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Book review: Things I Don't Want to Know, By Deborah Levy
Inspired by Orwell, another unique voice tells her tale
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Friday 12 July 2013
Whatever else it's going through, it's good news for the publishing industry that it has found the space, or guts, to give a second wind to the career of Deborah Levy. The Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home was her first novel in 15 years. Anyone who enjoyed – or was bemused by – that hallucinatory take on the Provençal Holiday Villa novel will find this extended essay a worthwhile companion piece. It is a response to Orwell's (much shorter) essay, "Why I Write", in which he states: "I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development."
That wobbly pronoun notwithstanding, this is what Things I Don't Want to Know is about. It's all about that wobbly pronoun, too. Levy takes as her chapter titles the four motives for writing that Orwell identifies – Sheer Egoism, Aesthetic Enthusiasm, Historical Impulse and Political Purpose. And for Levy political purpose – which she puts first – is tightly bound up in feminist concerns. She starts her argument with the story of a time when she felt lost in her own life, crying on tube station escalators, then gradually arms it with quotations from the likes of De Beauvoir, Duras and Julia Kristeva.
She writes of herself and the mothers she knew at the school gate as "shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn't really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about…" It's hard to read this and not think of Kitty Finch in Swimming Home, sowing chaos, and much else here illuminates – without ever fully explaining – that book.
For much of the essay, Levy does go into her early development, from apartheid South Africa, when her father, a member of the ANC, was imprisoned, to exile in 1970s London. This is certainly invigorating, but has less drama than Levy at her best. She is a writer whose anger and confusion in the face of the world transform into poetic flights of fancy of the kind that Orwell would have hated, but which always feel marvellously right.
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