Deborah Levy is the author of six novels, a collection of short stories, a volume of poetry, and two living autobiographies. She has immaculate posture and favours bright lipstick and pearls. Her favourite poet is Apollinaire for his explosion of beauty, muscularity and delicacy. After publishing her first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989), she used the money to travel around Europe with her typewriter stuffed in a pillowcase. Levy has also written plays and librettos. She keeps journals because she believes they’re good for catching thoughts before you can censor them. She insists that all writing is chasing arguments and slyly pretending not to. One of her heroines is Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex, she says, captures the mysteriousness of wanting to suppress women. Another heroine is Marguerite Duras, whose line ‘You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are,’ is the epigraph to Levy’s most recent book, The Cost of Living, a memoir and manifesto about writing, freedom and finding a new way of living.
DEBORAH LEVY SITS on the steps outside the Fitzroy Castle in Dalkey, Ireland, with a clove cigarette in hand, listening to a band in the garden play Leonard Cohen songs. She’s wearing a red brocade coat. She speaks in a soft, billowy voice, making beautifully constructed sentences. “Guinness,” she proclaims, “is so delicious.”
When she was nine years old, Levy’s family moved from South Africa to England. It was winter, and she remembers swimming in big Victorian public pools with notices that read: No Jumping, No Diving, No Petting. Her friends hated it, but she has always loved water. “I used to say if they filled the pool with tea, everyone in England would put their head under water.”
Arriving in England was a disorienting experience, but there was no longing to return because home had been a place of trauma. Levy’s father was a member of the ANC, a staunch opponent of apartheid, who was imprisoned for four years. She was five when he was taken away. She recalls losing her voice as if the volume had been turned down. She wanted to be like a plastic Barbie, pretty and calm. In England, she says, people were kind. They called you ‘love’. “Children are good at adapting and wanting to belong. That’s the thing.”
The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton; 208 pages; Rs 599), the second of Levy’s “living autobiographies”, explores the disintegration of her 20-year marriage and the death of her mother. Unsurprisingly, water connects them. Levy is drawn to the shamanic quality of water—the freedom and fluidity it offers. Both her Booker-finalist novels, Swimming Home (2011) and Hot Milk (2016), feature a central aquatic setting around which the action occurs. In Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), the first of the living autobiographies, Levy goes off to Majorca to visit the monastery where George Sand took refuge with her lover, the tuberculosis-ridden Chopin. Instead of weeping about her circumstances, Sand smoked cigars and wrote at a desk wearing Chopin’s trousers while the sea crashed in the distance. In Levy’s universe, water is lifesaver and heroic backdrop.
“I love the feeling of water on my skin,” Levy says. “I love the ocean. It’s where I’m happiest. I think I probably have to end my days somewhere near the ocean.” Her mother taught her to swim and row a boat, and there’s a scene in The Cost of Living, where mother and daughter are bobbing in the murky Ladies Pond of Hampstead Heath, trying to perfect the art of floating. Her marriage, on the other hand, is the ‘leaky boat’ from which she must swim away. Levy chooses to swim into the deep and be directionless rather than risk drowning.
Central to her work is also the female experience. Mothers, daughters, ingénues and Medusa-figures recur. Levy has two daughters, and when I ask whether she struggled with motherhood, whether the question of the ‘pram in the hallway’ is still a valid concern for women writers today, she says, “I’m not really the person to ask that question. Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood explores all that. My children totally enrich my life. It’s hard work. It requires a lot of sacrifice, but I don’t think I was aware it was a choice I had to make or not make. It was something I wanted.”
“We know, don’t we,” she continues, “that you have to be ruthless to write. It’s not just children. It’s as if we always have something else to slope off to, and I’d say that the adventure of language is the biggest adventure of my life. Women have made their accommodations in different cultures in different ways from the beginning of time. If you look at someone like Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindications of the Rights of Woman. What did she do? In 1792, she went off to Paris to observe the French Revolution. On her own! It was actually happening. She meant to stay six weeks and she stayed two years. Think about that! She had a love affair and a baby and was abandoned by the man she had the baby with, and this is the 18th century! So these are not new stories.”
