Archive for the ‘Deborah Levy’ Category

The Cost of Living

May 23, 2018

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.

Hot Milk

September 30, 2016


In her latest novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy once again (as in Swimming Home – a villa in Nice – and The Unloved – a French chateau) takes us on holiday. In Levy’s hands, however, these sun-bleached beaches, glittering pools and glaringly white buildings become other-worldly, as altered in her handling as Ballard’s suburban Britain. (Though, to be fair, Ballard himself wasn’t averse to getting out the passport in his later novels like Cocaine Nights). This time we are in Almeria, mingling with tourists, but on a different mission. Sofia and her mother, Rose, have come not to holiday but to heal at the hands of Dr Gomez, a last resort made possible by re-mortgaging their home. Rose is unable to walk, a mystery that no medical professional in the UK has been able to solve, and Sofia’s life has been placed on hold as she cares for her:

“The dream is over for me…. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph. D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind the shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.”

As her future fades, Sofia becomes less and less certain who she is in her present. This is highlighted when she is stung by a jelly fish and must write down her name, age, country of origin, and occupation: when it comes to the latter she doesn’t know what to write. Even her nationality is in doubt, with a Greek surname from a father she hasn’t seen in years pointing towards a language she doesn’t speak. She puzzles Dr Gomez by referring to her mother as ‘Rose’. As he says, “identity is always difficult to guarantee.”

Rose’s identity is her illness; as Sofia says, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember.” Her father leaves because he, too, has adopted a new identity:

“My father suffered a religious conversion but as far as I know he has not got over it.”

In both cases, these identities allow her parents to undermine Sofia’s sense of self: her father simply ceases to see her, as if she were no longer his daughter; her mother reduces her to the role of carer, even complaining about her to Gomez:

“Sofia is lazy when it comes to putting a glass of water by my bed at night.”

At times Sofia finds it difficult to separate herself from Rose. Shaking Gomez’s hand on behalf of her mother she thinks, “Her arm is my arm.” Later on the beach:

“Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother.”

From the moment we meet Gomez we sense that he is suspicious of Rose’s illness:

“His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable.”

He encourages her to reduce her medication, and the treatment becomes a battle of wills as Rose refuses to admit her health, even suggesting she might have her feet amputated. However, Gomez gives Sofia courage, as does her holiday romance with Ingrid, a woman, she admits, who is “not a safe person to love.” Just as Sofia struggles to see herself, so too she finds it hard to visualise Ingrid or the relationship clearly. She first meets Ingrid when she thinks she is a man in the Ladies’ toilets. Later, Ingrid gives her a blouse with a word stitched into it, but it is a different word to the one Sofia reads there.

The novel is the story of Sofia’s attempt to free herself, just as she wants to free the dog of owner of the diving-school, Pablo. But, as Ingrid points out, freedom is never straight-forward:

“There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies.”

Hot Milk (is the title a reference to maternal comforts?) is a novel about freeing yourself from family, not only those who cling to you, but also those who reject you. In pushing Rose to find the first step she needs to save her life, Sofia hopes to save her own. It’s another sharp, insightful novel by Levy, who writes realism (like Ballard) by jarring the probable against the possible. Its recent appearance on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist (as well as the Man Booker) is no surprise.

Billy and Girl

September 8, 2013

billy and girl

& Other Stories has received much (deserved) praise for its publication of literature in translation, but it should not be forgotten that two of its most successful novels were originally written in English. I have already covered the story behind the eventual publication of Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods; another writer whom & Other Stories have returned to the forefront of discerning reader’s minds is Deborah Levy. Her short-listing for the Booker Prize with Swimming Home has been followed by the appearance of a volume of short stories (Black Vodka) and an essay (Things I Don’t Want to Know). Yet, until Swimming Home appeared in 2011, Levy had not published a novel in the UK since Billy and Girl in 1996.

Billy and Girl is about little more than Billy and Girl, two teenagers trapped in their own narrow world. Is their mother dead? Is their father dead? Even their identity as orphans is questionable. Every so often Girl performs a “mom check”, picking a middle-aged woman at random to tell her, “Billy is quite well but not all that well, thank you, and I am as you see me.”

“I know it’s crazy but sometimes I think one day Girl will really find her. Mom will come to the door and Girl will know… We think Dad died horribly. But we’re not completely sure. He might have survived the fire.”

