Swimming back home

Image: Marcel Duchamp


Commentary on Deborah Levy's book

Born in Johannesburg, Deborah Levy (1959), novelist, playwright and poet, has gradually seen her books published in Brazil, especially in recent years. The trilogy was recently published Things I don't want to know, The cost of life e Real Estate, narratives in which her memories end up mixing with particular and universal reflections on the role of women in Western society today. In the first volume she reports on her childhood in South Africa, life under the apartheid, the arrest of his father, a political activist, the move to England, where he still lives today.

Deborah Levy was nominated twice for Goldsmiths Prize, three times a Booker Prize and received, among others, the Prix ​​Femina Étranger (2020). Initially he wrote for the theater, being staged in Royal Shakespeare Company, in addition to being widely disseminated throughout the with the BBC, with several radio plays, before focusing on prose fiction. fellow in creative arts in Trinity College (Cambridge) and Royal College of Art (London).

Beautiful Mutants, Swallowing Geography e Billy and Girl made her known worldwide, I read her books published in Brazil, mentioned in the opening paragraph, in addition to The Man Who Saw It All.

Swimming back home (SwimmingHome, 2011) arrived here ten years ago and received little attention. Some comments about the work are transcribed on the back cover. I understand that the most expressive was extracted from the The Independent: “A delve into the nature of childhood trauma, exile, depression, and creativity, this extraordinary novel is a haunting exploration of the meaning of loss and longing.”

The epigraph already paves the way for what comes next: “In the morning, all the families, men, women and children, if they have nothing better to do, tell each other their dreams. We are all at the mercy of dreams and we have an obligation to ourselves to test their strength in the waking state” (The Surrealist Revolution, No. 1, December 1924).

July 1994: Joe Jacobs, famous British poet, arrives to spend the holidays with his family in a villa of the French Riviera, in the Alpes-Maritimes, near Nice. He is accompanied by his wife Isabel, a journalist and war correspondent, his 14-year-old daughter Nina, and his friends Mitchell and Laura, English traders who are practically bankrupt. When they arrive at the rented house, they meet Kitty Finch, a young botanist with a sculptural body who, most of the time, walks around naked. She shouldn't be there, some excuse is invented (that there was a mix-up in her hotel reservation) and Isabel invites her to stay, occupying a room at the back, outside the house, close to Jurgen, a caretaker who is a bit of a hippie, drug addict, vagabond and always trying to fool the owner of the property.

Kitty's addition to the group will be an element of disturbance to this microcosm, causing the expected tranquility to be drained down the pool drain – which is, in fact, an important element of the plot.

Throughout the narrative it will be understood that Kitty's presence is not accidental, as is Isabel's invitation. An absent mother, always busy with her international reporting, leaves Nina in the care of her father, a poet of Polish origin who has lived in England since she was five years old.

Knowing all of Joe Jacobs' work and being the daughter of a former cleaning lady for the tenant, Kitty establishes herself in the house. Using stratagems, she asks the poet to read a poem that the young woman wrote, whose content ends up being revealing, interfering with the behavior of the teenager Nina and triggering a whole process of rapprochement and distancing between the agents involved.

The book reminds me The pool (1969), an old film by Jacques Deray, with music by Michel Legrand and a renowned cast, a psychological drama that takes place in a villa luxury hotel, also located on the French Riviera. The situation becomes increasingly uncomfortable, jealousy predominates and tragedy becomes imminent.

Deborah Levy's pen is scathing: in the first pages she details that Isabel, in her profession as a war correspondent, “saved the lives of bloated bodies floating in rivers (…) Apparently, the television audience increased when she was on the news.” Nina's mother “disappeared in the north of Ireland, Lebanon and Kuwait, and then came back as if she had just popped in to buy a liter of milk.”

Isabel was always the head of her class at primary school in Cardiff, Wales. She was now almost 50 years old – her husband, the great poet, was 57 – and, in practice, “… was a kind of ghost in her house in London. When she returned from her various war zones and saw that in her absence the shoe polish or the light bulbs had been stored in different places, similar places but not the same as where they had been before, she realized that she too had a transitional place in the world. House. To do the things she had chosen to do in the world, she risked losing her place as a wife and mother, a bewildering place haunted by everything that had been imagined for her, if she chose to occupy it.”

Joe could then tell Isabel that “when she abandoned her young daughter to sleep in a tent with scorpions, he understood that it made more sense for her to be shot in a war zone than to hear lies from him in the safety of her own home. Still, he knew that his daughter had cried over her when she was little, and then learned not to cry because it didn't bring her back.”

Nina’s home in West London wasn’t exactly welcoming, as “her father was always in the office. Her mother was always traveling, her shoes and dresses arranged in the wardrobe like someone who had died”. Her father received his girlfriends at his house and, after they left in the morning, he put the sheets in the washing machine.

Young Kitty, meanwhile, had a North London accent and her front teeth were crooked. “When she wasn't stuttering and blushing, she looked like she had been sculpted from wax in a dark workshop in Venice. Anyway, she was “the red-haired English girl”.

Madeleine Sheridan, the neighbor who observes everything, comments to the caretaker Jurgen about Isabel and Kitty: “I think she wants the pretty crazy girl to distract her husband so she can finally leave him.” Madeleine herself, a retired English doctor who had just turned 80, gives her diagnosis: Nina Jacobs would have to choose which of the two she could do without. “Didn’t Isabel understand that her daughter had already adapted to life without her mother’s presence?”

I will not tell relevant passages that lead to the end of the story. But I can say that in the last three pages Nina Jacobs is the narrator. She lives in London, the year is 2011, she is at least 30 years old and remembers her father, always dreaming about him. She says they both learned to get by together. “He washed my tunics, tights and T-shirts, sewed buttons on my coats, looked for lost socks and insisted that I should never be afraid of people who talked to themselves on buses.” She thinks she needs to tell her father that when she reads biographies of famous people, she only becomes interested "when they escape their families and spend the rest of their lives getting over that fact."

Oh, I almost forgot: Nina has a daughter, although she doesn't reveal her age. And she remembers the impossibility of determining what dreams can be like. Although she wants her daughter's dreams to be good, they know she has no control over them. “I say this every night, especially when it rains.”

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ (Duque de Caxias Campus).


Deborah Levi. Swimming back home. Translation: Léa Viveiros de Castro. Rio de Janeiro, Rocco, 2014, 160 pages. [https://amzn.to/3ULbEAd]

The pool (The pools, 1969). Directed by: Jacques Deray. Screenplay: Alain Page, Jacques Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière. Music: Michel Legrand. Cast: Alain Delon, Jane Birkin, Maurice Ronet, Romy Schneider, Paul Crauchet.

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