Book Review: August Blue by Deborah Levy

‘August Blue’ elliptically acknowledges the possibility of strangeness. Photo: Sheila Burnett/Penguin General

Deborah Levy’s August blue is not exactly a strange novel. The protagonist and narrator, piano prodigy Elsa Anderson, is straight, and the primary internal conflicts she faces are not about gender or sexuality. At the same time, Levy quietly but emphatically acknowledges strange possibilities. In doing so, she creates a space for Elsa to choose love over paranoia when faced with that often sinister literary device, the doppelgänger.

Elsa encounters that doppelgänger in Athens in the midst of an ongoing personal crisis. The pianist dyed her hair blue on a whim. At her next concert in Vienna, she suddenly stopped playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 and started performing – something different. Confused and with her career in shambles, Elsa prepares to give private lessons to a number of students across Europe to make ends meet.

Just then she sees another woman buying two toy horses in a stable; they play music when you raise the tail. Elsa wants the toy for herself, but the other woman – who looks eerily similar to Elsa – got the last one. “We clearly wanted the same things,” Elsa muses. Then she impulsively steals the other woman’s momentarily forgotten black trilby hat.

Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick argued that doppelgängers and doppelgängers in the works of such canonical authors as Henry James and James Hogg or (a female example Sedgwick does not discuss) Daphne du Maurier evoked a kind of homosexual panic. The classic Gothic canon, Sedgwick argues, often focuses on plots in which a character is pursued, stalked, and obscurely controlled by a same-sex doppelgänger. Following Freud, Sedgwick suggests that such a story “represents the frightening, phantasmatic rejection by rearrangement of an originally homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire.”

Sedgwick does not claim that these characters are Real, secretly homosexual. Instead, she says that the paranoia in (for example) Frankenstein is driven by the fear of queer possibilities. If a person looks into his heart, will he find the wrong kind of love? The terror of affection creates a split self – a monster – that desires itself and controls that desire. Homophobia terrorizes everyone because it renders certain human capabilities inhuman beyond discussion or recognition. How can you know yourself if you’re terrified of who you could be?

On the surface, August Blue is in the Gothic tradition. The mysterious woman with the horses shows up again and again wherever Elsa goes in Europe, wearing the same (sinister?) snakeskin shoes. And that doppelgänger also penetrates Elsa’s consciousness, asking her specific questions and offering specific suggestions. “Thinking about her was talking to a familiar, inside myself, someone who was a little mysterious to me, someone who listened very carefully.”

Elsa’s obsession with this other woman – the way she studies her from a distance, the way she flirts with her by picking up the hat so she can return it later – could certainly be construed as sexual or romantic. Elsa doesn’t bring up that possibility herself, but the novel elliptically acknowledges it by introducing a number of other queer people and relationships. Elsa’s first student, Marcus, is non-binary; she and they instantly hit it off, and they perform an impromptu dance to Schubert. Dan’s father fires Elsa for her display of flamboyance – and, by implication, for accepting and celebrating his child’s strangeness.

Elsa’s teacher and father figure, Arthur, is gay; she meets his lover when she comes to be with him during his last illness. Arthur adopted her when she was a young child and removed her from her foster home. Elsa doesn’t know who her real mother is. Arthur has given her documents that give a complete accounting, but she refuses to read them. She’s scared to find out her mother didn’t love her – and scared to find out who she is or could be.

Those fears are real fears, but they are not a paralyzing terror. August Blue isn’t goth, anything like that Frankenstein or Rebekah, peppered with fear, violence and terrifying revelations. Instead, it’s a gentle book. The doppelgänger is something of a stand-in for Elsa’s mother, while also being a stand-in for Elsa herself or who Elsa might be. But those possible other Elsas aren’t fraught with monstrosities or nightmares. Elsa is nervous about it, but also curious and hopeful. “She was me and I was her. Maybe she was a bit more than me,’ she thinks.

That “more” can be a lot of things. Perhaps the ‘Elsa Plus’ is an Elsa who, in addition to (or instead of) being a performer, is also a composer. Maybe it’s an Elsa who can handle more knowledge about her mother – and who can admit how much she loves her surrogate father. Maybe it’s an Elsa who can find a steady romantic partner. Maybe it’s an Elsa that’s strange.

Again, some of those don’t pan out. Elsa’s romantic relationships are mostly occasional, and they’re all with men—unless you count her lifelong passion for Isidora Duncan—but the novel isn’t afraid to open every closet, meaning Elsa can look inside and see who she is without being terrified of the Gothic doppelgänger peering over her shoulder. “I saw something of who she was, rather than who I imagined she was,” Elsa says of her doppelgänger. “It was not a pleasant moment.” But it’s not a moment of horror either.

The novel’s distance from homosexual panic is also its distance from the genre. This is really a literary novel; there’s not much violence, not much suspense, not much plot that forces you to go to the next page and the next. August Blue is a short book that meanders and follows itself through Europe, through memory, through a cosmopolitan landscape of identity and desire. Hate and paranoia are driving; acceptance and love generally move at a slower pace. Levy encourages you to enjoy the slowness. In a world where everyone’s identity is accepted, August Blue suggests, we have time to find our own music.

A doppelgänger personifies broadly painted possibilities in Deborah Levy's August Blue

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