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Interview with Deborah Levy

‘TO BECOME A WRITER, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to speak in my own voice which is not loud at all,’ writes Deborah Levy, in her 2013 essay Things I Don’t Want To Know, recounting her childhood in South Africa for the first time. Her father, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), was jailed when she was 5, and, little by little, she went quiet, losing her voice, only to find it again as a teenager, tentatively taking her first steps as a writer in the greasy spoons of West Finchley.

 

Since 2011, and the publication of the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s voice has boomed loud and clear across the dreary plains of literary Britain. Those who have seen her speak or read her work can testify that hers is a voice worth hearing – and has been, for years. A successful playwright in the early 1980s (Pax, Heresies, The B File), Deborah Levy published her first novel Beautiful Mutants in 1989, the next step in a lifelong engagement with form, ideas, and most of all, language. ‘Her prose dazzles like sunlight on water,’ wrote one critic of Swimming Home – an appraisal that, applied to her entire body of work, stands up.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is surprising that her most successful novel to date was also the hardest to publish, eight years after her last book of stories, Pillow Talk, came out in 2003. ‘There is no way you can send a fierce, exotic and brutally hothead novel out into the British rain during a recession and expect a deal to be on the table with scones, tea and the Daily Mail,’ Levy has commented. The good news is that the recession may be over: after Swimming Home came Black Vodka, a collection of stories shortlisted for this year’s Frank O’Connor Prize, and the aforementioned essay, a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’. In 2016, Hot Milk, a novel on hypochondria, will be published by Hamish Hamilton, who will also reissue her early novels. Success of the type she has been afforded of late has not altered Deborah Levy. She remains approachable, kind, attentive, thoughtful, and wonderfully bizarre.

 

We first met in a greenhouse bookshop in the garden of the Wapping Project in early 2011; it therefore seemed fitting that this interview was conducted in her writing shed. Formerly occupied by the late poet Andrew Mitchell, Levy’s shed is nestled in the back of a quietly overgrown garden in an unassuming residential street east of Hampstead Heath, where Mitchell’s widow Celia still lives. Inside the shed, a copy of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick lay prominently open in front of a desktop Mac, ‘the most cutting-edge technology I can afford’. Above the bookshelves to the left of the desk, a Ralph Steadman print stood watch.

 

It is customary for Levy to end her writing day by sharing a glass of rum with Celia. We met in the morning, so rum was off the cards, but it was late enough to smoke a cigarette rolled in liquorice paper – no filter – in the garden before getting started. Listening back to my tape, I noticed birds chirping away as we talked. In Deborah Levy’s fiction, birds on occasion have their heads wrenched off.

Q

The White Review

— You were born in South Africa in 1959. What are your family origins?

A

Deborah Levy

— My father is Jewish, and his parents were Lithuanians who came to South Africa and owned a fish shop. And then my lovely grandmother Leah decided that she stunk of fish and that she would go into lingerie. I’ve always loved that mix of fish and lingerie.

 

My dad’s father I don’t know anything about really because he died when my father was 6. Apparently he was a Yiddish poet, but I know nothing about what he did. And my mum comes from an upper middle class, posh, English colonial family and shocked her whole family by marrying a penniless Jew. So one half of my family is actually very Jewish and the other half is very WASP.

Q

The White Review

— Your father, as you write in Things I Don’t Want To know, was a political activist.

A

Deborah Levy

— Yes. I come from an ANC family. My father was a political prisoner for four years from 1964–1968. He always said that it wasn’t really race that politicised him, but poverty. He grew up poor, and as a historian he also got politicised because of poverty.

Q

The White Review

— Did you leave South Africa when he came out of prison?

A

Deborah Levy

— We left South Africa when I was 9 in 1968. That was the way to go in those days because political prisoners were placed under house arrest and life could be very difficult. So we came to Britain and I grew up in England, and that’s where I’ve lived since. I don’t feel particularly South African but I feel linked to the struggle in South Africa. I’m proud of my parents for being part of that struggle.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned that your father was a historian. Presumably you grew up in a house full of books?

