There is a quality of absorption that springs from Deborah Levy’s three living autobiographies. The writing is both sharp and gentle – perhaps it is the iron fist in the silk glove (silk being important for Levy in this the third of her non-fiction trilogy) – that eases you into her world, in which she travels and lives in different places, surrounded by different objects, walking in different shoes that sometimes have the wrong soles, and then hits you with a truth about what it means to be a woman and a writer in our world that sends you reeling. I feel as if I’m offered a new state to live in, a new way of attending to the events, the things, the conversations with friends and strangers, the overheard. I’m gifted some of Levy’s powers of attentive thought.
I like that she calls this trilogy of non-fiction about being a female writer, living autobiography because I do feel that I live the events, thoughts and ideas that she writes about. She generously invites me in through the door of her unreal estate, the house of her mind; she lets me put on her shoes; she asks me to consider her and then, of course, myself, in this new environment. Who built the house? Upon whose land is it built? What rights do I have to it? How can I live there? Should I leave? What can I take with me? What do I want my house to be like?
Ongoing in her desire to dismantle the patriarchal house, she says she is not interested in exploring why women need relationships with men to validate them. Instead, through discussion of her male best friend, she explores how men need women to validate them, to worship them, to allow them to remain children, to slip on new women like new pairs of trousers. She loves her best male friend, but she sees him clearly, as he messes up his relationship with his third wife by trading her in for a younger woman whose new haircut makes her look like a version of his waif-like mother.
I love the end – I shan’t spoil it.
I turned down lots of pages to return to ideas and sentences and think about them afresh. I feel like these three books of Levy’s are friends whose words I want to keep close, want to turn over in my hand. Here’s one favourite quote:
… ‘I did not have a tranquil relationship with language because I am in love with it. I asked myself, what sort of love? Language is a building site. It is always in the process of being constructed and repaired. It can fall apart and be made again.’(p291)
She also has a knack for finding the perfect quotations from others. This is one from Marguerite Duras’ Writing (1999) in which Duras eloquently explains what it is that sometimes frustrates me about certain books:
‘I think what I blame books for, in general, is that they are not free.
One can see it in the writing: they are fabricated, organized, regulated; one could say they conform. A function of the revision that the writer often wants to impose on himself. At that moment, the writer becomes his own cop. By being concerned with good form, in other words the most banal form. The clearest and most inoffensive. There are still dead generations that produce prim books. Even young people: charming books, without extension, without darkness. Without silence. In other words, without a true author.’
Deborah Levy marks herself as a true author in this sense by finding a structure for these living autobiographies that is both just so, sharp and polished, but also filled with darkness and silence. This is pleasing and something I will definitely continue to think about: how these books find a single, multifaceted form to contain the business of life and its relationships, conversations, thoughts, food, need for shelter, desire for freedom etc. I suppose it is clear that I recommend these three books – Things I Don’t Want to Know, The Cost of Living and Real Estate – very strongly. They feel like books that everyone should be able to read. Not once does Levy claim to offer all the answers, or even to ask all the questions, but she does present a way of carefully looking around ourselves, of examining ourselves and our world that combines precision with generosity. I think she’s fabulous.
I’ll be reading Practicalities by Marguerite Duras next.