They fantasise about escape to America and attempt to fund this by robbing the Basket Only till at FreezerWorld with the help of Girl’s ‘double’ Louise. (Louise, who shares Girl’s real name, is a kind of alternate version of her, stuck in a dead end job with a no-account boyfriend, yet somehow happier). Unfortunately the £600 they steal is not the life-changing amount they hoped for and, as Billy points out, they would feel just as out of place on the other side of the Atlantic:

“Poor Girl. I mean, can you see her scrawny, white-bread English thighs lazing with the Californian beach girls.”

The robbery does, however, lead to a chain of events that will unravel much of the mystery around their parents’ fate.

Despite its subject matter, do not approach Billy and Girl expecting a slice of grim realism. Levy hovers above her characters with a kind of detached cruelty. Billy’s friend, Raj, talks of the “Stupid Club”, a group of locals who use his shop to debate the issues of the day:

“They stand in a huddle by the fridge pretending to buy a packet of sugar, discussing why it is that some people wash dishes and then don’t think to rinse them.”

Levy’s view of her own characters, at times, is not so far removed. The novel is also not without elements of the surreal: the taxi cabs which fall apart; the God-like voice of FreezerWorld; Billy’s vision of himself as an actor in America – a sex scene in a shower where he refuses to remove his anorak. In all this she is a little like Muriel Spark, though Spark rarely turned her caustic vision on the poor. Whether this is to your taste or not will probably decide your reaction to the novel, but Levy is certainly a writer who deserves some notice. She has spoken before about the fate of novelists whose work falls out of print:

“Yes, being out of print is like a voice that has kind of been snuffed out. When I have finished my next novel and it makes its way into the world, so I hope will the backlist. What I don’t want to happen to me is that thing that happens to so many Women — it’s as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book. Better to have body of work than a body covered in chocolate and cream… it lasts longer.”

Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography (as Early Levy) and The Unloved are due to be republished next year.

Swimming Home

August 2, 2012

It’s a joy to find Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home on the Man Booker longlist, not because I had marked it down as one of the books of the year (I hadn’t read it before the list was announced, though had got as far as owning it), but because Levy seems to be a genuinely interesting writer who has been working below the radar (okay, my radar) for a number of years now (first novel: 1986)who has teamed up with an exciting new publisher to produce something that deserves the wider attention. To put it another way, she’s neither an established name who doesn’t need the publicity or a one hit wonder landed lucky with their first novel.

But this isn’t about Man Booker, it’s about Swimming Home. In many ways, it’s a typically English novel about some nice middle class people who go on holiday (and it goes a bit wrong). There’s a poet (Joe Jacobs) married to a war journalist (Isabel) with their neglected teenage daughter (Nina), sharing a villa with a couple they don’t even like (Mitchell and Laura) with money worries. A retired doctor (Madeleine Sheridan) watches from a nearby balcony. Luckily the back cover (and Tom McCarthy’s introduction) tells us this is subversive (meaning you won’t sympathise with any of the characters) and Levy throws a damaged young woman into the mix, Kitty Finch – even her name suggests she is at war with herself. Finch is there as a result of an obsession (connection she would probably say – she feels his poems are ‘conversations’ with her) with Joe and quickly presents him with a poem of her own she wants him to read. Her entrance is dramatic – her naked body floating in the pool when the holiday-makers arrive – a scene that will be echoed in the novel’s conclusion. Her nudity is used throughout to unsettle.

It seems Isabel allows Kitty to stay in the hope Joe will sleep with her and give her the final excuse she needs to leave him. Her effect, however, is even more profound – she also shares with Joe a history of depression (which he has written about in his poetry) and has recently stopped her medication:

“…his teenaged years had been tranquilised into a one-season pharmaceutical mist. Or as he had suggested in his most famous poem, now translated into twenty-three languages: a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.’”

As well as asserting the novel’s subversive tag, the blurb also claims it provides ‘a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people.’ If by ‘merciless’ it means that all the characters are there to be laughed at, then that is certainly true and for those who like their humour cruel (sorry, dark) there is plenty to be had here. The characters, however, veer too much towards satire to reveal much about the nature of depression. If not satirical, Joe’s history (parents killed in the Holocaust) seems a lazy reason to explain his unhappiness; similarly the influence of numerous war zones on Isabel seems phoned in from other novels. Conversely, Kitty’s background in botany seems to be an attempt to add a veneer of character onto her madness. Her effect on Joe is largely ‘explained’ through gaps in the narrative.

Having said that, the novel is skilfully written, with Levy slipping from character to character and unsettling the reader the way the characters feel unsettled (‘FFF,’ as Joe would say). It is also tightly structured and reads lightly like a comedy of manners, keeping its darker side largely hidden until the reader looks back – the very thing the novel warns against.