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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times