Why I Write/Things I Don’t Want to Know

I was hoping to have another post up here before now, but the year’s got off to a sluggish start and I haven’t hit my reading stride yet. However, I have finished two short books: Why I Write by George Orwell, and Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy.

I had added the Levy book to my burgeoning Goodreads to-read list because I am partial to a good personal essay, especially if it is related to the process of writing. It had good reviews and an intriguing blurb. It also helped that it is short. It’s always nice to be able to finish something quickly.

I realised, though, that as Things I Don’t Want to Know is a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, I should probably read that first. The Penguin edition comes with three other essays by Orwell: The Lion and the Unicorn, The Hanging, and Politics and the English Language. I found this a little misleading, as the book is just titled ‘Why I Write, with no indication of its other contents. I had only intended to read the title essay, but then felt obliged to read the others.

This was fine in the end, as I found them all interesting; although I did get a bit bogged down in The Lion and the Unicorn. I wonder if this was because I was reading it more out of a sense of duty rather than choice. However, it was often fascinating to read Orwell’s thoughts on World War Two and the future of Britain while the war was still happening. The Hanging is a short, sharp, affecting story from his time in Burma. Politics and the English Language has many things to say about bad writing and why people should stop doing it, and many of the points made are still very much relevant today.

Back to Why I Write and Things I Don’t Want to Know, though. In his short essay, Orwell gives an account of what he was like growing up, and some of his early writing. Many points struck a chord with me. Here’s an example of a passage I identified with:

I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

He then goes on to give four main reasons why he thinks one writes (writers in general, not just him). These are: 1) Sheer egoism; 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm; 3) Historical impulse; and 4) Political purpose. Things I Don’t Want to Know is structured using these four reasons, but in reverse. Levy uses the first part, ‘political purpose’, to write perceptively and often academically about being a woman (including quotes from Kristeva, Duras and De Beauvoir), and about the genesis of some of her writing. One of the many passages I loved:

Like everything that involves love, our children made us happy beyond measure – and unhappy too – but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel. It required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled – we were to be Strong Modern Women while being subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.

The chapter takes the form of a story, framed by a period when she was having a hard time and went to Majorca to try to get away from things. She presents her experiences, and the reader can work out what her political purpose might be. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, trying to say what it is about. It is packed full of stuff. Particularly striking is Levy’s use of language. Long-ago memories and remarks are rendered in achingly precise detail and injected with new meaning.

The second part, ‘historical impulse’, goes back further. Levy tells stories from her time as a child living in South Africa, also evoking vivid, detailed scenes. Part three, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, jumps forward to her as a fifteen-year-old, living in London, going to greasy spoon cafés, and acting as if she were a writer. She speaks of her longing for escape:

It was very very urgent that I got out of my life. Inside the greasy spoon’s steamed up windows and haze of cigarette smoke, this sense of urgency accelerated. I had so little time. Time for what? I didn’t know but I was convinced there was another sort of life waiting for me (…)

She writes ‘England’ on paper napkins in the café and feels neither South African nor English; she deals with her parents’ separation and the arrival of a grumpy au pair. ‘Sheer egoism’, a shorter chapter, switches back to Majorca. Levy declares that rather than a room of her own, all a woman needs to write is “an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa”.

I very much enjoyed Things I Don’t Want to Know, as is probably evident. The only flaw is that I wanted it to go on much longer. But it is so tightly crafted and enriched with detail, I could probably go back again and again and reap something new from it every time.

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