I don’t feel qualified to write this review. I sort of need a good two months to catch up on feminist literature and then, then I can write it with authority if I can remember the event with any clarity (there was wine) and can accurately cast my mind back to that hot April evening. But this review needs to be in by 10am the next morning, so this substandard scrambling is what you’ll get.
Of course my preferred (massively over-engineered) approach would be anathema to the likes of Deborah Levy, Rebecca Solnit and Rachel Cusk and they would frown and say that I was being silenced and limiting myself and it was all the patriarchal world’s fault. And yes, sometimes men silence us and sometimes they do it in nuanced ways that make it almost acceptable; like when someone steps on your foot and you say sorry.
Either going to see Deborah Levy on the hottest April day in 70 years whilst feeling unspeakably and inexplicably glum was precisely the right mix of ambivalent emotions, or else completely wrong and is why I’m struggling with this review.
This book, The Cost of Living, is the second instalment in the trilogy of her living memoir of her latter years. Previously reserved as a privilege (writing bits of your autobiography before you die) only for reality TV stars such as Binky from Made in Chelsea, Levy acknowledges how lucky she is to have a publisher who is ok with her saying 'I can’t give you an outline of the third book yet because I don’t know what happens. It’s about me in my 60s and I’m still only in my 50s'.
This then filled me with dread - what if something happens and she doesn’t get to write the third one? Although then the publisher, I imagine, would get Binky’s ghost writer to dash something off and the problem would be solved. And then as though we were in sync Deborah said Freud (although I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert but I may have misheard) said everything you dread has probably already happened. She said she found this comforting. It’s done. You’ve already survived it. It’s like those exam nightmares you have in periods of high stress - you’ve already done it. There is no reason to still be afraid.
The psychology of dread is pretty interesting - anticipating pain makes it worse and becomes its own event. And on the whole when faced with the prospect of dread most people will want to go ahead and process it rather than be paralysed by it. Deborah Levy takes these anecdotal instances and makes them into metaphors - such as the woman diving in the storm who surfaces to find her boat destroyed. The boat later represents her shipwreck of a marriage.
She cuts quite the imposing figure with her amazing green eyes (always my favourite) and poise and presence, although her fame didn’t seem to worry her as she explored the themes of crying in public places and the, now somewhat hackneyed, topic of being silenced by men. (Ironically there were actually quite a few men in the audience, most of whom were too terrified to speak.)
It’s true that male writers and men in general are rarely, if ever, questioned on why they don’t have children or chose not to have children. For a woman the question will always follow you around. In The Mother of All Questions, Solnit has the perfect riposte to any question like this one, any question that’s designed to trip you up. You simply say, Why are you asking me this?
As she spoke about how this book is a joyous book about a difficult time, I was struck by how similar this is to Dolly Alderton’s feminist mantra. Dolly wrote Everything I Know About Love and isn’t literary so it’s much more accessible than the rest of modern feminist literature. The message is the same though: I am enough. I am good enough. We are good enough.
This is a great takeaway to pair with Levy’s exploration of the themes of rejection and abandonment. Levy goes deeper than Alderton because she links it up to race and motherhood: although both write in a reflective, self-aware way, Levy will always project to the political, historical aesthetic and egocentric. I want to end with how the book opens - she didn’t actually read this extract, I read it myself in the shelf copy I glanced at before the talk and it stuck with me: As Orson Wells told us; if we want a happy ending it depends on where we stop the story.