Review: Things I Don’t Want To Know by Deborah Levy

Sometimes a writer perfectly summarises their own work. A woman must be canny to be writer, Deborah Levy writes in this first of what is so far three “living autobiographies”. Even better, “it would be best if she was was uncanny when she sets about doing this”. That uncanniness is exactly what I’ve felt reading Levy’s fiction. Her books are smart, moving, but above all strange. They come at big things obliquely. In The Man Who Saw Everything it is the uncanny feeling of being in two places and times and once, without really being in either. In Hot Milk, it is the electrifying fusion of menace, sex and motherhood on Andalusia’s sweltering, salty coast.

Things I Don’t Want To Know is a brief but full answer to the question of why Levy writes. She begins in a moment of crisis, crying on ascending escalators, and books respite in a pension in wintry Majorca. It is a particular time in her life when her children seem to be grown and love seems to be on the wane (biographical details are sketched in elliptically). “I wanted to get lost,” she writes, “to see what happened next”. There she remembers earlier, happier retreats to the island, and traces the footsteps of George Sand who came to the island with her ailing lover Fredric Chopin in the 19th century. When she dines with a man, she is drawn to think about her own childhood in apartheid South Africa, when her father was imprisoned for five years for being a member of the African National Coalition. There she contemplates what safety and freedom is available to a white girl in a place where to be black means to have neither. She is a quiet child, has problems with speaking audibly. Her father encourages her from prison to “say your thoughts out loud and not just in your head”.

It’s when she and her family move to England when she is ten that she begins to write in earnest. Her first experiments are pop-art imitations of Andy Warhol, writing “EnglAND”, “eNGLAND”, “ENgland” over and over on serviettes in the local greasy spoon while affecting a black straw hat and fluorescent green pumps. This chapter’s heading is Sheer Egoism, and it’s fun to watch Levy wrestling with her teenage artistic impulses. She becomes focused by questions:

How do people become cruel and depraved? If you torture someone, are you mad or are you normal? If a white man sets his dog on a black child and everyone says that’s okay, if the neighbours and police and judges say, ‘That’s fine by me,’ is life worth living? What about the people who don’t think it’s okay? Are there enough of them in the world?

Ego, politics, aesthetics, history – these are the hooks she hangs her purpose on. Throughout Things I Don’t Want To Know she shows how these have focused on questions of injustice, particularly to women. Thinking about Marguerite Duras, Levy considers her role as the Mother, “a delusion”. Neo-patriarchy, she writes, “required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled – we were Strong Modern Women whilst being subjected to all kinds of humiliations”. These are obviously absurd, incoherent demands. Writing, Levy suggests, is her way of “learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion”. The uncanniness of her writing can perhaps then be considered her tool, bringing these absurdities out into the light, speaking them out loud.

Gay rating: not gay.

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