A

Deborah Levy

— Yes, I grew up in a house full of history books – Auguste Comte, Karl Marx – but it was my mother who put books in my hands. She was a voracious reader. She started me off on Colette and on The RoAD. That’s an amazing thing, to have a mother that gives you on The RoAD to read. I’ve always been a big film person, too.

Q

The White Review

— Did your mother take you to the cinema as well?

A

Deborah Levy

— No, that was a whole language that I found on my own. I think I was more affected by film than literature and still am. When I write now most of what I write unfolds for me quite cinematically.

Q

The White Review

— Are there any filmmakers or films that particularly influenced you?

A

Deborah Levy

— Everything by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When I first discovered Godard I was really interested in those jump cuts and his gorgeous female characters and the structure of films like TWo oR ThRee ThinGs i knoW ABouT heR. Le Mépris will always be one of my favourite films and it very much influenced the writing of sWimminG home – Brigitte Bardot being so scrutinised by all the male characters. I was very interested in how Godard directed her. This is just conjecture, but it seemed that she was directed to be almost angry about her beauty and that made me smile.

Q

The White Review

— You studied Theatre. How did that happen? Did your passion for film lead you to that?

A

Deborah Levy

— I was originally going to read English Literature. On my gap year I was an usherette at Notting Hill Gate cinema which was an art cinema, and still is, and we were showing Derek Jarman’s first films. I was there tearing tickets and handing out the ice cream. Jarman used to come in to the cinema and he was a kind, cultured person. He would ask the lowly usherette giving him an extra big ice cream cone what she was going to do with her life. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read Literature and I didn’t know why. He took me out to tea and he said, ‘Well why don’t you have a look at this?’ and it was some information about Dartington College of Arts. But something had happened before that. By mistake I had wondered into Joseph Beuys’ first exhibition, which must have been at Anthony d’Offay Gallery (Editor’s Note: Stripes From the House of Shaman, 1980).

 

It was a complete accident, I was walking down the road and I could see people going into a building. I’d never been to an art gallery – I didn’t have parents who took me off to art galleries like I drag my poor children to art galleries now. The people going into the building looked exciting and I wondered what they were going to see and I liked their clothes. I think I could smell a strange smell, too. So I went in and it blew my mind. I remember thinking, ‘This is it, this is it’. I had no idea what it was, and as I walked around that show I knew it was some kind of visual philosophy but I couldn’t articulate that. It was steering me away by the second from reading English. I was lost, I didn’t really know what it was that I wanted to know more about. But Jarman got that when I was giving him his ice cream and told me about Dartington College of Arts, and off I went.

Q

The White Review

— What was that like?

A

Deborah Levy

— I wound up having an avant-garde theatre and contemporary arts training. I was very bookish and had already started writing stuff, but at Dartington I had to learn dance. Not Fame kind of dancing, this was post-modern dance, contact improvisation. We had to just walk around and figure out how the body was aligned. So you have to imagine a bookish writer, 18 years old, all set up to be discussing the use of weather as metaphor in the first five novels of Jane Austen, suddenly finding herself in rural Devon figuring out how is the body aligned.

Q

The White Review

— What were you reading at the time?

A

Deborah Levy

— I was reading Artaud, Beckett, Pinter, and then secretly quite a lot of Chekhov.

Q

The White Review

— Secretly because Chekhov was seen as conservative?

A

Deborah Levy

— I don’t think Chekhov was seen as cool. Although I did tell Colette King, a visionary educationalist who ran the theatre department at that time, that I was reading Chekhov. She told me that this was absolutely the right thing to do. What I got from Chekhov, but didn’t know it then, was his gentle existentialism. I also had to slope off to read the Jacobeans, like Webster, with his very dense, violent, seething language.

Q

The White Review

— When did you start to think you wanted to write, or wanted to make that your profession?

