“Green was the silence, wet was the light,/the month of June trembled like a butterfly.” (Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets)

We’re having a mini-heatwave in Britain at the moment. Yes, the annual 3 days of summer have finally arrived, hooray! Compared to Spain which is currently experiencing temperatures in the mid-40s we’re positively Artic, but it still counts. I’m taking the lead from my cats, who wait til I appear in order to throw themselves on the floor like Norma Desmond fainting on a chaise longue, to convey to me that its positively balmy and their water dishes need refilling (they’re immigrant cats from NZ, I think their years with me have turned them into Northern hemisphere wusses). This week I’m looking at novels set in summer, quickly before Autumn starts (ie next week).

This is from The Long Hot Summer so it’s totally relevant and not at all gratuitous *cough*

Firstly, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2011) set in France in 1994, where Joe, a poet, his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, and their teenage daughter Nina are on holiday with family friends Mitchell and Laura. One day, a naked young woman is floating in their pool.  She is Kitty Finch, and Isabel surprises everyone by asking her to stay.

“The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife helped him.”

Deborah Levy has a piercing gaze for middle-class mores and Swimming Home could have been a sharp social satire:

“Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart.”

But with the arrival of fragile, destructive Kitty, the novel shifts into a psychological examination of the family unit and the individuals who comprise it. Kitty’s arrival exposes all the faultlines running through the relationships and Levy explores this in a delicate, subtle way, never resorting to caricature or cliche. Isabel is a successful journalist but an absent mother:

“She had attempted to be someone she didn’t really understand. A powerful but fragile female character. If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to, or even how it made sitting alone at a table laid for two on a Saturday night feel better.”

Joe is vain but has also struggled with depression in the past and seems on the precipice of something overwhelming. Nina is coming to terms with her screwed-up parents “Flawed and hostile but still a family” and her burgeoning sexuality. Mitchell and Laura’s business is flagging and they are financially desperate.

Swimming Home is a short novel (157 pages in my edition) that packs a significant punch. The beauty of Levy’s language sometimes belies its violence:

“She was not a poet. She was a poem. She was about to snap in half.”

It is a novel about the psychological warfare that can take place in the most ordinary of families:

“The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

and it is about loss and grief and trying to make sense of ourselves and others, and the desperate need to be loved.

I thought Swimming Home was brilliantly written and acutely observed. Levy’s not a comfortable read but in some ways she is reassuring. Everyone’s messed up, and yet somehow we endure.

“This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.”

Another non-gratuitous clip from The Long Hot Summer…

Secondly, In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (1961), another of Taylor’s beautifully observed, funny, sad and wholly original gems. Kate is a middle-aged widow, who much to everyone’s surprise has remarried the feckless, significantly younger Dermot. They live in the commuter belt with the slightly batty, cello-playing aunt Ethel, who writes long letters to her friend Gertrude (they were suffragettes together) and who observes Kate thusly:

“A typically English woman, I should say – young for her age, rather inhibited (heretofore), too satirical, with one half of her mind held back always to observe and pass judgement. This temperate climate has its effect – ripeness comes slowly and all sorts of delicate issues find shelter to grow in and so confuse the picture.”

This ‘ripeness’ is a somewhat surprising theme for a Taylor novel; she doesn’t shy away from the fact that Dermot and Kate have a mutually satisfying sex life and this is probably what keeps them together. For their lives are fully of perfectly ordinary but difficult to manage tensions, which create disharmony in their home.  Kate’s daughter Louisa is in love with the local curate, who is seen as too High Church for the vicinity:

“This derisive atmosphere [Louisa] could not thrive in. The love there was in the house seemed fitful, leaving uneasiness.”

Kate’s son Tom is a local lothario who seems to want to be tamed by the return of childhood friend Araminta*, who is ambivalent about him at best. He is struggling with the expectations that come with going into the family business.

“ ‘This bloody, damned family gathering,’ he thought furiously. ‘The mix-up of the age groups, the cramping fools, the this, the that, the rubbishy tedium of it all, with the bloody everlasting chatter, sitting for hours at the table with pins and needles in my feet, all the sodding knives and forks. Aunt Ethel with her surreptitious pill taking. ‘Have you seen anything of old so-and-so lately?’ ‘No, old son, I can’t off-hand say I bloody well have.’ “

Dermot never earns any money, his mother Edwina is interfering, their cook Mrs Meacock only makes American cuisine and seems set to leave on travels again… and then old family friend Charles (father of Araminta) starts to confuse Kate’s feelings.

In a Summer Season is an absolute treat. In Taylor’s writing no one word is wasted. She observes unblinkingly but compassionately and while she doesn’t shy away from tragedy, her gentle humour brings a fine balance to the story. It’s pretty easy to see how things will play out in In a Summer Season, but this doesn’t matter. The reader is in the hands of a master craftsman and the joy is the journey.

 “She would keep his remark in mind for later and bring it out in the solitude of her bedroom and enjoy it privately, like a biscuit saved from tea.”

