A slender, beautifully bound blue hardback showed up on my desk. Its pages were creamy, its typeface clear in a formal, old-fashioned way. Each page number was picked out in scarlet. It was a book to put Kindle out of business, so covetable that, I almost thought, it scarcely mattered what it contained. It was then I noticed its curious title, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and a quotation, picked out on the cover in pink type: “To become a WRITER I had to learn to INTERRUPT, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then LOUDER, and then to just speak in my own voice which is NOT LOUD AT ALL.”
The writer is Deborah Levy, shortlisted last year for the Man Booker for her marvelous novel Swimming Home. Things I Don’t Want to Know is published by Notting Hill Editions, a small, choice, independent publisher committed to “reinvigorating the essay as a literary form.” They came up with the idea of commissioning writers to respond to essays of distinction. Levy has had George Orwell’s Why I Write (1946) at her elbow.
Starting to read her response was like chancing upon an oasis. The writing is of such quality that you want to drink it in slowly. Orwell said: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” He would have approved of Levy, although he might have been surprised by what she sees through the glass. The essay is a mini-memoir that moves between three countries: Mallorca (to which she flies to reflect), South Africa (where she grew up and where her father, an ANC supporter, was imprisoned) and England (where she describes her teenage years as a baffled exile in lime-green platform shoes in Finchley, north London).
In “Why I Write,” Orwell entertainingly declared: “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” He divided reasons for soldiering on into “sheer egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse” and “political purpose.”
Like Orwell, Levy is entertaining and makes his categories her chapter headings. But, unlike Orwell, she is not steadily organized. She is a maker not a clearer-upper of mysteries. And she is fugitive. It is this that gives the book its subtle, unpredictable, surprising atmosphere.
The opening line hooks one instantly: “That spring when life was hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations.” She writes about depression, without naming it, in a blackly funny way. She describes directionlessness yet knows where she is going: the essay is immaculately planned. There are many wonderful lines: “When happiness is happening it feels as if nothing else happened before it, it is a sensation that happens only in the present tense.” Or: “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.” Even the coat hangers in an irregular Mallorcan hotel are perfectly described: “four bent wire clothes hangers on the rail, they seemed to mimic the shape of forlorn human shoulders.”
And speaking of shoulders — she gives a startling picture of women shouldering society’s expectation that, as mothers, they can continue to travel light. Cyril Connolly wrote about the “pram in the hall” as the “enemy of good art.” Orwell did not wheel a pram into his essay at all. Levy does better with her buggy. She does not know what to do with the formidable younger self who stalks the downbeat mother she has become. She suggests that her experience is commonplace: “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.” A single line sums up the problem: “If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.”
She does not take issue with Orwell (he would admire the way she weaves South African politics into her narrative), but her triumph is to show that the will to write may not always be rational. From the start, as a teenager scribbling on napkins in London’s cafes, she was making it up as she went along. She quotes Polish theater director Zofia Kalinska: “We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theatre, I like to show the hesitation and not to conceal it.” Levy adds: “It is the story of this hesitation that is the point of writing.” It gives one — as does everything in this original, dreamy, unmissable essay — pause for thought.