down-home British think everything to do about France is pretentious and especially anything that attempts to be poetic.

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  3. LOL, Tony! Hilary Mantel rules. No, I very much enjoyed Wolf Hall, but I’m not quite ready yet for the sequel. I’m sure it’s very good, but it’s kind of disappointing when the awards all go to the same people.

    Mantel is great, but I’ll try to find the Levy. It seems to me I did reserve it at the library, but maybe I missed the phone call saying it had come in.

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    • Hi Kat,
      Currently the long novel which is near the top of my TBR list is ‘Life, A Users’ Manual’ by George Perec. I think that ‘Bringing Up the Bodies’ would be an enjoyable historical read (Henry VIII is the most ridiculous of Kings) , but there are so many other long novels to choose from.

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