After Walking Offstage, a Concert Pianist Changes Her Tune
AUGUST BLUE, by Deborah Levy
In the work of Deborah Levy, certain elements recur in ever new arrangements: swimming, seafood, bees and silence; brokenness and recovery; the patriarchy. These themes are so consistent across Levy’s diverse body of writing, which includes poetry, plays, memoirs and novels (two of which have been Booker Prize finalists), that her real medium might be called recomposition.
In Levy’s latest novel, “August Blue,” it is musical recomposition that becomes the overt, and sometimes overly self-conscious, metaphor for female revolt and reinvention. With references to first jabs and stop-and-go lockdowns, the story appears to be set in 2021 and captures something of the dazed reawakening of the social self during that time of gradual unmasking, as the world groped toward vaccinated resilience. But with unconvincing touches of magical realism dabbed onto 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 rickety plot.
The protagonist of “August Blue” is a British virtuoso in her 30s who has just had a breakdown in the middle of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Vienna. For a little over two minutes, she went off script, playing music that came to her unbidden, before walking offstage. Suddenly unemployable, the celebrity pianist enters a period of soul searching as she travels between Athens, London, Paris and Sardinia; gives private lessons; has flashbacks to a buried childhood trauma; and entertains imaginary conversations with a mysterious doppelgänger she first spotted in Greece.
At a flea market in Athens, this other woman snapped up two mechanical dancing horses that the pianist also wanted. The toy horses, which prance around in a circle when their tails are pulled up, were the last of their kind, and the pianist becomes obsessed with seeing the horses and their new owner again. While she chases what may be hallucinatory glimpses of the doppelgänger across Europe, she takes to wearing the trilby hat the mystery woman dropped at the market.
In fact, the pianist will try on several hats in the course of the story, as 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 pedagogue. The world has shown her what she is — a 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 the sisters Elsa and Anna — one icily brilliant, the other painfully empathetic — in Disney’s “Frozen,” based on an Andersen fairy tale. Here, too, a heroine has to harness her powers, face up to her shadow and learn to let something go.
If a fairy tale needs a villain, Levy finds one in the shape of the classical music business, which, according to common stereotype, produces creatively stunted practitioners condemned to executing texts written by others. (Somehow, this prejudice is never levied at actors.)
No wonder Elsa is drawn to those mechanical horses. She, too, is expected to perform tricks at the flip of a switch. Even her hands are a commodity: They are insured under a policy that dictates what she may do with them.
The conductor of the Rachmaninoff piece is a bully. When Elsa departs from the score, he flaunts his exasperation, “whirling his baton in a circle near his ears, tapping his own head with the baton, shrugging his shoulders in despair, making the audience laugh.”
In the real world, memory lapses in music are commonplace. Affected performers usually fudge a few bars until muscle memory clicks in; seasoned conductors will look to help out a struggling soloist. But there is nothing collaborative about music in Levy’s novel, nor does it ever seem to be about communication with a listener. Elsa tells us that it’s the conductor whom 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. A little later, the same man holds aloft the cellphone she left behind in the cafe and teasingly waves it around “as if he were conducting an imaginary orchestra.” When Elsa’s Parisian friend makes him drop it by stomping on his foot, he hurls insults at the two women. “We were queers, we were freaks, we were Jews” — the tourist has to be German, of course — “we were hags, we were ugly, we were mad. The same old composition.”
Elsa’s teenage students, too, have to rattle the bars of their assigned music. The nonbinary Marcus would rather dance an Isadora Duncan impersonation 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 to her teacher at their second lesson that she was molested by the family doctor. When Elsa tries to speak to the girl’s mother, it is clear she is interested only in the musical notes her daughter produces, not her words.
As Elsa drifts around Europe and memories bubble up in the silence that has befallen her career, it becomes clear that she needs to come to terms with her tangled lineage before she can write her own score — the new composition that first insinuated its way into her fingers during the concert in Vienna.
Along the way, the book offers glimpses of Levy’s talent as a stylist. She can sketch a scene with a few precise brushstrokes and conjure emotion out of white space on the page. A recurring call and response between Elsa and her alter ego becomes a musical refrain that takes on ever new colors. Those familiar references to swimming and bees glint through like leitmotifs.
For an author so committed to dismantling stereotypes, it is a shame Levy should sketch out her own with such a thick pen. The challenge of authenticity in art of any genre does make a fine subject: Miles Davis once said that “it takes a long time to sound like yourself.”
But improvisation does not figure into Elsa’s recovery, though given Levy’s affinity for aquatic metaphors, it might have been nice to see her riff on the concept of flow. With Elsa testing so many identities, she could have expanded on a set of piano variations rather than crashing out of a concerto.
Levy’s novel is ultimately more about settling scores than about creative freedom. In that sense, the piece that throws Elsa the prodigy and gives rise to Elsa the composer probably had to be Rachmaninoff’s Second: a repertory warhorse.
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and the founder of the deep-listening program Beginner’s Ear.
AUGUST BLUE | By Deborah Levy | 198 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $27
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