There are many routes to be introduced to British novelist Deborah Levy’s August Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 208 pages). It is a book about being shadowed by a “double,” so one thinks of Dostoevsky and Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner.” It is a book about a child prodigy’s intense and complicated relationship with her mentor, so one is reminded of movies like Whiplash and Black Swan. It is an Odyssean story of exile and return home. It is also a sort of “governess story”: as Elizabeth Hardwick writes in The Brontes, “Most governesses in fiction are strangely alone, with hardly a coin in their pockets; they undergo severe trials in unfamiliar, menacing places and are rescued by kind strangers.” And it is about the pandemic, laced with observations such as, “The worst of the pandemic was over, but everyone looked dazed and battered.” A concierge shares that “there were wealthy people telling her how the pandemic had made everyone aware how people like her were truly valuable” and that “it had never occurred to her … that she wasn’t valuable.”
All of this plot fodder and a whiff of magical realism—and somehow the book is still sleek, minimal, and tidy. We follow Elsa M. Anderson, a celebrity virtuoso, through the aftermath of great ignominy: “they knew about the concert I had messed up three weeks ago while playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and how I had walked off the stage in Vienna.” “Arthur had told me that now I had messed up the Rach at a major concert, the only venue that would have me was London St. Pacras station. Passengers would drop coins into a paper cup while I played on one of the out-of-tune pianos in the shopping strip.” She spends her exile in a matter-of-fact way—teaching private lessons, traveling, meeting friends and, finally, returning home to the responsibilities of grief.
Throughout, Elsa is searching for signs.
“Maybe you are,” says her double.
Always get the last word.
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“Maybe I am what?”
“Looking for signs.”
She first notices her double buying a pair of toy horses—a motif from Elsa’s childhood. She meets a man from Dresden and immediately observes that “is where Rachmaninov wrote some of Piano Concerto 2.” A woman gives her sunflowers, and she thinks of a field near her childhood home “ablaze with sunflowers.” The protagonist registers these signs to tentatively, wincingly explore her past and herself. In her novel The Possession, Annie Ernaux writes that, “one could find in this hunt and this frantic assembling of signs an exercise in the abandonment of intelligence. But I see it’s having a poetic function—the same one that is at work in literature, religion, and paranoia.” This function is also at work, of course, in music. The protagonist of August Blue is assembling signs—listening for and composing music.
Elsa is coaxed out of her exile—“The dresses were hanging in my wardrobe in London. It was as if they belonged to someone who had died”—through glowing moments of empathy and warmth from friends and strangers. Her travels grant airtime to Levy’s delightfully absurd, deadpan profiles of humans and sensorily laden descriptions of Athens, Paris, London, and Sardinia. She doesn’t describe these places as much as Elsa’s personal phenomenology: “The salty feta. The sweet juicy melon. The butterflies settling on the loquat tree in the garden. The robotic voice of the presenter reading the news. Cicadas. Figs falling from the trees. Laughter in the garden below” and “I could hear the loud television in the bar and feral cats fighting in the street outside.” There are bits of lovely, kinetic imagery: “I lifted their wrist of the keys. You are stealing my hand, Marcus said, like you stole the hat.” One can picture vividly Elsa gently lifting a child’s wrist off the piano, “stealing” his hand.
August Blue is at its best with its wry humor and oblique observations of people: “Steve’s eyes flicked towards the window as if he suddenly feared we were being observed by a casual passer-by” and “Anyone with a large suitcase looked more forlorn and burdened than those with portable luggage.” Elsa is a deadpan and droll observer. She gazes at a bronze statue and tries to “work out if the embrace was hello or goodbye.” Despite her celebrity (“My hands were insured in America for millions of dollars. I had to take care of my hands”), she is shy, solemn, watchful, and curious. This is most evinced in her straightforward friendship with her two students. She defamiliarizes us, herself, from the world. Upon seeing her mentor and father figure’s piano wasting away, she tells us: “It was a beast of a piano. Some of it was made from elephants. In this dark room, in this modest house, one of the most famous pianos in the world had been pushed against a thick stone wall. It was famous because Arthur’s students were famous. A pile of dead flies lay on its maple head.”
The book is weakest when it gets too self-serious. Sentences like, “Perhaps my life had shattered to such a degree there was no point in putting it together again for Tomas” feel like a hobbling attempt at profundity. The heavy-handed “Maybe I am” refrain throughout the novel could easily just not be there. “Maybe I am. Maybe you are what? Looking for reasons to live.” “Maybe I am? Maybe you are what? Crushed.” This earnestness emerges in aphorisms like, “Capitalism sold a flat white to me as if it were a cup of freedom” and “Desire is never fair.” Paragraphs often conclude with staccato sentences that border on mawkish. Elsa’s backstory is initially protrusively and hurriedly delivered, in big chunks of low-hanging execution.
The collectedness and composure of the book, however, makes its moments of emotional climax especially moving. “He missed her and he would hold an umbrella over her head,” says a friend of Elsa’s. There is a palpable breeze of self-acceptance and closure as the novel closes. For such a levelheaded book as this, Elsa’s last days with her mentor just might catch the reader by surprise, eliciting unexpected tears.