Deborah Levy’s slender, enchanted novel August Blue has all the piercing detail and bewildering movement of a midafternoon dream.
In August, at a flea market in Athens, Greece, Elsa M. Anderson encounters a woman she comes to believe is her double. Perhaps to taunt Elsa, the woman purchases the very objects Elsa planned to buy for herself. “I felt she had stolen something from me, something that I would miss in my life,” Elsa thinks. She pursues her double, and the woman drops her black felt trilby hat, which Elsa retrieves and wears until the following August, when the story ends.
Elsa, we learn, is 34 years old, a musical prodigy who has apparently, quite suddenly, lost her gift. Her recent performance in Vienna came to a jarring halt when her “fingers refused to bend for Rachmaninov and [she] began to play something else.” Orphaned at birth, she was adopted by a family in rural England, and when her musical talents became evident, was taken under the wing of Arthur Goldstein, her teacher and promoter. Her teacher is now old and ailing. Elsa eventually goes to visit him in Sardinia, where she resists his offer to see the adoption documents that would reveal her parentage.
In the meantime, she travels to teach piano to the disenchanted and unseen children of the elite. She has fraught, fleeting encounters with her double and carries on an internal dialogue with the woman throughout her journey. People recognize Elsa, photograph her and wonder about her.
Sergei Rachmaninov, the feel and weight of his music, is certainly a motif in August Blue. So too are the works of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche. Beneath the novel’s surface thrum questions and observations about civilization, culture, identity, the self and the many forms of love. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds until an encounter in Paris resolves some of Elsa’s questions.
In addition to being a novelist, Levy is also a poet. Her storytelling moves to its own music. Her sentences are sharp, sensuous, crackling with ironic humor. Her paragraphs are compact, full of tension that pulls the reader forward. The novel offers the reader a dazzling gaze at the conundrums of existence.