To end, Mr Weller in his short-lived Brideshead phase. (This being a book blog, I’m sure some of you will note the video was shot in Cambridge and Brideshead’s set in Oxford, so I’m asking in advance for you to please forgive my lazy shorthand). Because nothing says summer like a man taking a big bite out of a weeping willow:

*This is why children are not in charge of their own names: when I was nine I was adamant I would change my name to Araminta, because I’d just read Moondial. Now I think about it, it’s never too late…

28 thoughts on ““Green was the silence, wet was the light,/the month of June trembled like a butterfly.” (Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets)

  1. Those entirely non-gratuitous clips almost made suffering the excessive heat worthwhile. Tommy the cat is currently sleeping in the bathroom sink for coolness – I’m toying with the idea of joining him…

    Oh, and the books sound interesting too… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tommy has definitely go the right idea. My previous cat also used to like sleeping in the sink. The 2 I’ve got now haven’t cottoned onto this idea yet, although one of them does keep getting in the bath – greedy 😀

      The books are great but it’s entirely understandable if you can’t tear your eyes away 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed Swimming Home, too. It reminded me a little of the Francois Ozon film, Swimming Pool. Have you seen it by any chance? If not, it’s definitely worth a watch, just right for this time of year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. t’s quite a chilly day in Melbourne but suddenly I feel a bit warm…and I also feel like a slice of watermelon…

    Love both your picks. I thought Swimming Home was remarkable (have you read Hot Milk yet?) – between both of those books, Levy goes on my ‘Authors to Buy Without Question’ list.

    RE: names – when I was about eight, I wanted to change my name to Yvonne. I thought it was so glamorous. THANK GOD this was not possible because now it sounds so seventies!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! Glad the post (or more specifically, Paul) has compensated for the chilly weather!

      I’ve recently found a copy of Hot Milk which I snapped up remembering your review. I plan to read it as soon as I’ve finished my current read, I really can’t wait. On the basis of Swimming Home I completely understand your buying policy on her books.

      I also remember thinking Yvonne was very glamorous! It is very much of an age though. Also, there are lots of cool Kates (Hepburn/Bush/Chopin for starters) whereas I can’t think of any famous Yvonnes, apart from Evonne Goolagong. She is obviously a legend but doesn’t really count due to the spelling. I can’t think of a single famous Araminta though, so it’s clearly a name not destined for success!


  4. When I saw your asterisk on Araminta I quickly scrolled to the bottom hoping it was a Moondial reference!! And yes! Me too! And you know what, I’m not repentant. I’d still like to be called Minty now. When I first got separated I used the quicker route of deed poll to revert to my maiden name, and it took all my strength to be sensible and not to go for Lucy Locket, or Araminta Von Teapot.

    Enjoy the summer, I’ll definitely add Swimming Home to my list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad someone else read Moondial! I thought it very exciting to be called Minty for short. I’m talking myself back into this name change… Araminta von Teapot is a *great* name, I admire your iron willpower in not opting for it 😀

      Really hope you enjoy Swimming Home and have a lovely summer too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, I was hoping to change my name to Esmeralda (bad case of Hunchback of Notre Dame admiration), so it’s a mercy really that I wasn’t allowed to.
    What a bonkers music video, although the Cambridge setting does appeal. Of course, those gratuitous images of Paul Newman were terribly welcome and I think proved the point you were making in your reviews perfectly…er… what were the books again?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We had similarly ornate taste! Marina Sofia is so pretty, it’s a good thing you didn’t change 🙂

      It’s such a weird video isn’t it? I’m not really sure what Paul Weller was up to! Cambridge looks so pretty though.

      I’m glad I was able to convey the absolutely essential contribution of Paul Newman to my reviews of, er… give me a minute….


  6. Lovely review Madame B, as always. I thought this was one of Taylor’s strongest books and absolutely wonderful. As for names – I often wanted to change mine, some of the less outlandish options I considered being Susan or Astrid (no idea why) – I’m glad I didn’t now…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I still haven’t got around to reading Deborah Levy despite the many excellent reviews I’ve read of her fiction, although I now have a copy of Hot Milk sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

    Keep cool! I wish I could unzip my own cat’s fur coat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve a copy of Hot Milk waiting for me too – I think I’m going to read it next. I hope you enjoy her when you get to her Susan. I think you will – her novels are short and restrained, but not limited by their conciseness.

      Hope you keep cool too – all our furry friends will be much happier by the weekend if the weather reports are to be believed!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Both books sound excellent, and reminds me that I want to give Deborah Levy a try sometime.

    We’ve just come through a couple of days of unseasonably hot weather here, as well. I wonder if that’s it for us! Haha. I don’t like the heat, but the kids like to go swimming, so for them, I hope there’s more warm weather to come!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really are excellent, I hope you enjoy Levy if you have a chance to read her.

      I’m not keen on heat either. You’re much more generous than me – I’ll be very happy if this is it for the year, regardless of all the sun-worshipers bemoaning the lack of summer!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wonderful review of Swimming Home, Mme Bibi, it was a timely reminder of a wonderfully written novel. I’ve not read the Taylor but am keen to read all her books. This one sounds hilarious! As for Mr Weller- what was he thinking? I remember being as shocked at his reinvention from the Jam to Style Council ‘casual’ as when Dylan plugged in his guitar!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sarah! I thought Swimming Home was just brilliant and I’m really keen to read Hot Milk now.

      I’m also a Taylor completist – I’ve still got some way to go. I think you’d really like In a Summer Season 🙂

      It’s been 30 years since The Style Council and I’m still utterly baffled… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Ha Ha – I love the heat, but I did get a bit nervous at the sight of someone about to put their foot in what appears to be a butter dish, whilst dancing on the picnic rug. …………..I would like to sit in a punt and be steered down the river towards a picnic on the banks. Just as long as feet and butter dish stay apart from each other………..

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: “A tree’s wood is also its memoir.” (Hope Jahren) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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