In Almería in the heat of summer, the temperature reaches 40 degrees, and no rain falls. It looks like a lunar landscape: parched, craterous, unreal. In the distance, white tents incubate tomatoes, artificially hydrated. Gas canisters stand in the sand like strange desert plants; cargo ships float past to Greece. Against this largeness, Sofia Papastergiadis, postgraduate anthropology dropout and barista, is feeling the smallness of her life. ‘The dream is over for me. It began when I left my lame mother alone … that autumn I packed my bags for university … it ended when she became ill and I abandoned my PhD. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks behind my shattered screensaver like an unclaimed suicide.’ Her laptop is broken, which means Sofia is broken too (it ‘knows more about me than anyone else’). She stares at the screensaver image of the Milky Way; it’s the sort of generic screensaver laptops come with but Sofia, whose restless mind is always looking for connections – ways of explaining things, and explaining them away – jumps from the picture to the Latin lactea to her own etymology (‘my mother told me years ago that I must write Milky Way like this: γαλαξίας κύκλος’), to Aristotle in Chalcidice, to her father born in Thessaloniki, to the oldest star (13 billion years old) and back to the stars on her laptop (China, two years old). Γαλαξίας κύκλος means literally a ‘milky circle’.
She has come to Almería with her mother to seek a last hope treatment for Rose’s leg paralysis (she calls her mother by her name) at the Gómez Clinic. Eleven years ago her father left them in London and returned to Greece. He had a religious conversion, inherited a vast shipping fortune just as the euro was collapsing, and married a woman not much older than Sofia (she calls Alexandra the ‘bride child’). Sofia hasn’t spoken to him since. As soon as her mother wakes she will ask Sofia to bring her water. In Almería – or maybe just in Sofia’s head – meanings have started to slip:
I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool … I am always thinking of ways to make water more right than wrong for my mother.
Sofia’s ‘pathetic miniature life’, as she describes it, is tied up with her mother’s illness: ‘I can’t deny that her symptoms are of cultural interest to me, even though they drag me down with her.’ Her special skill is making her own life smaller so her mother’s seems bigger. When they walk together – sometimes Rose can walk a bit, sometimes she can’t – they limp together. ‘My legs are her legs.’ That her mother can walk alone to the Spar to buy herself some hairpins, without even a stick, is something Sofia doesn’t want to think about. What she wants to think about are the things she can count and measure:
Some things are getting bigger (the lack of direction in my life), but not the right things. Biscuits in the Coffee House are getting bigger (the size of my head), receipts are getting bigger (there is so much information on a receipt, it is almost a field study in itself), also my thighs (a diet of sandwiches, pastries… ), my bank balance is getting smaller and so are passion fruit (though pomegranates are getting bigger and so is air pollution, as is my shame at sleeping five nights of the week in the storeroom above the Coffee House).
Deborah Levy is interested in women who don’t have homes and aren’t sure where to look for them, who sleep above shops or coffee houses, who seem to keep themselves displaced and feel easiest when they’re travelling or alone; women who like to dissect things, who reassure themselves with cataloguing and calculating, as though people and feelings could be contained by indices. They usually make a profession of it: archaeologist, botanist, anthropologist, librarian. Making lists and counting things is a way of seeing, but it’s also a way of dealing with not wanting to see, of seeing the wrong thing on purpose (‘To sign off the loan to pay the Gómez Clinic we had to go together to Rose’s mortgage provider for an interview. I took the morning off work which meant I lost 18 pounds and 30 pence for three hours.’) Levy’s stories – she’s written seven novels and three short story collections, as well as plays, poetry and essays – almost always begin with a failure of language; she has said that she’s not interested in the most articulate person in the room, and that her work is informed by the theatre director Zofia Kalinska’s statement: ‘We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theatre, I like to show the hesitation and not to conceal it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish.’ The progression, one hopes, is towards language, the ‘coming into language’ that Hélène Cixous talks about in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’. Cixous’s essay is starting point and structure for Hot Milk; its ideas shape Sofia’s task – to be brave, to make herself heard, to separate from her mother – and Levy’s. Women, according to Cixous (and this is 1976), need to challenge the symbolic status quo, and they can do so by inscribing their subjectivities, by writing what men can’t: ‘she writes in white ink.’ Mother’s milk, Milky Way, white ink.
When Sofia gets stung by the jellyfish that lurk in the sea around Almería, the young student in the injury hut tells her that in Spain they are called medusas because their tentacles look like the Medusa’s snake hair. They stretch out invisibly under the water (like the mother). The student, Juan, speaks to her in Greek and Sofia ‘recites the usual’: ‘My father is Greek, my mother is English, I was born in Britain … it is a constant embarrassment to have a surname like Papastergiadis and not speak the language of my father.’ When she fills out the medical form she pauses over ‘Occupation’. ‘I don’t so much have an occupation as a preoccupation, which is my mother, Rose.’ In the end she writes ‘WAITRESS’, which isn’t that far from ‘witness’ to her mother’s suffering. ‘Waiting on her and waiting for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom.’ Something needs to change.
