Three weeks after a career-ruining concert performance, a world-renowned pianist encounters her double whilst on a trip to Athens. Elsa M. Anderson watches as a woman at a flea market, who seems about Elsa’s own age and is dressed just like her, buys two mechanical horse toys that trot around when their tails are pulled up. As Elsa recuperates from her ‘fatal’ performance mishap she resigns to never play professionally again. But in the wake of career catastrophe, in that Athenian flea market, a switch is flipped, a tail pulled up, as Elsa is thrust into a journey of self-discovery, or recovery, orchestrated by her double.
August Blue is a touching tale of the beauty in mistakes and their power to help one carve their own path in life.
Deborah Levy reinvigorates in her latest novel, August Blue, the Dostoyevsky-style double into something a little less Freudian, and a little more female. Typical doppelgängers are more commonly associated with horror and the dangers of a fractious self, their taunting presence exposing unwanted, repressed truths and precipitating the protagonist’s mental degradation. Levy’s doppelgänger, however, is a source of inspiration for narrator, of playful competitiveness, and of much-needed answers to questions about her mother and her childhood: ‘She was me and I was her. Perhaps she was a little more me than I was’.
Elsa was adopted at the age of six by Arthur, a world-renowned teacher who took her from her mother’s home to live under his mentorship and guidance. Arthur saw in Elsa a ‘child prodigy’, and fostered her talent until she became a universal star. As the double exposes Elsa to her reserves of repressed rage and unpleasant childhood memories, she learns that her relationship with her mentor-cum-father, or ‘hostage’, as Elsa’s friend Bella likes to call him, was bullyish and somewhat exploitative.
Arthur forced Elsa’s inhuman perfection, crowning her his ‘miracle’ or ‘genius,’ but never his child. She develops a dysmorphic relationship to her body because of this, as is evident when she reminisces on discovering her developing body and sexuality, the ‘tangle of blackberries ripening in a field near [her] childhood house’. She remembers scratching herself on the hedgerows as she sprinted to make it back to Arthur after her discovery, fearful that if she engaged in this tangle, instead of her budding musical career, ‘[she] would die’. All the while dreading that Arthur ‘was listening, and he was disapproving’.
Levy’s reformed doppelgänger also imitates an abjected mother, a symbol in the context of Elsa’s life for all the rage and mistakes she feels she’s made. Marvelling at her double’s zaniness and boldness, Elsa comes to understand that her own mother’s ‘madness’ was perhaps an expression of female rage, at having no voice and in failing to be a single parent.
August Blue is a touching tale of the beauty in mistakes and their power to help one carve their own path in life. She reconciles her ‘child prodigy’ title with her troublesome upbringing, and accepts her adult mishaps and transgressions as not deviating from the hymn sheet, but rather interpreting it for herself. Luxuriating in the ‘forbidden pastures’ of error and expression, she finds herself. For, ‘if you are not you, who?’
Words: Ciara Berkeley