20 Books of Summer 21 #4 – Living Autobiography with Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy, I think, has become my favourite woman author. She thinks deeply about things; she’s read everything that matters; can talk eloquently about anything, but has a sense of humour; and, for me, she is incapable of writing badly. Reading her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy has been a rare treat. I read the first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Hear in 2018 – the most structured of the trilogy, responding to George Orwell’s essay Why I write; I’ll be reviewing the third book, Real Estate for Shiny New Books shortly.

The middle volume of the trilogy, published in 2018, sees Levy in her early 50s, recently divorced, while writing her novel Hot Milk.

Life falls apart. We try to get a grip and hold it together. And then we realize we don’t want to hold it together.

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. It is also the ghost that will always haunt my life. I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed live that achieves all of these things, so perhaps that ideal is fated to be a phantom.

Levy is angry, and parts of this book do come across as self-indulgent, getting some of that hurt out of her system. This will resonate with some readers more than others for sure, but it is well-written self-indulgence – and having been through a similar experience at a similar age, I was on her side all the way!

It’s not all like this though. She has to move house, make a new home – a topic that becomes the main theme of her third volume. She also rents a writer’s shed in a friends garden and watches the squirrels – which leads to the quote below, which made me laugh, remembering Donald Rumsfeld who died last week:

Although they [the squirrels] appeared to be startled, I knew they knew I was there before they turned to look. This had been my theme in Things I Don’t Want to Know, in which I 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 what we know as motivated forgetting.

Levy also writes about the death of her mother and her grief, about being a mother herself, about the roles of women, and she writes about friendship. Some of the lighter passages involve friends, particularly her ‘best male friend’ who is on his third marriage, (in the final volume, he’ll be onto his fourth!).

The text is freely sprinkled with quotations and references, from Freud, Robert Graves, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras and more, but also more contemporary touchstones such as Spielberg’s film A.I. and her enduring love for Bowie’s Ziggy (something she has recently expanded to an essay for the book Long Players: Writers and the Albums that Shaped Them). She’ll also talk about mundane things in such a beautiful way, like how liberating having an e-bike is – to get her up the hill to her new home, and getting caught by another resident of her block in one of those conversations. This is living; add in the thinking and it’s this mix that so appeals to me in her writing. These living autobiographies are often intensely personal, yet at other times she holds the reader at arm’s length, protecting her from us, or us from her perhaps! I imagine she is great fun to be with as a friend. (9/10)

NB: Although the three volumes of her living autobiography do run chronologically, you could read them in any order.

Source: Own copy. Penguin paperback, 186 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

2 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer 21 #4 – Living Autobiography with Deborah Levy

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m keen to try this series. I’ve only ever read two of her novels, and loved Hot Milk. Your description reminds me a bit of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which I didn’t get on with, but I expect the style is different enough that it will work for me. (And I’d somehow completely missed news of Rumsfeld’s death while we were away on holiday, so thanks for making me aware!)

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