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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.

Deborah Levy. Photograph: Getty Images

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.