April 29, 2023

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Deborah Levy: ‘Art isn’t there to explain away complexities’

10 min read

“I’m not so hungry — it’s quite early, isn’t it?” Deborah Levy says, eyeing the menu cautiously. It’s the sort of line that Lunching journalists dread, and I’m prepared to feel more than a little disappointed — properly put out, in fact — if the two of us end up picking over a bowl of salted almonds. After all, Levy’s books are filled with vivid descriptions of food, from the juicy oranges of her South African childhood to the lime ice lollies she feeds her dying mother, as detailed in her semi-fictionalised autobiography, not to mention the surreal symbolism in her novels: rotting eggs, sugar mice, melting chocolates swarming with ants.

“Are they?” she says, sounding a little nonplussed by my observation. But she’s soon leading a happy discussion of biltong and boerewors, and admitting that food is a good way to tap into “memory, to emotions, to class, to culture”. My impression of Levy, 63, having glimpsed her from afar at publishing parties, is of a formidable character. Up close, dressed in a pine-green ruched silk blouse, she is no less intimidating: her hair is pinned up high, her voice is soft-focused but intense and her gaze steady.

This steady gaze has been used to powerful effect. Over the past 20 years — during which time she has produced novels alongside three volumes of “living autobiography”: Things I Don’t Want to Know, The Cost of Living and Real Estate — Levy’s unflinching outlook on the world has come to represent, for many women in particular, a thrilling expression of artistic freedom. And her influence has had a galvanising effect on young writers — its reach going some way to explaining the inclusion of a clutch of female autofiction authors on Granta’s latest list of Best of Young British Novelists.

We meet just after midday at Rochelle Canteen in London’s East End, as spring birdsong mingles with the call to prayer from the nearby Shoreditch Mosque. “I’m a big admirer of [the co-patron and chef] Margot Henderson,” Levy says, explaining her choice of restaurant. “Her food is very simple but beautifully cooked.” The decor here is briskly institutional with neat tables, small wooden chairs and lines of coat pegs on whitewashed walls — the building was formerly a school bike shed — but Henderson is well known for her culinary largesse.

Time to order drinks: Levy heads straight for a Negroni, so I follow suit and, as the waitress recedes, Levy leans forward, suddenly beaming and conspiratorial. “Laura, you’re such fun — I’m very pleased you’ve come on board for the Negroni!” In her excellent cookbook You’re All Invited, Henderson describes the effect of this potent cocktail on a party crowd as the “Negroni roar”. Perhaps (I allow myself to wonder) the Negroni whisper will be just as fun. 

Levy’s new novel August Blue, which is published next week, is set a year or so into the Covid pandemic. It follows a virtuoso pianist named Elsa M Anderson as she flits across Europe after a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in Vienna goes horribly wrong. Stalking her every move, through the streets of Athens, London and Paris, is her unnamed alter ego.

“I’d always been interested in doubles and the doppelganger in Gothic literature, and then, moving on a bit, Dostoevsky wrote a short story called The Double, Borges wrote about the double . . . ” Levy says. “And there’s a painter called — shall we just look this up?” She pulls out her iPhone — “Augustus Leopold Egg; isn’t that a great name” — to show me his 1862 painting “The Travelling Companions”, of two nearly identical women seated in a train, the spark behind the book.

“If Elsa is feeling fragile and her double is immensely brave, those two parts of her split self can be in conversation with each other . . . We usually associate that with being crazy or something and I wanted to avoid that,” Levy explains. “So I thought: how do we speak to ourselves? I began to understand how I was going to use the double. It was going to be a voice, a kind of refrain, which could voice [Elsa’s] more awkward, more humiliating thoughts.” I ask if she thinks of this as a particularly female experience. “Everyone has it, it’s just that masculinity at its most performative wants to ignore that awkward inner voice.” 

