With a doppelgänger novel, Deborah Levy embodies strangeness

British author Deborah Levy in Waterlow Park, London, on May 1, 2023. (Photo: NYTimes)
British author Deborah Levy in Waterlow Park, London, on May 1, 2023. (Photo: NYTimes)
LONDON — On a recent morning in a Turkish cafe in north London, Deborah Levy unknotted the silk scarf around her neck in preparation. “The sharing breakfast has arrived,” the writer announced as plates of fruit, cheese and fried eggs were placed in front of her.اضافة اعلان

In Levy’s new novel “August Blue,” a blue-haired piano virtuoso named Elsa M. Anderson repeatedly encounters a woman who she is convinced is her double. The sightings occur in Athens, Greece, and Paris, as well as during an elaborate Mediterranean breakfast at the same London cafe.

“August Blue” is Levy’s eighth novel, and since her 20s, she has been refining her ability to evoke feeling through writing rather than to narrate it. Her work is deeply influenced by art forms that express the embodied experience, including cinema and dance. “The body in the world,” she said. “How difficult. It is my subject.”

Born in South Africa before moving to England as a child, Levy, 63, is a poet, playwright and author. Writing in The New York Times, critic Parul Sehgal described Levy’s lucid prose as “light-handed” and leaving “a pleasant sting,” and Levy has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice. In 2020 she was awarded France’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger for her memoirs “Things I Don’t Want to Know” and “The Cost of Living. ”

In the decade since her first memoir was published, Levy has written at a prolific rate — publishing six other books — and has enjoyed new commercial success in Britain and the US. “It’s as if she has been illuminated,” said Simon Prosser, Levy’s editor.

Over breakfast, she said her memoirs, or “living autobiographies,” are a complicated view of female existence at the unfashionable ages of 40 and 50. A third installment, “Real Estate,” was published in 2021, and documents her 60th birthday in Paris. Levy lived there for a year during a fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute of Ideas and Imagination, researching the idea of the doppelgänger. That research became “August Blue,” which will be published in the US by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux on Tuesday.

“August Blue” opens in a busy flea market in Athens, where Elsa watches her double, both of their faces partly covered by face masks. “They’re both taunting each other,” Levy said.

She liked the uncanniness of the image, she said, which was inspired by films by David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and in particular Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 thriller “The Double Life of Veronique.” But she noticed that the doubles in those films were “always sinister,” Levy said. What if Elsa could have a little more fun with her doppelgänger? The character is “preoccupied by it, freaked out by it, excited by it,” Levy said in a low voice, leaning across the table.

In writing “August Blue,” Levy liked the idea of using the doppelgänger to explore the mind and the way “we all talk to ourselves.” She explored the Freudian idea of the double, she said, as the physical manifestation of a disassociated or split self.

Despite the economy of her prose, Levy’s writing is psychologically complex, and Prosser said that “beneath the surface of these words that are so beautifully placed” are “undercurrents,” which give her work its power.

The novel was also guided by the use of repetition and structure in minimalist composer Philip Glass’ music. “In fact, I find him to be a maximalist,” she said. “It’s as if he puts a fire under all the emotions that I’m thinking at the time.”

Levy learned how to “embody ideas” in her writing, she said, during her formative years in experimental theater and movement. Encouraged by filmmaker Derek Jarman, whom she met working at a cinema in London as a teenager, she trained at Dartington College of Arts, on the English coast, in the early 1980s.

She described the interdisciplinary education there as “probably a bit like the Black Mountain School,” referring to the experimental liberal arts college in North Carolina. She spent the next two decades writing plays, as well as short stories, poems and novels, and from the early 2000s, teaching writing and raising her two daughters.

Prosser, who has been Levy’s editor since 2013, said he first became “really aware” of Levy in 2012 when her novel “Swimming Home” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. “There’s a complete clarity to the way she writes,” he said. He signed her to Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin, and republished her early novels, which had fallen out of print.

Around this time, while Levy’s star was ascending, her marriage was coming to an end. She wrote about this tension in “The Cost of Living,” which follows her quest to invent a new template for both her creative and domestic life as a single woman entering middle age.

“There’s a trail of breadcrumbs for generations of other writers to add to,” she said of her living autobiography trilogy. “Do you think I should make it a quartet?” she asked conspiratorially.

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