Poor Sigmund Freud. The couch is looking awfully ratty. His clinical theories are repressed in the cabinet of historical curiosities somewhere between Gertrude Stein and Madame Blavatsky. Considering his famous map of psychosexual development, Brown University psychiatrist Peter Kramer has concluded that “every particular is wrong.” If the Viennese doctor pops up at all nowadays, it’s likely to be in some flaccid joke. Sometimes a hack is just a hack.
But what a pungent storyteller he was. As his modern-day dominatrix Camille Paglia said, “I consider Freud one of the great geniuses of literature. . . . He wrote art.”
One of the people keeping the doctor’s art alive is Deborah Levy, a South African-born playwright who now lives in London. Earlier this year, she dramatized two of Freud’s case histories, “Dora” and “The Wolfman,” for BBC Radio. And her latest novel, “Swimming Home,” is steeped in Freudian notions of desire and dread. The manuscript struggled to find a publisher in England before being picked up by a tiny nonprofit called And Other Stories, which is supported by subscribers and government funding. (We’re lucky Bloomsbury is publishing it in the United States.) Let’s hope that when “Swimming Home” was named a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, those timid big publishers suffered a twinge of penis envy.
It’s hard to imagine a large audience for Levy’s dark and erotic story, but if you’re one of those people troubled by the nagging sense that too many celebrated novels are really works of YA fiction clopping around in mommy’s shoes, this may be a book for you. Levy’s elegant language and subtle, uncanny plot are strictly adult fare.
The story takes place in a week during the summer of 1994. Two English couples who don’t like each other much have rented a villa together in the Alpes-Maritimes near Nice. The veneer of genteel propriety is about to be stripped off these people’s lives. One couple owns a London antique shop teetering on bankruptcy. The other couple is well-to-do but faces a threat to their long, unconventional marriage. The wife, Isabel, is a famous TV journalist who jets around the world from one war after another. Her husband, Joe, is a famous poet and serial adulterer who has raised their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, mostly by himself.
This awkward vacation is interrupted by the discovery of a beautiful young woman floating naked in the pool, which Joe thinks of as “a grave filled with water.” She’s not dead, it turns out, but death wafts across this plot like cigarette smoke. Without a hint of embarrassment, Kitty Finch emerges from the water and explains — through a bad stammer — that someone got her reservations wrong and now she has nowhere else to stay. Inexplicably, Isabel invites this strange nymph to take one of the empty bedrooms in their vacation villa.
The sex comedy that seems about to unfold takes a series of weird and moody turns. Vacationing with friends you don’t like is awkward enough, even if a loony nudist doesn’t drop in. Levy creates perfectly realistic scenes that erupt in flashes of disorienting hostility and the non sequiturs of dreams. One night Kitty is caught eating chocolate from a rat trap. She cuts the tails off three rabbits and arranges them “in a vase — as if they were flowers.” Everyone detects the scent of Kitty’s madness without being able to label it exactly. Isabel’s friend suggests a variety of diagnoses: “barmy, bonkers, barking and went on to loopy, nuts, off with the fairies and then danced up the alphabet again to end with cuckoo.” The pot-smoking caretaker is in love with her, but suspects she’ll murder them all in their sleep.
Only young Nina finds her unequivocally thrilling. “Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle,” she thinks. “The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.” But to her parents, that intoxication is more unsettling than exciting.
The novel’s thin plot is wound around Kitty’s efforts to get Joe to read one of her mad poems called “Swimming Home.” He’s used to groupies — and used to taking advantage of them — but he knows this is “an impossible flirtation with catastrophe.” Kitty’s vulnerable desperation poisons his lust with despair. She lures him back to the lonely terror he’s spent a lifetime repressing.
The seductive pleasure of Levy’s prose stems from its layered brilliance. These are deceptively simple scenes — floating around the pool, walking into town, sitting at a cafe — but they all reward rereading. Levy moves her characters in and out of focus, always one step ahead of our sympathies, ready at any point to disrupt a conversation with some evocative revelation.
Without adhering to any Freudian schematic, the author toys with classic symbols, ironic one moment, murderous the next. From that gorgeous pool that serves as cradle and grave, she moves on to guns and severed tails, bee stings and stabbing pens, rocks with holes in them, a slimy sea creature that attracts and revolts, and enough variations on the Electra complex to electrify the libido of any 19th-century psychoanalyst. It’s witty right up until it’s unbearably sad.
All these wanderers are just trying to “get home safely,” an instinct that predates any therapeutic method by thousands of years. Work, sex, drugs, talking — nothing fills the hollowness that gnaws at these poor people out for a holiday. Kitty’s only crime — and Levy’s skill — is making them all more acutely aware of that unsatisfied longing.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury. 157 pp. Paperback, $14