Tumultuous Waters: A Review of Deborah Levy’s ‘The Cost of Living’

In the London Review of Books, Alice Sprawls writes of Deborah Levy’s fiction as “interested in women who don’t have homes and aren’t sure where to look for them.” Levy returns to this idea in the context of her own life, with her second “living” autobiography The Cost of Living (Bloomsbury), recently out in paperback. After the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her mother, Levy writes about grief and change but more specifically about transition: the slow progress up a hill, the crashing of a boat, the deconstruction of a house and a life. Her autobiographies are described as “living” to indicate their place in a continuous life and one that is still ongoing, continuing to change and to rewrite remembrances with the benefit of time, hindsight, and forgiveness. There is a distinct open-ended quality to a memoir that begins after death and divorce but before the completed novel or freshly renovated apartment block. Levy is writing from the middle of the story.

On the surface, this memoir chronicles a period in Levy’s life where she wrote from a friend’s garden shed, which she commuted to by bicycle or on foot. At other times, the short chapters are meditations on the writer’s life, motherhood, and relationships between men and women. She straddles two worlds and two modes between which the memoir navigates with her.

At the end of the day I would begin the long walk up one of the highest hills in London to cook supper for my daughter. Sometimes I stopped to get my breath back by the gates of the local cemetery. It was such a long walk in the dark. The night smelt of moss and the wet marble of the gravestones. I did not feel safe or unsafe, but somewhere in-between, liminal, passing from one life to another.

Levy opens The Cost of Living with an eavesdropping of a faulty encounter, a missed opportunity in the miscommunication between a man and a young woman featuring a drifting boat: “She was asking him (and herself) a question: Do you think I was abandoned by that person on the boat?” Levy then borrows the symbol of the boat to illustrate her feelings about her lost marriage: “My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.” Like the young woman, Levy finds great significance in the drifting boat metaphor, drawing repeated connections throughout the memoir between her marriage, her sense of self, and the lonely boat bobbing on the waves of a vast ocean. Even in moments of freedom, the waves of the ocean creep in: “As I cycled fast down the long Holloway Road, for some reason the stretch of tarmac reminded me of the dark brooding Adriatic Sea in Trieste.” This image becomes a manifestation of Levy’s psychological state, which leaks into her vision as she continues to grieve.

Much of this memoir relies on repeated metaphors and figurative constructions, like the drifting boat, the renovated building, or the uphill journey, in order to scaffold Levy’s wandering memories. On one hand, these symbols are platitudinous, but on the other, they are recognizable touchstones of the cyclical process of grief, where banalities grow into mythic signs or affirmations. Levy self-soothes by identifying with and naming other beings experiencing her same precarious transition. While her visitors balk at the creepy hallways in her half-renovated building, Levy affectionately titles them The Corridors of Love as an act of recognition and reclamation.

Returning to the eavesdropped conversation from the opening, Levy describes the scene in the language of narrative, referring to the man and young woman as major and minor characters and positioning them as readers of each other’s stories: “The Big Silver was the wrong reader for her story, but I thought on balance that she might be the right reader for mine.” Later, Levy acknowledges the unnamed characters in her male colleagues’ and friends’ stories, their wives and girlfriends, as though giving space to absent characters and highlighting the men’s editorial discretion. In these moments, the author’s voice rings out as withdrawn but in control, nodding to the construction of this “real” life story.

Drawing on references to writers like Emily Dickinson and sculptors like Louise Bourgeois, Levy creates an allusive equivalence between the process of building a life, working through change, and the process of creation, shaping material into art.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

            Yes, it is sometimes agonizing to feel things. I had spent the last four months trying not to feel anything at all.

Levy finds comfort in Bourgeois’s and Proust’s conception of their work as a form of psychological repair for injuries made to the heart:

To my eyes, the particular quality of their attention as they calmly shaped the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure. That kind of beauty was all that mattered to me. At this uncertain time, writing was one of the few activities in which I could handle the anxiety of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going to happen.

Writing this memoir, as well as the other novels she was working on at the time, seems to have given Levy a sense of having her life in-hand, being able to grasp the circumstances, however unstable. In a way, shaping the stuff of art is also constructing a self-image, as can be seen in Levy’s overlapping metaphors and memories that borrow from each other and indicate that the aspects of her life and identity, motherhood, feminism, writing, marriage, and friendship, are a tangled web. Her experiences and her work of couching them in recurring images are inseparable and kinaesthetically linked.

A pessimist might take The Cost of Living at face value, the physical and emotional toll of the steady march towards the end. But Levy is holding up the sacrifices with the successes as an acknowledgement of equilibrium, the boat fighting to stay level in tumultuous waters. As a circular meditation, this work is an intimate and insular representation of Levy’s life in flux but with a reflexive artistic authority that resonates in careful craft.


Julia Clark

Julia Clark is a writer and PhD student in Sydney working on commodity aesthetics and object relations particularly as applied to the body as the centre of consumption. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com.

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