Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

"Black Vodka" by Deborah Levy (and other stories, 2013)

Most of the 10 stories are about 2,000 words long ("Placing a Call" is about 700 words) so it's a rather short book. 2 stories were in "Ambit". The majority of the protagonists are male. I like her style.

  • In the title story "There's something about rain that makes me slam the doors of cabs extra hard. I love the rain. It heightens every gesture, injects it with 5ml of unspecific yearning" (p.9). The story ends thus (the male main character is in a taxi. He's about to start an affair with a colleague's girl-friend who's curious about his hunched back) -
    The meter is going beserk like my heartbeat while the moon drifts over the wildlife gardens of the Natural History Museum. Somewhere inside it, pressed under glass, are twelve ghost moths (Hepialus humuli), of earliest evolutionary lineage. These ghosts once flew in pastures, dropped their eggs to the ground and slept through the day. There is so much of the world to record and classify, it's hard to know how to find a language for it. So I am going to start exactly where I am now. Life is beautiful! vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true, but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.
  • I'm not so keen on "Shining a Light".
  • Like most of the stories, "Vienna" has people who say or do surprising things. Sometimes the other characters in the stories are surprised too

    He asks her a question in the language of his father, a language he has almost forgotten how to speak.
    'I don't know what you're saying.' She sits up and shakes down her hair.
    'It's Russian for do you have children?'
    'I do not'
    Now he knows she does not have children. This is one of the few things he knows about her. He knows she does not need him. He knows she can cook langoustines to perfection in a brand new microwave. He knows she is married. That is all he knows.
  • I like "Stardust Nation" where madness is rife.
  • Not so sure about "Pillow Talk".
  • Don't like "Cave Girl" though it tries - "At night, I sometimes hope that an Ancient will find me shivering in front of the TV eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. He will teach me how to sharpen flint and I won't know what to teach him because I don't know how to make antibiotics" (p.82).
  • "Placing a Call" has striking sections - "your silver hair is wet. Our daughter is pretending to sleep inside the house under a photograph of the sea and she's listening to the rain which always makes sorrow bigger and hard things softer. I walk towards you, bumping into things on the way. 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. I am looking into your eyes and I can't get in." (p.95)
  • Here's part 3 of "Simon Tegala's Heart in 12 Parts" (which I didn't care for)
    Later, Naomi said to Simon Tegala, I want you to touch my body in the following order:
    3. My ear
    5. My belly
    Simon Tegala's heart is a biomachine beating hard and fast as he searches for the missing numbers.
  • In "Roma", a woman has an alternative dream-world of premonitions set in Roma
  • "A Better Way to Live" didn't take off for me, though again it has lively sections - "When my school friends asked who my dad was I said Humphrey Bogart, because Mom and I watched Casablanca every Christmas and I thought he was the most handsome man in the world.//Although there have been times I've hated my life, there is no part of my city that I dislike. London for me is like surfing a grey wave in the rain", ending with
    I put calendula ointments on my shins when I fall over and sip chamomile tea when I'm in shock, a flower the Egyptians dedicated to their gods. One day, when Elisa and I are long buried and have turned to dust, I hope a robot boy will find this document and correct my spelling mistakes with his silver fingers. Although he will look nothing like me, he too will be a son without a mother, his eyes open all night long. (p.125)

Other reviews

  • Alex Clark (Guardian) (Like their protagonists, these stories do not give up their secrets easily, although they are by no means difficult to understand. But they are powerful because they are fragmentary, elliptical; because they interrupt and disrupt themselves, and refuse to settle down into something immediately recognisable.)
  • Julia Pascal (Independent) (These ten disparate narratives are united by the subject of love)
  • Maddie Crum (Huffington Post) (Levy's stories are very short ... but each manages to quickly construct its own specific mood. Atmospheric writing tends to shirk the importance of fully realized characters, but Levy manages to create those, too. ... The strongest of the collection might be "Placing a Call)
  • Lisa Zeidner (New York Times) (anticipation and regret overshadow immediate experience. ... Levy’s characters are often torn between the excitement of creating a new identity and the frustration of knowing they’re soddenly stuck with their same old selves ... “Stardust Nation,” one of the strongest stories here )
  • Alex Christofi (Literateur) (her writing exhibits a rhetorical severity which, at its best, has a mythic, lullaby quality, experimental and at the same time simple and beautiful. ...The only time that the collection falters is when the narrative voice strays too far from Levy’s own. ‘Cave Girl’ is the runt of the litter ... ‘Stardust Nation’, on the other hand, is Levy at her best )
  • Catherine Taylor (New Statesman) ( “I am thinking about the time we ate horse steaks in Paris,” a bereaved character remembers. “It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century.” Such sentences encapsulate the wondrous deviation of Levy’s writing.)

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