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Shadow and Light

On Deborah Levy

An image of an open window, a plant, and a piano with a pile of papers, some of which have been caught in the breeze.
Ginny Casey, Post Epilogue. 2020, Oil on canvas. 54 1/2 × 52". Image courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

Deborah Levy. Things I Don’t Want to Know. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Deborah Levy. The Cost of Living. Bloomsbury, 2018.

Deborah Levy. Real Estate. Bloomsbury, 2021.

A young woman has started sleeping in the spare bedroom of a vacation home being shared by two families. Among them is a fairly famous poet, and the young woman is more than a fan. She believes they have to meet and feels entitled to what he can give her. The poet is more confused than afraid. His wife understands more than she lets on. Their teenage daughter, watching how a group of people can cause or affect an atmosphere, is witness to more than anyone knows. Each character in this novel is fated for something, but whether anyone is aware of the aura of humid dread that hangs over their dinner scenes is unclear. The tension builds and builds past the point when it feels like it should break.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, is a dream: words become images that sink to the bottom of your subconscious. The story makes sense in the moment, but upon recollection becomes hazy. In one scene, a knife hovers a centimeter away from a pearl necklace—the image seems more important, in memory, than any relation it has to the plot. All the characters serve their purpose, no matter how brief, but their entrances and exits are so slow one can never be sure if they are coming or going. There is blood everywhere, but very little violence. The sex is so sexy, but there is almost no fucking. The novel kept me awake one long night and stayed with me through the next morning. I loved it. Lots of people did: Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. Critics praised her fiction as graceful and lurid, cerebral and simple.

But praise doesn’t pay the bills. “One afternoon, I made my way from the writing shed to a meeting about a possible film option on one of my novels,” writes Levy in The Cost of Living, her 2018 memoir that is the second in a trilogy of recent books about her life. She has ridden her bike to meet with film executives who wonder if Swimming Home could be made into a movie. This meeting matters a lot: it must go well; she cannot be late. Levy is recently divorced, living with her teenage daughters, and trying her best to live on a writer’s income. Her daughters need money for school, her gas bill needs to be paid, and most horrifying of all are the noises her laptop has started to make. When the executives ask her an important question, she concentrates on it: Who is the main character of her novel? Is it the poet, whom she has named Jozef Nowogrodzki? Or Kitty Finch, the woman who could be his lover, stalker, or protégé? In trying to answer, she pitches herself as the writer of the screenplay, assuring them she can handle the looping approach to linear time, the conflicting readings of the people she’s invented. The executives are not convinced. They want to see “a list of minor and major characters by the end of the week.”

No one can fault the film executives for their hesitation. Scenes that make the book beautiful to read contain elements that might seem off as visuals, and Levy’s characters inspire a lot of questions. Kitty Finch is introduced swimming naked in the pool of the vacation home in the South of France, and it is obvious that her character is there to seduce. Yet when she opens her mouth to speak she surprises everyone with a pronounced speech impediment. Do sirens stutter? Jozef Nowogrodzki, the writer Kitty has come for, is called Joe by his readers, who number enough to make him, we’re told, famous and rich. He’s described as charismatic, alluring. Can poets be handsome? After the meeting, Levy looks in a mirror and she sees something in her reflection. Does she have leaves in her hair? In a daydream, she imagines a future version of herself living like some kind of Robert Evans figure, “a legendary sun-damaged genius of cinema.” Meanwhile, in present-day London, she has to bike her groceries for dinner back home in the rain.

The three memoirs, starting with Things I Don’t Want to Know in 2013 and ending with Real Estate in 2021, are Levy’s life story told behind the scenes of the words that make up her books—brief interludes composed of the days that make up the decades. Her divorce has already happened; so has her childhood. Now comes everything else, ordinary or otherwise.

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