Center for Writers and Translators

Deborah Levy on 'The Cost of Living'


On Tuesday, November 27, the Center for Writers and Translators (CWT) hosted a reading and talk by author Deborah Levy. As part of the event, Levy read from her most recent work, The Cost of Living, which was included in the recently published New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. The South-African-born British novelist, poet and playwright has received numerous awards and was twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her work spans fiction, philosophy, poetry and memoir, exploring what it means to render a life in writing. Levy’s work also looks at questions of gender, writing and womanhood, in particular the contradictory demands placed on the 21st-century female writer.

The Cost of Living is the second volume in a three-part series that Levy calls her “living autobiography.” This installment follows the critically-acclaimed Things I Don’t Want to Know in which Levy reflects on a writer’s life, examines why she writes and recounts her experiences as a woman in her forties. In The Cost of Living, Levy reflects on a period of tremendous change in her life, seeking to understand what freedom could mean and how it might feel as a woman in her fifties. The third volume will cover life in her sixties, but it will be a few years before it is published, or even written, as Levy has yet to turn 60. At the event, Levy mentioned that to readers who tell her, “I’m so looking forward to the next book, when will it come out?” She says, “Well I’m sorry, I haven’t lived it yet.”

Before the reading, Levy talked about what she means by “living autobiography” when referring to her work. As she explained, an autobiography is usually written towards the end of a writer’s life, when they feel they have some important wisdom to impart, but with these volumes Levy wants to create something in the present tense, something that captures the raw hours of living without the benefit of hindsight. “I want to create something vulnerable and real,” said Levy.

For her reading, Levy chose to read the opening section of The Cost of Living entitled “Big Silver” which recounts the story of a conversation she overhears at a beach bar in Colombia. In this story, Levy watches as a middle-aged man, who she calls the Big Silver, tries to seduce a young scuba diver. He is rude, almost threatening, and clearly has no respect for the young woman he is speaking with, but the young woman is able to hold her own in the conversation, “making a bid to be someone braver than she felt, someone who could travel freely on her own, ... who could risk an impossibly complicated conversation with a stranger." It’s clear that Levy does respect her, “It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.” This dynamic is one of the themes that Levy goes on to explore in The Cost of Living. Women, especially women above the age of forty, are often relegated to secondary roles, even in their own stories. Levy sets out to question that notion in her writing and to give a voice to an audience that needs to know that they are being heard.

After the reading, the evening continued as a conversation between Levy and Professor Amanda Dennis (English & Comparative Literature), followed by a question and answer session with the audience. During the conversation, Dennis posed a series of questions that allowed them to explore different aspects of her work, such as her approach to the chronology in The Cost of Living. Many memoirs or biographies tend to be in chronological order, but that doesn’t interest Levy, she’d rather get right to the heart of the matter. As she explained, “when reading a memoir, I always like to skip ahead to the part when the person escapes from their family and starts making decisions for themselves.” The rest of the conversation touched on Levy’s use of objects in her writing, as well as her method for approaching autobiography as opposed to other forms of literature and how she keeps herself from feeling claustrophobic when writing about herself.

The evening ended with one final question from Dennis, “since you are currently working on volume three, do you feel the need to do extraordinary things for the sake of having something to write about?” Levy said “no.” She does not feel pressure to do something amazing; one because that is not her style and two, a woman’s sixties are such an unexplored decade in literature that she has a lot of room to explore it organically.