Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

I devoured Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize nominated novel, in hours, diving straight into its murky, disoriented chapter and allowing Levy’s beautiful prose to lap over me as the novel’s tension built to a sad crescendo.

Levy’s novel covers some well trodden ground – the middle class family villa holiday in a hot country (this time, France); the successful parents as lost in the world as their adolescent offspring – but the powerful poetry of her words takes the cliched and adds a beauty and depth.

The story is slight; set in the mid-90s the novel follows two families in as they holiday in a villa in the south of France. There’s Joe JacobsJozef Nowogrodzki – a successful poet, damaged by his horrifying past and empty present, his war-correspondent wife Isabel and their daughter, Nina. Awkwardly accompanying them are Laura and Mitchell (a wonderfully, grotesque, comic character) who own an ‘ethnic’ shop in Euston and remain largely shadowy, background figures to the drama unfolding in the hazy heat.

The bomb that these family-holiday-gone-wrong novels need arrives in the skinny form of damaged and beautiful Kitty Finch, who has used her connections with the villa’s owner (her mother was her cleaner) as a way to meet her hero/obsession Joe.

Isabel, despite, or because, she recognised Kitty’s obsession with her philandering husband invites Kitty to stay with them in the villa’s spare room, ultimately pushing Joe and Kitty together. Coming off the antidepressant Seroxat, Kitty’s behaviour is volatile, erratic and frightening with an underlying naivety which makes her even more dangerous

Swimming Home’s greatest achievement is Levy’s prose that evokes a dense, dreamy sinister atmosphere punctuated by perfectly timed humour. The detached underwater feel of the novel and the quality of dreamliness that she evokes captures the tensions and emotions of the characters without any of them having to articulate how they’re feeling.

But it’s not a flawless novel, largely because Levy is guilty of one modern literary convention that irks me, that of the characters wearing their wealthy middleclassness like some kind of green flag metaphor. Like Ian McEwan’s more recent works (Saturday wore me out with its hummus soaked overtones) Levy’s characters are successful, wealthy urban middle class – farmers’ market-shopping, swearing-in-front-of-the-children types who probably smoke weed to a soundtrack of Cat Power at dinner parties. Why couldn’t Joe have been a struggling poet who was forced to write celebrity gossip for a website inbetween stanzas to make ends meet? Why the large house in west London? Couldn’t they have lived in a flat in an unfashionably area south of the river? Couldn’t Mitchell and Laura have been estate agents? I understand that the comfortable, affluent, successful lifestyle was meant to juxtapose with the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction (news flash! people with big kitchens can be unhappy too), but I think that their circumstances diluted the point. If these characters had been more every day, their suffering would have been greater, more personal to us (me). I couldn’t see the worth in setting Kitty Finch’s background against the weathier characters, or, rather, I could, but Levy didn’t take it anywhere. Kitty was briefly angry that her mother cleaned rich people’s houses, but she didn’t install any class warfare into Nina, who she took under her wing for a few pages.

But none that has stopped me already beginning to re-read it; I’ll always take beautiful prose over character-quibbles…

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Downton Abbey, Series 3, ITV1, Sunday 9pm

Shall we talk about Downton Abbey, or Dumbdown Abbey as I’ve taken to calling it as it spirals into the gutter quicker than one of cousin Isabel’s prostitutes?

Because, while it’s always been rather silly, it was always enjoyable nonsense, resplendent with beautiful frocks and handsome men in ridiculous collars. I’m a sucker for a period drama anyway, and the first series was (almost) perfect Sunday evening viewing. But, while I enjoyed it, I was surprised at how universally adored it was. As easy and entertaining as it was to watch, from the beginning Downton was too clunky for my tastes. All that sign-posting (Daisy: “Why do we iron newspapers, Mr Carson”; Mr Carson, “I’m so glad you asked me that, Daisy as all the viewers at home will also be wondering and as this is an ITV drama, these idiots will have to be told”). But at least things happened. A dead Turk in Mary’s bed! Thomas’ brewing secret! Evil O’Brien and the bar of soap! And, crucially, the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline, the engine that drove the whole soapy-show.

Rushed out to ensure it caught the golden wave of Downton-Fever, the second series was a largely badly paced mish-mash of implausible storylines where any dramatic tension was shot down quicker than a grouse on the Downton estate on the Glorious Twelfth. And for those (me) hoping that season three would recover as miraculously as cousin Matthew’s ‘severed’ spine, it’s, if anything, even worse, because, as well as being drivel, it’s now limp and boring drivel.

