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The House in Smyrna – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in Lip Mag.

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According to Martin Amis, that sharp satirist and white male English literary giant, there are two things that literature can’t do. The first is sex. Amis agrees with his father, Kingsley (that bigoted white male English literary giant), who believed that sex has the effect of de-universalising the reading experience. Good sex, Amis junior opines, is out of the question. Fiascos are acceptable for their comic value, as are novels in which everything revolves around sex—for example, he cites the brilliant Lolita. The second is dreams. ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ Henry James said. Tatiana Salem Levy’s debut novel, The House in Smyrna, tries to do both, with unexpected results.

Translated from its original Portuguese (Levy is Brazilian), The House in Smyrna is narrated by a suffering female who in alternating sections dialogues with her dead mother; addresses an abusive partner; and narrates her grandfather’s immigration from Turkey to Brazil, her parents’ temporary exile in Portugal, and her own journey to back to these countries. The switching between situations—each kept short, with spare prose—creates a dreamlike effect: the novel reads like a sequence of snippets of letters, memories, and indeed, dreams. The narrator has nightmares about being locked in her grandfather’s house in Smyrna, which in ‘real life’ she sets out to Turkey to find. In others sections, she says:

I tell (make up) this story about my ancestors, this story of immigration and its losses, this story about the key to the house in Smyrna, about my hope of returning to the place that my forebears came from,

implying that the writing process is a vehicle for her to resolve the pain caused by her mother’s death and her partner’s abuse. The narrator—as unreliable ones tend to do—blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and we don’t know whether her trip to Turkey is ‘real’ or written. As a result, the woman’s dreams are contiguous, rather than in conflict with the novel’s reality. Levy tells a dream and the reader reads on.

With respect to sex, Amis may have a point. There is plenty of sex in The House in Smyrna, much of it cringe-worthy. Often, the loftiness of the prose verges on comical in its incongruity: ‘I remained standing while you implored something between my legs, in a language understood only by the two of you, my clitoris and your mouth’; ‘Your penis was hard, upright, and I liked seeing it like that, as if it were looking at me too.’ There are also overcooked similes about vulnerability: ‘It was as if you were touching my organs directly, my blood, my flesh, without any protection.’ These scenes are, as Kingsley put it, de-universalising, because they create a rift between writer and reader by causing one to doubt whether people really think such abstract things when having sex, or as Levy puts more loftily, ‘making love’.

Sex, however, is important to the novel insofar as it relates to central ideas about the body. The narrator’s body is both an object of desire and a vessel through which she fulfils her own longings. On the first date with her partner, she recalls: ‘I listened to every word and felt my body quake: with fear, desire, happiness.’ Eventually, when their relationship sours, sex becomes the means by which the body is degraded, which removes agency and causes the paralysis the narrator professes to suffer from in the book’s opening paragraph: ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world.’ The scenes in which the sexual assault is described are raw, confronting and genuinely tragic: disturbing reminders of the horrors of domestic violence. On top of her, her partner ‘delighted in my pain, and asked: Isn’t it good?’

Pain and physical suffering are acutely felt by the narrator, partly as an aftereffect of abuse, partly as a result of her mother’s death, and partly due to the weight of the past that she feels burdening her. Decay of the body is frequently alluded to: the narrator tends to her dying mother, ‘covered with sores, riddled with holes, filled with pus, with its acidic smell, its smell of death’; in another section, her own body is ‘Dilacerated, covered in open wounds, purple and yellow spots, boils.’ Death, she says to her mother, ‘had been lying in wait for us the whole time’. Saying goodbye is a major theme of the book. But beyond death, beyond the moving meditation about losing those who are dear to you, the novel is about what it is to love and to live.

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The House in Smyrna

by Tatiana Salem Levy

Scribe, 2015

Categories
BOOKS

This Week’s Theme: A Matter of Life and Death

This week, I was saddened to learn that the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. His is among the unfortunate two percent of ocular melanoma cases which metastasise; nine years after the original diagnosis, he now has metastases occupying one third of his liver. Addressing his mortality in a poignant New York Times piece (link below), he writes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

For me, Sacks’s meditations on his life evoke the lyrics of Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ (1948), which I first heard in its haunting David Bowie incarnation in Moulin Rouge!. In the film’s opening scenes, the camera zooms in classical Luhrmann fashion through seedy 1900 Montmartre to reveal a disheveled, distraught Christian (Ewan Macgregor at his best) click-clacking the words on his typewriter as they are sung: ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.’

The themes of love and life are also central to Luhrmann’s first feature, Strictly Ballroom, with its recognisable motto: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’ Being prone to not-infrequent existential crises, life and the search for its meaning (other than 42, of course) are particularly interesting to me. What constitutes a meaningful, full life? If everything is doomed then perhaps is hedonism the best philosophy? Why go to work when you could spend a day lying on the couch, scoffing pastries and watching Netflix (it’s finally coming to Australia in March)?

It doesn’t help that the career path I have chosen to pursue has basically no practical value whatsoever. In a 2000 interview, Zadie Smith remarks—discussing her own education—: ‘Generally, an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world’. Seeing as we’re discussing grand themes, it might be helpful to broaden the scope a little here and mention an oft-quoted Oscar Wilde quip. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he declares: ‘All art is quite useless.’ Which is not to say that art isn’t important—what else entertains us, moves us and allows us to temporarily escape from the inevitability of mortality like it does? But in purely practical terms, Wilde is of course correct. In usefulness, making art pales in comparison to other callings. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer, for example, who dropped out of medicine at Mount Sinai, struggles like the rest of us in considering the purpose of writing. His doubts are surely exacerbated by the consideration of medicine as a pragmatic alternative. In a New Yorker interview which featured as part of its 20 Under 40 issue (June 4, 2010), Foer describes medicine as ‘Such a good profession. So explicitly good. Never a waste of time. No obstetrician goes home at the end of a long day and says, “I delivered four babies. What’s the point?”’

But as a writer who brings no lives into the world and spends large chunks of her working day alone, staring into a blank screen (or, more commonly, scrolling through Twitter), I often find myself asking: what, indeed, is the point? The answer, I figured, could probably be found online; the infinite expanse of the internet is now surely the closest approximation of an omniscient and eternal God, right? Two of my favoured findings are linked below. The first is a sweet comic strip featuring a doughnut as a metaphor for one’s life; and the second, which is written in listicle-style but lacks the triviality of most Buzzfeed articles, is a Quartz piece about the questions one should ask in order to find purpose in life.

My Own Life – New York Times

If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living? – Eye Opening Info

Questions that will help you find your purpose in life – Quartz