A character in Swimming Home (2011), Deborah Levy’s breakthrough title, confides that she only enjoys biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family, and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. In August Blue, her eighth novel, the author reprises this approach but flips it round. The family Elsa is striving to get over is the one she never had, hence the question that haunts this book, lending it a spectral quality: how do you escape from the presence of absence?
Elsa M Anderson, the young protagonist, has quite a back story to contend with. Having been abandoned at birth by her mother, this piano prodigy was then “gifted” (authorial pun intended) by her foster parents to Arthur Goldstein, so that she could become a resident pupil at his prestigious music school. Goldstein, a diminutive but flamboyant aesthete, moulds his protégée into a virtuoso performer of international repute. He regards Elsa as his “child muse” rather than simply his child, encouraging her — through the cultivation of her talent — to dwell in a higher abode: “He meant a home in art”. The art of others is what he really meant. Although he cares for her deeply, as becomes apparent in his dying days, Goldstein discouraged Elsa’s “early attempts at composition”, threatened as he was by her ability to “hear something that he did not understand”.
Three weeks prior to the opening scene, this “something” — an “embryonic symphony” — had infiltrated the piano concerto Elsa was interpreting at Vienna’s Golden Hall. Her hands (insured for millions of dollars) “refused to play” the score despite the conductor’s baton-wielding histrionics: for a few minutes, Elsa “ceased to inhabit Rachmaninov’s sadness”, and dared to inhabit her own. She then walked off stage, sabotaging her career but reclaiming her life. As a prelude to this very public breakdown, she had dyed her hair blue, signalling a defiant “separation from [her] DNA”, but also from her mentor, whose “hostage” she had been since the age of six.
The repressed returns in various guises, particularly in the shape of a pair of mechanical horses purchased by a young woman in an Athens flea market
After rejecting the “old composition”, Elsa is free to dance to a new tune. An all-pervasive mood of “hyper-alert connections to everything” — not dissimilar to Levy’s adventurous free-associative prose — holds sway as she peregrinates through Athens, Paris, London and Sardinia. Her choice of creation (over interpretation) engenders a proliferation of duplications. Timelines overlap and locales collide in an intricate network of uncanny echoes exemplified by the ants that run along the rim of Elsa’s bath in both her London and Paris flats: “They had found a portal to all my worlds”. The non-binary teenager’s refusal to become their father’s “little me” likewise mirrors the heroine’s quest for identity and autonomy.
Elsa, however, is borne back into the past as she ventures into the future. The repressed returns in various guises, particularly in the shape of a pair of mechanical horses purchased by a young woman in an Athens flea market. These knick-knacks conjure up a recurring childhood memory — that of a piano being pulled by horses across a field — whose significance is slowly revealed to character and reader alike.
Not only does Elsa feel that the mechanical horses have somehow been stolen from her, but she is also convinced that the stranger at the market is in fact her doppelgänger. Although she is in her early 30s, like Elsa, and wears a very similar raincoat, the two women are in no way identical. Yet the protagonist seems to be in telepathic communication with this “psychic double” who, she believes, is stalking her across several countries. Elsa retrieves the hat the woman has forgotten, vowing to hand it back in exchange for the totemic horses. The extent to which the doppelgänger is merely a figment of her lonely imagination, an idealised version of herself (“Perhaps she was a little more me than I was”), or even her polar opposite in some parallel quantum universe remains open to interpretation. With her “attitude and confidence”, she certainly seems to embody the self-composure that the newly emancipated Elsa aspires to: “Perched between her lips was a fat cigar. Glowing at the end. It was a poke at life. A provocation”. At times this “unlikely double” almost seems to merge with another phantom figure — that of the birth mother.
“My words were smaller than my feelings,” Elsa laments. The novelist’s achievement is to have found words equal to hers. Deborah Levy is now regarded as a grande dame of literature, but she remains as vital as ever, and August Blue is a mistress-piece.