And Other Stories £12
Review: Black Vodka, By Deborah Levy
Tears on the pillow, pain in the heart
Sunday 24 February 2013
Deborah Levy's latest collection of short stories explores themes of love, loss, and betrayal as well as the small cruelties that play out in modern day lives. The title story is a contemporary take on Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Levy's hunchback works in advertising and is launching a new brand of vodka when he meets his colleague's archaeologist girlfriend. She finds his deformity irresistible and the two hit it off over a vodka-fuelled dinner at the Polish Club in South Kensington. They may not have a future together but "the promise of love" unsettles the ad man and he repeatedly dreams about a hunchbacked soldier travelling from Warsaw to Southend-on-Sea: "When I wake up there are always tears on my cheeks, transparent as vodka but warm as rain."
Love, Levy's fictions suggest, is mystifying, at worst illusive. Many of her elegantly conceived and executed stories describe break-ups or fleeting encounters. She is a skilled wordsmith and creates an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose. In "Placing a Call", she paints a devastating portrait of loss in just a few brushstrokes: "I am looking into your eyes and I can't get in. You have changed the locks and I have an old key."
Another example of this economical use of language comes in "Vienna". Levy reminds us that globalisation brings new challenges to do with identity and the ability to connect. An unnamed divorcee from Zurich, whose native tongue is Russian, enjoys perfunctory sex with Magret. He does not know where she is from, only that she is married to an Italian. He defines her in terms of place – first as "Middle Europe" then as "Vienna" – before employing a string of metaphors to describe her unfamiliarity: "a silver teaspoon, a strudel dusted with white icing sugar … the sound of polite applause … a chandelier."
The collision of different cultures is a recurrent theme. In "Pillow Talk", a London-based Czech man attends a job interview in Dublin and betrays his Jamaican girlfriend. Later, she tells him "I want you to be someone else … kind and wise … attentive to me and faithful for ever." He responds that he is not. And yet it is their essential fear about belonging that bonds them. When travelling together, "their hearts beat a little faster", thinking they might have to explain where there are from: "'A bit from here, a bit from there.' Would this be enough?"
There is a dreamlike quality to many of Levy's stories and some descend into nightmare. In "Roma", a woman has a premonition that her husband is leaving her and dreams vividly of the break-up before her worst fears are realised. In "Stardust", a man begins to believe that he has lived his colleague's traumatic childhood. He absorbs his angst, becomes increasingly delusional, and finally is hospitalised. Other stories prove unintentionally topical. One character recalls eating horse steaks in Paris: "It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century."
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Malaysian cyclist could face disciplinary action after 'Save Gaza' gloves protest
- 2 Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
- 3 Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage from US parenting groups
- 4 McDonald’s removes chicken nuggets from the menu in Hong Kong amid major food scare
- 5 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor 'wheel on people who have mental health problems' says comedian Jo Brand
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage from US parenting groups
Guardians Of The Galaxy, review: Marvel-lite movie feels half-hearted
Fifty Shades of Grey film stills
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia