The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography By Deborah Levy
New York, NY; Bloomsbury, 2018, 144 pp., $20.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
At the outset of this singular memoir, the second volume of Levy’s “Working Autobiography,” (the first was Things I Don’t Want to Know, published in 2013), we learn that Levy has left a marriage, a home, and an at least somewhat conventional family life with a husband and two daughters—a world that she had spent decades creating and nourishing. She has mourned, dismantled, moved on: “To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House … is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.” Levy evokes the caring and curating that went into this creation—the ticking of clocks, the seaside holidays, the blooming garden—and the shipwreck that it all became: a great sinking hulk to which she would not swim back. To do that would be to drown herself in anger and betrayal.
The literal details of all of this are barely sketched in, but the emotional currents that carried Levy out and away from this life and into transformation, a sense of becoming, are drawn with superb clarity. And, if we ever suspect it all might not have been quite as conventional as suggested (in The Cost of Living’s first scene, she is eating coconut rice and fish alone at a beachside bar in Colombia, eavesdropping on a nearby conversation), we forgive, if only out of sheer curiosity. After all, this thankless house and this marriage somehow managed to contain her, at least for a while. And Deborah Levy must be one of the most unusual minds putting digital ink to the screen today.
The Cost of Living is a sleight-of-hand masterpiece, a text full of unfathomable juxtapositions and curious segues. Timeframes are a bit elastic; for example, we never learn whether her liberatory Colombian meal—the scene that gave her a window onto what this memoir needed to be, and who might need it—took place before, during, or after her divorce. But she gets away with it. It works because of a crystalline economy of prose, and Levy’s uncanny talent for imbuing objects and events of daily living with a magnetic energy that creates a momentum and drama all its own. Her background in theater serves well. Chosen props and scenes draw us into a narrative that despite its notuncommon subject matter has the freshness of an onshore breeze after a tempest has passed. These include: an electric screwdriver, a black negligee, a garden shed, a funeral and the kinds of weeping at it, a cocktail party in which Levy does not pass a canapé to a man who can’t ask her name or speak his wife’s, a Provençal stove, a freezer full of frozen quartered apples, a clock that marks the hours with birdcalls. We are given a glimpse of an anxious meeting with film executives. Levy is sent away from it with homework—to make a list of major and minor characters in the novel under consideration, since the moguls just can’t figure out which is which.
All these populate a text that is only glancingly a memoir; it is in fact a meditation on transformation— our aching, long-postponed need for it—what inspires it, and what it costs. In one column of the ledger stands a bookshelf of carefully chosen volumes—the guiding minds of de Beauvoir and Dickinson; Proust and Heidegger and Baldwin; the warnings of Macbeth. Also putting the author in the black are the generosity of a friend with the garden shed in which Levy writes, the intensity of close conversations; an electric bicycle that carries a woman and her groceries with greater ease, the discovery of what transforms grief. On the other side of the balance sheet is nothing more or less than the cost of living, including and especially those who would force a woman to the margins of her own life, and tax her dearly for claiming the right to her own majority. It is a precarious balance. “[F]reedom is never free,” writes Levy. “Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
Much in this volume has gone less examined than it should have been since de Beauvoir; since Baldwin. Maybe since Macbeth. The Cost of Living considers how a woman deconstructs and rebuilds herself—block by block, brick by brick. The heavy lifting, as Levy calls it, is a motif that recurs. The lifting (or not)—of a canapé, a glass of champagne, an e-bike, of clogs in a drain and boxes and boxes from the former house—is both physical and symbolic. In this slim volume, heavy effort is made soufflé light. (Although the soufflé itself is a dish that Levy will never again bother to make for reasons of social necessity.)
