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A String of Pearls: Reflections On Deborah Levy’s The Cost Of Living
Emma Cummins , July 29th, 2018 10:06

Emma Cummins reflects on the power of writing and emotional honesty, with thoughts on Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, recently shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize

1.

“Deborah Levy makes me want to get married so I can get divorced,” I said, turning to my colleague, Joe, at the desk next to me. ‘What?’ he replied, with a short laugh. It was an odd comment and I wondered why I’d made it, as I handed him the newspaper I’d been reading.

I was on my lunch-break and I’d just read an extract from Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living. In the second instalment of her “living autobiography”, Levy is composing a new life for herself after divorcing at 50.

“I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled,” she writes. “I became physically strong at 50, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength.”

The extract was written so beautifully, so truthfully, I was almost moved to tears. But I didn’t say that to Joe. After my strange, little joke, I urged him to read the extract, and we both got back to work.


2.

In The Cost of Living, Levy shares stories from her life, including reflections on one of her writing students. The student had given her some work to read and, in Levy’s words, it was clear she thought her voice would be mocked: “Every time she wrote something she really meant, she followed it with a self-deprecating joke to undermine the truth she had struggled to untangle”.

Self-deprecation isn’t always a problem but it can mask something deeper. Levy is interested in the ways women undercut themselves, in life and on the page. How we “run from our own desires”; how we fear the power of our writing.

Levy’s student had written a story featuring two caged singing birds. “After I’d read it a few times,” writes Levy, “I questioned these singing birds – to which she was very attached.”

The story was set during monsoon season in south India, and Levy suggested she work with the rain instead of the birds. The story came to life: “Now that the birds no longer screamed over her own powerful voice, the student told me it was hard to own up to its force … she was nervous and her hands were shaking a little.”

In The Cost of Living, Levy quotes Marguerite Duras, who, after writing Lol Stein, made a curious remark: “she said that she gave herself permission to speak ‘in a sense totally alien to women’. I know what she means,” writes Levy. “It is so hard to claim our desires and so much more relaxing to mock them”.


3.

After her divorce, Levy moves to a large, crumbling apartment block on the top of a hill in North London. The building is undergoing a ‘restoration programme’ that never seems to start. There are blocked pipes and bills to pay, and Levy has to write to support her daughters.

“Now that I was no longer married to society, I was transitioning into something or someone else. What and who would that be?” she writes. “How could I describe this odd feeling of dissolving and recomposing?”

Levy’s voice has a gentle power that’s rare and wonderful to read. In this new stage of her life, she’s vulnerable but she’s also empowered. She buys an e-bike and whizzes across London. She unblocks the sinks with a Master Plunger.

Experiencing The Cost of Living for the first time – and it was an experience – I forgot I was reading. And that’s what great writing does. It immerses you, fills you like an intravenous drug. Reading becomes a form of living.


4.

The Cost of Living is the second in a projected trilogy of memoirs, starting with Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s Why I Write. In her first memoir, Levy shares memories from her childhood in South Africa, where her father was a political prisoner in the struggle for democracy.

Levy was five when her father was taken, and she was “practically mute for a year of her life”. Throughout her first memoir, she’s told to speak up by teachers, family and friends. "Girls have to speak up cuz no one listens to them anyway," says her friend Melissa.

In Things I Don’t Want to Know, Levy’s silence reflects her father’s absence, but the struggle to communicate continues into adolescence. After Levy’s father is released, following four years in prison, the family moves to England (or ‘Exile’, as she calls it) and she develops a desire to write.

In a “greasy spoon” cafe, aged 15, Levy writes “England” repeatedly onto white paper napkins. “I couldn’t work out what I was trying to say,” she writes. “I knew I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world, but I was overwhelmed by everything and didn’t know where to start.”

Levy’s first memoir speculated that “the things we don’t want to know are the things that are known to us anyway, but we do not wish to look at them too closely.” Freud described this wish to unknow as “motivated forgetting”. In The Cost of Living Levy illustrates this idea beautifully by describing the squirrels outside her writing shed. They would “suddenly turn their gaze towards me, as I sat alone in the shed,” she writes. “Although they appeared to be startled, I knew they knew I was there before they turned to look”.


5.

Levy, a twice Booker-shortlisted novelist, employs techniques from fiction when writing about her life. What’s wonderful about her memoirs is how she uses anecdotes to show bigger truths about society. She shows rather than tells, she gives us stories, holds them up like perfectly formed pearls.

The Cost of Living opens with a well-observed anecdote from a holiday in Jamaica. Levy is in a restaurant, and a young woman nearby is invited to join an older man’s table.