A

Deborah Levy

— I knew very young that I wanted to write. Back in South Africa I was told to write down my thoughts when I didn’t speak up enough as a child in con- vent school. That was very exciting to me, that you can actually write your thoughts. I discovered that my thoughts were quite loud. Then, at Dartington, I was writing short stories, which became opheLiA AnD The GReAT iDeA (Editor’s Note: Deborah Levy’s first collection, published in 1985). I was so young when I wrote those stories – 19, 20. They were only published about five years later.

Q

The White Review

— Before you published any literature you wrote some plays. Did you see theatre as a career that would keep you going while you wrote other things?

A

Deborah Levy

— Oh no, no. The kind of theatre that I was interested in was European theatre, directors like Tadeusz Kantor, much later on Pina Bausch. Theatre was a real passion, as important as literature. It’s really what made my name: pAX, heResies, those plays – particularly one play called The B fiLe: An eRoTic inTeRRoGATion of five femALe peRsonAs (Editor’s Note: where five performers from different countries delivered monologues in their own language, wearing only bikinis, and each monologue was translated on stage into English by an interpreter in a bikini). That play has sort of become a classic and that’s done all over the world and I think it’s probably my most successful theatre piece.

Q

The White Review

— You wrote a preface to your collected plays for Methuen Editions in 2000, in which you wrote that in your twenties you believed that ‘theatre could change the world’. Why did you change your mind?

A

Deborah Levy

— It was very clear to me that I was never going to write political theatre – I was political in a different way. I was blowing up the form of theatre at that time, writing against the well-made naturalistic play. I was honing a language, finding a language from the things that interested me, and at the time I could do it through performative language.

Q

The White Review

— Your first novel, Beautiful Mutants, came out in 1986. As with much of your later work, it owes a lot to surrealism. Is there a particular strand of the surrealist project that you’re particularly attracted to?

A

Deborah Levy

— Absolutely: found objects, experiments with first thoughts. André Breton talked about automatic writing as being a true photography of thought. I’ve never personally been a fan of automatic writing, I think it’s shit, although now and again you get something disruptive and startling. I found the female surrealist visual artists so liberating: Lee Miller, Ady Fidelin, Nusch Eluard and Leonora Carrington. I’ve always wanted them to be my best friends, I just think they were great.

Q

The White Review

Beautiful Mutants is also the beginning of your engagement with psychoanalysis. You have a character called Freddy telling Lapinski that he stole a statue of Freud from a London park. Then in the next paragraph he says he has ‘desires that he doesn’t understand’.

A

Deborah Levy

— (laughs) Yeah, it’s young work, maybe I was beginning to explore everything I was going to write about for the next twenty years. Freud’s statue is stolen from a park, so I must have thinking about the Freud statue outside Swiss Cottage Library. One of the odd things about writing books is that you have to forget the last book in order to write the next one. So I always love it when things like this come up. What else does Freddy say?

Q

The White Review

— ‘Yesterday, Lapinski, I stole a statue of Freud and carried him home and I danced for him, swinging my hips until they became paralysed. First my neck, but that was okay, it was interesting, I could still move the rest of my body. Then my arms froze in a great O shape above my head, wrists turned in on themselves, but my legs still danced on. I explored the family trees in my joints, muscles, bones, and then I became totally paralysed… statue-like in front of the statue Freud.’

A

Deborah Levy

— I must have been thinking about that hysterical patient of Freud, the great dancer, who became paralysed. Carry on…

Q

The White Review

— ‘He watched me and then he spoke, asked for cocaine, books, a cigar, a florentine from a Viennese pâtisserie. I asked him whether my paralysis was real or a state of mind but he was silent and staring. Staring at my penis, so I got an erection, (Deborah Levy laughs) and that became frozen too, which is to say, Lapinski, what am I to do with this lip-stuck Rizla? Am I to attempt trans-meditational coitus with you – Lapinski who dropped his seed somewhere in me, like the male fish who carries eggs in his mouth?

 

Lapinski, I have desires I don’t understand. I dreamt I was a torturer. I made women do things they didn’t want to do, made them squeal with pain and ecstasy, tied them up and beat them and fucked them in their most secret places.’

