29.5 C
Saturday, June 10, 2023
HomeAustraliaHow do we remake ourselves after unravelling? Plunge into life and pay...

How do we remake ourselves after unravelling? Plunge into life and pay attention, suggests Deborah Levy’s mesmerising new work


The opening line of the new novel by Deborah Levy August blue contains the germ of the whole: “I first saw her buy two mechanical dancing horses at a flea market in Athens.” Its simplicity and specificity are classic Levy – and yet it is brimming with mystery. Who is this woman? Why mechanical animals? Why horses? Why two? Why dance?

This book, as compact and artfully worked out as a sonnet, answers all these questions. Or rather – because Levy prefers questions to answers – they are played, teased, flipped.

Review: August Blue – Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

Reality remade

August Blue unfolds over a year from September to August as the narrator, an acclaimed classical pianist, floats through a Europe emerging from lockdown. The world is a now familiar present, with surgical masks, cancellations, lost jobs, parents working from home and encroaching on their children’s lives. Life is slowly opening up in the wake of the pandemic; it seems as versatile and up for grabs as the protagonist himself.

The narrator is 34-year-old Elsa M. Anderson: stately, beautiful and unraveling. When we first learn her name, it’s her full, professional name, spoken by her internationally renowned piano teacher, Arthur Goldstein:

I once heard him say to a journalist: No, Elsa M. Anderson is not in a trance when she plays, she is flying.

It’s this whole professional self, with its enigmatic M-dot, and the soaring persona it denotes, that’s up for grabs in August Blue.

Elsa was released in Vienna in August last year due to a professional crisis. Like the world around her, she improvises through a time of rupture. Reality is slowly being remade and Elsa is also being remade after apparently losing her nerve on stage just before a performance of her signature piece, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Her brilliant career is on hold and she has decided instead to give piano lessons to 13-year-old Marcus on the Greek island of Poros in September and 16-year-old Aimee in Paris the following November. Her students are also on the move. Sensitive Marcus navigates a new pronoun; and Aimee, enraged by a past hurt and feeling unseen, finds her voice.

Following her experience with Rachmaninoff – at that point she lost her concentration on a man’s composition – the enamored men who cross Elsa’s path fail to hold her attention. It was confiscated from the woman who bought two horses. This woman will be the thread that threads together the fragments of Elsa’s life.

She and Elsa appear to be the same age and when Elsa first sees her they wear almost identical raincoats. Elsa immediately senses that the woman is her double:

My surprising thought at the time was that she and I were the same person. She was me and I was her. Maybe she was a little more than me.

The woman begins to enter Elsa’s mind, prompting and terminating her unspoken thoughts. Their fragmented telepathic exchanges allow Elsa to hear and uncover the budding self – to begin composing – that interrupted her performance of Rachmaninoff and caused her professional downfall.

Read more: A therapist considers her own trauma, in the shadow of Australia’s collective shame

‘Upstairs and Outward’

Like Rachmaninoff’s concerto, August Blue is set in a minor key. It contains the heat and longing of a European summer and yet the tone is blue and evokes melancholy, midnight, the vastness of sea and sky, the upward struggle of a soul. “Up” is a word and movement – a direction – given psychological and symbolic meaning throughout the novel.

Elsa is haunted by the past, including the men who shaped her, Goldstein and Rachmaninoff. But there is also something outside them, further away and yet more present, that haunts her or erupts within her.

Elsa reads the autobiography of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance. Duncan’s aesthetic practice offers her a form and language – that of the body – to liberate and contain this outburst:

Isadora Duncan was also on my mind as usual. Above all, she believed in what she called freedom of expression: “I’ll show you how beautiful the human dancing body can be when inspired by thoughts.” Presumably she meant the thoughts that moved her up and out.

How do we remake ourselves after unravelling Plunge into life.0&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
Elsa reads the autobiography of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, who used her body as “form and language” to express thoughts.
Wikimedia Commons

The expression “up and out” returns. It articulates Elsa’s emergence from the ruins of her old life, as well as a way of life in the aftermath of global trauma. It suggests a practice of passionate engagement with the things of the world, its sensory riches, as a way of living through a time when “at any moment reality can turn.”

August Blue is as dense and versatile as a diamond – and like a diamond, it is the epitome of metamorphosis. This is Elsa’s unfolding to become herself and another through the appearance of a doppelgänger. The woman with the horses is part of Elsa’s transmutation. She leads her out into the world and in at the same time, back to her childhood and her mysterious absence, to which this woman seems to hold the key.

A high horse himself

August Blue is Levy’s fourth novel since her breakthrough novel Swim home (2011) and following Property (2021), the third of her “living autobiographies”. All of her writing is about centering women’s lives and thus necessarily about mothers and creation. In Real Estate, Levy’s narrator self wonders why she is

still looking for a missing female character. If I couldn’t find her in real life, why don’t I make her up on the page? There she is, steering her high horse with flair, making sure she doesn’t run into girls and women struggling to find a horse of their own.

In Real Estate she also talks about the surprising moment when, at the age of 60, she first saw her mother in her own face, looking back in the bathroom mirror. She’s right there in Levy’s Paris apartment from beyond the grave. Finding her mother present in her adult self interested Levy in doppelgängers and the idea of ​​seeing yourself in someone else’s face in a new way. Her mother is there when Levy looks at a photo of Edmund Engelman from Freud’s street in Vienna. It has been raining and there is a man in the street wearing a trilby.

1683760622 672 How do we remake ourselves after unravelling Plunge into life.0&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
Deborah Levy’s work is concerned with centering women’s lives – and thus mothers and creation.
Sheila Burnett

All of these fragments, including the resonance between doubling and mothers, magically inform August Blue. In this novel, Levy has reworked details from her living autobiography to formulate another exciting “answer” to the question that preoccupies her:

Who is she? That’s the question I started asking myself in all my books. Not who am I, although that comes with it. How will she continue in the world that has emptied her?

Read more: How autofiction turns the personal into the political

This is a question that also haunts author and memoirist Rachel Cusk. When I read August Blue, I felt like Levy’s novel was in conversation with Cusk’s “Faye Trilogy” (Overview, Transit And Kudos), which also deals with women’s lives and features a narrator who rearranges herself through her encounters with others.

The books share a similar move across Europe and several homes after a breakup; and tell times of liminality and decomposition. And they contain common elements: the education of students in Europe, formative scenes at a hairdresser’s, necessary immersions in water. Are these everyday practices the main aesthetic ways in which a woman recreates herself and her life?

How to recreate yourself in the aftermath of a shocking breakup is now a pressing, global question. August Blue suggests that you throw yourself into life and listen: you pay attention to what life tells you, to what it asks of you. And life plays at the highest stakes, insists on the biggest bet: love.

Love was the adrenaline, the addiction, it was like a slot machine, you put the coins in and a poet of twentieth century music was the jackpot.

August Blue is fascinating. I read it as a thriller and often felt the urge to weigh its slender size against the vastness of its reach. It’s Levy at her best.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories