Deborah Levy's Double Vision in ‘August Blue’

In the author's new novel, encountering a doppelgänger on the streets of Athens signals the death of the diligently composed identity of an artist

BY Kathryn O'Regan in Books , Opinion | 09 MAY 23

Doppelgangers and their counterparts – doubles, split personalities, evil twins – have stalked popular works of fiction and art since the Romantic period. The monster is the gruesome double of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel; Edward Hyde is the cruel alter ego of Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1866). A myriad of mysterious doubles populates the works of director David Lynch; from Laura Palmer’s dark-haired cousin Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990), to Betty and Diane in Mulholland Drive (2001) and the doubling of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). In art, the motif is memorably realized in the hazy dressing room photographs of Nan Goldin, whose subjects stare into mottled mirrors while adding finishing touches to their makeup. Goldin’s uncanny mirror images ask questions of our identities, be they the personas we inhabit on and off stage; the gendered identities we perform; or any of the multiple identities we assume as a simple condition of being a person in this world. 

Such ideas take centre stage in Deborah Levy's disorientating new novel August Blue (2023). Against the uneasy backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Elsa M. Anderson, a 34-year-old, blue-haired concert pianist, has recently walked off stage during a performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Golden Hall in Vienna. Rattled, Elsa washes up in Athens where, amid tacky souvenirs and wagons of nuts, she spies a woman in a trilby hat making an unusual purchase at a local flea market: a pair of mechanical horses. She considers this woman to be her double. 

Deborah Levy August Blue book cover
Deborah Levy, August Blue, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Penguin General

Traditionally the appearance of one’s double is a bad omen, a harbinger of death. This is certainly true of Weronika in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991), who after seeing her doppelganger at a protest in Kraków, dies on stage shortly after. Interestingly, the film shares more than a few things in common with Levy’s novel. Both of the film’s protagonists, Weronika in Poland and Véronique in Paris, have musical gifts, like Elsa. While Weronika performs until her untimely demise, Véronique quits her professional pursuits to teach music to children. Elsa does the same. In Kraków, Weronika says to her father, ‘I have a strange feeling. I feel like I am not alone,’ a sentiment that is shared by her Parisian counterpart. In August Blue, Elsa concludes that her double ‘made her feel less alone’. 

While the sighting of her double does not foretell Elsa’s untimely death, her appearance does signal the death of something else: the diligently composed identity of the artist, in her case, the piano virtuoso. Life starts to pick up speed and move in weird, new directions, though arguably the separation between the old and the new Elsa(s) begins earlier, with Elsa’s choice to dye her hair blue. ‘Blue was a separation from my DNA,’ she says. Ironically, Elsa’s DNA is a mystery; she is an orphan, adopted at six by a middle-aged maestro, a curious figure called Arthur Goldstein, who teaches her classical piano and changes her name from the plain ‘Ann’ to the more flamboyant ‘Elsa’. From the very beginning, her identity has been split in two. 

Study of Isadora Duncan
Portrait of Isadora Duncan, c. 1916. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute & Wikmedia Commons; photograph: Arnold Genthe

Moving from Athens to the Greek island of Poros, then to London and Paris, and later, Sardinia, Elsa’s identity fragments further. She drifts between feelings of immense loneliness and ‘looking for reasons to live’. She finds inspiration in the fluid, poetic movements of the modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. ‘I think the idea was to show me how to be happy and free,’ she reflects. Away from the keys of her piano, she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She regards the instrument as both her ‘mother’ and her oppressor. Her volatile mood is heightened by the sudden appearance of her doppelganger on the streets of London and in Paris, coolly smoking a cigar. She allows this enigmatic figure to enter her thoughts and consume her: ‘Everything that I was had started to unravel. I was living precariously in my own body; that is to say, I had not fallen into who I was, or who I was becoming. What I wanted for myself was a new composition. I had let the woman who bought the horses enter me, too.’

Deborah Levy portrait
Portrait of Deborah Levy. Courtesy: Penguin General; photograph: Sheila Burnet 

At the heart of Elsa’s unravelling is a need to sever herself from Arthur’s overbearing presence. She is confused by his dual role in her life as both a father figure and a teacher. Her friend Marie regards her as his ‘hostage’, and she is engulfed by a ‘deep rage’. As the novel progresses, Elsa’s goal becomes apparent. She must abandon the dominant patriarchal influence that has shaped her life and identity thus far, instead seeking out the unknowable person of her mother and recovering the disparate, lost shards of her own shattered sense of self. 

More often than not, the double is a stand-in for our repressed, unsavoury desires; a way for artists and writers to mine the dark undercurrents of the psyche to lay bare what truly motivates us. In August Blue, Elsa’s ‘psychic double’ is not a representation of her inner demons as in Frankenstein, say, but a manifestation of her long-buried desire to live fully; vitally; imperfectly. In the end, her double is not some ominous phantom, but more like a sprightly figure holding up a mirror, showing Elsa an alternative version of the world where she can finally learn to be free.

Deborah Levy’s August Blue is available now from Penguin in the UK

Main image: Portrait of Isadora Duncan, c. 1916. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution & Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Arnold Genthe

Kathryn O'Regan is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany.