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Posted on 20 Jan 2023 in Flashback Friday, Non-Fiction |

DEBORAH LEVY The Cost of Living. Reviewed by Anna Verney

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In this month’s Flashback Friday, Anna Verney assesses Deborah Levy’s 2018 memoir The Cost of Living.

As readers of South African-born British writer Deborah Levy’s literary fiction will know, it always has an unsettlingly allusive quality. While grounded in precisely wrought images, her work doesn’t directly address or answer the themes that ripple beneath the surface. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading her novels is in their aftermath. In their elision, they get under the reader’s skin.

The books in Levy’s three-volume ‘living memoir’ project – Things I Don’t Want To Know (2013), The Cost of Living (2018) and Real Estate (2021) – are very different in style. While there are also no easy answers in The Cost of Living, arguably the strongest of the three, Levy addresses the reader directly and makes her ambitious purpose explicit, positioning herself as an heir to Simone de Beauvoir and taking up de Beauvoir’s political questions: what is it to be a woman and to be free?

The context in which Levy grapples with these issues is different to de Beauvoir’s not only in time but situation. As Levy tells us, she is not Simone: she ‘got off the train at a different stop (marriage) and stepped on to a different platform (children)’. Levy’s separation from her husband is the frame for her examination of female freedom in the twenty-first century. Beginning as her marriage ends, the book closes as she comes to some reconciliation with the new configuration of her life. Its majority is concerned with the liminal space. We follow Levy, mainly through London, as she packs up her marital home and establishes a new one with her teenage daughters. She finds a shed of her own in which to write; starts new routines, projects, and friendships. She has meaningful, eccentric and ordinary encounters. We are also with her as she attends to her dying mother.

This process of reconfiguration provides a linear structure for Levy to examine her questions through conversational vignettes and erudite literary and philosophical discursions among more earthy scenes. The book reads as a long-form essay. In its concerns with the collapse of a marriage, raising children and writing, it bears comparison with Rachel Cusk’s work. Both Levy and Cusk are of the generation of Western middle-class women born in the 1950s and the decades immediately following. Some of the criticisms levelled at Cusk for writing myopically from that position of privilege might also be applied to Levy. (Levy was also rightly criticised after the recent republication of a racist short story written in her 20s, for which she has apologised.)

While recognising the limitations that her perspective and the vehicle of the memoir place upon Levy’s ability to grapple with her bigger than personal questions, to me her memoir was compelling reading that gave me much to reflect upon.

According to Levy in The Cost of Living, women of her generation went into marriage with a greater hope of equal partnership in the institution than those before. Unlike canonical Western female writers before them, they do not examine marriage as something to be pursued and endured for economic and social survival, albeit with its uses in social comedy (as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Nor do they see marital separation as a revolutionary act in itself (as with pre-sexual revolution writing from the twentieth century). After all, divorce is common now in most Western countries. Rather, Levy examines the failure of her marriage through the nature of the institution itself and its discontents for twenty-first century womanhood. How, she asks, in a world that remains disappointingly patriarchal, can we hope for a marriage in which both participants can be major characters? Femininity ‘as written by men and performed by women’ is the ‘exhausted phantom’ still haunting our times.

There is a motif in The Cost of Living of men of a certain age who Levy dubs ‘Big Silvers’. Big Silvers refer to women as wives and girlfriends ‘of’ rather than by their own names. It doesn’t occur to them that women might consider themselves to be something other than a minor character performing a role. In this social context, Levy asks how we can hope for marriage to be a vehicle for ‘enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are’. In her marriage in her own time – that is, ours – she has not alighted on an appealing answer. For now, she finds it better to create a freer life outside of marriage. To this, she posits, writing is integral. To ‘speak our life as we feel it is a freedom’ and her act of writing this memoir is a bid for freedom of sorts: the ability to write oneself into being as the major character.

Beyond this political understanding, Levy is a ‘writer’s writer’. Hers is a writer’s life and in the everydayness of her memoir she treats us to observations on her craft: how she understands it and the processes and mysteries of production. In this way, The Cost of Living contributes to the genre of writers on writing in the tradition of George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write, which the first volume of Levy’s memoirs responded to. For many, Levy’s depiction will be refreshing. Her writing is shown in context rather than ascetic isolation. There are children to be raised, friends to spend time with and dinners to be cooked. The real question of how this might be managed and fruitful is, for once, not avoided.

But Levy is a considered practitioner. She tells us for instance that, ‘To unfold any number of ideas through all the dimensions of time is the great adventure of the writing life.’ The book is full of elliptical depictions of how a writer goes about this. In a depiction fellow practitioners will recognise and enjoy, Levy shows the workings of her mind as it passes over then alights on what Joan Didion would call images that ‘shimmer around the edges’, those that develop to become a writer’s work.

The flights of thought that Levy takes us on serve her enduring themes: gender roles, societal expectations and freedom. They are often borne of the mundane and pursued to the political. In this disjunction, they are very funny portraits of the creative process, disabusing any glamorous notions of it. At one moment, as Levy mends blocked pipes under the bathroom basin of her post-divorce flat, brandishing a Master Plunger, she has a revelation. Clad in a feminine black silk nightgown and utilitarian blue postman’s jacket, she is freed from her marriage to her societal role as a wife and thinks she is transitioning to something else: ‘I was the man. I was the woman. Perhaps I was the shaman? That was a dimension I wished to explore further.’

A memoir exploring the aftermath of a marriage’s collapse – and indeed life writing – would be untruthful if it did not reflect the pain of experience. The title is The Cost of Living, after all. But as a writer whose power lies in restraint, Levy does not dwell on her suffering, although she allows us to feel it. On the impact of the death of her mother, Levy quotes Hamlet, ‘Words, words, words.’ She says, ‘I think he is trying to say that he is inconsolable.’ It is allowing for pain, she intimates, that allows her to write, otherwise there is ‘nothing to work with’.

Yet to point only to the emotional catastrophe underlying Levy’s memoir would do it a disservice. She is good company, a natural raconteur (‘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.’). She is also self-deprecating, poking fun at her erudite high-mindedness, which is much in evidence. At one point, for example, she drolly describes a pantry-moth infestation in her new flat as like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In The Cost of Living Levy addresses her concerns with female freedom as political. While her work is contemporary, it is also backward and forward looking. As she builds on the work of de Beauvoir, perhaps a feminist writer of a future generation will build on hers. Levy writes in Chapter One of a 19-year-old woman, a fellow traveller in a Colombian seaside bar whom she says may be the right reader for her story. To her, Levy issues an implicit challenge and warning:

It is the patriarchal story that has been broken. All the same, most children who grow up in that story will struggle, along with everyone else, to compose another one.

Deborah Levy The Cost of Living Hamish Hamilton 2018 PB 208pp $24.99

Anna Verney is a lawyer and writer based on Gadigal land, completing a Masters of Creative Writing at The University of Sydney as a Janet O’Connor Scholar. She has written for The Guardian, Island and The Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her on Twitter at @akverney. 

You can buy The Cost of Living from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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