Deborah Levy is my latest addiction, but I must not have been in the right head space for this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Everyone seems to love it, but it felt too contrived. The poet and his family take a summer villa, one of the poet’s deranged and beautiful fans arrives and stays with them, the story glints from each character’s eye in lurching bits. The mother supposedly wants to walk away from her marriage, the daughter has supposedly already chosen to live with her father, when bang he suicides with their friend Mitchell’s gun, the bankrupt pal who’s along for the vacation and running up bills in the local cafe. An odd assortment of characters like the rejects from a box of chocolates.
My notes are brief but quotable bits extensive. Levy shows us loss (of husband, through divorce; of mother, through death; of the family home she spent years building as a nest around her daughters and husband), how it makes her stumble, how she regains balance through infusions from friends. Beautifully written, and I’m off to find the rest of her work.
“Life falls apart. We try to get a grip and hold it together. And then we realize we don’t want to hold it together.”
“Above all else, it is an act of immense generosity to be the architect of everyone else’s well-being.” (I’ve been thinking a lot about this, the unpaid emotional labor that women do, seen on full display this weekend watching a woman at a cafe throw her head back and bear her teeth to the brim smiling, there’s no way that her companion was that funny. Nothing is that funny. Women get trained up in this early and I’ve been trying to wriggle out from that burden lately.)
“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.”
Any book that references Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America is fine by me. Levy has one of her friends mention, “Apparently Stein thought it is obvious when something is a question so she stopped using question marks and she thought that commas were servile. In her view it was up to the reader if they wanted to stop and take a breath.”
Her writing about her mother’s death hurts my heart… “when I turn my mind to my mother’s death, I can only do so for ten seconds before I start to sink.” The Cut has a nice excerpt that includes the details about her daily purchase of popsicles to bring to her mom as she was dying. “I somehow thought she would die and still be alive. I would like to think she is somewhere in that distant sound that resembles the sea in which she taught me to swim, but she is not there. She has gone, slipped away, disappeared.” Towards the end, Levy offers up thoughts to her mom: “Thank you for teaching me how to swim and how to row a boat. Thank you for the typing jobs that put food in the fridge. As for myself,I have things to do in the world and have to get on with them and be more ruthless than you were.”