Hot Milk takes its epigraph from Cixous: ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits.’ For Sofia, that means addressing her father, who isn’t there, and her mother, who is too much there. But a psychoanalyst will tell you that the old circuits serve a purpose; that we sustain them, even as we despair, as Sofia does, tying and untying Rose’s shoelaces: ‘the long process of unpicking and unravelling and starting all over again’. Sofia is invested in her mother’s pain, maybe even complicit; she thinks of all the different ways she can of expressing it: she is the witness, the detective (‘does that make her illness an unsolved crime?’), the waiter ‘holding the tray’ as her mother displays her various symptoms like canapés. There has been a crime of course – her father leaving – but Levy’s other books feature real crimes, real murders and deaths: the crime in Hot Milk is cosmic, psychic, unembodied, except by Rose’s failing legs. Lacan, whom Levy reads closely, described the hypochondriac as ‘asking a question he or she doesn’t want answered’. Rose doesn’t want a diagnosis – every time she gets one a new symptom appears, Hydra-like – and Sofia can’t admit that it might all be in her mother’s head, because it’s also her own excuse for not living more fully.
There’s lots here for a Freudian (or Lacanian), and we are given one, in the shape of Dr Gómez, the shamanic consultant Rose has remortgaged her house to see. His clinic is made of white marble with a tinge of yellow (mother’s milk again), his front teeth are entirely covered with gold, his physiotherapist assistant, who is also his daughter, is called Nurse Sunshine because she doesn’t smile. He keeps a stuffed vervet in a glass box in his consulting room and tells Sofia that he thinks she wants to free the ‘little castrated primate so he can caper around the room and read my early editions of Cervantes’, but first, ‘you must free yourself.’ It’s absurd, and very entertaining: is he a quack, or is there a deeper structure to his quixotism? Perhaps it makes sense to deal with Rose’s symptoms (and Sofia’s) on the level at which they are expressed: the level of dream, ritual, myth. Rose asks for water and Gómez asks where she’s from. ‘Warter’ apparently. ‘It’s a village five miles east of Pocklington.’ She’s dehydrated, but that’s not the only thing going on. His first instructions are to drop all her medication and write a list of her enemies. He tells Sofia to steal a fish from the market to make her bolder. ‘It need not be the biggest fish, but is must not be the smallest either.’
Gómez isn’t the only character pushing Sofia towards a new alignment. At the beach, musing on how to free a distressed dog chained to the diving school terrace, she meets Ingrid Bauer (‘What is she doing standing so close to me?’). Ingrid warns her that the dog has been badly treated, he won’t know what to do with his freedom. She doesn’t realise, and neither does Sofia quite, that freeing the dog and curing her mother have become preconditions of Sofia’s freedom. Ingrid is the promise of something else: ‘The way she says my name is like a whole other life.’ Ingrid is brave. She can drive a car while Sofia has failed her test four times. Ingrid’s been riding a horse since she was three; Sofia definitely hasn’t. ‘There was obviously nothing to recommend me to anyone.’ She’s attracted to Ingrid, and she wonders what it would feel like to be Ingrid, and with the Medusa venom ‘lurking inside me’ she surprises herself by kissing Ingrid as they lie on the beach. ‘I had made something happen. I was shaking and I knew that I had held myself in for too long, in my body, in my skin, the word anthropology from the Greek anthropos meaning “human”, and logia, meaning “study” … I am not very good at studying myself.’
It’s not simply a sexual experiment – there’s lots of sex in Levy’s work, but it’s rarely just about sex (although as Sofia admits, ‘my own sexuality is an enigma to me’). Ingrid might be a way of learning to be braver, a way of illuminating something: ‘Ingrid’s body is a naked light bulb, and I am a dark room.’ She appears like a hero in silver sandals, laced up high. ‘She looked like she had been adorned with treasure.’ In ancient Rome, the higher the sandal was laced, the higher the rank of the fighter. In Sofia’s new constellation, Ingrid is the warrior. Her confusion over language extends to gender too. She first sees Ingrid in the women’s toilet at the beach café. Under the neighbouring cubicle Sofia spies a man’s feet, and in a panic, feeling observed, rushes to get the waiter, only to return and find Ingrid washing her hands, Ingrid wearing men’s shoes and blue velvet shorts. She hears the cry of a man selling watermelons, but when she goes outside it’s not the sweaty middle-aged man she had imagined but a woman in a blue dress. She begins to wonder about the signs ‘that tell us who we are’: gentleman ladies / hommes femmes / caballeros señoras. What door did the Medusa walk through? ‘Are we all of us lurking in each other’s sign?’ She seduces Juan, the student from the injury hut, and asks where the difference between her lovers lies: ‘He is masculine and she is feminine but, like a deep perfume, the notes cut into each other and mingle.’ Ecriture féminine, Cixous writes in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, is bisexual writing; not neuter, but ‘working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other’, a ‘vatic bisexuality’ which ‘doesn’t annul differences but stirs them up, pursues them’. Levy makes the idea Sofia’s means to a bigger life. She pursues Juan and Ingrid with a desire that takes her by surprise: ‘I was turning into someone I did not recognise. I was terrifying myself.’