Rochelle Canteen
16 Playground Gardens, London E2 7FA

Negroni x2 £23
Winter tomatoes and crab £14.50
Brown shrimp salad £12
John Dory £26
Sweetbreads £22
Bread £3
Hispi £6
Marchesi di Pianogrillo ‘Flâneur’ 2x glasses £20
Rhubarb fool £9.50
Double lemon pudding £9.50
Espresso x2 £5
Total (incl tax and service) £171.31

The waitress reappears for our food order. Deliberating over sweetbreads, I mention that someone once described them to me as like eating clouds. “Was that John Keats?” She laughs heartily. “Go for it, because then we can see if the clouds work out.”

Levy herself loves a seafood simile: in her writing, sea urchins are “like eating the reproductive organs of an alien”; scallops are “like eating the human earlobe”; eating oysters is . . . actually I’m not sure we can print this one. And now we have our starters, she describes hers assiduously: “OK, so my crab is really delicious — do you want a taste? It’s got the salty monk’s beard [a samphire-like vegetable], then the smoky tang of tomatoes, but I’d like some bread.” Mine is a well-dressed, if rather healthy tasting, salad of raw white cabbage dotted with brown shrimp and chopped chervil.

I want to know more about Levy’s choice of the Rachmaninoff concerto, best known as the roiling soundtrack to David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, which underpins August Blue. “I decided on the Rach because it’s easily available to readers if they’re interested,” she says. But the musical backdrop to this novel is rooted in Levy’s experience of immersing herself in the classical repertoire during the Covid pandemic. “Oh, it was such a saving grace to listen to that language — a wordless language as well — [when] we were on our news feeds all the time. So many people dying. Just to have no words. So I think I listened to everything Chopin has ever written.”

With the arrival of our main courses — John Dory, with laverbread sauce (made from seaweed) for Levy, and my sweetbreads — we order two glasses of Sicilian white wine and a side of hispi cabbage to go with the fish. “So this is Monsieur John Dory!” Levy says, tucking in.

The daughter of two anti-apartheid activists, Levy was born in Johannesburg in 1959 and spent her early childhood in segregated South Africa. As a young child, she says, she would pretend she didn’t know how to read, “because the horror of being able to read at an early age in South Africa was that you would read signs like ‘this bench is reserved for whites only’ . . . and you see what apartheid and white supremacy are offering you”. Her father, Norman Levy, a lecturer and academic of Jewish heritage, whose parents emigrated from Lithuania, had been put on trial along with Nelson Mandela for communist activities in the late 1950s; in 1964 he was arrested again and imprisoned for the next four years. 

His absence had a traumatising effect on the family and, as she recounts in Things I Don’t Want to Know, coincided with a period where Levy stopped speaking outside the home. “[I had] overwhelming feelings, and the way to help yourself cope is just not to speak, or not very much,” she says. Instead, with the encouragement of a teacher, she started tentatively to redirect these feelings into writing.

The dining room is now in full swing, and Levy and I are struggling to hear ourselves above the clanging and sizzling coming from the open kitchen, our braying neighbours and the sound of heavy rain and thunder claps outside. “How are the clouds?” she asks. The sweetbreads are mixed in a delicious gravy with salty bacon, baby broad beans and mint. Levy declares her John Dory “superb — it has a bitter creamy, lemony sauce and the flesh is tender and really delicate”.

I ask, given her parents’ example, and her clear admiration for George Orwell (her memoir project was initially inspired by his 1946 essay “Why I Write”), if she considers her own writing a political act. “My novels are novels of ideas, and I have to embody those ideas, otherwise it’s just a pamphlet. So, how do you embody ideas about all kinds of things? I have these avatars, characters, who in one way or another, dramatise arguments and opinions — although ‘opinions’ is not quite right — ‘values’, could that be a better word?

“The books I want to write are influenced by all kinds of societal movements and moments, but also the Surrealists, Freud, the natural world . . . it’s OK in my books to hold three contradictory ideas — this is really important to me . . . I don’t think art is there to explain away complexities, explain away contradiction, explain away enigma.”

The success of Levy’s last three novels — Swimming Home (an unsettling drama set in a villa on the French Riviera), Hot Milk (described by the writer as “a thriller about hypochondria”) and The Man Who Saw Everything (a time-bending love story set around the fall of the Berlin Wall) — has brought her skill in capturing the turmoil and absurdity of everyday life and the intricacies of male-female power dynamics to a mainstream readership.