A

Deborah Levy

— Yeah. Quite good, Jacques.

Q

The White Review

Beautiful Mutants is also a polyphonic novel, and polyphony is very much a modernist concern, theorised by Mikhail Bakhtin. It’s fashionable these days to state one’s position vis à vis modernism. What’s yours?

A

Deborah Levy

— I just have no idea why anyone wouldn’t be attracted to modernism. It’s incomprehensible to me. There wasn’t really much writing like BeAuTifuL muTAnTs when it was first published in the UK and I wrote it because I had to find out what I could do with language, I had to find out everything. I didn’t set out to write like a modernist or a surrealist, but I didn’t set out to write a realist novel either. I wasn’t really writing in protest against other kinds of writing either. I obviously had my aesthetic enthusiasms, but language was the great adventure of my life. BeAuTifuL muTAnTs represents the sum of those early technical experiments.

 

But what’s important about BeAuTifuL muTAnTs as you read it back to me is that it’s full of uncertainties. That’s very important too, and I begin it there. The idea that there’s a ‘don’t know’ running through the book – that’s the beginning of the questions that I’m obviously asking myself about coherence. how do you write a coherent character or why should you? how would you do that?

Q

The White Review

— There is a character in Beautiful Mutants called ‘The Poet’. In Black vodka, the hunchback in the title story is known as the ‘Crippled Poet’. Joe Jacobs in Swimming Home is of course known as the ‘arsehole poet’, among other monikers. Is there a reason why you have frequently written in characters who are poets?

A

Deborah Levy

— You’re right. I’m through with poets. I am going to focus on engineers from now on. Ballard was once asked why so many female doctors turned up in his novels – he said it was because he had scientific training. Frankly, I reckon they just turned him on. Do I get an erotic charge from poets? Come to think of it, in BeAuTifuL muTAnTs, The Poet is a factory worker and in BLAck voDkA the Crippled Poet is an advertising copy writer. So the only hard-nosed poet is Joe in sWimminG home and he very rarely speaks poetically. In fact he is chastised for this apparent lack of poetry by the elderly retired doctor, Madeleine Sheridan. She makes him almond soup and when he discovers a small clump of her silver hair in it, he is mortified. This humiliates Dr Sheridan: ‘she thought a poet might have done better than that. He could have said, “Your soup was like drinking a cloud.”’

 

Early on I decided that if you told Joe you had a nose like a walnut he would tell you to go and see a doctor immediately. Now and again I give him a bit of slack – such as when Kitty finch writes the words ‘it’s raining’ on his hand. ‘He stared at the black rain she had inked on his hand and told himself it was there to soften his resolve. She was clever. She knew what rain does. It softens hard things.’ There are flashes now and again of this sort of poetic interior blaze in Joe but he is slyly disguised as a bit of a brute; all the characters know (someone must have told them) that he would lift a wardrobe with his teeth if there was a beautiful woman inside it. I don’t think Keats had that sort of muscle tone?

 

And while we’re on poets, Apollinaire gets a mention in both sWimminG home and ThinGs i Don’T WAnT To knoW. I am so hopelessly in love with the spinning blades of Apollinaire’s poetry that he now has the gall to walk in to my writing without knocking on the door. Okay, a light knock, but he knows I will always let him in. And then of course, I am attracted to tough poetic prose and have never been disappointed by Genet. This line from A Thief’s JouRnAL gets me every time, ‘There is a close relationship between flowers and convicts…’ Already I’m seeing the pink and white striped convict uniforms he describes in every striped flower, never mind everything else he is chasing in this subversive image.

Q

The White Review

— Did you name the ‘arsehole poet’ in Swimming Home after Josef Breuer?

A

Deborah Levy

— No. But Breuer is so fascinating because he discovered the value of ‘the talking cure’ quite by accident, a term coined by his brilliant hysterical patient, Bertha Pappenheim (Editor’s Note: Anna O. in the case history). Breuer got nervous when she had the phantasy she was pregnant with his child. In fact Breuer’s wife freaked out and they left for a holiday in Venice where the wife literally became pregnant by Breuer. But the real mother of mothers was Freud who at the time was Breuer’s student. Freud was pregnant with this new avant-garde science of the unconscious – which in a way was Bertha’s baby.

