The Cost of Living

The opening pages of Deborah Levy’s memoir, The Cost of Living, are perhaps the least personal. In them she is the observer, the narrator of another woman’s story, as she watches a young woman approached by an older man. When the young woman tells him a story of surfacing from a scuba-dive to discover a storm, his only reaction is to say, “You talk a lot don’t you.”

“It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

Levy uses this seemingly incidental anecdote throughout to make sense of the experience she undergoes as her marriage ends:

“My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.”

When she discusses her situation with a friend, he tells her, “It seems to me you would be better off finding another way to live.” The Cost of Living details Levy’s search for another way to live. (Every time I hear the title I unconsciously add two words from James Kennaway’s final novel, The Cost of Living Like This, which, beyond the commonplace that live itself demands a price, suggests that there are different ways to live, and choices to be made).

Just as Levy uses her initial observation to frame her story, so too the ordinary facts of her own life encapsulate moments in her emotional journey. She moves into a flat in North London with her two daughters; her furniture – the fridge, the bed, the sofa – is too large for the smaller space:

“It was futile to try to fit an old life into a new life.”

The kitchen is infested with moths – “like something out of a Garcia Marquez novel” – and these too become linked to her attempt to move on:

“I battled with the moths and various griefs and the past, all of which returned every day to torment me…”

The story of Levy’s life is also the story of her writing – the cost of living entails earning a living. In her small flat she has nowhere to write, but luckily a friend allows her to work in her shed (A Shed of One’s Own, perhaps). This is just as lacking in luxury as it sounds:

“The day I moved into the shed, it was snowing. The freezer wheezed its cold vapours. There were spiderwebs on the roof, dust on everything, leaves and mud on the floor. How was I to make a viable space to write in winter?”

Other writers populate Levy’s thoughts frequently – Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras in particular – but also vitally: she converses with them rather than simply quoting. Unsurprisingly she reflects on her new life in relation to her gender:

“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end… It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?”

It is a theme she returns to again at the end:

“When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse. These are the jewels reserved for her in patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking. There are plenty of tears but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.”

The bravery and determination needed to venture into the unknown in search of a freer life (a “vague destination, no one knows what it looks like when we get there”) is likened to her writing: writing a novel, she says, is “like a long-haul flight, final destination unknown.” This memoir, too, feels like an exploration; amid the daily turmoil (Levy also has to cope with her mother’s death in the year or so the book covers) Levy continues to probe and question, which is perhaps what makes her work so quotable. The Cost of Living is worth every penny.

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6 Responses to “The Cost of Living”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    She’s an interesting writer for sure. I really liked her novel ‘Swimming Home’ and the short story collection ‘Black Vodka’, both of which I think you’ve read.

    Even though the subject matter is somewhat different, Levy’s style or approach here reminds me a little of Joan Didion’s in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking – a sense of using the memoir as a way of exploring her own responses to a significant life event, constantly probing and questioning as a means of trying to understand.

    • 1streading Says:

      That encourages me even more to read Didion. I’ve read quite a lot of Levy’s work – I’d recommend Hot Milk as well. She’s also well worth seeing if you get the chance.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve not read any Levy (though I think I might have one of her books somewhere). But you make a very good case for reading this first! 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Well, it depends on your preferred genre – this is an excellent memoir (though it is the second volume) but I would also recommend her novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk.

  3. Melissa Beck Says:

    I just preordered this. It will be out in July in the US. I liked Black Vodka a lot so this should be quite interesting!

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