Find joy says Deborah Levy. And take yourself seriously.
Rebecca Amsellem Your new book « The Position of the Spoon » seems to be an insight into the people, places and events that are part of your intellectual landscape, your interior, your home. The painter Anna-Eva Bergman said that « a painting must be alive – luminous – contain its inner life ». Is that what you wanted to offer us with this book ?
Deborah Levy « The Position of the Spoon » is a collection of writing from over 20 years, it’s a mixture of essays, critical thinking, thought pieces, letters, stories. It is the same mind, making the work at different ages. I think all work contains some inner
life. The interior life. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because it becomes a very gendered term, interior life. So I think even in all abstract art as we know it’s made from that place.
Rebecca Amsellem You mention Duras, Quin, Hardwick, Rego etc – what do these people have in common? Is it that they know how to describe better than anyone – even yourself perhaps – what you feel?
Deborah Levy It is such amazing thing when a writer has thought very deeply on your behalf for you, to give you that amazing gift of clarity and complexity together. For this, I am always very grateful. So all the writers in this book and in my other books, they’re not there for any other reason except that they have been like a card in my pocket: they have shown me something I couldn’t find on my own. And so we can walk forwards. I stand on their shoulders.
Rebecca Amsellem You are a card in my pocket. Your books helped me a lot understand lots of things, especially your work to ungender the domestic place. And I’m pretty sure you are the card of lots of people. Are you aware of this?
Deborah Levy It’s an honor, but I try to keep very steady because I do not want to be some sort of guru. My intention is to keep a steady gaze, to listen, to write as well as I can. And I get a great deal of really big pleasure in talking to readers. But in the end, it is my books that have done the talking. So I do not know what to say about that, except what an honor.
Rebecca Amsellem In your essay about the texts of Elizabeth Hardwick, you talk about creative women who each in their own way have stopped creating, Zelda Fitzgerald for example because she was told that dancing and writing would worsen her psychological state . Have you had times in your life when you thought about quitting writing?
Deborah Levy I never thought about quitting but there were times I was very discouraged. What kept me going is the pleasure of just putting language down and knowing that this language will find its way into the world if it means something to others. But first it has to mean something to me. To work through discouragement is a very important part of any kind of art practice, and you think of all the artists who have been so discouraged, who are absent from art history, who are absent from literature. When I was 16, I really knew I wanted to be a writer. I was writing my diaries. It was time when it was normal to just have all the names of male authors on the covers, not single one woman. And I often think about my 16 year old self, and I blanked it on one level because it was so discouraging to be so voided. What I did was read everything and move forward with language. Because it was in language that I was going to find my power.
Rebecca Amsellem I feel like for women of my generation, we have the duty to be exceptional because we have the opportunity to be exceptional. And if we don’t do, it means that kind of let women from other generation down.
Deborah Levy There is nothing wrong with being exceptional if you are exceptional. But it is also very important to be able to mess up, because you’re never going to be exceptional without making mistakes, without taking big risks. So there’s this idea that – especially for us – you cannot put a foot wrong. Everything has to be exceptional. But art is not like that and human relations are not like that. We mess up in our relations with other people, and we learn and we do better next time. But on the other hand, it is always a great pleasure, isn’t it, to find your strength. That’s a good moment.
Rebecca Amsellem When you find it, you have this sense of belonging that doesn’t leave you. Wherever you are, you know you’re at the right place.
Deborah Levy And belonging, just to make it a bit more complicated, takes quite a lot of unbelonging. What do I not want to belong to? That’s the first thing. It is not a good idea, is it, to feel that you are alone, discouraged: there is no reason for us to stay in that place.
Rebecca Amsellem You write in this book, « To write, it is better that the fear leaves you because it is how you open up enough to welcome the new » adding that « Duras was not suspicious of emotion. Duras has not the slightest word of apology for the moral and psychological liberties she takes to exist « . What can we do to leave fear – or make it leave us? And – more precisely – how do you leave any suspicion toward one’s emotion ?