As part of Rose’s treatment, Gómez forbids Sofia from speaking for her mother. They go out to lunch – ‘this is a consultation but I see no reason why it should not take place under the sky’ – and Sofia remains mute while Gómez challenges her mother. He orders seafood even though she claims to be allergic to it:
‘Mrs Papastergiadis, you take fish-oil supplements and you take glucosamine. I have had these analysed in our laboratory. Your brand of glucosamine is made from the outer coatings of shellfish. The other supplement you take is derived from shark cartilage.’
‘Yes, but I am allergic to the other kind of fish.’
Two large welts swell up on Rose’s cheek. Sofia doesn’t speak. Gómez throws some of his octopus onto the ground for the stray cats; Rose is allergic to them too. He tells her to draw a cat on the soles of her feet so she can stamp on it all day long. One of the cats scratches her and she cries out, forgetting that she’s not supposed to have any feeling in her feet. Gómez tells her to recite her latest ailment to a dead fly.
Silence, Sofia starts to realise, can be just as forceful as speech. She begins to feel her own power: ‘If I were to look at my mother just once in a certain way, I would turn her to stone … I would turn the language of allergies, dizziness, heart palpitations and waiting for side-effects to stone. I would kill this language stone dead.’ Her hair grows wilder in the salt water, her teeth look whiter, her eyes seem bigger. She swims with the jellyfish on purpose, and on her next injury form, she puts ‘MONSTER’ under ‘Occupation’. Who, Cixous writes, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives ‘hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?’ Sofia steals a fish from the market, not sure if the ritual is medicine or anthropological experiment or ‘something approaching magic’. She takes the faux antique vase with its frieze of slaves carrying water and smashes it on the floor. She releases the dog.
To congratulate her for freeing the dog, Ingrid gives Sofia a yellow silk halter-neck top, with the word ‘Beloved’ embroidered in blue silk thread. Ingrid embroiders whatever comes to mind – a snake, a star, a cigar – and the things she sews have a way of coming into the story. Sofia’s father smokes a cigar, Ingrid cuts a snake in half with an axe, Sofia looks at the stars. Levy’s work often has a symbolic structuring. She is specific about food and clothes (which are often a bit retro: platform shoes, crop tops, blue eyeshadow) and certain props and images reappear throughout her work: cherries, caged birds, swimming pools. J.G. Ballard talked about how his obsessional emblems (which also included swimming pools) structured his work, but sometimes in Levy’s stories they have to do too much work; standing in for the interiority of a character, or a psychic shift in the drama, or something we are supposed to feel without being sure what it is. In Hot Milk there’s no such difficulty: the symbolic structure is of Sofia’s unconscious (Lacan again) and its signifiers are clear to us, clearer even than they are to Sofia – a manoeuvre Levy seems to reject elsewhere. The moments of formal experimentation don’t break this, and Levy’s play with language (her books are full of fragments of rhyme and song, misreadings, foreign languages, repetitions and mutations), which is often a means of disconcerting the reader, here builds into the mythos of the story.
It makes a difference that, unlike most of her other works, Hot Milk has a consistent voice and is written in the first person. Things I Don’t Want to Know – Levy’s last book before Hot Milk – seems to have been a turning point: it ‘taught me how to construct an apparently intimate voice’. She doesn’t like stable narrators, but when the instability extends to the whole text it can get in the way of character. It’s easy to believe that Sofia writes Margaret Mead quotes on her bedroom wall, even if they lend themselves conveniently to the ideas of the book; I couldn’t quite believe that Kitty Finch in Swimming Home was a botanist, though it offered nice linguistic opportunities (maybe she’s not really a botanist; maybe it’s not supposed to matter). Levy prefers the Surrealists to Austen, and doesn’t want to go backwards: modernism, she’s said, was her womb; she’s committed to a multi-angled subjectivity. But it’s satisfying to have that instinct extrapolated into the story and made the character’s subject. Sometimes you need to know the author’s there: not least to make the jokes work – and Hot Milk is very funny.
