Black Vodka by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories – February 2013)
Levy’s collection of ten short stories, taking its title Black Vodka from the first in the book, comes hot on the heels of her Booker nomination for Swimming Home.
The stories give the impression of a loose and easy confidence despite the various anxieties and failures they portray—like fragments overheard on a psychiatrist’s couch. This is not to say they are first-person confessional at all—there is no narcissism here; just that they contain the messier moments that mark one failed affair from another, the murkier efforts at finding love and missing moments at happiness or redemption. These are interrupted relationships and interrupted stories and yet they have a completeness. This comes less from the telling and more from the gaps that allow the reader to project themselves into the fray, as various characters try to find their land legs to negotiate the tilt and sway of love, in as many forms as they find it.
Although the writing is tight, curious and bold, it still has a meatiness to it that makes for a very satisfying meal. There are some heart-stopping sentences in here too that roll around the tongue with all the “stylish angst” that black vodka apparently contains, and some astonishing images such as a pear stuck in a liqueur bottle: ”The pear was peeled. It was a naked pear.” The power of these sentences comes from their acute specificity. The narrator of “Black Vodka” describes his love of rain and how it exaggerates his gestures: “…injects it with 5ml of unspecified yearning.” The yearning may not be specified but the precision measurement of 5ml is what renders this sentence extraordinary.
The individual stories’ titles too have a geography (Vienna, Roma etc.) as if love were being mapped across Europe. But this is modern Europe; its boundaries penciled in over the dark ancient forests that our modern-day Quasimodo imagines under the table when he stoops to lift a fork from the floor in the Polish Club in Kensington. (Forests are a recurring motif in Swimming Home as well.) This is modern- anti- post- neo- trans-European. Language, passports, identification are all recurring themes in the collection. In ‘Pillow Talk’ we meet a Czech man who goes to Dublin to be interviewed by a Japanese man for a job. While there, he betrays his Jamaican-born girlfriend. So precarious is their hold on their own identity that, when traveling, “their hearts beat a little faster” at border controls, in case they need to explain who they are and where they come from.
Anxieties about love and gender politics seem to manifest themselves physically in the male protagonists, often in itching skin—their biographies have become their biology as they scratch at the surface of meaning. Stories about love must also be stories about gender and, if we are to politicise the landscape further, then these psychosomatic welts speak to the anxiety of the continent as much as the varieties of European who now populate it. National boundaries no longer hold, traditional gender roles fall with them and there is a suggestion of the masculine anxiety that accompanies this shift.
This is portrayed in the moving and awkward ‘Cave Girl’ where a boy describes his sister’s decision to have a sex change from being a woman to: “another kind different of woman(...)I want to be light-hearted... I want to be airy... I want to be a pretend woman.”
The title story sees Hugo’s Quasimodo living in London, working in advertising selling black vodka, which offers a more “stylish angst”, and getting himself a girlfriend. She is, rather perfectly, an archeologist and quite used to excavating odd-shaped bones. Their tremulous, searching dinner at The Polish Club is wonderfully erotic. The naked pear aside, there are wolves, forests and dripping meat. “She eats with appetite and enjoyment. That she is a carnivore pleases me,” says the vegetarian hunchback. Between all this and naked pears, Freud would have enjoyed this story hugely.
What is exemplary about this mostly European collection is how it works as a whole; the full work lingers on as more than the sum of its parts, so that each elliptical story becomes, by virtue of inclusion in the collective, its own second, larger narrative. Levy offers us a democratic, generous narrative architecture which implies a broader moral, even political message. Even though we are, by Levy’s deft design, momentarily dropped into an aspect of a character’s exploration of love and the toll it might exact, the collection has a much longer reach. In an extreme exploration, in ‘Stardust Nation’ we are hauntingly invited to imagine it were possible to feel the emotional pain of another, to actually internalise their suffering—an extreme common humanity.
Stepping back, it is as if each character in this collection might know each other or at least be connected through some degrees of separation. This is less a collection of individual stories than it is an ensemble piece, and at times it reminded me of Polish director Kieslowski’s exquisite film trilogy, Three Colours: Red, White, Blue.
These stories speak to the universality of love that Levy describes through the broken, hopeful, seeking inhabitants of her pages. Failures and partial triumphs all exist without judgment as simply part of the whole, the full round of the experience of love. We find the devastation of loss is explored in ‘Placing A Call’:
Kissing you is like new paint and old pain. It is like coffee and car alarms and a dim stairway and a stain and it's like smoke.
But in ‘Roma’ a woman foresees her husband’s betrayal in dreams. The title refers to the city but also to the archetypal Romany gypsy fortune-teller. And there is a sense that these stories, though dealing with history (the deep history of pre-European cave people, primeval forests) also demand we look to the future; be it through the redemptive conclusion to ‘Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts’ or the neatly placed last story in the collection, ‘A Better Way to Live’ in which:
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.
This collection often has the ease and pace of an experimental fragment and yet that would belie the depth charge that the collection as a whole provides. Sentences are wrought tight and true so that each hyper-personal moment can easily bear the weight of this poetry-filled manifesto. To this collection I say Yes, in all the European languages.