Deborah Levy We have to lose our fear of being mocked. I write about this in things I don’t want to know. There’s this terrible pressure to laugh at our own desires before anyone else can laugh. The pressure to laugh at it is a patriarchal idea. Give it some seriousness. When we say a woman takes herself seriously, it is supposed to be an insult. Take yourself seriously. And that doesn’t rule out laughter, as you know, from my books. To lose the fear is to really engage with the idea that what you are writing is a value.
Rebecca Amsellem These words are the first words I read from you that I underlined. It’s in « Things I Don’t Want to Know ». They are not yours but those of Zofia Zalinska to a young actress.
« Speaking loud isn’t speaking louder, it’s feeling empowered to articulate a desire. We always hesitate when we want something. In my theater, I prefer to show hesitation rather than hide it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to reject desire. But when you’re ready to seize that desire and put it into words, then even a whisper, the viewers will hear it. »
And somehow these words seem to sum up your works, your autobiographies, your short stories, your fictions. You are a dissector of hesitation. You helped me a lot – number one fan of hesitation and doubt.
Deborah Levy I am all for hesitation. Why not? What we want is deep thought, and we want to make that thought manifest in literature. In The Cost of Living, there is that playfulness between the man who invites a woman to his table, she’s much younger, she joins him and he says, well, you talk a lot, don’t you? This is a very complicated moment because she comes with a whole life of her own. Is she supposed to listen to him talk ? Is he the main character and she the minor character? She is saying, I have complete existential equality, in my view. So you can listen. That is what all writing is about.
Rebecca Amsellem You start this book, The Cost of Living with this quote from Duras « You are always more unreal to yourself than other people are ». Do these words explain why you undertook a living autobiography ? So that you are as real as the others to yourself?
Deborah Levy Absolutely, completely. The living autobiography was a dare. It was standing on a rock above the ocean. You know how you go on holiday and you see these kids and they all want to jump off the highest rock? Well, this was my equivalent of diving off the highest rock because it never occurred to me that sections of my life might be interesting to others. But then I began to realize I was interested to read it back. I began to realize it was political, because in the way that probably when Virginia Woolf was writing, started writing a Room of One’s Own, she was setting up to write something from her own sense of disenfranchisement. She never had a formal education. Her brothers went to university. She was educated at home.
Rebecca Amsellem She fought for it.
Deborah Levy She did. Does the writing make you feel more real to yourself? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But my main purpose as a writer is this. I think there is a lot of pressure to have a very uncomplicated female presence in a book. She is either very powerful and strides out into the world having to be powerful, or she is very vulnerable or fragile. But we are all of these things together. On Monday we can feel very powerful and on Thursday we can feel quite fragile. This is all of us in the world. It’s not a gender thing. It’s all of us. Gender is a construct anyway. Any presence in literature has to embrace the full complexity of an emotional range of contradiction, of being incredibly articulate, and coherent in June, and incredibly inarticulate and incoherent in July. That is the challenge to make, to pull all of these things together, to exist with the complexity, because the complexity is real.
Rebecca Amsellem And it’s related to what you just said about women being taught to be secondary characters of men’s stories – secondary characters are never complex. It’s only the main character who has the opportunity.
Deborah Levy They’re there to service the desires of everyone else. So why are they there?
Rebecca Amsellem You quote Paula Rego who says that to create is to free one desire and all the consequences that go with it. How did you relationship with desire changed over the years ?
Deborah Levy Things are not fixed. Someone who never changed would be very stuck. So the idea is to free the unconscious, to have some rigorous critical thinking, to understand how what happens to subjectivity, to understand patriarchy. Patriarchy tells us there’s a mono subjectivity, and it’s male. So now we want to undo gender and to find our joy.
Rebecca Amsellem I ask this last question to all the people I interview. If we did live in this inclusive feminist society that we’ve been craving for and it’s happening, and what’s the one detail that you see that makes you realize that we reach this?
Deborah Levy You can walk through the street without fear. Your gaze is steady. Utopia would mean to be a subject with desires of her own, without fear. There would not have to be big discussions about consent, because it would be understood that you cannot step on the existence of another person to make yourself bigger.