Deborah Levy’s Search for a Major Female Character

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In the 2022 song “Anything but Me,” MUNA, a pop group known for sweet, close harmonies and an aesthetic of “queer joy,” sings, “You’re gonna say that I’m on a high horse / I think that my horse is regular-sized / Did you ever think maybe / You’re on a pony / Going in circles on a carousel ride?” Beware the woman on her high horse: like the animal she steers, she is extravagant, willful, disobedient. She takes her grandiosity seriously, even if “high” is a subjective word, even if any horse might appear too high with a woman on its back. Ask the British author Deborah Levy, who considers the idiom in “Real Estate” (2021), her third “living autobiography.” The book, which Levy wrote after getting divorced in her fifties, chronicles her attempts to unlearn the lessons she absorbed during her marriage—namely, that she should subordinate her life to caregiving and housework. In an anthemic passage, she envisions the kind of woman into whom she is trying to transform herself:

If I could not find her in real life, why not invent her on the page? There she is, steering her high horse with flair, making sure she does not run over girls and women struggling to find a horse of their own. Does she scoop them up and ride the high horse with them? Do they scoop her up and take over the reins? Did that feel true? I hoped so. My fifties had been a time of change and turbulence, energetic and exciting. A time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming. So there you are! Where have you been all these years?

“Real Estate” and Levy’s two earlier living autobiographies, “Things I Don’t Want to Know” (2014) and “The Cost of Living” (2018), are bound together by her search for this figure, the elusive “major female character” or “missing female character”—a woman who would be the hero of her own life. (In “Real Estate,” Levy further complicates this quest by looking for the older female protagonist.) Levy has been writing fiction, plays, poetry, and essays since the early eighties, and has twice been short-listed for the Booker Prize, for the novels “Swimming Home” and “Hot Milk.” But the three living autobiographies, named for their elliptical quality, the way they drift backward and forward in time, may be her best-loved works. A pleasing paradox of Levy’s career is that new generations have received her rejection of maternal martyrdom as a gesture of care. The books have connected her to an audience of women grateful for the mentorship and encouragement in their pages; a recent Guardian profile describes readers coming to Levy’s events for life advice, as if travelling to Canterbury.

In “Things I Don’t Want to Know,” which Levy wrote in her late forties and early fifties, she excavates her childhood in apartheid South Africa, her early years as a playwright, and the beginnings of her marriage. “The Cost of Living” and “Real Estate” cover her divorce and subsequent self-reinvention. Levy travels across Europe; she covets imaginary mansions with fountains and pomegranate trees; she throws elaborate dinner parties with her daughters.

The books have their manifesto-like moments. “To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of the Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman,” Levy writes in “The Cost of Living.” But much of their appeal flows from Levy’s honesty about her own ambivalence and uncertainty. Her account of becoming free—filling her days with art and work, thinking through solitude, battling loneliness—refuses triumphalism. “I was unmaking the home that I’d spent much of my life’s energy creating,” she writes. “My new life was all about fumbling for keys in the dark.”

In her fiction, too, Levy evokes characters who are unrealized or in transition. “Swimming Home” features a Polish émigré turned cosmopolitan poet. The historian in “The Man Who Saw Everything” can’t put the events of his life in the right order. “August Blue,” Levy’s eighth and newest novel, extends this project. When the book opens, the main character, Elsa, a concert pianist, is in crisis. She keeps catching glimpses of a woman whom she believes in some enigmatic way to be her double. She has just sabotaged a performance at a concert in Vienna: instead of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto, her fingers, as if possessed, began to tap out an alien composition. Elsa’s own origins are equally mysterious to her. Her birth parents gave her up when she was very young to a neighboring family. Later, she was adopted by the renowned maestro Arthur Goldstein. The novel is shaped by Elsa’s longing for her birth mother and her struggle to make peace with women who turn away from their children, as Elsa’s mom did, and toward themselves, as Elsa herself must. The book unspools, in spare, charged vignettes, as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, with Elsa moving closer to her doppelgänger, the buried truth of her parentage, and her own artistic voice.

