Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka collects ten short stories that are almost painfully pithy: in my last post, I described Levy’s stories as “twitchily enjoyable, instant gratification with mini-epiphanies that completely absorbed me.” Twitchy stories are especially difficult to write about because they’re so here-and-now: it’s hard to retain and then convey the feeling of instant gratification that comes from those mini-epiphanies without retelling everything. By contrast, I think sneaky, slow-burn short stories, like those in Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons, which I wrote about last time, are easier to describe because they leave behind more traces of atmosphere and mood.
All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in Black Vodka… and have nothing but respect for Levy’s ability to write compact observations of contemporary culture, pain, alienation, and the strange details that accompany them. I also love Levy’s directness, like this, from “Black Vodka”: “After a while she orders a slice of cheesecake and asks me if I was born a hunchback.” This isn’t a line I’d marked while reading, it’s one of many lines I noticed in a random flip through the book. I don’t idolize lovely sentences because, alas, lovely sentences rarely pile up to form lovely stories or lovely novels… but Levy does pretty well with hers.
Here are a few notes on four stories I particularly enjoyed:
“Shining a Light” is set in Prague, where one Alice has arrived without her baggage. She meets two Serbian women at an outdoor movie screening then meets a man, Alex, through them, setting up opportunities for Levy to parallel losses of physical baggage and homeland baggage. Alice does fine without wardrobe changes, “Later, when she walks over the cobblestones towards her hotel in Malá Strana she realises that arriving in a country with nothing but the clothes she is wearing has made her more reckless but more introspective, too.” The story was commissioned for an installation by the Wapping Project; four writers were asked to write texts to accompany a photographic narrative.
The main character in “Stardust Nation” drinks cognac out of an eggcup in the early morning: the story felt almost comfortingly familiar to me, with wonderful elements of madness and transference that I won’t describe, lest I give the whole story away. I think the familiarity came from some of the odd Russian stories I’ve read… And I wrote “kind of sweet” on the Contents page next to the title “Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts,” a twelve-installment story of a man who, among other things, “[decides] to throw the I Ching to discover if Naomi loved him.” He also buys an old Cadillac to please his beloved. But…
And, finally, there is “Vienna,” which begins with this, “‘Before I forget,’ Magret’s voice is low and vague, ‘I want to test my new microwave.’” Sure, why not? She tests with langoustines, a rather risky test, I’d say, but the microwave works. So do the languages, cultures, millennia, and sadness Levy piles into “Vienna,” a story that only takes a bit more time to read than Magret’s langoustines took to cook.
After writing this post, I Googled, curious to find what others might have written about Black Vodka, which comes out in late February. I found this Literateur piece by Alex Christofi, who sums up the collection with this, “Here, as in her previous plays, stories and novels, her writing exhibits a rhetorical severity which, at its best, has a mythic, lullaby quality, experimental and at the same time simple and beautiful.” Black Vodka is my first Levy book so I can’t compare, but Christofi’s description certainly fits Black Vodka. And “rhetorical severity” has a nice ring, doesn’t it?
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Black Vodka from And Other Stories; I met Stefan Tobler, publisher at And Other Stories in 2011.
Up next: Moving on to longer stories with Sebastian Faulks’s A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, a book I’d call a collection of five long stories. Then Therese Bohman’s Drowned, a not-very-long novel. And Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray.