On Small Elliptical Novels

A lot of people have sent me a lot of writing this year, for which I’m grateful. I’ve done my best to offer thoughtful, kindly, and helpful advice. Sometimes, of course, this advice sounds a little rote in my own ears. This can’t be helped. I hope it’s still sound, and think it is. I usually give the kind of advice I am myself trying to follow: to open the world more, to deepen it, to give a sense of texture in the background. Often I find myself urging emerging writers to expand, to work on flashback or landscape or the details of character biography. And, though I stand by this advice, there’s always a list in my head of books that precisely don’t do this, books that run very short, eschew traditional backstories, and are all the richer for it. These are odd unlikely books that shouldn’t work but do. And reading such books is a huge literary education in what to leave out, and how.

So, one in particular:

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

She’s best known for her memoirs, but read this. I just finished it for the second time. Almost in an evening. It comes in at under 200 pages, so this isn’t a feat. A famous English poet, who was part of the Kindertransport as a five year old (for those unfamiliar: the evacuation of Jewish children from German occupied countries to foster parents in England, which usually resulted in the child being the only surviving member of their family), goes on holiday in France in the mid-nineties with his unhappy wife and daughter. A young woman shows up unannounced, obviously mentally unstable and asking him to read her poetry. That’s the basic plot. As the book goes on, we are less and less sure of who the woman is and what she knows. She might be real. She might be a ghost. She has certainly come to destroy him, one way or another. This book is a masterclass on conveying the weight of personal and political history through small gestures, glancing details, where another writer would have plodded on for pages.