The novel, like much of Levy’s fiction, takes place in a world that feels at once familiar and permeated with tones and shapes from its protagonist’s unconscious. Obscurely symbolic horses dance and stamp; the double seems somehow to have accessed Elsa’s earliest memories. Elsa is searching for what the typical Levy heroine seeks—a blueprint for becoming the major female character—and her desire pushes her to strange and poetic acts of self-repossession. She uses her hands, insured for millions of dollars, to pull sea urchins from the ocean. Declaring independence from nature itself, she dyes her hair blue.

When I spoke to Levy, who is sixty-three, over Zoom, she had recently concluded her U.K. book tour. She appeared at her desk, in front of a wide-open window, clad in a wavy blouse that matched her plummy lip gloss. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you doing?

It’s a sunny day in Paris. It’s been raining endlessly, as if there were no other weather here. But now it’s warm and the sky is blue. And I have the window open and that feels good.

I’m in Paris because my French publishers keep me busy, and they have just brought out a book of my unpublished collected writing—essays, stories, letters, and so on—called “The Position of Spoons.”

Why “The Position of Spoons”?

It’s the title of a story in the anthology, and there’s something about putting a collection of writing together. You’re positioning, you’re deciding what’s going to be against what.

Was there something in particular that drew you to spoons?

The French title is “La Position de la Cuillère,” which means “the spoon position.” And when the book is published in the U.K. next year, it will also be “Spoon Position”—a title with a different meaning, I think. Just slightly sexualized. The story is about a man who always wants his spoon, when he eats his boiled egg, to face the egg. It’s a little obsessional. He feels faint and disoriented if the spoon changes position.

Your work feels very French to me, even though you’re not from France. It’s maybe to do with sensuality and the absence of puritanical shame. Pleasure is healthy but not fetishized; you pay attention to the idea of living well. Does that seem fair?

There is certainly a lack of shame in the living autobiographies. They’re not written with the shame of a shipwrecked marriage; they try to write themselves out of societal shame. And my characters take pleasure in small things. It’s a suffering world and a nourishing one; it contains many things that are of sustenance.

I grew up on French literature, by mistake, at my school in London. We had an Irish librarian and translated literature was very hard to find, especially for my generation. My mother had introduced me to Colette—I’d never been to France and was thirteen, fourteen—and it was as if a wind had blown in from Burgundy and from Paris. When I read about Colette’s mother, in her book “Sido,” I wanted my mother to be just like Sido, to make me hot chocolate and to point out spiders, the silk of their webs, and to show me the dew on a rose in the morning. But my mother was scared of spiders.

Your writing has a very dreamlike, inward quality. There are the doubles in “August Blue.” Even the autobiographies have an associative logic that makes them feel as though they’re transpiring half within the narrator’s head. But that self-involvement, for lack of a better word, doesn’t collapse into self-loathing. Characters aren’t ashamed to live in their thoughts or to put their artistic practice first. So much recent American literature seems mired in self-awareness and shame. Your work feels different.

A friend, a radio producer, was telling me about making a program about music teachers. A student was playing Chopin, and the teacher said, “Stop! Don’t you realize all of life and all of death is in this chord?” [Laughs.] Now that’s not how I would speak about writing. But, in a way, it’s how I think about writing. Elsa, the protagonist of “August Blue,” is a concert pianist, and the mercilessness of her training really interested me. I’ve always wanted to write about merciless training, which I have a great deal of respect for. I was slowly building up to Elsa because I wanted [the training] to come apart—just to see what would happen. If there’s something locked inside you and you are fearful, as she is fearful, of unlocking it and playing it . . . perhaps there is shame in that, in showing the composition to others—as well as, I suppose, in keeping it locked up. But one hopes that the shame isn’t the sum of the story.

In some ways, “August Blue” reminds me of your other work, especially the autobiographies. A woman’s way of life comes to an end, partly because she chooses to end it, and she has to find something new. What drew you to this configuration of the problem, these details?

I was writing the book during and after the lockdowns of the pandemic. I became very addicted to my news feeds, which I read every day. What was I looking for? It was as if I were looking for a narrative for the end of the world. I had to read everything. I realized that the anxiety was pervasive: my friends and family felt it, too. I wanted to scoop up that mood, all the low-level anxiety, and put it in the body of my protagonist. And I was listening to a lot of classical piano. I wanted no words at that time. The feeling of wordlessness—I think it amplified my sense that the world needs a new composition.

I know we don’t want pandemic novels—my heart sinks if someone tells me to read one—but I have to own that I wrote one. I had to decide: What do I do with it? What do you do with a momentous historical moment that you lived through? Do you just pretend it didn’t happen? I decided that I wanted to mark it in some way because it marked me. I was thinking of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which was set in 1923, soon after the First World War and the Spanish Flu. Of course Woolf had Mrs. Dalloway buy flowers! Because of the grim time that Woolf lived through, she would need to begin with the character doing something totally frivolous. That’s why I had Elsa buy a pair of mechanical dancing horses. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf and Clarissa Dalloway merge, and their double, as it were, is Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked soldier. I could hear the echo, the haunting, of Woolf’s book in my mind all through the writing of “August Blue.”

You often return to the figure of the horse, especially in connection with women. Who is the woman on the high horse?

There aren’t many female doppelgängers in literature. I was thinking of Jean Genet, who was an orphan. I remember reading, in Edmund White’s brilliant biography, that Genet used to write under the light of a lamp at night. He would look up at every woman passing just in case it was his mother. That’s not rational: how would he know? But he was in that interesting place that Elsa is in, looking for her mother in the double. When Elsa is just a baby, her birth mother gives her up. And Elsa, on a very subliminal level, when she’s playing the piano, aged five and six, experiences a feeling that she’s playing to someone. I reckon that would be her unknown mother. When she talks about her double as someone who’s listening to her very attentively, I wanted, without underlining it in any way, to mirror the mother. The double is the split self; usually, there’s a good and a bad self, and they’re hellbent on destroying each other.

The double struck me as an example of the “missing female character” or “unwritten female character” that you’ve said you’re looking for. In a way, she’s Elsa, and she’s Elsa’s birth mother, and she’s possibly her lover, too. What made you want to blur those relationships?

I don’t feel that mothers are lovers. But maybe you’re talking about affection, attachment, or detachment—all wonderful subjects. All my subjects, I think. It’s not clear in the book whether this woman who bought the mechanical dancing horses actually is identical to Elsa. I leave some space there. A little later we hear that Elsa has green eyes and her double has brown eyes. She must represent Elsa, and yet I wanted her to be embodied, with needs of her own.

You said that Elsa, when she plays piano, is always playing to her mother. Who were you writing to when you wrote the novel?

Maybe I’m writing to my father. Elsa and Arthur have a confusing relationship—one that I didn’t have with my own father, by the way. He wasn’t my teacher. But Elsa’s been gifted to Arthur, who is her father-teacher. I was interested in the relationships that we have with a mentor. I can see that, writing Arthur’s death, I had my father’s recent death in mind. We all sat on his deathbed and fed him ice cream. I was so struck by how much he was enjoying the ice cream. That’s what it comes down to in the end: a little bit of ice cream on a teaspoon.

Who else am I writing to? I’m in conversation, I think, with a generalized contemporary anxiety. “August Blue” is not really about finding an identity; it’s about losing one. It contains my rage about the old composition of the suffering world. It’s about how badly we need a new language, and how hard it is to make it. I don’t just mean a literary language or musical language. [While writing the book,] I was watching films of the third generation of dancers who followed Isadora Duncan. Duncan was the mother of modern dance and broke through all the ballet conventions. Hers is a very easy language to mock: I would find myself doing the mocking and the admiring in equal measure. But then I decided it was much more interesting to respect it. To respect it would be to move, as Duncan often does, upward and outward, instead of only inward and downward. And so, having come from those pandemic years of inward and downward, I thought, Yes, what we have to do is move upward and outward. I repeat that in the novel, because it’s somewhere for Elsa to get to as well. Upward and outward. With the help of a possible double.

Tell me about your ongoing search for the “missing female character.”

