Deborah Levy draws her epigraph for The Cost of Living from Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities: ‘You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.’ Practicalities (1987) is a series of interviews Duras gave to a young friend with all the questions left out and the interview format effaced. Levy’s book is, similarly, one side of an intense conversation about life, love, power, home-making and writing. Her interlocutors, many of them dead but still living through their words and work, include Simone de Beauvoir, Louise Bourgeois, Emily Dickinson, Barbara Hepworth and Elena Ferrante.
Levy is a playwright and novelist whose Swimming Home (2012) and Hot Milk (2016) were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Cost of Living is subtitled ‘A Living Autobiography’ and follows Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s 1946 Essay ‘Why I Write’ (2013). The book covers a turbulent time in Levy’s life when she got divorced and her mother died in the same year.
Levy depicts her divorce as a shipwreck after decades of marriage:
If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.
She takes full responsibility for the consequences: ‘To unmake a family home is like breaking a clock.’ But sometimes there is no choice. Levy uses the fact that a fox can hear a clock ticking from 40 yards away to construct a powerful image of marital entrapment:
There was a clock on the kitchen wall of our family home, less than 40 yards from the garden. The foxes must have heard it ticking for over a decade. It was now all packed up, lying face down in a box.
And Levy, like the foxes, becomes feral.
She buys a new clock for her rented flat, one that marks each passing hour with a different type of birdsong. She rents a shed to write in from her friend the actress Celia Hewitt, widow of Adrian Mitchell, who used to write in the same shed. Here she begins to experiment with the first person: ‘For some reason, the letter I on the screen was blinking and jumping and trembling. That’s how I felt too.’
Visiting her mother as she is dying in hospital, Levy turns to Duras’s Practicalities again: ‘Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.’ She remembers her mother asking her younger self on bad days: ‘Who do you think you are?’ As a 15-year-old in the 1970s, she had no idea how to answer that question. But in her fifties, reading in the dark by her mother’s hospital bedside, she is able to construct beautiful elegiac answers, all overlapping, none of them definitive.
Levy lies awake at night, waiting for a call from the hospital, listening to her bird clock. She thinks about her mother’s wish for her body to be carried to the peak of a mountain after death and devoured by birds. On the balcony of her crumbling apartment block she is visited by parrots from one of the colonies living wild in London. ‘This year has been full of birds, ‘she reflects.
A few months after her mother’s death, at a reading in Germany for Things I Don’t Want to Know, Levy suddenly stumbles when she reaches a description of herself aged seven in her mother’s arms: ‘It was a shock I had not anticipated, a ghostly encounter.’ The power of words to bestow life after death, and the importance of choosing what is living over what is dead, are at the heart of Levy’s exquisite prose.