‘Deborah Levy: Form and Content in the 21st-Century Novel’

This post was contributed by Laura Garmeson, who recently completed a Masters in European Literature at the University of Cambridge. She recently attended the Arts Week 2015 event on Deborah Levy: Form and content in the 21st Century Novel

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy

In Sigmund Freud’s famous case study of the ‘Wolf Man’, Russian aristocrat Sergei Pankejeff is said to suffer a mysterious aversion to butterflies. On further examination, the patient reveals that he also becomes extremely agitated every day at around five o’ clock in the afternoon.

What connects these two phenomena? Freud sees the link lurking between the twin fears embodied when a butterfly alights on a branch before him, its wings spread at rest in a gentle ‘V’ shape – which happens to resemble the Roman numeral for ‘5’.

Deborah Levy’s writing draws on the strange storytelling of psychoanalysis in exploring how we are all fatally wired to create connections. Her work ripples with currents of the unconscious which distort outer surfaces and can threaten to pull the world within the novel entirely out of shape.

Taking risks

This talk with one of Britain’s most exciting living writers was unsurprisingly well-attended. Besides butterflies, Levy spoke of many facets of the writing process and the mind, deftly quoting J. G. Ballard, Flaubert, Duras, Rilke, García Márquez, Proust and many others, every word devoured whole by a hungry audience of creative writing students (the talk was, incidentally, a public feature of the Birkbeck MA summer term lecture series).

Decrying the ‘tyranny of narrative’ and extolling the taking of risks, for Deborah Levy there is no such thing as a comfort zone.

Budding twenty-first-century authors take note (and, believe me, they were): ‘Contemporary narrative is in a state of mutation and renaissance’. Levy recalls writing about globalisation and migration in her first novel Beautiful Mutants on a typewriter in the eighties, using carbon paper so that she could retain a copy of the manuscript.

Now, she writes on Apple products and the pages themselves migrate soundlessly across various technologies. She used to plumb public libraries whilst researching her writing. Now, she googles obsessively.

One of the double-edged swords of the Wikipedia age is that we can all be ‘amateur experts’ in anything. For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’.

“Embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.”

As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

This distrust of tradition was nurtured by an avant-garde theatre training; she learned to write plays at the Dartington College of Arts where she was taught by some of the leading exponents in modern dance. This training has given her words a particular flesh and sinew, and such embodiment is central to her work. When an audience member asked Levy to elaborate on this she replied, simply, that ‘embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.’

In pursuit of ‘a language that does not sanitise or flatten or fix the stranger ways we experience the everyday’ Levy frequently turns to the visual. Her internal language is cinematic rather than literary: ‘image is always what excites me’.

Novels such as Billy and Girl (1996) and the Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home (2011) are awash with vivid panoramas and painfully intimate close-ups, with Levy pulling focus through the reckless lenses of her characters’ psyches. These ‘fractured identities’ are the writer’s mask – ‘their task is to think for me’ – but they can also surprise their creator. The wonder of Levy’s cinematic language on the page is that it is multi-angular yet laced with omission; it is a narrative which chooses to perform, often viscerally, rather than describe.

Levy closed the Q&A with a recommendation to the room to read Freud’s case studies. And many of the creative writing students attending this talk will do just that, leaving enthralled in the knowledge that since there can be no single shape for human consciousness, there can be no single shape for the twenty-first-century novel. It is all in the strange series of connections we make.

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