Levy’s preference for shifting perspectives – she especially likes looking at one character through another – finds expression in a series of interludes, short passages between chapters like a Greek chorus, in the strange, heavy voice of Ingrid Bauer (they are printed in bold).
There she goes. The beautiful Greek girl is walking across the beach in her bikini. There is a shadow between her body and my own. Sometimes she drags her feet in the sand. She has no one to rub suncream on her back and say here yes no yes there.
They are rhythmically striking: interrupting the light, spiralling mode of Sofia’s voice; zooming out to watch her from a distance, but they’re ambiguous too. Is it really Ingrid’s voice? She has the same dream that Sofia dreams; she thinks thoughts that Sofia has thought. Perhaps it’s partly the Ingrid of Sofia’s imagining: Ingrid as oracle, as Diana, as Medusa – or Ingrid as constituent of the uncanny interconnectedness in Almería which we begin to see extends beyond Sofia’s consciousness.
After stealing the fish and freeing the dog – Sofia’s peripeteia – she at last goes to Athens to see her father. She surprises herself by befriending his new wife, and by pitying her. Alexandra is overwhelmed by new motherhood – the milk leaking through her shirt, her cracked nipples – and by the silence of the household: ‘I’m starting to get the impression Alexandra hasn’t spoken to anyone apart from Christos Papastergiadis for about a year.’ Sofia has lost her father, but perhaps he wasn’t much to lose. She asks him for money to finish her PhD in America, for advice on what to do about her mother, but he doesn’t do anything that is not to his advantage. ‘Do as you please,’ he says. ‘There are grants available for overseas study.’ He’s a fugitive who won’t be held to justice. Alexandra, an economist, talks about the necessity of austerity measures for Greece – ‘our medication’. They’ve moved all their money to a London bank. If austerity is medicine, then family can be economics: ‘I have come to Athens to call in a debt my father owes me for never being around … as a result of his first default, my mother has a mortgage on my life.’ He tells her he wants to give her some spending money before she leaves – a misplaced, overdue gesture – but forgets to get any cash out. After rummaging around in his bag, he finally presents her with a ten euro note. Sofia gives it to a beggar. ‘It was hard to accept that the first man in my life would do things that were to my disadvantage if they were to his advantage. Yet it was a revelation that somehow set me free.’
Something else sets her free too: the word embroidered on the yellow silk top is not ‘beloved’ as she had thought, but ‘beheaded’. ‘It was Beheaded … I had invented a word that was not there.’ She’s coming face to face with the Medusa. ‘Beheaded’ has a violence to it, but Sofia can see it’s not her Ingrid wants to behead: they are both hiding from their desire for each other. Levy is dramatising the tricky passage where Cixous says that ‘everything will be changed once woman gives woman to the other woman.’ It is woman who, symbolically, offers freedom and inspiration to other women; it can be seen in Levy’s own writing: she quotes and references and imitates Plath and Woolf and Stein and Ann Quin; Duras and Beauvoir, Kristeva, Cixous and others; the last lines of Ulysses, reconfigured, appear in at least two of her stories. ‘You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her,’ Cixous writes. ‘And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.’
Returning to Almería, Sofia finds her mother has fallen under the influence of sinister Ballardian doctors who offer her medication to ‘erase negative internal conversations’. Gómez is being investigated: a cynical capitalist ploy. Feeling abandoned, Rose has decided on amputation: ‘My love for her is like an axe. She has grabbed it from me and is threatening to chop off her feet.’ But Sofia has Ingrid Bauer’s strength now. She takes her mother for a drive. She parks on the side of the motorway, pushes her mother’s wheelchair into the road and leaves her there. A lorry is just growing visible on the horizon. Sofia gets back into the car she can’t drive, and drives away from her mother who can’t walk. She has killed the mournful mother, the mother who is neither alive nor dead. Gómez says that if her mother ‘wants to live she will walk out of danger’, and Sofia realises she has staged the fear she had been unconsciously avoiding: ‘it had never occurred to me that she might not want to live.’
The end has a sting in it; I won’t give it away. Levy lets the real intrude in a way she rarely does elsewhere, jarring the absurdity of Almería and Sofia’s world of monsters and warriors and shamanic symbols. For such an unconventional writer it’s a surprising move but it works. The more realised her characters become – more than just avatars for ideas – the better avatars they are. Staging Cixous isn’t an easy task, but Levy lets the ideas work very lightly, and very sharply, as though the characters were leading her there all along. The Medusa hasn’t lost her venom, but she doesn’t look so terrifying now.