There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:
1. 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);
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 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
NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner
Guardian Review: Kate Kellaway – Deborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable
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.