The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy. Penguin. €15

This memoir springs from the break-up of Deborah Levy’s marriage and the death of her mother. Things fall apart, Levy says echoing Yeats. But she doesn’t want to hold it together. She is prepared to embrace the chaos that surrounds her, to dive into the storm and enter the unknown when conventional ways have failed her: ‘the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side’. And striking out for independence she comes up with some wonderful insights about life: ‘To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom—it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.’The brief chapter of her journey to England at the age of nine from her country of birth, South Africa, is poignantly related. She admits she has ‘a lot of rage’ from her old life, and tends sometimes to pigeonhole people, especially males with preconceived notions. She criticises men who do not refer to their wives by name and yet, ironically, we never hear the name of her own husband, the father of her children. And she is strangely lacking in empathy towards her ‘best male friend’, also unnamed, who is in the throes of marital conflict, and all she can think of is how she can fit him into a ‘character’ in a film script.

But when she holds back on some of her rather bitter anti-male rants, her prose rises accordingly. She moves to live in a hut with her two daughters under an apple tree on a London hill. One night on her way home she stops to catch her breath at the gates of a local cemetery. Here she conveys wonderfully, with a sensuous feeling of place, her own condition: ‘The night smelt of moss and the wet marble of gravestones. I did not feel safe or unsafe, but somewhere in-between, liminal, passing from one life to another.’ 

As regards her two daughters, she has the ability to sum up with a few deft strokes  teenagers’ lives in a one parent family: ‘There’s lots of shouting and hormonal stormy weather all round and doors slamming regularly and many bills.’

She puts up on the wall of her hut an African shield from her childhood which looked like a full blown flower. ‘I needed a shield to defend myself. I suppose I could say that I was shielded by a flower.’ And by capturing the contradictions in her own life, she touches on the paradoxes of all human life: ‘Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?’

She quotes freely from other writers such as Proust, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir who inspired her towards a freer life, and Marguerite Duras became her muse because of the film maker’s preoccupation with repressed memory. But Levy is capable of producing gems of her own in her practical approach to the writing life: ‘Staring into flames doesn’t help the word count.’

There are humorous touches when the chicken she had bought fell off her e-bike and was run over by a car and therefore had been ‘killed twice’. And she is not afraid of being the butt of her own joke when she meets film producers with muddy leaves from the apple tree stuck in her hair.

But she is at her inquisitive best when she sits beside a woman on a train who is learning French on her laptop. Here Levy speculates on the bizarre and perhaps random nature of gender differentiation: Why is a chair feminine and hair masculine?

Published in the Irish Examiner, 11/05/2019


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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