Q

The White Review

Swimming Home could be said to be quite a break from your previous work, in that it – on the surface, at least – takes on a more conventional narrative form. How did you come up with the idea, and why write it like that?

A

Deborah Levy

— If you read early Ballard, such as his collection of stories veRmiLLion sAnDs or The WinD fRom noWheRe or The DRoWneD WoRLD – and then read cocAine niGhTs, supeR-cAnnes, miLLenium peopLe, it is clear that in these later novels he is working with more conventional narrative form. Yet this more conventional narrative form is designed to hold some of Ballard’s most experimental thinking. Take the tennis coach or ‘deviant messiah’, Bobby Crawford, in cocAine niGhTs who goes on all kinds of delinquent rampages in the bored bourgeois gated community in the Costa del Sol. Ballard argues the only kind of psychology equipped to survive the twenty-first century will be the psychopath – I’m guessing that Ballard needed this tennis coach in his pristine whites to exist in something that resembles the realist novel (albeit with the atmosphere of a Delvaux painting) because Crawford’s function is to be convincing enough to ventriloquise and embody Ballard’s own radical arguments. He was subverting crime fiction.

 

I wasn’t consciously thinking about any of this when I wrote sWimminG home but it must have stuck with me. It was exciting and maddening to be so deeply engaged with constructing a surface that could be read on any level at all. At the same time I was trying to find a technique to use language like a needle to pierce that surface and let the unconscious of the novel crawl through. I knew I had to do this from the very first sentence: ‘When Kitty finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.’

 

On a good day, when I read drafts of sWimminG home back to myself, I thought, yes, this is the way to do it, this is working, the only thing that mattered to me was to reach my ideas. The writing was unfolding as a mix of realism and modernism and this was creating an uncanny effect. I reckon I still have much more to do with this mix. One of the editors who declined sWimminG home said to me, ‘I don’t know how to take this apart because I can’t work out how you put it together.’ I think that was an honest response – I have some respect for it, even though sWimminG home did not need taking apart. It took a clever modern editor like Sophie Lewis at And Other Stories to understand that you do not hack writing like sWimminG home with a nineteenth-century saw.

 

Back in the day, I once had an editor who disliked all the literature I happen to like and loathed all the films I admire. So what did she do to my prose? She inserted a semi-colon after every third word. She had obviously experienced a semi-colon psychosis and was extremely dangerous. I think she now has a small business polishing antique furniture.

Q

The White Review

— There’s something of the uncanny in Swallowing Geography, too, and that was published in 1993.

A

Deborah Levy

sWALLoWinG GeoGRAphy is the nearest I got – the nearest I will ever get – to theory taking a major stroll through my fiction. It’s a collection of interlinked fictions which I wrote during the first Gulf War, and I asked myself, ‘What if you had a female narrator walking through a world at war?

Q

The White Review

— At one point, J.K., the heroine, is asking herself some existential questions. The last thing she thinks, which is not so much a question as a statement, is: ‘It is possible that classic rules of form and structure do not fit this experience of existing and not existing at the same time.’ It feels like a guiding principle for this book in particular, which could be read as an attempt to find new rules of form and structure.

A

Deborah Levy

— I am always, always trying to find new rules of form and structure. That doesn’t stop and it didn’t stop in sWimminG home. All my books are part of that investigation, it’s just the pleasure of spending so many hours of every day sitting down and writing. But yes, that’s a kind of manifesto.

Q

The White Review

Swallowing Geography is also about exile.

A

Deborah Levy

— Yes, at the time I was probably reading lots of Homi K Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said. I was asking myself, ‘Where and what is home? Is home bricks and mortar? Is it a connecting series of cultural ideas and values that we all buy into?’ That is what sWALLoWinG GeoGRAphy was up to. And I was a fellow, at Trinity College, Cambridge, when I was writing it. I had time and some money to really think about those things. I was very much at home

Q

The White Review

— How do you begin to write a novel?

