Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain. We tried to answer her back but we did not have the language to explain that we were not women who had merely ‘acquired’ some children – we had metamorphosed (new heavy bodies, milk in our breasts, hormonally-programmed to run to our babies when they cried) in to someone we did not entirely understand.
Things I Don’t Want To Know, Deborah Levy
We’re speeding now, towards the summer holidays. Two weeks and two days to go. And yet, there’s so much to be fitted in. Sports day, the school summer fair, the Moose’s visits to T’s school which he will start in September. Play dates and picnics and holiday preparations. It’s all fun, but it has the pell-mell acceleration of cycling downhill without being certain that the brakes are going to work.
After weeks of sitting on the lid of the kids’ sandpit to read in the shade after lunch it finally occurred to me to move the bench from the sunny end of the garden to the shade under the magnolia. Today I’ve realised that I can even bring the laptop out here. The hedge is full of clusters of the small red roses in the photo above. They grow from my neighbour’s side and remind me of the day three summers ago when I first saw this house. T had chickenpox and I had to carry her round for the whole viewing. The Moose sat in his pushchair in the hallway eating raisins. When B came to see the house later that same day, he saw the bedrooms with the shadowy shapes of children sleeping in their beds.
Anyway, sitting out here last week while the Moose lay on a blanket at my feet, I read Deborah Levy’s miraculous Things I Don’t Want To Know. (It took a few days; he doesn’t do ‘big boy quiet time’ for long these days.) It was pure pleasure to read such a fluid, elegant and moving essay. Levy’s responds, in an oblique way, to George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write, and the four sections of her essay take Orwell’s motives for writing as their titles: political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism, and aesthetic enthusiasm. Orwell writes,
I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject-matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
And it is this that Levy so beautifully shows us – her early development, the age in which she has lived, her emotional attitude – but, crucially, she adds in what it might mean to be a female writer and a mother. We move from London to Majorca, to Levy’s childhood in apartheid-era South Africa where her ANC supporter father is imprisoned, to her teenage years in London, and then back to the ‘present’ in Majorca. Levy manages a short of shape-shifting form, an essay which mutates into an extended autobiographical piece that reads almost as a short story, before circling back to the meditation on what it is to be a female writer with which it started.
I loved it for its exquisite writing, for its precision, for its heart-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to be a young child in a system which is patently unfair and nonsensical. I loved the opening section with its devastating take down of motherhood as constructed by masculine society (‘We had a go at cancelling our own desires and found we had a talent for it.’ ). And I loved it most of all for its conclusion,
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.
(back, of course, to Woolf) – which I read as simply, get on with it.
I’ll leave you with Levy’s last line,
Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa.