Black Vodka: Ten Stories
And Other Stories, 200pp, £12
There is a sexy hauteur in Deborah Levy’s prose reminiscent of the voice of Marianne Faithfull. The rasping, deadpan delivery of these ten new stories emit a dreamy harshness at once jaded and invigorating.
Levy’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Swimming Home, made her one of the most feted literary rediscoveries of the past couple of years. Taking a well-worn theme – neurotic, middle-class Hampstead types decamping to the Côte d’Azur for the summer – she transformed it into an unnerving mise en scène that, while evoking early Ian McEwan and F Scott Fitzgerald, remained entirely original; a miniature rendered epic by its scope and profundity. Levy’s use of defiantly short chapters allowed ideas and imagery to startle with their suddenness, hang tantalisingly in the air, then disappear.
Such intense allusiveness is also at play in this slim collection. The transient characters who populate Black Vodka have elements of Swimming Home’s two main protagonists. Aspects of the beautiful anorexic Kitty Finch and the émigré poet Joe Jacobs lurk in the kooky, impulsive femmes fatales of these tales, with their male counterparts racked by violent sorrows and haunted by displaced histories.
In “Shining a Light” a young woman, Alice, visits Prague at the end of summer, only to lose her luggage on arrival. She spends the next few days wearing the same blue dress, which “makes her more reckless, but more introspective too”, and is befriended by a group of Serbian exiles while dancing at an outdoor night-screening of Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary. A few brief pages evoke anxiety, elation and something infinitely more melancholy that is Levy’s trademark – a yearning for home, for what is irrevocably lost; whether it is Alice, who wants to see the season change in her own country, or Aleksandr, unable to return to his.
The sensual release of the earlier part of the story prefigures this deeper examination and reflection. Similarly in “Vienna”, a divorced man, separated from his children, attempts to circumvent his unhappiness through nostrings sex with the robotic Magret. He lives in Zurich, but is originally from Russia. She is Mitteleuropa personified, married to an Italian, inscrutable. When he enquires what her first language is, she responds dismissively: “There are so many languages.” Magret’s essential unavailability is constructed in a series of exciting metaphors: “She is spun from money. She smells of burnt sugar. She is snow. She is fur. She is leather. She is gold. She is someone else’s property.” He, on the other hand, is a product of the “wars and famines his parents lived through”. Their connection is orchestrated and fragile, a weary exchange.
There is a more triumphant transgression in the title story, a finalist for the BBC National Short Story Award. Levy works a tongue-in-cheek version of The Hunchback of Notre Damewith Quasimodo as a successful ad man using the words of Victor Hugo to launch a brand of vodka. Routinely mocked for his appearance, he attracts the attention of a colleague’s girlfriend, an archaeologist called Lisa whom he semi-seduces over a vodka-themed dinner at South Kensington’s Polish Club.
In a charged scene that recalls Angela Carter’s erotic masterpiece “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” (itself a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”), the pair eat and flirt, aware of an initially muffled then resonant sense of the past around them: “a Polish forest covered in new snow in the murderous 20th century”. Twinned with this despair is delight: under Lisa’s tutelage, her companion’s hump seems less an aberration and more a phenomenon awaiting discovery.
Self-realisation and abnegation go hand in hand in the sinister “Stardust Nation”. An employee, Nick, suffers an excess of empathy with his boss, Tom, to the extent that Tom’s suppressed memories of a traumatic childhood become, terrifyingly, Nick’s own. Tom is at first disturbed, then relieved, at this symbiosis and opportunity for a transference of responsibility, even as it leads to Nick’s breakdown. Here a mental health clinic is the perfect setting for Levy’s descriptions of unreality: the strangely glamorous doctors glide by, their hypodermic syringes resembling cocktail cigarettes.
The grey wolves of Europe’s recent history – be it the dislocations thrown up by the Holocaust, or the Balkan wars – shape the narrative into a sequence that feels out of time and timeless. From premonition – as in “Roma” when a woman on holiday in Portugal with her husband foresees, in a dream sequence, his betrayal of her in another city – to the recollections of “Phone Call”, the mood is one of lamentation, yet the stories also carry terrific momentum. “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.