I’m beginning to feel insulted that Julian Fellowes is quite clearly just no longer trying. Does he think us plebs won’t notice the historical gaffs, the storylines that build only to be resolved before the next ad break? The plot holes and inconsistencies; why would an Earl in a financial quagmire be so against his youngest, least eligible daughter marrying a knight of the realm with pots of money because he was a little old and had trouble holding a knife and fork? Robert certainly didn’t have these quibbles in series one when he was hell-bent on marrying Mary off to Sir Anthony.

In fact, the script is the only consistent aspect of the show, but, unfortunately, not in a good way. The whole show is now held together by fine acting, beautiful frocks and Maggie Smith’s facial expressions.

But even the acting is looking limp; Dan Stevens seems to be wilting under all those dreadful lines he’s forced to utter, looking forlornly at that massive cigar permanently stuck between his fingers in this series, as if he knows that it has more charisma that Matthew. And Mary, who was so spirited and joyously bitchy – very much granny’s granddaughter – has descended into a boring nag. Michelle Dockery, so watchable in the first two series, practically sighs her lines out, fully aware of how tedious they sound. And while we’re on the subject, what has happened to Mary and Matthew? Once the emotional heart of the show, they had such great chemistry before they were married, and now all they do is bicker in nasty dressing gowns and make clumsy passes at inappropropriate moments. Perhaps Matthew isn’t quite up to poor Mr Pamuk’s standards.

Unlike the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline that almost outstayed its welcome, any major plot-development in the last couple of series has been quashed before it’s had time to brew. The Matthew rising from the wheelchair that barely an hour before he had been condemned to a life in, is perhaps the most famous example of killing a storyline before the kettle has brewed. But even the recent jilted Edith story has withered quicker than the wedding flowers. Stood up at the altar at the end of the last episode, sixty minutes later she’s a newspaper columnist. No time for sulking in Fellowes-land, young lady. I won’t even start on the whole Robert’s ruin/Matthew’s unlikely inheritance “plot” – what was the point?

The one storyline that has anytime to bed in, only to fall into a deep, and tedious slumber, is the Bates/Anna saga that limps on with interminable dullness each week (and talking of limps, where has Bates’ gone?) I’m longing for Bates to turn out to actually be an evil wife murderer and for him to escape, returning to Downton to par-boil Anna in one of Mrs Patmore’s giant saucepans.

I will, of course, keep watching, in the hope that this episode will be the one where at no point will I roll my eyes or shout “he wouldn’t say that” or (every time Bates makes an appearance – “just hang him”) at the telly. Although, maybe these are the reasons why I’m watching it, that, and the frocks of course.

by Suzanne Elliott

Art Review: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, Tate Modern

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Despite being a prolific artist and photographer, Edvard Munch remains best known for his late 19th/early 20th century ‘The Scream’ series, the poster of which has become as much a student cliché as stealing traffic cones. Adorning hall of residences up and down the land, the impact of this dark and haunting painting has been more diluted than the lager in students’ union bars with its ever present shorthand for ‘deep and meaningful’.

The odd theft aside, the four versions of ‘The Scream’ don’t leave their respective walls (three are exhibited in museums in Norway, while one hangs from the wall of one lucky old Leon Black) so this exhibition had to find a way of working around the missing elephant in the room. Subtitled ‘The Modern Eye’, the Tate did this by focusing on his 20th century works bringing together his (largely) post-Scream painting, drawings, prints and sculptures.

Not everyone was happy, (“That’s what I came to see”, tutted one man) but while it is great seeing an iconic painting in real life, ‘The Scream’’s absence meant we got to concentrate on Munch’s equally as powerful other works without being distracted by the Big One.

The repetitive, compulsive nature of his work was also celebrated, he repeatedly returned to paintings, including in major works like the haunting ‘The Sick Child’ and the captivating, elegant ‘The Girls on the Bridge’. He also liked to uproot key motifs from their original painting and place them in another work, like a static version of those Harry Potter moving portraits.

Still despite its absence the Norwegian artist’s most famous painting was still difficult to ignore; it’s impossible not to look at his work without ‘The Scream’’s presence being felt. It’s there in the long brush strokes, the bleak, suffocating atmosphere, the whiff of entrapment, in the blurred faces, fluid lines and the ghost-like quality that runs through so many of his works.

Even his photography has elements of his famous paintings. His photography was, for the most part, rather amateurish, despite the Tate’s best efforts to big them up. Munch wasn’t afraid to break Edwardian photography rules and the results are are fun and playful oddly modern. Pre-dating the cameraphone obsessed generation by a century, Munch loved a pouty posed self-taken photo. Munch played out his fascination with the blurred lines between the material and immaterial world as well as his interests in the spirit world in his photography using multiple exposures to create ghostly images with great effect. A worthy exhibition of an artist who deserves to be known for more than just one work.

by Suzanne Elliott