Wherever you go, there you are: in Deborah Levy’s new novel, a disgraced concert pianist drifting around Europe repeatedly
runs into a doppelgänger.
August Blue, by Deborah Levy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 pages, $27
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In 2018 the British novelist, playwright, and memoirist Deborah Levy began a fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute of Ideas and Imagination in Paris. Her year there was spent researching the figure of the double, or doppelgänger, and imagining a character who would inhabit different European countries at once. (Fantastical affront to post-Brexit reality—I wonder how many fiction writers were mulling similar ideas at the same time.) Why is the double so vexing? Because of the suspicion that you are not being haunted—you are the phantom. In literature, it’s mostly been a male presence. There is Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, of the eponymous 1839 story, bedeviled all his life by a harrying mirror man, till a murderous denouement. In James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), the mysterious Gil-Martin shadows the narrator, assumes his identity, commits various crimes (Jekyll and Hyde are just a mad-scientist twist away). Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846) shivers off the supernatural for a more direct if absurd account of the sundered psyche.
Levy contrives in August Blue a less-gothic double plot, playfully picaresque rather than insidious. And here the protagonist and double are women: the novel deliberately rhymes with aspects of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, in which Irène Jacob plays both a Polish soprano and a French music teacher enigmatically connected in life and death. Levy’s narrator is Elsa M. Anderson, an English concert pianist in her thirties who has lately flunked a performance of Rachmaninoff in Vienna and now finds herself reduced to tutoring teenagers in Greece and France. (The spectral afterlife of concert-hall fame brings to mind—accidentally this time, I imagine—the more dramatic downward arc of Cate Blanchett’s character in Tár.) In the opening pages, in Athens, Elsa first spots her double at a flea market, buying a pair of mechanical horses. “We obviously wanted the same things. My startling thought at that moment was that she and I were the same person. She was me and I was her. Perhaps she was a little more than I was.”
Elsa recounts how, a week before the disastrous Rachmaninoff concert, she decided to dye her hair blue, to the fastidious displeasure of Arthur Goldstein, her former guardian and piano teacher, who has since retired to Sardinia with his younger partner, Andrew. Her blue hair is just one detail that makes Elsa seem younger than she is, more aligned with her adolescent students, such as the nonbinary Marcus, than with the friends and would-be lovers she meets in Athens, Paris, and London. Obscurely connected also to the young mother who gave her up to foster care and whom she now fleetingly remembers catching sight of, just a field’s distance from where she grew up. A misted family history only half resolves: when she was six, Elsa’s foster parents handed her up for adoption to Arthur, who set her on course toward her prodigious career with its abrupt caesura. But the opacity of Elsa’s childhood is not Arthur’s fault; in fact, in old age, he urges her to read “the documents” and discover the truth—thus settling too (for reader and narrator) the question of whether he is her father. Elsa resists as though she needs this mystery, even while facing up to, shedding, or reshaping other parts of herself. It seems she was always unreachable; of her foster parents, she says: “I made sure I never looked into their pleading eyes.”
Elsa drifts between cities, spotting her double again on the street, in restaurants, always just about to vanish but somehow also speaking to her—or is she? In Paris, where she teaches Chopin to the “wild and cold” Aimée, Elsa drinks Perrier and crème de menthe at the legendary Café de Flore; her double arrives and throws a lit cigar into the drink. Over a Vietnamese meal with a friend, there is the double again, ducking out of sight. If the literary double had traditionally been a symbol or cipher for the other side of life—immoral, unconscious, desiring, more or less repressed—that is not exactly its function in August Blue. The woman in the green raincoat who bought the twin mechanical horses, setting in motion a trans-European dance of gazes and (imagined?) conversations, seems not so much an emanation of buried urges or narratives than a convenient distraction. Only when Arthur is perilously ill, and Elsa has arrived at his home in Sardinia, will she finally turn to the written evidence about her past; for the moment, she is spinning a text of her own, which is all evasion. At the center of the novel are fundamental questions: Is an authentic life actually a series of escapes and avoidances? What to do with the (past and possible future) versions of ourselves that skulk about our lives and taunt us?
A novel, then, that inherits and reinvents a venerable device. But Levy is also masterful at the level of piquant incident, small set pieces and droll commentary that call to mind the texture and tone of the three “living autobiographies” she has published while still very much “in the storm of life”—the most recent was Real Estate (2021). In August Blue, a sequence of ridiculous men punctuates the real story, which is going on inside of Elsa. There is Tomas, who is trying to seduce her and appalls her with his plan for a film about Marcel Proust narrated by an AI approximation of Proust’s own voice: “It’s one thing to put your thoughts into his mouth, but not in his own voice.” Elsewhere, male presumption turns more violent, but no less pathetic. There is the guy from Dresden who leans toward her at the Flore and whispers, “I want to lick you.” (He gets his own licking later.) And a random angry man in Hyde Park, London, who shouts “slut, dyke, mental” at her. “It was always the same people making the same old.” In its odd, sly elaboration of Elsa’s deep and recent past, her uncertain future and apparent doubling, August Blue wonders if any of us are ever “the same people.”
Brian Dillon’s Affinities, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism are published by New York Review Books. He is working on a book about Kate Bush, and another on aesthetic education.