After Norman’s release from jail in 1968, the Levys left South Africa for London, and the young Deborah found herself adjusting to teenage life in the UK. While working as an usher at a cinema in Notting Hill, she met the film-maker Derek Jarman (“He just saw this 18-year-old making the popcorn, giving out the Marine ices, tearing the tickets. He was so cultured and friendly and interested”) and, on his suggestion, she applied for an interdisciplinary degree at Dartington College of Arts, a move that led to her theatre work. Of her 1980s plays, Levy is most proud of Pax (1984), a convoluted epic based on four female characters who embody aspects of 20th-century Europe. “What follows is not always clear,” noted the FT’s review at the time, “ . . . [but] much of Deborah Levy’s narrative is very funny.”

By the end of that decade, she says, “I just wanted to roll up my sleeves and begin to figure out long-form prose”, but she tells me excitedly that she is about to start writing her first play for years, although she remains tight-lipped on the details.

A tempting pudding menu is put before us. “We have to, don’t we?” Levy says. Well, I’m not going to argue, but I’ll also need an espresso if I have any hope of working this afternoon. Levy will have one too. 

Given her range and imaginative ambition it’s remarkable, I say, that her books are so compact — averaging about 200 pages, although August Blue is slightly longer. “I write quite tight novels, and those are what I want to read, although I do like Proust,” Levy says. “It might be good to put a bookmark on the page and say ‘I shall return to this epic work in a week’s time’. But unfortunately, I very rarely do.”

We are presented with two enormous bowlfuls, mine containing a daunting mound of rhubarb fool — more clouds — and Levy’s a wodge of yellow lemon sponge surrounded by a double-cream moat. “I’m going to try it,” she says, before issuing her verdict: “Tart, in just the right way, with this soft fragrant sponge, quite old-fashioned . . . ”

I press Levy on future projects — in particular, if she has plans for a fourth volume of memoirs. Her moving reflections on her early life, her experience of motherhood and divorce, and her Woolfian quest for a home of her own following the dissolution of the family house have attracted an almost cultish following. “I’ve always said no but the other day I did find myself making notes, so I do have some thoughts, against my will.” There’s also a family cookbook in the works. “My daughters asked if I would make a book dedicated to them of some of the things I cook. And I was quite freaked out. Because, I thought, ‘they think I’m going to die’,” she laughs. “Now, of course, in between all the other work I do, this seems like the most pressing commission.” 

Then there are the vaguer plans: a desire to visit Ingmar Bergman’s island off Sweden where she might write and indulge her love of swimming. Pools appear as touchstones of sorts through Levy’s work, from the Hampstead ponds in her north London stomping ground, to the Piscine Joséphine Baker in Paris, where she rents a studio and now spends much of her time — and another that provides a focus for the action in Swimming Home. “I don’t like that kind of swimming where there are two of you, heads up, doing breaststroke,” she says. “I want my head down, my goggles on . . . I still do handstands in the water.”

She leads me down more conversational rabbit holes — a Google search for the etymology of John Dory; the influence of William James on Jack Kerouac; a non-fiction book she is writing about Gertrude Stein, the great intellectual and art collector of interwar Paris, to be titled Mama of Dada — as our puddings defeat us. But precisely two hours after first sitting down, Levy announces that she must leave, and starts to gather her belongings.

After friendly goodbyes, I scan my notebook with a rising sense of panic at all the sensible questions I have failed to ask. Later, realising we never discussed the Booker, for which she has been nominated three times, I email her: “Prizes, and especially the Booker, generally help bring books to the attention of more readers. Hooray to that,” she replies. “[But] there are many magnificent books that have not won prizes so best, really, to understand one’s own sense of literary purpose, and to keep swimming.” But perhaps “sensible” was never going to cut it anyway. 

Levy, like her books, displays an invigorating disregard for convention, for predictability, for concrete resolution. During the past couple of hours she has challenged and delighted, she has offered her own, inimitable perspective on the world — and now her 200 pages are up.

Laura Battle is the FT’s deputy books editor

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