The Tempo of Life
"If we wrote our lives as we feel them, we would never write anything boring".
“I found myself writing that spring when life was very hard, and I couldn’t see where to get to. I cried mostly on escalators at railway stations. I was on to something that began to fascinate me.” The acclaimed British writer reflects on her prizewinning autobiography. Read more …
In this video, Deborah Levy speaks about her acclaimed three volumes of autobiography ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, ‘The Cost’ of ‘Living’ and ‘Real Estate’. She calls it ‘a living autobiography’ because the autobiography is written in the storm of life. The series is a response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay from 1946. Deborah Levy used Orwell’s four headings in her response: ‘Political purpose’, ‘historical impulse’, ‘aesthetical enthusiasm’, and ‘sheer egoism’. Levy thought to herself: “Why don’t I steal them and give those headings a spin from my point of view, a female writer’s point of view? And I didn’t expect them to deliver to me such confronting and strange material for myself to be writing.”
About the background, Levy says: ” I had to work against my editorial instincts because, in fiction, you have characters who are your avatars. So the challenge is to find a tone and a voice. I needed to find a voice that wasn’t grander than I am, that wasn’t a better person than I am, and I didn’t want to find a voice that made me smaller than I am to make readers like me”.
“I wanted a voice like we all are: Immensely powerful, immensely fragile, maybe on Monday one and on Thursday the other, and these could co-exist. For a female writer, I think that is confronting, I am not sure a male writer would have to consider those things. The struggle not to make myself weaker than I actually am was very tempting. I sort of found a voice that would stir the books. So, in a way, it was those tears that started the autobiography these mysterious tears always going up the escalators always of the train stations. It felt like a thriller: What’s going on, and I was going to be both the weeper and the detective at the same time. And I began to do research on escalators…”
” I don’t like theory or psychoanalytic theory to stamp its muddy boots all over the pages of my work. I want the work to be light on its feet. A bit like swimming, like a current, an undertow that could carry you out to the wild sea. I like to find an object or an escalator, something real, something from life. To somehow carry my arguments that’s what I like as a writer and as a reader.”
“You are writing about life and walking into life at the same time. This is a sort of heightened life, the tempo of actual life is very different. A living autobiography is a mash-up of travel writing, and philosophy of everyday life. They were a genre that began to evolve as I write it, a hybrid form.”
“Slow thinking is important in a fast world. I really appreciate it when someone thinks very deeply for me. How we work with time as authors is the challenge. It is very exhilarating. We are not so much shrinks as film directors, we have to cast our books, we have to dress our avatars, we have to light the scene, we have to decide, how many lines do you carry, a you a light character or a major character? The major characters are much trouble, the minor characters are very important, sometimes they haunt us, they could become more major. To be a writer is as much about stamina as inspiration. ”
“If we wrote our lives as we feel them, we would never write anything boring. How could it be boring? So, if you were to take Wednesday and really write it as you feel it, it would become political, it would become historical. My generations of writers were told that women do all the feeling, the men do all the thinking and I protested that from the moment I became a writer. Now I find myself saying that if you can access your feelings, if you write from that position, you are not going to write anything boring.”
Deborah Levy (born 1959, in Johannesburg South Africa) is a British novelist, playwright and poet. She moved to Britain with her family and studied theatre at Dartington College of Arts. Formerly director and writer for MANACT Theatre Company, Cardiff, Deborah Levy’s plays include Pax (1984); Heresies:Eva and Moses (1985), written for the Royal Shakespeare, ‘The B File ‘(1993); and ‘Honey Baby’ (1995). She is also the author of three collections of short stories: ‘Ophelia and the Great Idea’ (1989); ‘Pillow Talk in Europe And Other Places’ (2004); and ‘Black Vodka’ (2013). The latter was shortlisted for the International Frank O’Connor Award. Deborah Levy has written several novels, including’ Beautiful Mutants’ (1989);’ Swallowing Geography’ (1993);’ Swimming Home’ (2011); and’ Hot Milk’ (2016). She has been shortlisted several times for the Booker Prize. Levy’s autobiographical essay on writing, ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, a response to the essay of the same title by George Orwell, was published in 2013. A sequel,’ The Cost of Living’ came in 2018 and the third volume’ Real Estate’ came in 2021 to wide critical praise.
Deborah Levy was interviewed by Synne Rifbjerg in August 2022 in connection with the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Cameras: Rasmus Quistgaard
Edit: Signe Boe Pedersen
Produced by Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2022
Louisiana Channel is supported by Den A.P. Møllerske Støttefond, Ny Carlsbergfondet, C.L. Davids Fond og Samling, and Fritz Hansen.
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