Deborah Levy has been publishing intellectually exacting poems, plays and novels since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until recently, almost twenty years after her first play was performed, that her work was brought to the wide attention it merits and her name was placed at last on the A-list of the what’s left of the literary avant-garde.
That this did not occur until her novel, Swimming Home, had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and says a great deal about how reliant even alternative literary culture has become to the whims of judging panels all too often made up of people you wouldn’t trust to identify a good bookshop let alone a good book.
Since the acclaim of Swimming Home, Levy has published Black Vodka, a selection of her short stories dating back as far as 2001, and now Things I Don’t Want to Know, an autobiographical essay in which she examines, amongst other things, her childhood spent in apartheid South Africa, her first years in England, the realisation that she wanted to be a writer, and what it meant (and means) to be a woman through all this. (‘Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ago that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.’)
Levy’s fictions are narratives of silence: it is only in the attention paid to certain objects that the work’s psychological or political undertones find expression. But while objects are still made to do some of the work here, this is an essay of overtones. Scrutinising issues of gender, race and class, Things I Don’t Want To Know is a sumptuous exposition of ‘the lies concealed in the language of politics’.
Do the quickly consecutive publications of Black Vodka and Things I Don’t Want To Know constitute a conscious attempt to contextualize yourself following the success of Swimming Home?
My new novel will be my next big book but I have a lot of work written over the years I was raising my children – some of it is now seeing the light of day.
In 2004 you said that ‘what I don’t want to happen to me is that thing that happens to so many women – it’s as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book.’
Yes, I was thinking about a critic who reviewed one of my plays with absolutely no reference to the other four plays I had written, including one for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This play was reviewed as if it was somehow my first work. A theatre critic who did that to Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard would be out of a job.
In the first chapter you speak of ‘the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy’. Why the prefix ‘neo’? What has changed about Patriarchy?
Thing I Don’t Want To Know is the title of my essay and it is a response to Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write. Orwell identified four headings to sum up his drive to hammer the typewriter. One of them is Political Purpose. So I use this heading to give contemporary feminism a bit of airing. I explore the idea that in the 21st Century there is a new set of patriarchal inflections that require Strong Modern Women to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled. That’s quite a call. Best not to answer the phone.
At one point, you quote the critic Julia Kristeva on the subject of motherhood. How important is critical theory to you?
These days I don’t much like it when critical theory strolls into fiction with a smart-ass expression on its face.
Things I Don’t Want to Know is full up with eyes and eyeballs. Jean-Paul Sartre even becomes ‘Jean-Paul Stare’. Does the writer’s job consist in seeing alone, in bearing witness?
You are referring to a racist male character who has a glass eye. The point of that glass eye is that it is an unseeing eye. It is blind to apartheid and to the suffering of others. As for Jean-Paul Sartre being mistaken for Jean Paul Stare, that’s just the author playing around – but it would be true to say that Sartre did give the world a long hard stare – which is what writers tend to do.
The writing in Black Vodka pays extremely close attention to body parts, to physicality, and physical deformity in particular, which I took to reflect upon the your character’s varying levels of mental ill-health. In Things I Don’t Want to Know, however, you confuse a poster titled ‘The Skeletal System’ with ‘The Societal System’. Does the attention you pay to body parts actually speak more of politics than of psychology?
Writers have to embody characters. So yes, I do pay close attention to the politics of the body. There are always signs of defeat and defiance in the human body – the way the muscles are set in our faces, the history of the slump in our shoulders or the alignment of our spine. A soldier will embody different kinds of values from a rock star. In Orwell’s essay ‘Shooting An Elephant’, which is about his days as a police officer in Burma, he brilliantly observes that the imperialist wears a mask and the face beneath it grows to fit the mask. Black Vodka is paying close attention to all sorts of things – particularly the shifting identities that make up contemporary Europe and the ways in which love changes us.
More broadly, to what extent does biographical work such as this constitute a ‘key’ to reading your often elusive fiction?
I have read a few biographies of Virginia Woolf, but I don’t feel I know her much better at all. In fact I feel closest to Woolf when I read her incredible fiction. I reckon the key you speak of is always embedded in the authors’ own language, it is there we most keenly feel his or her presence. It is hard not to notice that two of my favourite writers, Muriel Spark and Oscar Wilde, have a rather malicious wit, or that Beckett steered his plays in a way that let the audience fill in the missing words from his masterpiece, Krapp’s Last Tape – “clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…” My autobiographical essay is not necessarily less elusive than any poem or short story I might write.
Your sentences often seem to will themselves lost, so that, by not knowing where to go, they are forced to resolve themselves in unusual, unexpected, interesting ways. At one point in the essay, you write: ‘I was lost because I had missed the turning to the hotel, but I think I wanted to get lost to see what happened next.’ Could this line as easily apply to your own writing process? Or is the waywardness I sense in your work something you have mapped out all along?
Well, I wouldn’t be wanting my sentences to resolve themselves in dull, predictable ways, so thank you for the compliment. On the whole my books, and certainly this essay, are meticulously planned. At the same time writing and reading aren’t about always knowing where we are going or declaring our certainties – it is about airing our doubts because it is our doubts that are the route to getting into the whole mystery of life.