Black Vodka: Ten Stories By Deborah Levy

    Swimming Home was one of my favourite books of last year, so when I saw she released a collection of ten shorts stories, I knew I had to read them. Stories of love and loneliness, Levy has a unique blend of experimentalism and wit which has really hooked me.

    This collection of short stories has a real contemporary feel to them, as well as a European flavour to it. Every story was gripping and I stretched this book out as long as I could. One story a day and each one as good as the other. There is a real joy to find an author that you love and can’t wait to delve into everything they write.

    Short stories of relationships, sadness, love, being alone and bitterness; Deborah Levy has a unique and minimalist voice that I adore. I would love to find other authors similar. While Swimming Home is far superior, the stories from Black Vodka was still a great dip into the works of Deborah Levy.

    This review originally appeared on my blog; Paperback 3.5. As others have suggested, the story just isn't Levy's strong suit. Because she writes such fabulous sentences it's impossible not to appreciate the style but her characters - what the best of her stuff, even the non-fiction, is all about - feel a bit incongruous, out of place and provocatively under-served (which seems to be what the raves like). Paperback I did not enjoy this short collection of short stories. I'll start off by saying maybe it's me, I may not be the intended audience for this type of collection. I very much got the same vibe from this as I feel when I see art for the sake of art that feels like there's not much deeper meaning.

    This felt a bit pretentious to me, like it was attempting to be trendy and cultured but really fell short. Levy has excellent prose and her writing was great, but the stories left me wanting. I really feel like they weren't even short stories but little vignettes that didn't actually start or end anywhere discernible. I would get to the end of each story and while I was impressed linguistically the 'plots' and characters were sub-par at best.

    I understand the subtlety of these stories, and I see the merit in Levy's writing. However, this was just not my cup of tea. Paperback I can't think of anything telling to say about this one - in retrospect I should have written the review before reading the first 100 pages of the Francis Plug, which is very different! I enjoyed reading these poetic and elliptical stories, but in retrospect it is difficult to say why... Paperback Levy is a superlative writer. She's written a number of plays, the aesthetic of which informs her work - making it more immediate, more precise, and laced with evocative internal themes. Her novel, Swimming Home, was a fine example of this. Short stories, though, don't do her ideas as much justice as they might.

    These ten pieces are less stories than they are musings. And I don't mean meditations. I mean musings in the sense that each exists as an unraveled thought. The idea of an exchange, a collaboration, an interaction. Equally, they are just unsettling enough that I would advise you to avoid reading them at bedtime. It's the sort of content that tends to seed unpleasant dreams. (And, frankly, if it's unpleasant dreams you're after, I might lean toward the short materials of David Foster Wallace or Patricia Highsmith, whom I've found far more capable in terms of disturbance.)

    She does leave me curious about those plays. These smaller works, though, simply weren't for me.


    I am going to again shy away from the star system.

    And let this book speak for itself.

    BLACK VODKA (first story of the collection. An excerpt)

    At that moment I drop the silver fork in my right hand. It falls noiselessly to the carpet and bounces before it falls again. I bend down to pick it up and because I am nervous and have downed too much vodka, I start to go on an archaeological dig of my own. In my mind I lift up the faded rose-pink carpet of the Polish Club in South Kensington and find underneath it a forest full of wild mushrooms and swooping bats that live upside down. This is a Polish forest covered in new snow in the murderous twentieth century. At the same time, in the first decade of the twenty-first, I can see the feet of customers eating herrings with sour cream two metres away from my own table. Their shoes are made from suede and leather. A grey wolf prowls this dark forest, its ears alert to the sound of spoons stirring chocolate-dusted cappuccinos in West London. When it starts to dig up an unnamed grave that has just been filled with soil, I do not wish to continue with this mental excavation, so I pick up the fork and nod at Lisa, who has been gazing at the lump on my back as if staring through the lens of a microscope.

    The rain tonight is horizontal.

