AUGUST BLUEby Deborah Levy
In Deborah Levy’s work, certain elements recur in ever new arrangements: swimming, seafood, bees and silence; brokenness and recovery; the patriarchy. These themes are so consistent throughout Levy’s varied body of work, which includes poetry, plays, memoirs, and novels (two of which are Booker Prize finalists), that her real medium might be called recomposition.
In Levy’s latest novel, “August Blue,” musical recomposition becomes the overt, and sometimes overly self-conscious, metaphor for female rebellion and reinvention. With references to first jabs and stop-and-go lockdowns, the story seems set in 2021 and captures something of the dazed awakening of the social self at that time of gradual unmasking as the world groped for vaccinated resilience . But with unconvincing touches of magical realism on a caricature of the classical music scene, Levy’s latest take on women’s agony and agency in a patriarchal world reads less like a novel and more like a manifesto nailed to a ramshackle conspiracy.
The protagonist of “August Blue” is a British virtuoso in his thirties who has just had a breakdown during a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Vienna. For just over two minutes, she went off script and played music that came to her unasked, before leaving the stage. Suddenly unemployed, the famous pianist enters a period of self-examination as she travels between Athens, London, Paris and Sardinia; gives private lessons; has flashbacks to a buried childhood trauma; and has imaginary conversations with a mysterious doppelgänger she first saw in Greece.
At a flea market in Athens, this other woman picked up two mechanical dancing horses that the pianist also wanted. The toy horses, which hop around in a circle when their tails are raised, were the last of their kind, and the pianist becomes obsessed with seeing the horses and their new owner again. As she chases what might be hallucinatory glimpses of the doppelgänger across Europe, she wears the trilby hat the mysterious woman dropped at the market.
In fact, the pianist will try on several hats over the course of the story, as a daughter, twin, and surrogate mother to her students. As a young child, she was raised by a foster family before being adopted by a legendary, now ailing pianist and educator. The world has shown her What she is – a child prodigy – but before she can play again, she must find out WHO she is.
Even her name, Elsa M. Anderson, is her teacher’s invention: On her adoption papers, she was Ann. Readers with children will be reminded of sisters Elsa and Anna – one icy brilliant, the other painfully empathetic – in Disney’s “Frozen,” based on an Andersen fairy tale. Here too, a heroine must harness her powers, face her shadow and learn to let go.
When a fairy tale needs a villain, Levy finds one in the form of the classical music business, which, according to the common stereotype, produces creatively stunted practitioners condemned to perform lyrics written by others. (Somehow this prejudice is never levied on actors.)
No wonder Elsa is drawn to those mechanical horses. She is also expected to perform tricks at the touch of a button. Even her hands are a commodity: they are insured under a policy that specifies what she can do with them.
The conductor of Rachmaninoff’s piece is a bully. When Elsa deviates from the score, he flaunts his annoyance, “spinning his stick in a circle around his ears, tapping his own head with the stick, shrugging his shoulders in despair, making the audience laugh.”
In the real world, amnesia in music are commonplace. Affected performers usually conjure a few bars until muscle memory kicks in; seasoned conductors will try to help a struggling soloist. But there’s nothing about collaboration over music in Levy’s novel, nor does it ever seem to be about communicating with a listener. Elsa tells us that it is the conductor that her hands “refuse” to play for.
The connection between this soulless concert scene and the wider climate of toxic masculinity is explicit. When men compliment Elsa’s looks, they say things like “You’re a killing machine in a bikini.” In Paris, a tourist at a neighboring table tells her he wants to lick her. Moments later, the same man holds up the mobile phone she left in the cafe and waves it teasingly “as if conducting an imaginary orchestra.” When Elsa’s Parisian boyfriend drops him by stamping his foot, he hurls insults at the two women. “We were queers, we were freaks, we were Jews” – the tourist must be German, of course – “we were bitches, we were ugly, we were crazy. Same old composition.”
Elsa’s teenage students also have to rattle the beats of their assigned music. The non-binary Marcus would rather dance an Isadora Duncan imitation to Schubert than learn the music. This enrages the father, who addresses his child as ‘little man’. “It seemed,” Elsa muses, “their father had already written his child’s composition.” Aimée, meanwhile, confides in her teacher during their second lesson that she was abused by the GP. When Elsa tries to talk to the girl’s mother, it is clear that she is only interested in the musical notes her daughter produces, not her words.
As Elsa wanders Europe and memories bubble up in the lull that has befallen her career, it becomes clear that she must come to terms with her tangled origins before she can write her own score – the new composition that first crossed her mind. fingers during the concert in Vienna.
Along the way, the book offers a glimpse of Levy’s talent as a stylist. With a few precise brush strokes, she can sketch a scene and conjure emotion from white space onto the page. A recurring call and reaction between Elsa and her alter ego becomes a musical chorus that takes on new colors every time. Those familiar references to swimming and bees glitter like leitmotifs.
For an author so dedicated to dismantling stereotypes, it’s a shame that Levy has to sketch her own stereotypes with such a thick pen. The challenge of authenticity in art of any genre is a fine subject: Miles Davis once said that “it takes a long time to sound like yourself”.
But improv plays no part in Elsa’s recovery, though given Levy’s affinity for aquatic metaphors, it would have been nice to see her riff on the concept of flow. With Elsa testing so many identities, she could have expanded on a range of piano variations instead of crashing out of a concerto.
Levy’s novel is ultimately more about reckoning than creative freedom. In this sense, the piece that casts Elsa as a prodigy and gives rise to Elsa the composer probably had to be Rachmaninoff’s Second: a warhorse for the repertoire.
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and founder of the deep-listening program Beginner’s Ear.
AUGUST BLUE | By Deborah Levy | 198 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $27