When Reality Slips

‘Fading Memory,’ 2014; collage by Johanna Goodman
Johanna Goodman
‘Fading Memory,’ 2014; collage by Johanna Goodman

If you’ve read Deborah Levy’s punchy memoir The Cost of Living (2018), you know about her string of pearls. At around the age of fifty, just as “life was supposed to be slowing down” for Levy, a South Africa–born writer based in England, her marriage falls apart. She sells her family house, moves with her daughters to an apartment building whose “communal corridors were covered in grey industrial plastic for three years after we moved in,” and subjects herself entirely to “the Republic of Writing and Children.” One day, lugging heavy grocery bags, Levy runs into a neighbor who has taken to scolding her for leaving her bicycle in the wrong parking lot. At that moment, the pearl necklace that Levy wears all the time—even to write in a dusty shed, even to go swimming—breaks, and the pearls scatter to the ground. “Oh dear,” the neighbor says. “Tuesday is not your day, is it?” Her unhappiness, Levy writes, was like Beckett’s definition of sorrow: “A thing you can keep adding to all your life…like a stamp or an egg collection.”

Levy has described her fascination with those pearls as stemming from Colette’s novel Cheri, which begins with a couple’s quarrel over a pearl necklace that the man believes would look better on him than on his lover. The reference is unsurprising. Levy’s deceivingly slim books are crammed with allusions to her literary progenitors: Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, but also Louise Bourgeois, Claude Cahun, and Cindy Sherman. For Levy is, above all, a visual writer, heaping image upon tantalizing image. A naked woman floating—or is it drowning?—in a French Riviera swimming pool that is more marshy pond than tourist-blue. (You can practically hear the pulsing of the cicadas.) A chicken tumbling out of a grocery bag and flattened by the tires of an oncoming car, “like roadkill,” then roasted and devoured for dinner. A delicate young man caressing a neighbor’s poodle on a “turtle-green sofa,” a telephone ringing in the background while he’s thinking back to a lunch he had with a friend who, Levy writes, “was somehow lacking in feeling.”

Her three most recent novels—Swimming Home (2011), Hot Milk (2016), and her latest, The Man Who Saw Everything—all have moments of omniscience, short scenes interspersed in the text in a voice distinct from the rest of the narrative. This leads to a sense of uncertainty and wonderment. Who is speaking? At what point in time are we? Her books hover between dream and reality, consciousness and unconsciousness. It would be tempting to think of them as improvisational, strung together by free association, but that would be wrong. Her novels are meticulously structured. They circle in on themselves, full of repetitions, allusions, and elisions whose logic unfailingly reveals itself at the…

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