This is the story of a relationship told in twelve distinct fragments. The fragments do not exactly fit together. Certain scenes are told in part, and returned to. Some of these scenes include: a father with Parkinsons, a queue for visas at the American embassy, an infidelity. It is a puzzle of a story.
What if you write a story and then you cut it up and rearranged all the pieces? What if you took some of the pieces out and binned them? What if you chopped up sentences as well?
Read this for surreal sentences that mash up the intimate and the abstract, the cerebral and the erotic: “He knew that her lips were the only country he wanted to be in.”
First published in Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, Dalkey Archive, 2003, then in Black Vodka, And Other Stories, 2013)
Swallowing Geography dazzles, bites and snarls. A disorientating wandering between physical bodies and lands, Levy’s book can be read as fragments, short stories, or from beginning to end. In the collection, we meet cowboys, a tourist “a wanderer, bum, émigré, refugee, deportee” and the furious, gin-drinking Lillian Strauss. In the book “beginnings and ends curls into each other.” Language startles and unsettles. The story ‘The Terrible Rages of Lillian Strauss’ is a vivid, piercing depiction of daughterly love, an aging mother’s anger, and Lillian’s excellent habit of planting red-hot pokers in her garden, ready for them to bloom. If Swallowing Geography were a firework, it would be a Screaming Spider, fast-burning, noisy and hard-bursting, shooting out straight stars into the night sky like dozens of little spider’s legs.
From Swallowing Geography, Jonathan Cape, 1993. Swallowing Geography was republished together with Beautiful Mutants in Early Levy, Penguin, 2014 and on its own as a Penguin Essentials, 2019
Beware Ingrid Meinz Syndrome:
So there I was, feet marinating in a puddle, bicycle turning to rust and I said WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE SUMMER, ARE YOU GOING TO GET SOME SUN? and she said, No I’ll be working at home, I have six deadlines for articles I’m writing and twelve books on my shelves I haven’t glanced at and a major deadline for a peer reviewed journal so I guess I’ll have to open a tin of soup and spend the summer on an uncomfortable chair at my desk with my head down. And I thought, you know Ingrid Meinz THIS IS REALLY NOT VERY SEXY.
Levy returns to the territory of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and finds that women can still only have either writing or living but never both. I took a photograph of a page of this on my phone, and for a while I had it set as my screensaver for courage.
From Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, Dalkey Archive Press, 2004
Levy presents the endemic identity crisis like no other writer. She is a whole-world writer, a time traveller, a pigeon-hole-defying storyteller with an intimidating intelligence and a greater interest in questions than answers. Her stories bristle with emotional complexity; they constantly surprise and exhilarate; they revel in the not-known and never-known. She is bold and fierce and I once cringingly held her hand and said nothing, in an empty room, before awkwardly reversing reverently away.
In this story, a successful advertising man with “an incredible facility to wade through human shame with no shoes on” takes his colleague’s girlfriend out to the Polish Club to conduct drinking research for a new vodka; only this being Levy, the man has a small hump on his back, the woman is an archaeologist, and the floor of the Club transforms into a primeval jungle when he drops his fork. They share a cab and kiss in the rain, but typical Levy, we are left without any sweeping denouement; perhaps the man, who always saw himself as lost property, remains an outsider “waiting to be claimed”.
There is a paragraph in this story that I have pinned to my desk as a kind of manifesto: ‘There is so much of the world to record and classify, it’s hard to know how to find a language for it. So I’m going to start exactly where I am now. Life is beautiful! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.’
In Black Vodka (And Other Stories, 2013)
I have the most ungodly crush on this story. I love its racing, bracing passage, its exuberant leaps in time and imagination, its magnificent yearning. It is a thing of extraordinary beauty, a battered love story about being alone and lost and adrift in the world even when you’re not. Most of all, at times like these – and despite/because of the grief at the story’s heart – I love its affirmative power: ‘We said Yes in all the European languages. Yes. We said yes we said yes, yes to vague but powerful things, we said yes to hope which has to be vague, we said yes to love which is always blind, we smiled and said yes without blinking.’ Not a bad way to live in 2018: don’t blink, say yes.
In Black Vodka (And Other Stories, 2013)