“A bracing, empathetic account of life in turmoil” – The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

dlcolIn this, the second part of Deborah Levy’s “living autobiography,” she is getting divorced and “finding another way to live.” She moves out of the family home to a small flat with her daughter. Yet, the other aspects of her life continue, her mother is terminally ill and she continues to write. Levy finds a refuge in the writing shed in the garden of Adrian Mitchell’s widow, one of the many elements of Deborah Levy’s life that could, almost, be a satiric detail in the portrayal of the life of a North London intellectual: “the destination was to head towards a freer life”. Instead The Cost of Living is a bracing, empathetic account of life in turmoil that is beginning as much as ending: “I had to decide who I was and then convince everyone at the party that was who I was.” 

Anyone familiar with Levy’s novels will recognise the same preoccupation with identity, “the odd feeling of dissolving and recomposing,” and the sentences that reward careful unpicking, the conscious and precise craft. Like Rachel Cusk, Levy is a writer who dissects, revolving around the same themes (and similar characters) from book to book, not trying to perfect the work but to get closer to a fuller understanding, cutting deeper. After all, “words can cover up everything that matters”, and as Levy admits: “What was it I was reaching for? Not for more reality, that was for sure.”

The Cost of Living could be read as a memoir of divorce, considering that as an examination of the place, and expectations, of being a woman, and a woman writer, in 2018. Though it encompasses so much more and takes a longer, wider, perspective.

In the opening pages Levy observes a young woman talking to an older man, the man talking over her: “It had not occurred to him that she might not consider her self to be the minor character and him the major character.” Levy repeatedly asks who is the ‘main character’ in your own life, while capturing how convention obstructs women from the role:

“To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”

Continuing the feminist debates of the twentieth-century brings Levy back to the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras and the memory of de Beauvoir turning down Nelson Algren’s wish for a life with her: “she knew it would cost her more than it would cost him.” To be a woman is to be a wife, or mother, and not a writer: “All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world” while Levy remembers her own mother, “we need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs.”

The Cost of Living asks: how to live an authentic life? How can you live in a manner that expresses, honestly and creatively, your best self? It’s a question that is asked on reality TV as much as in literary memoir, and it’s a good reason to read Deborah Levy (her novels as much as her memoirs).

Any Cop?: The Cost of Living is Levy’s reflection on  her life while pressing the reader to reflect on their own life. Even if Levy’s conclusions and experiences don’t get that reader closer to their own answers, it will inspire and provide questions to ask.

 

James Doyle

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