It’s an expensive business, being alive. It takes a toll on hearts and pockets alike. And it’s especially costly if you’re compelled to live outside conventional structures. Freedom, as the novelist, playwright and essayist Deborah Levy observes, “is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs”.
In 2013, Levy published a slim, incendiary book, Things I Don’t Want to Know, a response to Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write”. In it she grappled with her own biography, attempting to figure out in particular what it means to write from the “the suburb of femininity”, and how to reconcile the demands of motherhood with making art.
The Cost of Living is the sequel, the second in three planned volumes about the intertwining consequences of being a woman and a writer (also a mother, a daughter, a childhood exile from South Africa, none of which are simple roles). Now in her mid-fifties, we re-encounter Levy in the aftermath of a divorce – the exhausted, exhilarated survivor of a catastrophic shipwreck. “Now that I was no longer married to society,” she writes, “I was transitioning into something or someone else. What and who would that be?” This is a story, then, about gender and age, how the two can constrict and limit possibilities, and how it might be possible to construct a different kind of account.
Getting divorced means abandoning socially sanctioned structures – the scaffold of the marriage, the sanctuary of the family home – and entering strange, potentially perilous waters. Levy relinquishes her Victorian house and moves with her two teenaged daughters into a decaying apartment block on the top of a hill in north London. The heating doesn’t work; the building is in the midst of eternally delayed regeneration; the communal hallway carpets are covered in grey industrial plastic for three years – Levy nicknames them the Corridors of Love, and invests in halogen heaters.
She’s the most delicious narrator. The post-divorce landscape is well-trodden by memoirists, and what makes Levy remarkable, beyond the endless pleasures of her sentences, is her resourcefulness and wit. She’s ingenious, practical and drily amused, somehow outside herself enough to find the grim, telling humour in almost any situation. Her experience is interesting to her largely for what it reveals about society, rather than the other way round.
The plumbing breaks. Fine. Dressed in a black silk nightie, a French postman’s jacket and fur slippers, she sets to work with the Master Plunger, a gender-defiant shaman presiding over the city’s blocked pipes. A supermarket chicken falls off the back of her bike and is run over by a car in the pouring rain, hours after a catastrophic meeting. No problem. Roast it with rosemary (not for remembrance) and fill the house with women of all ages for a raucous, festive dinner.
Generosity begets generosity. As in a fairy tale, helpers emerge. Levy needs somewhere to write. Enter Celia, a fierce former bookseller and the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell, who offers up an unglamorous garden shed, complete with a freezer containing 20 plastic tubs of quartered apples. Levy lugs in a few books and immediately sets about writing Hot Milk (later shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize).
Not everyone is so benevolent. There is something alarming about a single woman, especially over a certain age. She’s so suspicious that she requires perpetual diminishment. The enforcers of the patriarchy aren’t always men. For weeks, Levy is accosted by Jean, a sweet-voiced elderly woman whose mission is to prevent her new neighbour from leaving her e-bike (a fairy-tale steed in its own right) in front of the flat for the few minutes it takes to unload her groceries. “It was as if she felt ashamed to be living alone and was transmitting a portion of that shame on to me.”
Levy has always been exceptionally skilled at the symbolic, attentive to how we declare our deepest selves in our most casual actions and phrases. Perhaps it’s a legacy of her years as a playwright, but she knows how small items – a parakeet, a stray bee, a lolly – generate an atmosphere, making a Freudian weather of their own. This see-sawing, two-things-at-once capacity of objects to open up reservoirs of memory is part of what makes her writing so distinctive.
A natural surrealist, she provides slightly less information than you might expect, the enigmatic opposite of an over-share. It’s amazing the deft use to which she puts “um” and “yes”; the anti-sentimentalising impact of a cannily placed “etc”. Her style is basically parataxis, things lodged next to things, the junctions missing or cut out. It makes everything a bit jerky and fragile, and it is a good mode with which to regard the shattering or assembling of the self, which has been a preoccupation for Levy since her novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography.
Shattering is a universal experience, but it also exposes power structures. You realise who is protected and who is marginal, who is listened to and who cannot be seen. Levy keeps encountering men who won’t look at their wives or speak their names; men who ask women they’ve never met before to do tasks for them; men who tell women they talk too much; who cannot believe they’re minor characters in someone else’s story.
It takes work to insist on being a major character, even in one’s own existence. Levy draws repeatedly on Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin, allies in the dissident act of making yourself heard, of choosing a mode of living that doesn’t require you to participate in your own diminishment. “When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that erases her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse. These are the jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking.”
There are better ways of being free. Levy presents it as a puzzle: not easy, not effortless, but full of joy. Cycling to a party 20 miles across London on her liberatory e-bike, her dress streaming behind her, an electronic screwdriver in her bag, she evokes the pleasure of slipping away from old roles, the glamour of self-sufficiency, of mutual aid. This is a manifesto for a risky, radical kind of life, out of your depth but swimming all the same.
Olivia Laing’s new novel, “Crudo”, is published by Picador in June. She appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 15 April
The Cost of Living
Hamish Hamilton, 187pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special