The man is in his late forties, with big arms and silver hair pinned into a bun. “At first he did all the talking,” writes Levy. “After a while she interrupted,” telling a story from her life that the man seemed uninterested in.

“You talk a lot don’t you?” said the man, and I smiled as I read it. Smiled and flinched with burning recognition.

Later in the conversation, the young woman says to the man she has a name for him: Big Silver. In The Cost of Living, Levy adopts this phrase to describe men who silence women. The silencing is subtle, often subconscious, such as her male colleague who only refers to his partner as “my wife”. (“Ah, I thought, as we walked past the golden trees, she does not have a name. She is a wife.”)

There’s also the tall, silver-haired man who comes to talk to Levy at a party, and asks her to pass him a canapé. “He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name.”

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk with Levy, run by Pages of Hackney in London. At the event, Levy quipped that the Big Silver anecdotes were about “mansilencing”, as opposed to the “mansplaining” described by Rebecca Solnit in Men Explain Things to Me.

During the talk, Levy mentioned that The Cost of Living was her most political book, and it does feel political. Like Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographies, like Virginia Woolf’s diaries, The Cost of Living vividly shows the politics of the everyday. Levy often refers to the "societal story" that shapes our lives, especially the lives of women. But what happens when a woman steps out of the story? What’s the cost of that?


6.

In Levy’s new apartment block, a middle-aged neighbour seems uncomfortable with her lifestyle. “You are always in such a hurry. Busy busy busy all the time,” says Jean, who wears colourful cardigans and sensible shoes.

In a brilliant passage, Levy tells us that Jean complains when she parks her e-bike in the front car park. As Levy unloads her groceries she leans on the handle bars, smiling and saying “nasty things in her sweet voice.”

One day, as Jean watches her lift six bags, the string of pearls Levy usually wears round her neck bursts and falls to the ground. “Oh dear,” says Jean. “Tuesday is not your day, is it?”


7.

Like the Big Silver, Jean felt familiar, and I found myself thinking of a former neighbour at home in Northern Ireland. We live in a low-rise apartment block in a cul-de-sac, with several buildings and a parking bay for each.

Our building has four apartments. One summer, our elderly neighbour, Desmond, took a tin of paint and split our parking bay into five spaces. It was marching season, so while the curbstones in nearby estates turned red, white and blue, ours went luminous yellow.

Desmond gave himself and his wife two parking bays (one for the builder doing work on their garden) while the other three families got one bay each. At the time, our family had two cars, so we had to park one at the top of a small slope. It was a short walk to our apartment but difficult, at times, for my Dad, who was very ill with cancer.

One day, Dad was returning from the supermarket, and had temporarily parked in one of Desmond’s bays to unload the shopping. Desmond clocked him immediately, came out to complain, and insisted Dad move the car up the hill. Desmond was fully aware of my Dad’s illness, yet insisted all the same, later putting a letter through our door explaining the rules of the parking bay.

When this particular incident happened – and it wasn’t the only time – we had family over from Canada. Together, we found it upsetting but we also saw the funny side. South Africa was in the news and we nicknamed him Desmond Too Too Petty while my uncle, an artist, drew pictures of him policing the neighbourhood with his pot of yellow paint.

We all have our Jeans and our Big Silvers, and that’s part of what makes Levy’s writing so enjoyable. We read her stories and remember our own. We see humans in all their complexity. As James Joyce wrote: “In the particular is contained the universal”.


8.

Levy’s stories of her mother moved me to tears. A few days after her mother dies, she’s in a department store and spots some owl earrings with green, glass eyes. “I was suddenly flooded with inexplicable happiness. I’ll buy these earrings for my mother.”

In tender, beautiful prose, Levy recalls how she carries the earrings to the counter. As the shop assistant took them from her hand, she said out loud: “Oh No No No No”.

“At that moment,” writes Levy, “I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words.” Oh No No No No.

Levy tells us that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the year his father died. Like all great writers, Shakespeare drew from his own experiences; he wrote with blood.


9.

In a letter to a young writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, wrote:

“You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner … This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child's passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway's first stories In Our Time went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In This Side of Paradise I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.”


10.

I recently attended a summer school with the Stinging Fly, a literary magazine based in Dublin. It was a five-day fiction workshop, taught by Thomas Morris, award-winning author of We Don’t Know What We’re Doing.

Tom talked a lot about getting there. “There’s something there,” he wrote in the margins of my manuscript. “Let us in.”

Tom was referring to emotional honesty. It’s not an easy thing to do but it’s the bedrock of good writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Think of the best books you’ve read in recent months. Think of why you liked them.

