A Doppelgänger Personifies Broadly Painted Possibilities in Deborah Levy’s August Blue

While the author's latest work isn't a queer novel, Levy quietly and insistently acknowledges queer possibilities.

‘August Blue’ acknowledges the possibility of queerness elliptically. Photo: Sheila Burnett/Penguin General

Deborah Levy’s August Blue isn’t exactly a queer novel. The protagonist and narrator, piano prodigy Elsa Anderson, is straight, and the primary internal conflicts she faces aren’t about gender or sexuality. At the same time, though, Levy quietly but insistently acknowledges queer possibilities. In doing so, she creates a space for Elsa to choose love rather than paranoia when she is confronted with that often sinister literary device, the doppelganger.

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Elsa meets that doppelganger in Athens in the midst of a rolling personal crisis. The pianist dyed her hair blue on a whim. At her next concert in Vienna, she suddenly stopped playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.2 and began to perform—something else. Confused and with her career in shambles, Elsa prepares to give private lessons to a number of students across Europe to make ends meet.

It’s then that she sees another woman purchase two toy horses in a stall; they play music when you raise the tail. Elsa wants the toys for herself, but the other woman—who looks uncannily like Elsa—has gotten the last ones. “We obviously wanted the same things,” Elsa muses. Then, impulsively, she steals the other woman’s momentarily forgotten black trilby hat.

Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick argued that doubles and doppelgangers in the works of canonical authors like Henry James and James Hogg or (a female example that Sedgwick doesn’t discuss) Daphne du Maurier evoked a kind of homosexual panic. The classic gothic canon, Sedgwick argues, often centers on plots in which one character is haunted by, stalked by and obscurely controlled by, a same-sex double. Following Freud, Sedgwick suggests that such a narrative “represents the fearful, phantasmic rejection by recasting of an original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire.”

Sedgwick isn’t arguing that these characters are really, secretly homosexual. Instead, she’s saying that the paranoia in (for example) Frankenstein is powered by the fear of queer possibilities. If one looks into one’s heart, will one find the wrong kind of love? The terror of affection creates a split self—a monster—which desires itself and polices that desire. Homophobia terrorizes everyone because it declares certain human possibilities to be inhuman, beyond discussion or recognition. How can you know yourself if you are terrified of who you might be?

On the surface, August Blue is in the gothic tradition. The mysterious woman with the horses appears again and again wherever Elsa goes in Europe, wearing the same (sinister?) snakeskin shoes. And that double also insinuates herself into Elsa’s consciousness, asking her pointed questions and offering pointed suggestions. “To think about her was to speak to someone known, inside myself, someone who was slightly mysterious to me, someone who was listening very attentively.”

Elsa’s obsession with this other woman—the way she scopes her out from afar, the way she flirts with her by picking up the hat so she can return it later—could certainly be read as sexual or romantic. Elsa doesn’t raise that possibility herself, but the novel acknowledges it elliptically, by introducing a number of other queer people and relationships. Elsa’s first student, Marcus, is nonbinary; she and they instantly hit it off, and they perform an impromptu dance to Schubert. Then Marcus’ father fires Elsa for her display of flamboyance—and, implicitly, for accepting and celebrating his child’s queerness.

Elsa’s teacher and father figure, Arthur, is gay; she meets his lover when she goes to be with him in his final illness. Arthur adopted her when she was a young child, removing her from her foster family. Elsa doesn’t know who her real mother is. Arthur has given her documents that provide a full accounting, but she refuses to read them. She’s afraid to find out her mother didn’t love her—and afraid to find out who she is or might be.

Those fears are real fears, but they aren’t paralyzing terror. August Blue isn’t a gothic, like Frankenstein or Rebecca, shot through with anxiety, violence and terrifying revelations. Instead, it’s a gentle book. The doppelganger is sort of a stand-in for Elsa’s mother while also being a stand-in for Elsa herself or for who Elsa might be. But those possible other Elsa’s aren’t freighted with monstrosity or nightmare. Elsa’s nervous about them, but also curious and hopeful. “She was me and I was her. Perhaps she was a little more than I was,” she thinks.

That “more” might be a lot of things. Maybe the ‘Elsa Plus’ is an Elsa who is a composer as well as (or instead of) a performer. Maybe it’s an Elsa who can face more knowledge about her mother—and who can admit how much she loves her surrogate father. Maybe it’s an Elsa who can find a steady romantic partner. Maybe it’s an Elsa who is queer.

Again, some of those don’t pan out. Elsa’s romantic relationships are mostly episodic, and all of them are with men—unless you count her lifelong passion for Isidora Duncan—but the novel isn’t afraid of opening any closet, which means that Elsa can look inside and see who she is without being terrified of the gothic double looking over her shoulder.  “I saw something of who she was, rather than who I imagined her to be,” Elsa says of her double. “It was not a comfortable moment.” But it’s not a moment of horror either.

The novel’s distance from homosexual panic is also its distance from genre. This is very much a literary novel; there’s not a lot of violence, not a lot of suspense, not a lot of plot demanding you turn to the next page and the next. August Blue is a short book that meanders, following itself across Europe, across memory, across a cosmopolitan landscape of identity and desire. Hate and paranoia are propulsive; acceptance and love move, in general, at a slower pace. Levy encourages you to savor the slowness. In a world where everyone’s identity is accepted, August Blue suggests, we have time to find our own music.

A Doppelgänger Personifies Broadly Painted Possibilities in Deborah Levy’s August Blue