Though I don’t always agree with the winners and shortlist selection of The Man Booker Prize, it has nevertheless introduced me to some interesting authors, whom I had never heard of before but have subsequently gone on to love.
Deborah Levy is one of them, and I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. It did not win that year, but I loved that book – it was unsettling and intense.
More importantly, I became a fan of Levy’s writing with every intention of exploring her backlist as well as her forthcoming novels.
She did not disappoint. Hot Milk, another wonderful novel (it made its way into my Best of 2016 list), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 only to miss out yet again.
So when her latest offering The Cost of Living was recently released, I knew I had to read it…
The Cost of Living is Deborah Levy’s second book of memoirs, or what can otherwise be called a ‘living autobiography.’ Levy touches upon a wide range of topics – writing, feminism, motherhood, and her marriage.
Here’s how it begins:
As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story.
After a life with her husband for more than a decade, their marriage falls apart. Levy very eloquently describes how her life completely changes when she is approaching her fifties, with the result that she now has to carve out a new beginning with her teenage daughters.
Can she manage? Is she in the right frame of mind and the right age to start afresh? Yes, she strongly affirms.
Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.
Levy’s life suddenly becomes hectic. She is a single mother now with two kids, and has to also find the space and the time to pursue her career as a writer. Not only because she enjoys doing so, but also because she has bills to pay.
When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable. My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.
Many sections are devoted to describing her new life in a new apartment and new surroundings, and as she juggles different sets of responsibilities, she still manages to find humour.
The bleak communal corridor walls of the building had been painted a speckled grey in the 1970s, which I suppose matched the grey plastic that had been laid over the mangy green carpets. These corridors were lit all day and all night, a sinister, unchanging twilight. At other times they felt amniotic and trippy, as if we were floating in grey membrane. My friends thought they looked like something out of The Shining. I started to call them The Corridors of Love.
Change is never easy, but Levy faces it head on…
The new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.
Levy had to write, she wanted to write. But her apartment is not conducive to writing. Then, a guardian angel in the form of Celia comes to her rescue. Celia offers Levy her shed giving the latter her own private space to continue her craft.
It also gives Levy the opportunity to discuss what she loves best – writing. She completes three books in the shed, one of which is Swimming Home. As mentioned earlier, it goes on to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, giving Levy the recognition that she deserves.
Levy also talks about what it is to be a woman. She discusses the role of women in history and the part they play in society – how over the years they have been expected to confirm to certain norms that are carved out for them.
It is so mysterious to want to suppress women. It is even more mysterious when women want to suppress women. I can only think we are so very powerful that we need to be suppressed all the time.
Obviously, they don’t hold much water today because women can now change the script of the story in a way that suits them and allows them to thrive and excel.
Levy also ruminates on the death of her mother, the relationship that they had, and motherhood in general. Being a mother is a complex role, as she puts it:
If we do not disclose our feelings to her, we mysteriously expect her to understand them anyway. And if she moves beyond us, comes close to being a self that is not at our service, she has transgressed from the mythic, primal task of being our protector and nurturer. Yet, if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety.
The section where she describes her mother’s last days, and how Levy ensures that her mom gets to eat her favourite ice lollies is particularly poignant.
The Cost of Living then is another incredibly lovely piece work; of rumination and reflection by Levy. It’s a memoir that is intelligent, witty and humane. As with her earlier novels, Deborah Levy’s writing is sensual, and her prose always has that extra bite and verve that makes her unique. It draws you into her spell.
Here she is quoting the author Marguerite Duras to whom ‘writing comes like the wind’…
It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.
And with this, Levy presents to us, her readers, her latest and wonderful published memoir.