Saturday, August 24, 2013

Deborah Levy's "Black Vodka"

Among the many ways that folks dismiss short stories, one that always irritates me (hell, they all irritate me!) is that the form is mostly good for experimenting with stuff that one can use later in the really important work, like the novel. Another irritating notion is that short stories are primarily good for exploring “ideas.”
In an interview on Booktrust, Deborah Levy, whose collection Black Vodka was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize, says the short story “is a good form for writers to experiment with techniques to achieve their ideas.” Ouch! 

Levy opines:
Stories are a place to experiment with how time passes, to explore strategies for digressions and point of view, to create places and traces, to ask all the big and small questions—life, death, and taking out the garbage.
She adds:

All fiction that matter tends to fly quite close to philosophy, politics, and economics, whilst being in conversation with the literary equivalent of air traffic control—so a short story is a manageable place to begin that conversation.
Perhaps we should be glad that now Levy has engaged in her little experiments with short fiction in the uneven Black Vodka, she can get back to what she seems to consider real work with her next novel (Her most recent, Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize).
Many writers do admit that the short story is a great training ground, but they are not so willing to concede that short stories train one to write a novel.  Isabel Allende has noted, “People think if they can write a short story, then eventually they will be able to write a novel.  It’s actually the other way around.  If you are able to write a novel, someday with a lot of work and luck you may be able to write a good short story.” And Annie Proulx wisely adds:  I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding,” concluding that the reading public, however, has no idea what goes into a short story because its shortness can give the “impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two.”

In her review of Levy’s novel Swimming Home (which I admit I have not read), Francine Prose says:
Its originality lies in its ellipses, its patterns and repetitions, in what it discloses and reveals, and in the peculiar curio cabinet Levy has constructed: a collection of objects and details that disclose more about these fictional men and women than they are willing, or able, to tell us about themselves.
Alex Clark in The Guardian also notes the elliptical nature of levy’s fiction, saying her 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.”
Well, I have read Black Vodka three times now and I keep bouncing back and forth between the polar terms “sophisticated” and “pretentious.”  If I like these stories, am I being high class?  If I don’t like them, am I being a clod?

This is a thin book.  Of the 125 pages of text, thirty are blank page separators. That leaves 95 pages with wide margins, a large font, and 1 ½ spaces between lines.  You can read the whole book in an hour or two.  Of course, I am not saying that brief is bad.  But if you are going to write such short porous stories, it seems to me that the brevity should be significant. Some of Levy’s stories seem to be significant; some seem to be merely meaningless sketches or stylistic exercises. Can there be such a thing as “surfaces significance.”

“Shining a Light” follows the minor adventures of a young English woman who arrives in Prague sans her luggage. When she goes to a showing of Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, (thus the title of the story) she meets two Serbian women and their boyfriends, who invite her to go swimming the next day with them and a male friend named Alex. When the Serbians talk about a philosopher who has a beautiful wife that he often must leave to give lectures all over the world, they imagine that when she talks to him on the phone, she says that he will have to kiss himself goodnight tonight and she will kiss herself goodnight.
Alice feels lonely and “out of the loop.” When she goes for a walk in the woods with Alex, she thinks that the Serbian women have been hurt in ways she has not been, and she wonders if there are people hiding because they have lost their country. This seems to be the thematic heart of the story—the contrast between the trivial displacement of a stranger in a strange land because the airlines lost her luggage and the genuine displacement experienced by the Serbian women because of racial and political conflict. But the story is just too thin to carry the weight of this kind of social theme. Unless the reader supplies the thematic context for the story, it seems to mean nothing at all.  The thin, elliptical porousness of the story leaves it very much on the surface.

The social theme has an even lighter vehicle in “Vienna,” which recounts a sexual encounter between a divorced man and a married woman. The man’s nationality is not disclosed although his heritage is Russian.  He refers to the woman, who dismisses him after sex, as “middle Europe.” In a central paragraph in the story he thinks of her as Vienna, Austria, cream, schnapps, strudel, leather, fur, gold. The following sentence requires a leap for the reader to accept it: “He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting middle Europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps.” 
The story ends with the man walking to the tube station and Levy risking the following ponderous sentence: “He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended at the same time as his marriage.” Once again, a relatively superficial story is asked, unsuccessfully, to carry the weight of a heavy social theme.

“Pillow Talk,” is about a man who goes to Dublin for a job interview and has a one-night stand with another woman.  The most consequential paragraph in the story, indeed the only consequential paragraph in the story, provides the national background of Pavel and his girlfriend Ella, i.e. that he has two passports; she was born in Jamaica and has a British passport.  If the airport official asks them where they are from, “What would they say? ‘A bit from here, a bit from there.’” This “man and woman without a country” theme is just not developed or even successfully suggested in the story.
The story “Placing a Call” is little more than a sketch, while “Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts” is a bit of a hodgepodge with a number of questionable sentences that are more embarrassing than revealing, e.g.:

“Small voltages spread through their limbs.”
“He knew that her lips were the only country he wanted to be in.”

“Her eyes were like spark plugs shining in the dark.”

“Caroline Joseph was so perfect she looked like she’d just stepped off the assembly line of a factory in Germany.”
The most successfully developed story in the collection, in my opinion, is the title story, perhaps because it depends less on political context and social theme and more on personal empathy and identification with the other.  It is also the story that seems most illustrative of what Frank O’Connor in The Lonely Voice says is the short story’s most characteristic theme. The central character has a small hump on his back, and he knows that people often stare at him and “try to work out the difference between themselves and me.”  He says, “I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age.”

O’Connor says in a central passage in The Lonely Voice:
“Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society… As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.”

I think it is unfortunate that Levy did not focus more of her stories on this universal human solipsism and less on experiments with surface situations about social ideas.


chillcat said...

Hello, I've just found your blog through Carys Bray's blog and am very glad of it. I'm a short story writer and I bristle at comments like these. Interesting review - perhaps I should stick to 'Coming Home'? It's quite painful to see the short story 'judged' like that and I appreciated Allende's astute comments. Thank you, Catherine

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you, Catherine. Thanks for checking out my blog.