Deborah Levy – The Cost of Living

Deborah Levy is an English feminist writer, born in South Africa. She has had two books short listed for the Booker Prize and one longlisted. In the last seven years she has mainly concerned herself with memoir. Since she parted ways from her husband of twenty years, she seems to be trying to work out the nature of relationships between men and women and how to live a meaningful life.

Life falls apart. We try to get a grip and hold it together. And then we realize we don’t want to hold it together.

The Cost of Living, written when she was fifty and published in 2018, is a series of meditations on aspects of her life after she has left her home. Where to live, where to work, how to get around London, how to bring her shopping home. She buys an electric bike, she meets Celia, the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell and comes to arrangement with her that allows her to rent her chilly garden shed as a work-place.

It was not a posh shed. The lawnmower would have felt at home in it, but it did have four windows looking out on to the garden, a writing desk that had belonged to Adrian with a green leather top, and some formica bookshelves built across the back wall.

She had to win me over. At first, I took against her, as she cited men like Freud and Robert Graves in support of her ideas about women. She also cites Simone de Beauvoir as an inspiration

Simone de Beauvoir knew that a life without love was a waste of time.

(I have to restrain myself here from launching into a Thomas Bernhard style rant about Simone de B’s betrayal of her own ideas in making herself subservient to the worm Sartre.) At certain times I really wanted to disagree with her. But at least she is not like some other female literary memoir writers like Rachael Cusk, Sheila Heti, Jenny Offill or Olivia Lang, who to me seem excessively narcissistic (a little narcissism is a good thing in a woman, but not too much.)

Deborah Levy never does a character assassination on her former husband, she is not into blaming, just quietly questioning her own motives.

As Annie Ernaux says in A Girl’s Story

…no glossing over. I am not constructing a fictional character, but deconstructing the girl I was.

And that is what Levy is doing here. The section where she writes about her mother and their relationship is deeply moving

In old age my mother had found a swimming technique to ‘totally give herself to the water’. This involved floating on her back ’emptying her thoughts’ and ‘surrendering to the flow’. She showed me her trick in the murky swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath, floating Ophelia style with ducks and weed and leaves,

I still try to do her trick, but I can only float for ten seconds before I start to sink. Likewise, when I turn my mind to my mother’s death, I can only do so for ten seconds before I start to sink.

A moving meditation on life, mothering, writing and friendship, written in simple but poetic prose. One to read a few times.

6 thoughts on “Deborah Levy – The Cost of Living

  1. I’ve enjoyed Levy’s fiction in the past and would like to read this sequence of memoirs at some point. She’s an interesting writer to listen to. I’ve heard her being interviewed a couple of times (via podcasts and radio shows) and she comes across as very erudite and thoughtful.

  2. Interesting topic indeed, Gert!
    I do think we’ve come a long way. But the role of women has much further to go. Did Levy have any children? Sometimes I think they only let women into the work place because they could pay them less.

  3. When I started work I was paid three quarters of the male rate for the same ( boring office) work
    Levy has two children but they were about ready to leave home when she left the husband.

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