Weeks 4 and 5: The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy

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It’s not too often that I have to go back and re-read a book immediately after finishing it, especially such a short book (134 pages) as Deborah Levy’s slim memoir The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography. And yet, the spareness of Levy’s prose and the depth of her writing about the end of her marriage and the death of her mother, events that unmoor Levy from the stability of her previous life, compelled me to return to page one and spend another week immersed in her language. I also wanted to figure out how she manages to convey so much in these short sentences and paragraphs, and I filled my notebook with many of the book’s passages. I wanted to stay within the spell of her writing.

This is a book about the cost of change. Levy writes, “When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable” (6). Her long marriage has come to an end, and Levy is suddenly tossed into the chaos of trying to remake everything she had taken for granted. By leaving her husband and their decades-long marriage, she has stepped out of the accepted role society imposes on women who are wives and mothers. Marriage is a boat, and she is swimming away from it: “…I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown” (6).

The first half of the book delves into the way Levy reclaims her identity as a writer and mother. “The best thing I ever did was not to swim back to the boat. But where was I to go?” (9). She grapples with loneliness and sorrow over the demise not just of her marriage, but also the dream of a perfect life. Writing is what will buoy her in this tempest. “At this uncertain time, writing was one of the few activities in which I could handle the anxiety of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going to happen next” (29).  A friend lends her the use of a backyard shed to write in, since the shabby apartment she has had to rent for herself and her daughters is too cramped and noisy. In this shed she finds her way back in through language–she writes two novels, Hot Milk and Swimming Home, both Man Booker Prize finalists (so she was working hard and well, impelled by the necessity of being her sole support), and also this memoir, and so by writing, she removes herself from inhabiting the “I” of her present circumstances. It is as if by writing what happens, she can step away from the fraughtness of experiencing it.

She buys an electric bicycle, and suddenly has the freedom to zoom all over London, up the enormous hill to her apartment building from her writing shed and to the market. were she buys groceries. The electric bike is the opposite of the foundering boat, her marriage: the motor kick-starts her forward progress and allows her to express rage when she curses at drivers who cut her off. “Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road” (41).  One rainy night, as she is biking home with food for dinner, the bag splits open and everything spills onto the pavement: tangerines, her bike charger, a flashlight, a screwdriver, lipstick, a book by Freud–and it’s Freudian, the bag splitting open and the book’s title, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious--and a chicken which gets run over by a car before she can retrieve it. There’s nothing Levy can do but stop traffic, gather up her things, bike home, and cook the flattened chicken “that had been killed twice, once in a slaughterhouse and once on a London road” (65).  She realizes that she is the only one in charge of her life, and while this seems liberating, there is also a deep sense of fear and loss that she must push away in order to continue. She makes the best of it. She invites a friend over, they drink wine, and they enjoy their dinner: “Everything else fell away, like the flesh from the run-over chicken, which my daughter and her friends and Lily and I devoured with relish” (66).

Levy must consume the wreckage of the past, like the chicken, in order to move forward, and yet the death of her mother which occurs soon after she leaves her marriage threatens to unmoor her. Her mother is her past, and everything she does to try to forestall her mother’s death, or at least to make her more comfortable in her last pain-wracked days of life, will fail. She finds that a certain flavor of popsicle (called “ice lolly” in the book, the UK language so deliciously evocative) sustains her skeletal mother with a few minutes of enjoyment, until she can’t get that flavor anymore. The loss of her mother becomes the loss of her own history–her emigration from South Africa as a child, her young marriage and the birth of her two daughters–and the end of her mother’s life brings with it not just grief but also the resoluteness she must adopt in order to live this new life. “Thank you {mother} for teaching me how to swim and how to row a boat. Thank you for the typing jobs that put food in the fridge. As for myself, I have things to do in the world and have to get on with them and be more ruthless than you were” (129).

There can be no comfort in this new order of things. Levy becomes the paradigm of a contemporary woman that builds on the past (her mother has given her the skill of being able to row her own boat–leave her marriage–and her typing job, like Levy’s own “typing” or writing, sustains two generations of daughters), but breaking down the patriarchal order of society leaves uncertainty, darkness, and risk. Yet this is what life must entail–not the same measure of safety that robs women of their empowerment, but the risk of the unknown that is nevertheless generative. And writing allows Levy to express this new “I” in “digital ink” (134), and we as readers can contemplate how the cost of this kind of living is borne always by those of us who care the most.

This is an excellent book, though difficult in its subject and often bleak when we think about the role of women in society–those of us privileged enough to have choices to make about how we live–but Levy’s writing carries the reader through, perhaps away from the stability of the boat of our lives, but towards unknowns that are rich in the discovering. You don’t necessarily have to obsess over The Cost of Living as I did, and I didn’t exactly figure out how she accomplishes what she does (though I love the spareness of her use of commas). Perhaps it would be better to have come back to re-reading it later…..

5 comments on “Weeks 4 and 5: The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy”

  1. Nadia, your review is stunning, and I feel like I am close to this book and the author by your words and descriptions.

    “…and so by writing, she removes herself from inhabiting the “I” of her present circumstances. It is as if by writing what happens, she can step away from the fraughtness of experiencing it.”

    This is so powerful, and sometimes that sense of distance from the direct experience of pain and “fraughtness” is the only way to keep walking through it.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wait…Deborah Levy just wrote two books in succession that were finalists for the Booker Prize? Her prose must be something special, indeed. One of the things recommended to learners in a MOOC on fiction-writing I took was to read, read, read, and beyond that to study the “how” of what we’ve read. Just what you’re doing. It’s a great experience to connect to a writer in a fundamental way.

    Thank you for a compelling review, Nadia. Don’t you love the subtitle “A Working Autobiography.” I’ll be looking for this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the subtitle. “Working” has so many levels of meaning here. And yes, Levy has been twice nominated for the Man Booker for the two books she wrote in that shed in the time when she had left her marriage and had to make things work (there’s that “working” again!). Not that she wasn’t a good writer before all this happened, and I don’t think she is advocating for leaving one’s marriage as the pathway to literary success. But there’s nothing like adversity to turn on the afterburners especially when one is a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Experiencing loss in my own life has also meant dealing with fear. It is a blessing to have authors who are brave enough to process their lives by putting their thoughts and feelings into words which then help their readers cope and feel less alone. In a culture that still marginalizes women in so many ways, community is essential. Sharing one’s writing is a way to build community. Nadia, your review is beautifully written and helps build our growing community of readers/writers.

    Like

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