Andrew Gallix: I wonder if the discovery of your ‘own voice’ isn’t also due to the adoption of a less theatrical style. Were you more influenced, in the early days, by your playwriting? Many people who discovered you when Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker, in 2012, had no idea that you had been a successful playwright for many years: did this give you the feeling that you were starting over again as a fiction writer?
Deborah Levy: Yes, I trained as a playwright. Oddly, my two favourite plays written in the 1990s, The B File (an erotic interrogation of five female personas that has been performed all over the world) and Honey Baby: 13 Studies in Exile (performed at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne) are not theatrical at all. Read those plays (Deborah Levy: Plays 1, Methuen) and you will see I’m starting to slip into prose. I can’t begin to convey how hard it was to be a female playwright in the mid-1980s, writing in the way that I did — yes, the whole gender thing — but mostly because I wasn’t writing social realism which was very much in vogue, nor was I writing didactic feminist theatre which was also having a moment at that time. I was much more influenced by Pina Bausch and Heiner Müller than anyone else, though Pinter and Beckett were influences too. Writing for the theatre taught me to embody ideas.
I was giving a reading somewhere recently and a woman came up to me to say she had trained at drama school, and the play she had put on for her graduation show was The B File. I asked her if she remembered her lines, and do you know what, she did! She began to recite them to me, there and then, almost word perfect and with such power. That was the biggest tribute ever, because I knew they had meant something to her. The best actors are incredibly open-minded, shamanistic and playful: I loved those qualities in the rehearsal room.
The prose that is most theatrical is probably my first novel, Beautiful Mutants. Things I Don’t Want To Know is where I pulled open the theatre curtain and switched on the house lights, but obviously that’s not the same thing as saying there’s no artifice in its construction. There is a peculiar relationship between writers and readers — but then all relationships are probably a bit peculiar, aren’t they? For example, I know that Virginia Woolf trusted me when she wrote To the Lighthouse. I was never going to laugh at the seriousness of Lily Briscoe’s struggle and ambition to create a visual masterpiece. There was no nasty little voice saying to me, ooh she’s a bit above herself, isn’t she? I understood the class analysis Woolf made with the angry student Tansley waiting for his toff tutor to talk to him about his dissertation. I understood that domesticated Mrs Ramsay was Woolf’s bid to understand the rituals available to women of her generation, and to have a go at finding something good in them — despite rejecting them herself — via the avatar of Lily Briscoe. I understood that the form of the book was as radical as its content and that Woolf’s vision for her novel was complete. That is what a successful writing-reading relationship should be like. Strangely enough, I’m not the biggest fan of Oscar Wilde’s plays, although I am a big fan of his sensibility. I feel I have a writerly relationship with him, an attachment to his idea that ‘Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.’
AG: Language can take on an Adamic quality for your characters. Its purpose is to ‘record and classify’ the world, as the narrator of ‘Black Vodka’ puts it. This often leads to a quasi-Oulipian desire to exhaust reality by enumerating its component parts, as in ‘Vienna,’ for instance: ‘She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with icing sugar. She is the sound of polite applause. She is a chandelier,’ and so on until the end of that long, delightful paragraph. The world becomes a kind of litany, as in this example from Swallowing Geography:
In Washington the currency is dollars, the bread yeasted, breakfast waffles and maple syrup, coffee filtered and decaffeinated, golf is being played on slopes of green grass and yellow ribbons hung on taxis. In Baghdad, the currency is dinars, the bread unleavened, breakfast goat’s cheese, coffee flavoured with cardamom, foreheads scented.
Ebele always describes J. K. in this enumerative fashion, much to her annoyance, because ‘That’s what strangers do. When they are in an unfamiliar place they describe it.’ This sends us back to the question with which Swallowing Geography opens: ‘When you feel fear, does it have detail or is it just a force?’ Giving detail to fear is an attempt to master it, to defuse its power. Shortly after, Gregory explains why he collected stamps as a young boy: ‘It was my way of naming places and conquering the world.’ Language, here, is conquest: a means of controlling the world and endowing it with meaning. Jurgen thus views Kitty Finch’s poem as a map that will show him ‘the way to her heart’ (Swimming Home). Is this neurotic, stamp-collecting approach a masculine way of writing?
DL: I am a stamp collector too — the skill is placing one stamp against another. For myself, when the writing is going well, I love the smell of the smoke! Here are some things I dislike in various types of books written by men. I don’t like it when girls and women have no point of view or intelligence or wit or interior life or subjectivity that doesn’t always serve the desires of the male world and its arrangements.
My favourite male writer is Ballard — then Houellebecq, which probably contradicts all of the above, but all his characters are so wrecked that I forgive him. I always buy his books in hardback and now we share the same publisher in France, so wish I could read fluently in French because I could get the book for free. I also love Apollinaire and Nietzsche. I’ve just read Lou Salomé’s gentle and fascinating portrait of Nietzsche translated by Siegfried Mandel. He was in love with Lou Salomé (what a beautiful name) who wisely declined his offer of marriage and wrote a book about him instead. And I admire Burroughs, who was endearingly fragile under that stylish hat. When I’m old and grey and have nothing to do except sit in a hot water spring in Iceland entirely naked (apart from my nose jewel) I think might write about how Burroughs is often misunderstood by the heterosexual men who have been influenced by him. On the other hand I might write a murder mystery set on a cruise ship.