A

Deborah Levy

— Well, hoT miLk will explore hypochondria – how did that start? It started in a Costa Coffee. I was looking at the froth of milk and I was thinking about the way people clutch coffee cups, these coffee cups we take out. There’s a lot of writing on a chain store coffee cup – it tells us that it’s going to be recycled, and that it’s made in Britain. It tells us that the contents are hot. I love that, ‘Contents hot’. So I thought, ‘What if I started a book, in a chain store coffee house, with the milk being frothed?’ And I ended up in a field with a calf suckling a cow, and that’s just how it goes for me.

 

In between the milk frothing and the cow suckling I’m interested in the way that hypochondriacs defy a diagnosis and present mysterious symptoms to their GP that can’t possibly be fathomed, and as soon as the GP gets closer to a possible diagnosis, they change the narrative. Hypochondriacs are sometimes described as ‘heart sink patients’, because they make the GP’s heart sink, and they are also described as ‘fat folder patients’ because there’s so many notes that their folders are very heavy. Anyhow, GPs take narratives when symptoms are described to them. Hypochondriacs are like writers, they are always changing the story – always, in a sense, defying the narrative, ‘Well it can’t possibly be migraines! It can’t possibly be migraines because…’ hoT miLk will be a thriller of symptoms, and that’s the sort of stretch of it at the minute. (Takes a notebook out of a big plastic box full of notebooks.) Here’s a notebook called ‘Description of swordfish’. This will end up in hoT miLk. The passage will be about a haul of swordfish that I saw come in on a beach in Spain, and the thing about swordfish is that they have blue eyes. Round, clear, blue eyes, and they’re very, very long and silver with these long swords. I saw the fishermen hack off the swords, and they would give the swords to all the pretty women on the beach, a bit like a matador who cuts off the ear of a bull and throws it into the crowd. I wrote that whole sequence about eight years ago.

Q

The White Review

— Once you have the idea, do you research and plan a book?

A

Deborah Levy

— Most of my recent books are meticulously planned. I don’t think meticulous is quite the right word actually: they are planned. What I like to do when I begin is have the beginning, and the end, and both of those might change, and probably will change, but I can then better see the space between that start in Costa Coffee, and that calf suckling a cow, and it just interests me enough to start. I have no idea if that’s actually how it’s going to begin, and if the swordfish is going to come in the middle. As the research accumulates, I then leave it behind. There’s nothing worse than a writer who is continually researching,

Q

The White Review

— So once you’ve done the research, that’s it, you then get to the writing stage?

A

Deborah Levy

— Yeah. Research is so fascinating, why would we ever want to stop researching and do something as hard as write? So, that’s, if you like, the technique. You have to stop. And if I find myself wanting to return to research halfway through a novel I know that I’m stuck and that it’s not going to deliver for me, and that I’d be better off going for a swim on Hampstead Heath, or just anywhere really. In the lido.

 

Also, I don’t keep offcuts when I’m writing fiction. I don’t recommend anyone try this at home, and I would never recommend it to my students, but somehow it’s an added thrill of writing, to lose a whole page of writing. Even if there is a good paragraph in that page, I just let it go. And sometimes it works, most of the time it works, because I feel I have to start again, and re-find it, or find something else. There is a whole three pages of the original sWimminG home that has made me stop that game, because I couldn’t ever re-find it. It was just too long, and I really miss those three pages, I want them now. With my next fiction, I won’t be up to that caper.

Q

The White Review

— Once you start writing, what’s a good day’s work? Do you get up in the morning and write through the day? Or is it harder than that?

A

Deborah Levy

— I used to write better early in the morning. If I had it my way I would be up at 4 a.m., and I would write until 2 p.m., and then that would be the end of the writing day. Mornings are so soft, and everything’s still, everything’s quiet, nothing’s really begun early in the morning. They suit me. The perfect life would be to stop at 2 p.m. and for there to be blazing sunshine and to just be able to swim and frolic. Frolic, I think that’s a lovely word, frolic, and I think we should all do more frolicking.