    SHINING A LIGHT (story two, an excerpt)

    When they finally arrive at the lake that was once a mine, the green water is still and flat. Alice thinks it might have some sort of force that will suck her deep into the earth and make her disappear like her lost suitcase. Jasna lends her a swimming costume but Alice takes her time getting changed. She folds her blue dress carefully and then places it on a rock. Everyone is in the water, except for Mr Composer who refuses to swim and sits on the same rock as her dress, buttoning up his jacket and shivering. When he catches Alice’s eye he shrugs his shoulders and wryly translates the sign at the entrance to the lake. He tells her it says, ‘DANGER! NO SWIMMING!’ He watches her climb down the clay path and dive into the water. It is very cold and she cannot feel her legs. Adrijana and Jasna have swum out to the centre of the lake where it is deepest. They have pinned up their brown hair and swim calmly and slowly together like the swans on the Vltava. After a while they turn on their backs and stare at the sky.

    Alice climbs out of the water and sits dripping wet next to Mr Composer or Alex or whoever he is. He hands her a plastic carrier bag. Inside it is a heavy square of cake. He explains that it is baklava made by his mother who he has just returned from visiting in Belgrade. It is not like the baklava Alice is used to because it’s heavy like bread. He takes out his mobile and Alice hears him say, ‘I’m at a lake outside Prague with Alice who is from Britain, which is why I am speaking to you in English. She wants me to tell you she likes your cake.’

    VIENNA (story three, excerpt)

    She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with white icing sugar. She is the sound of polite applause. She is a chandelier. She is a velvet curtain. She is made from the horn of deer found deep in the pine forests of middle Europe. She is spun from money. She smells of burnt sugar. She is snow. She is fur. She is leather. She is gold. She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting middle Europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps.

    Magret ignores his invitation to return to his thin white arms.

    STARDUST NATION (the beginning)

    Good morning.

    The London dawn. The light. The birds. The car alarms. The agitated men and women waiting for buses that don’t arrive. Does anyone still say ‘Good morning’ in the breezy manner of 1950s black-and-white English films? When I was five years old my mother employed a Dutch tutor to teach me mathematics and biology. She definitely had a breezy morning manner when she walked into the nursery in her high white leather shoes.

    Goedemorgen, little Thomas! How is your heartbeat today?’

    PILLOW TALK (two seemingly small lines)

    ‘Why do people always say “I love you” in a sad voice?’ Pavel smiles in the special way that shows his gold tooth.

    ‘I’ve never understood why,’ Ella replies.

    CAVE GIRL (this story is perhaps one with the least strength. There is not much holding it together and it threatens at every moment to crumble into dust. But there is still beauty in it, and things that will remain a mystery in the way that only short fiction can do. What I am setting down here is only half a sentence.)

    When she speaks it’s like she’s trailing the tips of her fingers across the surface of a swimming pool...

    PLACING A CALL (excerpt from the first few paragraphs. Even the first sentence gives a little jolt. This is the way to start a story. With a jolt, a little humor, and some mystery.)

    You are telling me something I don’t want to hear. You are telling me the honest truth. We are standing in the garden and it is dusk. There are rain clouds in the sky and midges and someone is planting a rose bush in the garden next door. The telephone is ringing.

    The telephone is ringing. I run into the house and pick up the receiver. The telephone is pressed against my ear, someone is calling and I am answering. I am saying hello into hard black plastic but I hear the dial tone and the ring tone happening at the same time. Someone is missing. Someone is trying to get through. And then I remember there is a bird in the garden that imitates a telephone when it sings. I can see it now in the tree in the garden where you are telling me the honest truth. It is singing in an old-fashioned ring tone, it is singing like a land line. I run back into the garden.

    We are standing in the garden and it’s autumn and there’s a bird in the tree that imitates a telephone when it sings. Your hair is silver but you are not old...


    It was an electrical event.

    ROMA (again begins with a jolt and a mystery. This isn't the best of stories, but she does something interesting and fantastically skillful with drama and tenderness.)