She has done the work of dismantling; a prodigious effort containing lifetimes and generations, folded together in an intricate, impossible, origami; a shape evident and tangible enough to be seen, felt, held in the mind and even, released. In all of this focused intention is a message. Still, it is one to be whispered from ear to ear rather than blared from the rooftops. That platform is reserved, still, for the incessant, tinny scratches of the tannoy—the several voices of “Big Silver,” as we come to know him here—he who will not cease; who considers himself the only major character; who does not know our name and will never speak it; who insistently demands pleasure, attention, endless listening. And yet, we must stop Big Silver’s voice, each of us in ourselves; in our own ears and in the very fabric of our living—that is, if we want to live. As Olivia Laing puts it in her review for The New Statesman, “this is a manifesto for a risky, radical kind of life.” Or framed differently, the photographer Berenice Abbott, a woman who also understood the cost of living, once said, “Until you do what you what you want to do you do not know your own identity.” Levy would agree.
The Cost of Living also made me want to listen more carefully, and with a new ear: is there reciprocity here; genuine engagement? Is pleasure present—not just for the one who considers himself (or herself, as these things don’t always break along gender lines) the major character in the situation— but for others in the frame; for me?
On the day that I was preparing to write this review, I had the radio on: a classical music program. In honor of Labor Day weekend, the host had chosen music about work, and she put on a song called, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” a Sondheim ode to giddy masculine delight of taking full advantage of such a person around a house (looking down her blouse, etc.). The song is a sleazy, winking romp that now seems preposterously out of date, though a salient reminder of all we have lived through and, indeed, the costs we still bear. The host announced it with a mild comment that it gives us “much to think about.” (Because Levy is so particular about naming women and I missed the host’s name, I looked her up: she is Dorothy Bernstein of KANW out of Albuquerque, listed as a “Volunteer Host” of this Sunday morning classical program. Thank you, Dorothy, for the free labor!) Later I watched YouTube renditions of that song, campily homoerotic, one sung by Sondheim himself at a celebration of his birthday and career at the BBC Proms in 2010—a performance met with wild applause. Clearly, a person who had no difficulty making himself the major character; and the world complied. As it does.
That evening I was to have dinner with a man for whom I had done some work—not as a maid, but perhaps a kind of twenty-first century corporate equivalent while in a job I had recently left behind much as Deborah Levy had left her marriage. Leaving that position was my own tempest, the wreck of many hopes, dreams and years of service— and one reason that The Cost of Living felt so resonant and relevant. As I read Levy’s memoir, I was still prying barnacles from my own splintered lumber and getting familiar with a strange new shore. I suspected that this dinner would bring a new solicitation to work for him, and my own wrestling match with life’s balance sheet—who, and what, was to command attention and resource. But instead, I had had to face the fact that I wasn’t, at this moment anyway, able to do the kind of work I had done, and from which I had heretofore made my living. My own decades-long narrative—that the expenditure of self, time, care, energy, and creative personal resource to help others become the major characters of their own stories, and in their own lives, was okay, was worth it—this had come to an end. It was an ending I’d postponed as long as I could. For love, affection, ties that bind, pride in my work; political convictions, a salary; fear of chaos and the unknown—the book of reasons was a hefty tome. But inevitably, its final chapter had been reached. “Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want,” writes Levy. I could only hope that this was true.
Sondheim’s fantasy maid never said no; whatever the cost, she’d comply. Neat as a pin. Quiet as a mouse. I thought about the disruptions, the dismantlings, the “no’s” rippling across the lives of so many women I knew, and certain men, too. Brassy and loud; quiet and gentle; long choked but now stuttered, whispered, shouted. Letters, poems, novels, texts, posts, blogs, emails, and tweets. Digital ink, sweat, tears, and blood. All of these brave souls, willingly or not—with reluctance, or excitement, or trepidation, or astonishing courage “stepp[ing] outside the societal story that offered her symbolic protection.” “How is she to protect herself?” Levy asks. How will I? How will any of us?
The Cost of Living opens with an observation from Orson Welles—that if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. This working autobiography stops where it starts, in medias res. Levy does not exactly give us happy endings; though we travel through this book on a smooth wing of hope. It’s hope for ourselves, for the ability to give ourselves over fully to change; and certainly for the next installment of Levy’s journey and the luminous clarity of her reflection upon it.
Carole DeSanti was Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, a Division of Penguin RandomHouse. She is the author of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., and is at work on a new novel, Plunder.