Things I Don’t Want to Know: a powerful feminist response to Orwell’s Why I Write

Juliet Jacques on Deborah Levy's new essay.

At some point, any writer must seriously consider why s/he writes (or, at least, readers would like to think so). Famously, Samuel Johnson said that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, but it’s widely accepted that the impulse transcends financial concerns: poets as great as T S Eliot and Paul Éluard wrote around day jobs, and numerous authors have continued when all financial logic must have implored them to stop. George Orwell’s essay Why I Write (1946) attempted to determine why he persisted with the "horrible, exhausting struggle" of writing books; in just ten pages, he identified sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose as his motivations.

Following her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, published by Notting Hill Editions, is a feminist response to Orwell. Ten times the length, Levy devotes a chapter to each of his categories, opening with her Political Purpose.

Distancing himself from the fervent experimentation of many of his contemporaries, Orwell said that good prose should be "like a window pane"; recalling a 1988 lecture by Polish director Zofia Kalinska, who stated that "the form must never be bigger than the content", Levy notes that for her, this felt subversive rather than natural. Levy does not worry too greatly about whether or not such innovation is inherently radical, instead building a canon of female authors who pushed formal boundaries – a passage on how Marguerite Duras had to nurture her monumental ego over time is especially memorable – and who strongly asserted their personalities in defiance of patriarchal expectations.

Orwell did not present any similar list of inspirations – perhaps this is something more pertinent to "minority" writers who have to search harder for like-minded role models – but discussed the "inescapable emotional attitude" that made him want to write at a young age, an ambition which coalesced with his feeling of being ‘isolated and undervalued’. He also confessed to feeling "forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer" by the political circumstances of the 1930s. Without stating so explicitly, Levy describes how the imprisonment of her father for being a member of the African National Congress in Johannesburg in 1964 started to shape her as an author.

Aged five when her father disappeared, and constantly confronted with reminders of the systematic cruelty of apartheid – often directly reproduced, as with the Whites Only beach sign in Durban – she realised that as the daughter of an ANC activist and as a girl, "to speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish". Levy shifts subtly between registers, presenting her formative experiences in an effortlessly childlike tone: one of the most touching moments is when her father returns after four years, and she tells him that their cat has died: “It’s lovely to be called Daddy again”, he tells her, and the reader sees Levy starting to make sense of the confusion and pain and commit significant moments to memory, even if she does not yet know that she will write about them some day.

Levy’s chapter on Sheer Egoism – which Orwell described as the "desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc" – begins after her family moved in England in 1974, where Levy felt in exile and where her parents’ marriage fell apart. For many authors, writing is an attempt to display their uniqueness, and political purpose and egoism often become intertwined. As the teenaged Levy discovers the existentialists, she contrasts the imagined action and intrigue of their lives at peace and war with the dull reality of hers: clearing the corpses of bees fatally attracted to the washing machine after she spilt a jar of honey in it, she reflects that Sartre and company "probably didn’t have to clean ovens with evil Brillo pads", but her first real encounter with a writer comes not at a literary gathering or in education, but when PhD student Farid arrives – as her family’s au pair.

All of this leads to a discussion of Levy’s adult Aesthetic Enthusiasm: the strongest chapter, drawing together her internalised political motivations and her love of language, and its ability to both repress and express the subconscious. Here, the reasons why she writes become perfectly clear: ‘We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were’.

In a recent interview with 3:AM magazine, Levy told Darran Anderson that Swimming Home grew from the helplessness she felt on reading about the death of the wonderful avant-garde novelist Ann Quin in 1973. Here, writing is a way of dealing with the experiences of injustice and despair, and perhaps with the underlying realisation that as an author, one often ends up being drawn towards such sadness – the only way to process the "knowledge that we cannot bear to live with", by trying to render it itself something useful or beautiful, or both. Even if Levy does not draw any categorical principles in the manner of Orwell, this sensitive conclusion ought to resonate with any writers who care to remember how they became socially aware.

 

Deborah Levy. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Beren and Lúthien: Love, war and Tolkien’s lost tales

Expanded and augmented version of tale which first appeared in Silmarillion mirrors Tolkien's own relationship with wife Edith.

In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.

Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three “holy jewels” called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole “legendarium”. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.

There is much to relish, even for those who have read The Silmarillion. Of all the 1916-19 “Lost Tales”, this one changed most. The early version, doubtless written for Edith, is a rollicking fairy tale crossed with a kind of “Just So Story” about why cats fear dogs; yet in its latter stages it steps up several gears and attains a mythic power. The verse Leithian is in this higher gear all along, setting the tone for The Silmarillion. Germanic saga rises to the surface, and so do war memories:

. . . the mighty field . . . turned to dust,

to drifting sand and yellow rust,

to thirsty dunes where many bones

lay broken among barren stones.

Nothing shows the gear change more clearly than that Beren’s captor in the earliest version is a demonic cat but in later versions the captor is the wolvish Necromancer – whom Tolkien in 1937 renamed Sauron. When in The Lord of the Rings Frodo first sees a vision of Sauron’s eye, “yellow as a cat’s”, he gazes into the deep well of Tolkien’s creative past.

In all the forms of the story here, Lúthien is the key figure, “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” but also more resourceful than Beren. It is she who springs him from prison and defeats his captor. When together they reach the end of the quest in Morgoth’s throne room, everything falls to her. If this is meant to be the lost original of “Rapunzel”, it is strikingly in tune with much more recent, female-centred fairy-tale revisionings. It is also a hymn to Edith – and to her power to lift Tolkien out of the depths. 

Beren and Lúthien
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 288pp, £20

John Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War” and is writing a book on Tolkien and the 20th century, “Tolkien’s Mirror”

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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