Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang tr. Chi-Young Kim

This book is proof that it is not just reviews and the recommendations of friends that help us choose which book to read next, that an excellent cover and title coupled with an alluring blurb can suffice to motivate that impulse.

The HenThe cover made me pause and the promise of an inspiring fable in a short piece of internationally acclaimed translated fiction sounded enticing enough, but the discovery that the author Sun-mi Hwang had herself overcome the obstacle of childhood poverty and found a way to educate herself to achieve her dream to read and write sealed it.

Like Margarita Engle’s novel in verse The Wild Book and Tove Jansson’s Summer and Winter Book’s, sometimes a mood enhancing book is just what we need to bring ourselves back to life’s simple values for encouragement and reassurance.

The story revolves around ‘Sprout’, a battery hen frustrated with her caged life laying eggs in a sloping wire cage which causes her eggs to roll away, enabling the farmer to conveniently collect them to sell. She hatches a plan to escape, seeking a life outside the barn where others animals appear to roam free and where she feels it most likely to be able to achieve her dream of nurturing an egg to life.

Along the way we meet the old dog that guards the barn, the rooster who crows in the morning, the yard hen, a community of ducks and the lone hungry weasel.

“Whenever she saw the yard hen, Sprout couldn’t stand it – she felt even more confined in her wire cage. She too wanted to dig through the pile of compost with the rooster, walk side by side with him, and sit on her eggs.”

010113_1257_AMonthinthe2.jpgSprout escapes the coop and directs all her energy into survival. She learns who her friends are and who to be wary of.

She discovers the perceptions that govern the role each animal is set to play.

“Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m a gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.”

No fairy tale, this is fable at its best, confronting the reality of stepping outside the role society has dictated (even if nature has not divined) and showing that while achieving the goal can be possible, it is a route fraught with challenges. Reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm or Adams Watership DownSun-mi Hwang brings us her perception of society through characters that we recognise with our own interpretation and reminds us that even the most far-fetched dreams are worth pursuing, no matter what the odds.

We read with trepidation and a strong desire, not so much for Sprout to succeed in her quest, but to survive. It is a delightful and touching story, deserving of its success.

Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.