Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

And so here is my final review, or set of book thoughts as I think of them, of 2013. This seems fitting considering I read this book not once, not twice but three times in total throughout the year as Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka is a collection of stories that is most beguiling because it evokes many sensations as you read it. There is darkness here, puzzlement and often a sensation that you need to read each story again and again to get more from it – so I did.

And Other Words, 2013, paperback, short stories, 125 pages, bought by my good self

Short story collections, I find, are rather a nightmare to write anything about. The instant thing most people ask is ‘what is the theme of the collection?’ Well to be honest with Black Vodka I am not sure. Many have a sense or need of belonging somewhere within them, though in differing forms. There is also the theme of love in many; sometimes its loss, sometimes where it sparks, sometimes where it lacks, sometimes where it never quite is. This all sounds very vague and if this was for a broadsheet I would probably be fired, but thankfully as it is my I can’t fire myself (well I could but I won’t) but I can ask the question… Does every short story collection really need to be about themes? Can’t a short  story collection just be what it says it is? As to try and give Black Vodka set themes seems to limit it and I don’t think that is what Deborah Levy would want or has set out to do.

What we have is a collection of ten stories that cover a huge spectrum of human experiences, ones which seem to show the signs of our times. Infidelity seems to be one of the most common as within Vienna, Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, Pillow Talk, Black Vodka, and Roma there is infidelity going on somewhere in the tale. Levy doesn’t preach though, some lovers are forgiven, some are not and occasionally love blossoms from an act of infidelity and we have all heard such tales from friends, or friends of friends. There is also, as I mentioned the sense of belonging, be it to a place (Shining a Light), a person (Roma), or simply just to society (Black Vodka).

My next statement might sound bonkers but the whole collection is also linked by a European feel. America and Asia are mentioned but in every single tale Europe seems to stand out, all the tales are set in Europe but no matter where somewhere else in Europe will be mentioned. Someone will compare something to ‘a fisherman’s cottage in Greece’, ‘orchards of Istanbul’ or be somewhere continental feeling very homesick for the rain in the UK. Shining a Light looks at this as Alice finds herself in Prague, her luggage lost, befriending the people who she thinks are locals but are in fact foreigners too . They become united by their want, or need, of having a good time to cover their homesickness, only Alice can go home her new acquaintances cannot. In Pillow Talk lovers Pavel and Ella are from completely different backgrounds yet have met and started a relationship in London, Pavel has an interview in Dublin so will the relationship last (especially as he does something stupid) long term and can it with these differences we try so hard to be cool with yet also try and cover up as if they don’t matter? Vienna, a tale of a regular extramarital tryst, puts it well…

He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about  how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. 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 the same time as his marriage.

I should here mention Levy’s writing, which I fell in love with in Swimming Home and loved just as much in this. Actually I may have loved it more as I got a more varied sense of it and all its shades as every tale in the collection is different, a novel can show many shades in a particular form. With Black Vodka as a collection we have short stories in the literary form you might expect along with tales with a tinge of science fiction like Cave Girl; which sees a woman wanting a body transplant and what effects that has, plus ghostly tales like Placing a Call; which also somehow manages to break your heart, a stand out moment for me. In all the stories the prose is short and to the point and crackles along, there is also a deliciously dark feel to each tale, even when there may be a happy ending, which leads me to my favourites…

I have to say I liked every tale, even when they completely baffled me upon a first read. There were several standouts though. Shining a Light which initially I didn’t quite get, on a re-read or two made me think about Europe, the state of it and my relation to it. Stardust Nation had a wonderful sense of unease, which only tales of madness can, and twists when you least expect it reminding me of everything I love about Daphne Du Maurier at her darkest. It is also a very clever tale looking at the pressures we have as adults and how cracks we have cemented from our past can be triggered by them devastatingly. Placing a Call in a very few pages it broke my heart and made me cry. Finally the title tale Black Vodka which I have now actually read four times and each time have loved the sense of needing to belong which it evokes but have also left feeling it is the most hopeful story or the most heart breaking depending on my mood and I have not experienced that before.

Black Vodka is a marvellous collection because it looks at the internal and external worlds of people and how they affect the worlds of  others through their actions or sometimes lack of them. In Pillow Talk Pavel asks his girlfriend Ella ‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’ For me, and I could be wrong, that is really what Levy is looking at with these stories; how we arrive and how we depart from other people’s lives. She then lets us ask questions of what those arrivals and departures mean, occasionally seeing some of our own actions, the good and the bad, in them especially as the real world gets smaller and smaller in modern times. A brilliant collection indeed.

Deborah Levy signed

Who else has read Black Vodka and what did you think? I have to admit that it is one of the hardest collections to write about in part because of its scope and brilliance and also as I met Deborah earlier in the year (one of my 2013 highlights) and she said how much my review of Swimming Home had meant, no pressure with this one then – ha! I am now desperate to read more of her back catalogue of works and have borrowed Billy and Girl from the library though I believe many of her books are being reissued in the new year, have you read any of them and what did you think?

5 Comments

Filed under And Other Stories, Books of 2013, Deborah Levy, Review

5 responses to “Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

  1. Eleni Kyriacou

    I’m a big fan of Swimming Home and, though I don’t often read short stories, I bought Black Vodka recently. Even with one reading I was hooked (and have bought it for friends). The language is gorgeous and her story-telling so understated yet enough. Like you say, she really can break your heart with a few pages. Something so poetic and powerful (and romantic) here. Definitely one of my 2013 reading highlights.

  2. I’ve read Billy and Girl but a very long time ago so can’t remember very much about it other than I liked the title!

  3. Really enjoyed Black Vodka, but was very difficult to talk about. I loved Swimming Home and can’t wait to read more Deborah Levy

  4. Pingback: Books of 2013; Part II | Savidge Reads

  5. Gary

    I have never gotten on with poetry. Believe me, I have tried. I own lots of poetry books and have tried hard to like them but life is too short. I have given up.

    But then along came Black Vodka, propelled by my undying love for Swimming Home. For me, it occupies a space somewhere between prose and poetry. It does for me what I hoped poetry would do but didn’t.

    It moves me. I return to it often, to soak in the rhythms and patterns of words, whose enigma intrigues rather than irritates. I read it as slowly as I possibly can.

    It is my sort of poetry and I’ll return to it often.

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