    Her husband who is going to betray her is standing inside the city of Roma. She is talking to him over the wall because she is not invited inside. She says, ‘You’ve broken my heart,’ in the way an actress might say it. Standing by the fountain in the centre of Roma is the woman who admires her husband. She walks past him in jeans and trainers. Her neck and cheeks are flushed.

    A BETTER WAY TO LIVE (the title place)

    ...Two green plastic butterflies. They told me she wanted a better way to live...

    If you are not intrigued enough to pick up this book, I don't know that there's much more I can do. I highly recommend the book. It's something to read quickly, and then read again slowly. It is full of the wisdom of imperfection, and living moments that leave a little school of question marks in their wake (sailing slowly on the shimmering waters.) I look forward to reading other books by Levy.

    Paperback I have this totally subjective theory that writers who pen both short stories and novels are always better at one form than the other. (Atwood's stories are inferior to her novels; the reverse is true of Carol Shields.) I have to say that this collection of Levy's stories bolsters my theory, failing to compare to her incredible novel Hot Milk. Still, the writing here is lovely, and one or two of them were pretty good. It's still a pick. Paperback A disappointment. Because I'm not good at reading short stories or because this is a little on the pretentious side? A little from column a, a little from column b. But, don't take my word for it, you be the judge. Paperback In awe with Levy’s way with words, more so with how she so carefully demonstrates how tiny traumas can snowball into something seismic. Be it an innocuous deformity as in “Black Vodka,” an abusive childhood in “Stardust Nation,” or an aimless self-discovery in “Shining a Light.” These stories are sad but also warm and bright and, man, nothing feels more reaffirming than reading the tribulations of fictional characters who seem so real. When I read Levy, I hear a trace of Sexton in her voice that is comforting. And yeah, that sounds dark, but I love melancholic literature because it’s therapeutic and familiar to me. Paperback Kitap on kısa hikayeden oluşuyor, öyküler ve karakterler arasında herhangi bağ olmamasına rağmen, birbirleriyle ilişkide gibi hissettirip ve elinizden bırakmadan okuma isteği doğuruyor. Levy, insan ilişkileri, aşk, travmalar, çocukluk, kayıp, fiziksel ve ruhsal deformasyonlar ve kayıplar üzerine; mesafeli bir dille ama oldukça yaralayıcı hikayeler anlatıyor. Telefon etmek, Yıldız Tozu Ülkesi, Yastık Sohbetleri ve Roma öyküleri benim favorim oldu.

    “Kayıp insanların gürültünün içinde saklanması gereken şehirlerde sessizlik acımasızdır. Ama biz bahçede yağmur altında durmaktayız...
    Yağmur her zaman kederi büyütür ve sert şeyleri yumuşatır.” Paperback


    Free read Black Vodka: Ten Stories

    The stories in Black Vodka, by acclaimed author Deborah Levy, are perfectly formed worlds unto themselves, written in elegant yet economical prose. She is a master of the short story, exploring loneliness and belonging; violence and tenderness; the ephemeral and the solid; the grotesque and the beautiful; love and infidelity; and fluid identities national, cultural, and personal.

    In “Shining a Light,” a woman's lost luggage is juxtaposed with far more serious losses. An icy woman seduces a broken man in “Vienna,” and a man's empathy threatens to destroy him in “Stardust Nation.” “Cave Girl” features a girl who wants to be a different kind of woman-she succeeds in a shocking way. A deformed man seeks beauty amid his angst in the title story.

    These are twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humor and curiosity. Published simultaneously with Things I Don't Want to Know: On Writing, Levy's stories will send you tumbling into a rabbit hole, and you won't be able to scramble out until long after you've turned the last page.

    “Deborah Levy showed she is a top-hitting novelist with a Man Booker Prize shortlist place for Swimming Home. Can she conquer the genre which demands she fashion perfect jewels? . . . Yes, Levy can do macro- and microcosm. These tales of unconventional love reinforce her reputation as a major contemporary writer who never pulls her punches.” -The Independent Black Vodka: Ten Stories