“There’s a lot of talk, isn’t there, about the novel being dead? But I don’t agree at all. Fiction is a home for the reach of the human mind.” Deborah LEVY, author
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Levy became successful at 52, with the publication of Swimming Home. She describes the excitement of knowing she was onto something “different” while writing the book. At five in the evening she’d come downstairs to make spaghetti for her daughters, and would have to lean against the wall before exiting her writing world for the real world. This liminal territory between seasons, between day and night, marriage and divorce, death and after, is Levy’s sounding ground. “It was so hard and so exhilarating,” she says. “I did need to just have those ten seconds of resting my head against the cold wall before going into family life. I think it’s easy for writers to coast on what they do best. You could say why break it? Just keep on going. But genuinely, that’s not what it’s like for me. What keeps me interested in writing is my interest in language, and it isn’t just literary language, it’s everyday language, it’s the ways in which we can be inarticulate too. I love that. I’m never really drawn to the most articulate person in the room.”
We have now moved into the lobby of the hotel, which looks like a set out of Fawlty Towers. Many things seem not to work, but it feels charming. Levy admires the bright blue Moroccan slippers I’m wearing. Later, she will ask to photograph them. I tell her there’s a line in The Cost of Living that really resonates: ‘Everything in my new house is smaller and yet my life has become larger.’ It says so much about how space, freedom and money must be negotiated. After her marriage collapses, Levy moves from a Victorian house to a small apartment. She rents a shed from a friend: “not a posh shed; the lawnmower would have felt at home in it,” but it’s where she writes three books and begins writing in the first person, which she describes as “the ‘I’ that is close to myself and yet is not myself.” She struggles with an electric bicycle, shouts at her local newsagents over the lack of lime lollies for her dying mother, and finds alternate support systems.
The Cost of Living can be read as a 21st century-companion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. As much as it is about the writer’s life, it is about being a woman. Levy describes the change in her post-marriage, middle-aged life as having just enough of the right things. A modest life. A happy life. The simple joys of being able to open the windows in her sixth-floor apartment and to look out to a swathe of big sky, of hearing her daughter sing Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust in the bath, complete with the little trills. As she speaks, you can sense a person renewed to the idea of wonder—“I was in Trinidad and Tobago recently, and I was reminded of how in Africa, the first thing that hits your ears when you wake up is the sound of birds, and they also have choirs of frogs, which is a new thing. I’m going to add that to my internal orchestra as a requirement.”
Desire, she says, is her subject. Not just sexual desire—the chase between two people (“although we mustn’t forget we have bodies”), but desire for all kinds of things. “There’s that Hollywood slogan which I really like for writing scripts: Who wants what and what’s stopping them from getting it? That’s something I ask in every book I write. Where’s the desire in the book? Because a book without desire is a depressed book.”
Marguerite Duras, who is a kind of guiding spirit across Levy’s work, once said that the task of literature was to represent what’s forbidden. To be scandalous. To say what isn’t normally said. Levy is more interested in the uncanny, in making the invisible visible. “There’s a lot of talk, isn’t there, about the novel being dead? But I don’t agree at all. I think fiction is a home for the reach of the human mind. It can provide a home for the conscious and the unconscious, and if we believe in that idea, which I do, and given that the human mind can go anywhere, we will find a literary strategy to build our homes. To misquote Shakespeare, so long as we don’t pluck out the heart of mystery, I think the novel will never die.”
In one of the scenes in The Cost of Living, the string of pearls around Levy’s neck bursts as she’s jostling with grocery bags, and the woman who rents her the shed is overheard telling a friend, “I don’t understand why she wears pearls to write in that dusty old shed anyway.” So why do you wear pearls to work? I ask. Levy laughs. “A person very special to me had given me three strings of sea pearls, and the thing about sea pearls is that they absorb the heat of your body and become a bit like a second skin. I’m not one of those writers who write in their pyjamas because I think you kind of put the words to sleep, so, I actually look quite smart to write because I’m a freelance writer, and it makes me more alert… Somewhere on the coast of Japan, women in their eighties dive down for these pearls and they don’t have oxygen tanks; it’s all to do with the way you take a breath and hold that breath. There’s a sort of whistling sound, isn’t there? They’re my heroines. I love them. I think that’s something I’d really like to see off a boat, maybe even have a go at one day.”
From The Cost of Living
To separate from love is to live a risk-free life. What’s the point of that sort of life? As I wheeled my electric bike through the park on the way to my writing shed, my hands had turned blue from the cold. I had given up wearing gloves because I was always grappling in the dark for keys. I stopped by the fountain, only to find it had been switched off. A sign from the council read, This fountain has been winterized.
I reckoned that is what had happened to me too.
To live without love is a waste of time. I was living in the Republic of Writing and Children. I was not Simone de Beauvoir, after all. No, I had got off the train at a different stop (marriage) and stepped on to a different platform (children). She was my muse but I was certainly not hers.