Life of a writer: the reality and the romance
THE COST OF LIVING
A Working Autobiography
By Deborah Levy
134 pp. Bloomsbury Publishing. $20.
Years ago, when my children were small, two successful female writers gave me similar advice. One, based in Asia, suggested relocating, as she had done. “I have to stay in Asia before my child grows up,” she said. “I can’t afford domestic help elsewhere.” The other, living in America, explained that what I needed was a full-time nanny who could travel.
I wish I’d had Deborah Levy’s “The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography” with me then, so I could have quoted from it as a reply. When the book opens, Levy is middle-aged and newly divorced, dealing with financial austerity and writing to support her two daughters. “Staring into the flames doesn’t help the word count anyway,” a bookseller friend admonishes when Levy, renting a shed as a studio, entertains the thought of living “a romantic writer’s life,” following the lead of Lord Byron and composing poetry “in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped.”
Would liberation from cooking and cleaning and sitting through long hours of children’s illnesses and chaperoning them to various activities make one a better writer? It would certainly give a writer more time, and perhaps the leisure to arrange flowers or watch a coastal sunset with a glass of wine when the children are tucked into bed, offstage.
But such leisure has little connection with a writer’s ability to create valuable work. Gazing at a fire doesn’t necessarily lead one to become another Lord Byron. In this brisk and brief book, with its perfect subtitle, Levy, a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry and essays, and a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist, revisits some of the familiar narratives of contemporary working women: the end of a marriage, with its resultant downsizing and reconfiguration to accommodate life as a single parent; the illness and death of an elderly mother; the battle against a society that doesn’t hesitate to assign a woman a supporting character role.
An astute observer of both the mundane and the inexplicable, Levy sketches memorable details in just a few strokes: feeding her dying mother an ice pop and shouting when the corner shop runs out of the right flavors; dressing up a chicken that has spilled from her grocery bag and been run over by a car in the street (“killed twice”); puzzling over the mysterious birds, possibly feral parrots, that land on her London balcony. And there’s this thought about grieving, which made me gasp: “I have seen a man cry like a woman but I’m not sure I have seen a woman cry like a man.”
What makes this book stand out, however, is that Levy doesn’t allow herself to linger over these details. There’s no stretching every moment to an unnecessarily prolonged beat. The ice pop melts. The cold winter she endures in her new apartment ends. Life is not lived with a fermata sign.
A few short chapters in, Levy quotes Proust: “Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.” Although her emotions are palpable and volatile throughout, Levy’s book is about ideas. And its references to her literary predecessors and contemporaries — Adrienne Rich, Marguerite Duras, Elena Ferrante — allow us to contemplate the larger situation in which “a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name.”
But even here Levy doesn’t linger. She’s like an expert rafter, and the river she travels is full of encounters and emotions. While another writer might give us a lengthy tour of this turbulent water, Levy doesn’t slow down. There’s joy in her maneuvering through the rapids, difficult though they may be. And there’s joy for us in watching her.