You’re talking about the living autobiographies, where I riff on major characters and minor characters. In “The Cost of Living,” a young Englishwoman is invited to the table of an older man, and she is brave—she decides to take him up on it—and she begins to speak about herself. He says, “You talk a lot, don’t you?” It’s as if she doesn’t understand that he’s the major character and she’s the minor character. The talking, which she’s doing too much of, isn’t required; she’s not required to come with a whole life and libido of her own.

What kind of female character is Elsa? How does she fit into your search?

Do I think Elsa is my “major unwritten female character”? No, I don’t. The major female character is more of an ideal than a person. Elsa is both immensely powerful and immensely fragile. I like the back-and-forth of the two together; for some reason, it still feels subversive. I’ve never believed in binaries. So to mess with them in fiction interests me.

How do you decide, when you have an idea that might be part memory and part theory of human nature, whether to flesh it out as fiction or as autobiography?

In “August Blue,” I wanted avatars; I wanted them to go and do all the work for me. I asked myself, “What did I want to read?” I regard the novel as an intellectual entertainment, which is why I loved reading Colette when I was young. The world is so vivid in her work. It’s not otherworldly. I think too much otherworldliness is a mistake. We might not understand our motivations, we might not understand our desires—why we’re sad or angry—but the pleasure of writing in any form is when something totally incoherent to oneself becomes more coherent. You smell the smoke, the blast of something that seems so impossible getting closer. But it works the other way, too. What was once coherent and understandable suddenly becomes much less so. That to-and-fro, in my work, of coherence and incoherence interests me a lot. I don’t know anyone who’s entirely clever or anyone who’s entirely stupid.

Many of your characters are mysteries to themselves, or at least find parts of their own psychologies obscure.

It’s not exactly that the characters are “mysteries to themselves.” The truth is that it’s extremely hard, extremely painful, to feel things, and so the failure to access feelings, to actually get somewhere near them, is one of my subjects. Some people don’t want to go there. Fair enough; I have a lot of respect for that position. This idea that we all have to go there is rather punitive.

Are there particular feelings that you’re interested in unearthing, or I guess not unearthing?

I was trying something, in “August Blue,” with the reveal and the conceal. I became aware that I didn’t want the reveals—and there are few of them—to be “Ta-da!” moments. I wanted them to be in the middle of lots of other things, like the noise of a restaurant, the sound of a road being drilled up outside, the distraction of a conversation about something else altogether. You know, you’re crossing the road and you see a truck go by and it’s raining and water splashes on your favorite pair of shoes and you’re thinking about your shopping list. But then what you’re really thinking about suddenly comes closer to you. I had to give up quite a lot of writing ego to do it like that. I wrestled with it for some time; I wrote up a storm. I wrote two glorious reveals, and then I got rid of them.

Yet you did include a spectacular moment when Elsa dyes her hair, and both she and Arthur declare that she’s a “natural blue.” I love that phrase; it’s a place in the book where the themes of heredity, art, and identity seem to intersect.

When Elsa dyes her hair, when the foils are off and her blue hair ripples down, she says, “I could hear my birth mother gasp.” It’s like a separation from her DNA. She no longer asks all those questions about her birth parents: Do I look like them? Who do I look like, my mother or my father? Where do I get my height from? Where do I get the shape of my nose from? She’s solved that.

Did you study music as a child?

Regretfully, no. I just loved to play the piano as a kid. I think I understood that you could speak through the keys and that it was a kind of musical diary. But I had to dare myself to make her a concert pianist. Elsa never speaks viscerally about the sensation of playing the piano. I didn’t dare go there. If I listen to cello, for example—such a warming feeling, cello—I can feel it vibrating through my body. But Elsa doesn’t use that sort of language, about what it feels like to play the piano, in “August Blue.”

Toward the end of the novel, there’s an image of Elsa’s birth mother sunbathing against the wall, closing her eyes in the sunlight. That seems right to me. Maybe it feels like that.

The scene in which her mother is taking in the sun was one of my favorites to write. Usually the mother who has given up her child is supposed to suffer. That’s the script written for her. So I wanted a moment that she’s taking for herself, where she is sunbathing, topless, with her scarf wrapped around her waist, her back pressed against the warm stones of a wall in a field. Why not? Give her some pleasure. ♦


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