Saturday, 30 January 2016

'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry', Deborah Levy redux

I asked myself another question. Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.
She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929). 

Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know (2013)


I have gone on loving Deborah Levy's essays on why she writes, although 'loving' seems hardly the word for the world of pain she is illuminating in each essay. 

Without ever saying so directly (because 'a female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly'), it becomes clear through the essays that she writes because she had to find a voice to speak about a world that she experiences as cruel and depraved. 

Things happened to Levy and her family when she was a child, because they were trying to answer the question: 'If a white man sets his dog on a black child and everyone says that's okay, if the neighbours and and police and judges and teachers say, 'that's fine by me', is life worth living?' (p. 99). For them, life was not worth living if it was unjust for half the population, and this extends, for Levy, in her adult life, to other disenfranchised halves, like women and children.

However, she cannot write directly about the fear, misery and incomprehension she experienced as she was growing up, because if she does, she 'will write in a rage when she should write calmly', and be 'at war with her lot'. So part of the spinning out of Levy's thought is always a teasing out of her fury, a way of blending it with the gathered wool of the everyday, the tiny details that fashion her life, and the lives of people she observes, an ongoing attempt to detach herself from her rage:
'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the Societal System in the first place.' (p. 26)
Levy's words are a silent, unvoiced answer to a Chinese man who says to her, in a bar, in a snowstorm, in Majorca, 'You're a writer, aren't you?' The question is not a question at all, it is a statement, a rhetorical question, which therefore does not invite an answer, but announces a piece of knowledge, for which the speaker demands a kind of prize. She knows he knows that she is a writer, because she has seen him reading one of her books. She gives voice to her answer in her head, and for our benefit, within quotation marks. It is Levy's literary theory.

I love this quotation, because it reminds me of what it is to write a story – you walk a character into a question, or a setting, and let her walk around inside that question. It reminds me that the writing down of what happens next is a process of finding a language for something purely imaginary. Each sentence brings the subject of the story (and perhaps, partially, the subjectivity of the writer) into being on the page. And each sentence also unravels and unpicks the way the subjectivity of the writer (and perhaps, partially, the story) has been compressed, and manhandled, and sewn together, and discarded, in the world at large.

The imprisonment and torture of her father in South Africa, because of his ANC membership under Apartheid, his five-year absence, and the family's subsequent move to England – and disintegration, are the reasons why Levy writes. She writes as an adult because she cannot undo what was done to her, has had to find a way to articulate it, and her 'political purpose', her 'historical impulse', her 'sheer egoism' and her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' – the terms she is taking from Orwell's Why I Write essay – are all bound up with what formed her. 

Her 'political purpose' – the way she identifies women's lives as being lived under Neo-patriarchy – is an adult version of her father's purpose, to help to end Apartheid. 

Her 'historical impulse' is a sense that we cannot get away from the historical moment in which we are born, and must seek to understand it. 

Her 'sheer egoism' is the (always doomed, comical, and narcissistic) attempt to escape that historical moment.

And her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' is her boundless capacity to see beauty even at the heart of misery, and thus, possibly, to redeem it.

Although Levy's writing is unquestionably hard to read – not because of the style, which is crystalline, but because of the subject matter – what I take from her is that the whole point of writing is never to stop, never to give up, reculer pour mieux sauter, but never, never to give up. 

1 comment:

Deborah said...

reculer pour mien sauter has been one of my favourite phrases for ever but I was starting to think I had made it up because every time I tried to use it (it is so useful) I got a bewildered look. I don't always understand everything you write but I always understand something and get something from it.