In the workshop, 10 of us gave feedback on each other’s fiction. I submitted two novel extracts and on the whole, people liked the same parts of my writing: sections on love and loss, grief and longing. The sections they liked least were mostly the same: the times I was trying to be clever, trying to be funny. Trying too hard full stop.

One of the students, Chetna Maroo – an exceptionally talented story writer – said something along these lines: “I feel like you’re writing parts with your head and parts with your heart.” When the group discussed the parts of my novel they liked, I noticed I was clicking my pen nervously. My feet, Irish dancing under the table.

It’s hard to write from the heart.

This is the experience of all writers.


11.

I read Levy’s first memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, when it came out in 2014. I recently re-read it and found these words underlined:

“To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all”.

The “just” was underlined twice.


12.

I don’t want to know that my Dad died. Sometimes I’d like to forget that.


13.

Levy’s story of the owl earrings made me cry not just because of her mother but because it was in a department store. My Dad worked in a Belfast department store, selling clothes then becoming a buyer. When my identical twin sister and I were young, he used to love taking us into work, showing us off to colleagues. The department store later closed down, and we’d often bump into Dad’s former colleagues working in other shops or walking in Belfast.

We often spent Saturdays in town, the three of us. We just wandered around, browsed the shops and chatted to people. Dad would treat us to doughnuts in Castlecourt shopping centre then we’d get the bus home to Hillsborough.

One day, not long after Dad died, Beth and I were in Belfast. I think we were clothes shopping, I can’t remember, but on the way back to the bus station, something happened. We were on a traffic island outside Belfast City Hall, shopping bags rustling in our hands. Everything slowed. The steely Northern Irish sky turned to cement.

In that moment, at the lights, I had a powerful sense of slippage – like déjà vu but different. I was observing the world, like a visitor in an art gallery. Time stood still and my vision blurred. Belfast, a watercolour painting flooded with memories.

In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis described grief as an “invisible blanket”. It’s our bodies trying to protect us. But I didn’t know that then, as the sky slowed, as the green man turned to red. My heart was thudding, pounding in my chest, and the tears came so quickly I couldn’t stop them. I turned to Beth and saw her eyes were glistening, pearling in the late afternoon light.

I knew, in that moment, we were thinking the same thing. This wasn’t twin telepathy. This was shared grief, and it hit us suddenly – as grief does – in the most mundane of moments. We hadn’t realised it was our first time in Belfast since Dad died. And as we stood there, the two of us, we didn’t need to say anything. We were thinking how much he lived in Belfast’s streets. How he lived inside us. How much he was still there.


14.

“It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance,” writes Levy in The Cost of Living. This line gives me great comfort.

At the workshop, Tom said something interesting – writing isn’t really about finding your voice but finding your writers. What he meant by this is that the writers we love give us permission to just write in our own voice. To be as true to ourselves as we possibly can.

Levy is one of my writers.


15.

At the talk in Hackney, Levy was in conversation with Dr Hannah Dawson, a historian of ideas. The evening started with Dawson checking the microphones, asking for them to be turned up.

The venue didn’t have a stage or tiered seating, and shortly into the talk, Levy stood up, saying she felt rude sitting down where no one could see her. It made for a wonderful evening, as Levy – string of pearls round her neck – addressed the audience while reading and discussing her writing.

That night, Levy and Dawson’s choices had symbolic power. By insisting they were seen and heard, they embodied one of the things Levy shows in her books: the importance of women speaking up in a world that tries to silence them.

In Levy and Dawson’s presence, I was reminded of a quote from Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature: “Women must help each other, first of all, by believing in themselves. Then they will believe in and help one another”.


16.

“To speak of our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take,” writes Levy in The Cost of Living.

Often, it’s fear that stops us speaking from the heart. But we must remember – as human beings, as women – that our voices are important. That we should be seen and heard.

By writing and speaking truthfully, we live a little more freely, and give permission to others to do the same. Our hands may shake as we do it, but as Audre Lorde said: “One thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”


17.

It’s a few months now since I read the extract from The Cost of Living, and I’ve thought a lot about my desires. I agree with Levy that it’s easier to mock our desires than claim them. It’s hard to write from the heart. But to write things down, to speak up, is a choice I’ve made for myself. No one is forcing me to do it, and no one will do it for me.

Writing is a struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle. It’s empowering and important. My writers give me permission. They show me words have value; how powerful it is when we just write in our own voice.

So I take it back: Levy doesn’t make me want to get married or divorced, buy a string of pearls or swap my road-bike for an e-bike. Deborah Levy makes me want to be myself, and for that I’m immensely grateful.


The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy is published by Penguin

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