Deborah Levy is a writer whose proficiency across multiple literary forms marks her or as one of our great contemporary literary figures, well-known for her Booker-nominated novels, her plays and now, her memoirs. Formally innovative and emotionally daring this trilogy of memoirs, what she calls ‘a living autobiography’ explore not only her life, but also themes of writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020 and the final volume, Real Estate, was published this year.
Unfortunately I haven’t managed to read this trilogy in order. I read Real Estate earlier this year and was incredibly impressed and now seem to be working backwards, with The Cost of Living, which is the second in the series.
Where Real Estate explored themes of how and where a woman can live, The Cost of Living examines the difficulties inherent in dealing with new beginnings in middle age. The book details a time when Levy’s life was in flux. As she approached her 50th birthday, she was facing up to the breakdown of her marriage, the death of her mother, the loss of the family home and had moved into an apartment in North London with her two teenage daughters.
To strip the wallpaper off the fairytale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.
Like its predecessor, The Cost of Living is essentially about Levy’s attempts to take control of this new life and to find her own place within it. As with her novels, she is interested in ideas of identity and power struggles between the sexes and the issues facing women as they age. The breakdown of her marriage is a disappointment to her, and yet, it brings her a kind of freedom. As her daughters are starting to think of leaving home, Levy has space to finally think about herself.
Levy doesn’t write about her life in chronological order, instead she explores her inner life as it is being unravelled and remade. Her writing echoes the uneasy and unexpected juxtapositions that occur in life. She reports conversations with strangers, meals she has shared with friends and intimacies about her own thoughts and feels. She quotes from her favourite writers but the evidently free-flowing narrative belies a confident structure.
She describes the challenges faced by her mother battling illness and imagines an easier life for her two daughters. She rails against how society tries to curtail rebellious or references writers and philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin and uses their ideas as springboards to examine her own life and the lives of her female friends.
She has a poetic sensibility and focuses often on the small pleasures that make life bearable – food, a good glass of wine and beautiful objects. She doesn’t brood on the breakdown of her marriage, indeed, her husband only features in one scene in the book, rather she looks outward and onward to the choices she needs to make in order to continue to write and support her family.
Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.
What I have found most interesting about these memoirs of Levy’s are that they are not an attempt to self-aggrandise or glamourise her life. She writes robustly about the need for purpose and structure and the pleasures of intellectual stimulation. Overall, The Cost of Living is an exhilarating, thought-provoking and boldly intimate meditation on a painful but necessary journey of self-discovery.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!