Author(s): Deborah Levy
Longlisted for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
From the twice-Booker-shortlisted author comes a witty and audacious examination of writing and womanhood
"Life falls apart. We try to get a grip. We try to hold it together. And then we realize that we don't want to hold it together."
Crystalline, witty and audacious, The Cost of Living addresses itself to the dual experiences of writing and of womanhood, examining what is essential in each. Following the acclaimed Things I Don't Want to Know, which reflected deeply on the nature of gender politics and a life in letters, The Cost of Living returns to the same subject and to the same life, to find a writer in radical flux. If a woman dismantles her life, expands it and puts it back together in a new shape, how might she describe this new composition? "Words have to open the mind. When words close the mind you can be sure that someone has been reduced to nothingness."
In this elegiac second instalment of her "living autobiography", Deborah Levy considers what it means to live with value and meaning and pleasure. The Cost of Living is a vital and astonishing testimony, as distinctive, wide-ranging and original as Levy's acclaimed novels.
“LIfe can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards,” observed Søren Kierkegaard, quoted by Deborah Levy in this account of her struggle for the re-establishment of intellectual freedom and literary momentum in the period following her "escape from the shipwreck” of her marriage and death of her mother. What seems like blundering is only blundering because one is out of the rut to which one had been assigned, because moving forwards while facing backwards is necessarily tentative, because “a new way of living” comes at a cost that cannot be prepaid. Levy quotes Heidegger: “Everyone is the other and no one is himself,” but her aim, in her life and in her writing, is to get “as close to human subjectivity as it is possible to get.” Moving towards the “vague destination of a freer life,” Levy, author of, among other things, the Booker-shortlisted novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk, and of a preceding volume of memoir, Things I Don't Want to Know, moves with her daughters to a tower block where the heating and the water function sporadically, where her neighbour berates her for parking her electric bicycle in front of the building to unload her shopping and where the practical details of life become more problematic, more graspable, more contestable, more real. The Cost of Living is full of details that eschew meaning other than their function as points upon which the whole mechanism of “living” can pivot and flex and find new forms. Levy’s near neighbour offers her a garden shed in which to write, and, as she furnishes it around herself, “it was there that I began to write in the first person, using an *I* that is close to myself but is not myself.” The non-writing life of a writer provides perspective for the writer exactly to the extent that it limits the writer’s production. There can never be an easy (and thereby fatal) accommodation between the literary and quotidian demands upon a writer’s time and energies, but it is exactly this unease, this ambivalence of contesting primacies, that can generate the sort of thought - call it frustration - that can, at best, make life freer and literature more urgent. Meaning, in literature or in life, is always a matter of structure and never of content. The Cost of Living makes no claim to profundity because it excludes profundity from the list of useful things. It is tentative and ambivalent and inconclusive because thought is always unfinished (if it were finished it would cease to be thought). Levy extends de Beauvoir’s observation that gender (among other things) is performative, and wonders how she can move away from what we could call a pre-scripted life to what we could call a de-scripted life. “Everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living.” To write in the first person, whether in fiction or memoir, is to perform a subjectivity that must always sit both uncomfortably close to and uncomfortingly distant from the *I* that writes. A text, regardless of its mode of generation, enters the performance of its reception and is immediately at the mercy, so to call it, of the prevailing modes of that performance. A text will only be effective to the extent that it is neither absorbed nor ejected by that performance. Rachel Cusk, in her superb new novel Kudos has her narrator observe of another writer, Luis (Cusk’s stand-in for Knausgaard): “Unusually perhaps for any man, he has been honest about his own life. … Though of course if he were a woman he would be scorned for this honesty, or at the very least no one would care.” Levy has been, it seems, unvarnishedly honest about her own life and The Cost of Living stands as a memorable challenge to the still-prevailing modes of reception that presume a performance of gender (among other things) that Levy and Cusk both analyse and dismiss.