In her powerful rejoinder to Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, Deborah Levy responds to his proposed motives for writing — ‘sheer egoism’, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, ‘historical impulse’ and ‘political purpose’ — with illuminating moments of autobiography.
Levy begins one spring when she was crying on escalators, ‘at war with my lot’. She flies to Majorca, where, stuck on a mountain the night she arrives, she takes comfort in ‘being literally lost when I was lost in every other way’. Reading her notebooks later, she alights on a Polish director’s advice to a young actress: ‘to speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish’. As Levy guides us along thoughtful diversions through ‘the suburb of femininity’ and motherhood, we infer that her ‘political purpose’ is for women to be able to speak up in this way.
Levy tells us about Melissa, the first person who encouraged her to speak up. Under Orwell’s heading of ‘historical impulse’, she takes us back to Johannesburg in 1964, when her father was taken away as a political prisoner, and five-year-old Levy was sent to stay with friends of her mother’s and their beautiful, defiant teenage daughter Melissa. Her father’s absence haunts Levy, as he ghosts himself into her childish relationship with a snowman and a caged budgie — poetic, naïve conflations which are painfully affective. Her father returns from prison four years later, thin and pale, looking ‘like he has been hurt in some way. Very deep inside him.’
We jump ahead to Levy striding through West Finchley as a teenager in lime green platform shoes and a ‘black straw hat with square holes punched in the brim’. She goes to a greasy spoon where she writes on paper napkins. ‘Writing made me feel wiser than I actually was,’ she states, suggesting her way of nurturing Orwell’s ‘sheer egoism’. It is also a time when she struggles with a feeling of displacement, mirrored in striking, opaque images, such as her home being full of lidless containers and having to forcibly remove bees from the washing machine drum, where they die, drunk on spilled honey.
Finally, she brings us back to Majorca to tackle ‘aesthetic experience’. She remembers how she used to eat oranges as a child, rolling one under her foot until it was soft and then sucking out the juice, which makes her think of Apollinaire’s line ‘The window opens like an orange.’ She wonders, ‘What do we do with the things we do not want to know?’
We write about them. The result is this vivid, striking account of a writer’s life, which feminises and personalises Orwell’s blunt assertions.
I, for one, am glad to know them.