Q

The White Review

— In 1997, you published Diary of a Steak, a fiction about the ‘Mad Cow Crisis’ from the perspective of a cow, partly inspired by Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. In effect, you were writing about Mad Cow Disease as an expression of this idea of female hysteria.

A

Deborah Levy

— That began when I was watching the news and they showed a cow stumble into a pen full of sawdust, and We The Nation watched this cow fall and writhe and move its head frantically around and roll its eyes. so I began to think about Charcot’s female patients at the Pitié-Salpêtrière, who used to perform the gestures of hysteria on his behalf…

Q

The White Review

— Freud studied under Charcot didn’t he?

A

Deborah Levy

— Absolutely, and he called his first son after Jean-Martin Charcot, he called him Jean-Martin Freud, and his son had to change his name to Martin Freud because everyone thought he was a girl.

 

Anyhow, I began to see that cow as one of Charcot’s patients, and DiARy of A sTeAk was born. The camera was crucial to the study of hysteria at the time, and so there we were, because of the camera, watching this poor cow in various states of distress. I thought, ‘Why not look at hysteria through the BSE crisis?’ And so in the book you have an official from Westminster broadcasting through a tannoy to a herd of cows, ‘You are normal! You are the national anthem!’

 

And then we romp through Showalter’s phenomenal book The FemALe mALADy and some of the writing begins to disintegrate as some of the cow’s brain begins to dissolve. The vet who attends to the herd is called Dr Bolognese, and at one point someone decides that the herd should be kitted out in Vivienne Westwood. Everything is in there, some really low jokes, and some quite rigorous theory. That was really fun to write.

Q

The White Review

— Are you comfortable with the label of ‘experimental’ writer, which is sometimes ascribed to your work? Do you think this is a useful notion, that of an ‘experimental’ writing?

A

Deborah Levy

— An artist is nothing if she does not experiment or take risks. And not just artists. Imagine someone saying, ‘I never experimented with anything in my life and I never took a single risk.’ That would have to be the equivalent of dying of safety. At the same time, I respect what the founder of Dalkey Archive Press, John O’Brien, has to say on this – he doesn’t like the word experimental because it suggests that a whole book is not finished, that it has not been achieved. he says he only publishes complete achievements, not experiments. In the UK the word experimental has been used by critics with a shamefully narrow range of cultural references to beat up some very skilled writers. And I get furious when weak writing is passed off as experimental writing – it is just bad writing.

Q

The White Review

— Marguerite Duras is an important influence on you. In Things I Don’t Want to Know, you write that she ‘has crushed delusions of femininity’. What is it that you admire in her? What have you learned from her?

A

Deborah Levy

— Well, her writerly attention is always in an interesting place. She had an impoverished childhood in Vietnam and this was explored in her novel The LoveR. It is here in her masterpiece, published when she was 70, that you will find one of the most devastating seductions ever written. A teenage white girl has an affair with a Chinese financier, and it’s not just an erotic forbidden sexual encounter, it’s an essay on how colonialism messes everyone up. Duras is a totally unsentimental, mind-blowing writer, and the formal design of her fiction is often beautifully cinematic because she wrote and directed for film too.

 

And then something else: I like how Duras gets on with men, both in her fiction and film and in her life. She is interested in difference, she has no intellectual or emotional investment in that stupid idea that we would be more equal if we dissolve difference and become more like each other. If you read her book of essays – she called them conversations – titled pRAcTicALiTies in the English translation, you will understand that this is a rare kind of intelligence at work.

Q

The White Review

— How important is the ego, self-confidence?
A

Deborah Levy

— All the wrong sorts of people have too much self-confidence.

 

 

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Deborah Levy has a story, 'Weeping Machines', in the fourth issue of The White Review. You can buy it here.

Jacques Testard is the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions and a founding editor of The White Review.