Our Interior Worlds

Deborah Levy, Black Vodka

And Other Stories, 125pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781908276162

reviewed by Sara D'Arcy

Following her recent success as an independently published Man Booker Prize 2012 shortlistee, Deborah Levy’s latest literary gem is a beguiling collection of short stories, Black Vodka. Like its predecessor, Swimming Home (And Other Stories, 2011), this slim volume of ten short stories is a testament to Levy’s power of subversion; complex motifs bubble disturbingly beneath seemingly conventional storylines.

The collection explores the themes of love, depression and estrangement in modernity, depicting characters that are scarred by the tragedies of war and the aggressive ideologies of the 20th century. Levy utilises a Chekhovian model of story-telling to commence her assault on the legacy of this past century: her strangely enigmatic tales refuse to pass judgement on her characters – even those who are complicit with destructive ideologies– or assemble neat narrative resolutions. Instead, Levy favours the unresolved narrative, leaving threads loose and fraying at the seams, despite the fact that this might frustrate readers who become fond of her agonisingly realistic ‘homo sapiens’, characters with flawed egos – anxious, doubtful and misjudging – but always undeniably real.

The titular story, ‘Black Vodka’, is a re-imagining of the tale of Quasimodo. In a modern day twist, Levy’s hunchback is a very successful advertising executive in London. Despite his social success, the main character is still haunted by the horrors of the Soviet invasion of Poland (a dream-like sequence lends to speculations on whether his father was a hunchbacked Polish evacuee) and juxtaposes Stalinism with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ he suffered as a hunchback in the school playground – ‘behind the gates that were supposed to keep us safe’.

This tale of deformity and alienation turns into an unexpected love story. The protagonist experiences an intense feeling of ‘nihilistic lust’ – a sentiment he attempts to conjure up in his advertising campaign for Vodka Noir – when he becomes the object of Lisa’s ‘clinical gaze’:

From my position on the raised stage, I could see quite clearly that she had drawn a sketch of me on the left-hand page. A picture of a naked, hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait (should I be flattered that she imagined me naked?) she’d scribbled two words:
Homo sapiens.

Their tryst is nuanced. Is Lisa romantically interested in Quasimodo or does she merely see him as an interesting aberration in the human species? Does her ‘clinical gaze’ callously dissect the protagonist in an attempt to understand his disfigurement scientifically, or does she see the human being behind the hump? Levy does not offer a straight-forward answer to the questions she poses, but leaves her reader in a state of uncertainty. The only thing that is certain is that the possibility of love reawakens his lust for life – our hunchback steps out of the horizontal rain and into a taxi with Lisa, where the taxi’s ‘meter [goes] berserk like [his] heartbeat.’

In ‘Vienna’, Levy tinges the hackneyed sexual predations of an extra-marital affair with the violent assaults of the 20th century. The Russian protagonist, initially intimidated by his vampish and aloof married lover, attempts to gain control by eulogising her in a lilting yet disturbing aria:

She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. ... She is snow. She is fur. She is leather. She is gold. She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back into her own bed, inviting middle Europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver...

This breathless chorus is startlingly at odds with Levy’s customarily controlled prose and threatens to collapse into lyrical excess. Yet the reverberating refrain crystallises into a heady mix of all-consuming lust and unsettling sexual and military conquest. The 21st century, however, offers new endings for both the ravished countries and women of the 20th century as the protagonist leaves the apartment feeling ‘used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe’ and contemplates ‘the end of the twentieth century that ended at the same time as his marriage.’

The masterpiece of this collection is ‘Placing a Call’ – a pithy story of only six paragraphs that shifts perspective away from Levy’s subtle political slant to ruminate on love and loss. Levy deftly constructs an exigent, neurotic voice; during a garden rendezvous the protagonist frantically reports: ‘You are telling me something I don’t want to hear. You are telling me the honest truth.’ Levy manoeuvres from this staccato speech into a climatic and overwhelming lyricism:

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. You have changed the locks and I have an old key that doesn’t fit...

This elegiac verse is startling. It identifies the simultaneously prosaic and phenomenal aspects of love, while the surreal similes pinpoint the conflicting feelings of desiring a lost beloved. But this narrative of lost love is not what it at first seems  Levy subverts the story into something altogether more agonising and heart-wrenching. The story closes with a deeper sense of loss: the loss of self.

Black Vodka is a ravishing read, and can be slurped down in one sitting; like all great modern short stories, Levy’s tales are served with an intrinsic emotional complexity that subtly nourishes the reader’s mind. Her stories are taut but supple enough for the reader to penetrate the elliptical to reveal hidden depths. ‘Although our interior worlds are volcanic, exotic, troubled’ writes Levy, ‘the everyday is beautifully predictable.’ It is the inner darkness that unexpectedly erupts from the commonplace that makes Black Vodka intoxicating – Levy disturbs whatever sense of comfort that her readers might find in the familiar.
Sara D'Arcy is a freelance journalist based in London. She likes books, cats, and red wine, more or less in that order.