I’m planning a piece in the not too distant future on Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose quintet, which I’ve been reading leisurely over the last five months. By way of a trailer, I will say that they are limited – indeed, explicitly self-limiting – novels, but within those confines are preternaturally supple and sensitive. The first of the books, Never Mind, is set in the south of France, at the villa of David Melrose, an embittered and violent man whose tantrums and tortures inspire livid fear in both wife and son. Never Mind chronicles a summer spent with the Melroses by a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, during which each in turn is viciously skewered by St Aubyn’s sour wit – and an awful event occurs without almost anyone noticing.
It was impossible not to think of Never Mind‘s potent and surprising mix of understated elegance and devilishly broad satire whilst reading Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home. Alas, Levy did not come off well in the comparison: her book, set in the south of France at the holiday villa of a dysfunctional upper middle-class couple with a single child, features a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, and purports to skewer viciously the pretensions held by each of its characters (who do not notice the warning signs of an awful event which is about to occur). Unlike St Aubyn, however, Levy takes little time to flesh out her stereotypes – we have the priapic poet, the stony war reporter, the preposterous nouveau riche, the spiteful spinster – and so her shots present as rather cheap.
The bubble, such as it is, is burst, as in Ali Smith’s more allusive The Accidental, by the arrival of a Mysterious Young Woman, who is here named Kitty. What follows is a moment of biting social commentary in which Kitty cleverly undercuts the poses struck at a hotel she is taken to by the priapic – and now besotted – poet:
“See those oil paintings of noblemen in their palace?”
He looked up at the portraits of what appeared to be solemn pale aristocrats posing on chairs covered in tapestry in chilly marble rooms.
“Yeah, well, my mother cleans their silver and washes their underpants.” [pg. 128]
Quite apart from the ambiguity of whether the chair coverings resemble particularly the kinds of tapestry to be found in chilly marble rooms, or whether that is the location of the aristocrats on their chairs, this is of course a note so honkingly obvious as to sound painfully flat. It’s not the only one: “Kitty Finch’s eyes were grey,” we are told, “like the tinted windows of Mitchell’s hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the Villa.” [pg. 8] HONK! “The blade was cool and sharp,” we read as the priapic poet recalls his youthful self-cutting. “His wrist was warm and soft. They were not supposed to be paired together but it was a teenage game of Snap.” [pg. 21] HONK HONK! But the worst is yet to come: the stony war reporter, the priapic poet’s distant wife, “had not been posted to cover the genocide in Rwanda. […] Yet even without witnessing first-hand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.” [pg. 31] Oh, woes. This honks very badly.
That is, Swimming Home reads like a novel which wallows in the self-absorption it pretends to satirise. The poet’s name is Joe, but he is no everyman – in fact, his real name is Jozef (only Isabel, the war-reporting wife, calls him this), and he was left in a Polish wood during the Second World War by parents who didn’t make it out of the Holocaust. He has Pain, you understand, and the novel posits that such Pain is inescapable – the policeman who agrees that “it was unfortunate the Germans occupied Poland in 1939 but he had to point out he was now engaged in a murder inquiry in Alpes-Maritimes in 1994” [pg. 153] misses the point in the way of the lumpen prole: the privileged angst that suffuses this novel and its characters, you see, is Real and Difficult – much like the Holocaust, an event which Levy in this way employs rather than explores. It is the flattest – and worst chosen – of many such notes.
All of which is a feint shame, because the novel is not without some nice moments: in particular, the relationship between parents and daughter is sketched sympathetically, with the dysfunctional relationship of the adults – “he understood it made more sense of her life to be shot at in war zones than lied to him in the safety of her own home” [pg. 64] – at first unintelligible, but then dimly understood, by their pubescent offspring, shaking her understanding of the world. “What’s more,” she thinks, “if her parents were kissing yesterday (the sheets on their unmade bed looked a bit frantic), and if they seemed to understand each other in a way that left her out, the plot was going off track.” [pg. 117] Kitty’s figurative role in all this (“She was not a poet. She was a poem” [pg. 88]) is dubious: ostensibly, she is a catalyst, possibly contrived by Isabel, designed finally to bring to a head the unspoken tensions in the Jacobs’s family life. But why the heavy symbolism – “they all had a place in the shade except Kitty Finch” [pg. 10] – and why the constant emphasis upon Kitty’s frequent nudity and fondness for the pool, as if Sandro Botticelli can add something to an under-cooked family saga.
In a novel ostensibly about discovery and self-revelation, this over-egged faux sincerity is fatal. Isabel is a mystery to herself (“all she could do to get through the day was to imitate someone she used to be” [pg. 27]); Joe in denial about the nature of his mental health (“I can’t stand THE DEPRESSED” [pg. 93]; and Nina will “never get a grip on when the past begins or where it ends” [pg. 157]. But each of these dilemmas, supposedly cast into relief by Kitty’s equally deluded, ‘naturalised’ self-knowledge, feel confected or superficial, like the Mercedes – all the angst feels in a very real way unearned. It’s hard to see how this slight book, which never overturns or subverts the established tropes it so consciously adopts, is one of the six best novels of the year – let alone the Booker’s ultimate winner.