The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


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Hidden by the Surface

Gallix, Andrew, translator. “Trash, Or Tainted Culture” by Octave Debary. Hidden by the Surface: Works About Marine Debris. By Swaantje Güntzel, Herausgeber, 2017, pp. 6-11.

“. . . When Swaantje Güntzel offers us the incongruous spectacle of a cleaning lady diligently vacuuming a field (Staubsauger 2004), she is reminding us that nature produces no waste. This impurity is culture’s privilege, culture’s dirty “sin”, which is that of existence itself. The objective is to express one’s finitude and fear of loss — a loss culture wishes to lose: we seek to get rid of what we produce as it is also the source of our finitude. At the heart of this logic, waste enables us to express the passing of time and the end looming on the horizon; decay and dirt as depletions of life. This is where our contemporary eschatology, linked to environmental disasters, fits in. The more we live, producing ever more waste, the more we pollute the world (an immaculate nature?) where the danger to the environment always comes from culture. It is the border between waste and non-waste that makes our social and cultural condition possible. Waste’s exclusion from culture signals the end of a story that can no longer take place within a cultural context. It must be sacrificed (sacrum) because it is through this process of relinquishment that culture traces the boundary between what is pure and impure. Culture produces waste, which it then excludes. . . .” (original French text by Octave Debary)

Books That Would Prefer Not To

Alejandro Zambra, Not to Read, 2018

Books say no to literature. Some. Others, the majority, say yes. They obey the market or the holy spirit of governments. Or the placid idea of a generation. Or the even more placid idea of a tradition. I prefer books that say no. Sometimes, even, I prefer the books that don’t know what they are saying.

. . . [W]e write only when others haven’t written the book we want to read. That’s why we write one of our own, one that never turns out to be what we wanted it to be. We say no to literature so that literature, for its part, will say no to us. So the book will be, always, a space that we weren’t expecting: a way out, but not the way we were expecting.

‘Not knowing how to write could perhaps be exactly what saves me from literature,’ says Clarice Lispector, again. In the non-fiction chronicles of A Descoberta do Mundo [Discovery of the World], Lispector insists on the desire that her stories not be stories, that her novels not be novels, and not out of any attachment to a forced experimentalism or to the kind of commonplaces that literary workshops return to again and again, with admirable patience: Lispector does not seek to surprise or captivate the reader.

Ménage à Trois

Haven, Cynthia. “’The Genius to Glue Them Together: On René Girard and His Ideas.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 March 2018.

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel already bears Girard’s signature writing style — formal yet engaging and approachable, erudite, incisive, and masterful — it’s the book that would make his reputation. I found the book rather addictive, though Library Journal called it “a highly complex critique of the structure of the novel,” and added a warning: “As may be expected, the interpretations are highly psychological, the argument philosophical, and the intellectual footwork, dazzling; but for the reader, the going is slow, and conviction, grudging.”

For many, however, it was a revelation. “You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois,” wrote Andrew Gallix in the Guardian, describing Girard’s theory of mediated desire. “Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before.”

Hauntology Under the Volcano

La Mont III, Alfredo. “Sin maquillaje” Excelsior, 25 December 2017.

. . . Sí, y el filósofo Jacques Derrida acuñó el término hauntología en 1993 para describir la nostalgia de un futuro imposible: un posible futuro que desde entonces ha sido superado por los acontecimientos de la realidad. Una especie de ensueño “qué pasa si…”, es también un juego de palabras sobre el término filosófico ontológico o el estudio de la naturaleza del ser.

“La hauntología es probablemente la primera tendencia importante en teoría crítica que floreció en línea”, escribe Andrew Gallix, en The Guardian. “Hoy, la hauntología inspira muchos campos de investigación, desde las artes visuales a la filosofía a través de la música electrónica, la política, la ficción y la crítica literaria. En su nivel más básico, se relaciona con la popularidad de la fotografía de faux vintage, espacios abandonados y series de televisión como Life on Mars”.

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.