Stepping Out of Character and Starting a New Story

Deborah Levy

“Why not steal a fish from the market to make you bolder?”

That’s the unconventional advice a doctor in southern Spain gives to Sofia, the young anthropologist who is the hero of Deborah Levy’s amazing novel “Hot Milk” (2016). Sofia has decided to lean into her life. With luck she will also stay out of jail.

The result is one of the more memorable scenes in recent fiction.

Sofia goes to a fish market. She debates pilfering a monkfish or some “whiskery langoustines” before deciding on a fish with furious eyes, “a plump dorado in a rage.”

She purloins it. She gets it home and cuts it open. There is so much blood inside that if someone “banged on the door to claim their stolen goods, I would literally have been caught red-handed.”

One absorbs this scene and its instant repercussions and thinks: The next time someone proposes walking across hot coals as an improving ritual, offer as a counterproposal to steal a dorado.

Levy, who was born in South Africa and raised there and in England, is an indelible writer. Her two most recent novels, “Hot Milk” and “Swimming Home” (2012), were each finalists for the Man Booker Prize.

They’re yearning, jaggedly smart and drolly comic devices that are in large part about women who long for freedom and foreign experience; they’re about women who have come to sense they’re not locked into their lives and stories, characters who have a heliotropic urge to turn to face the cleansing sunlight.

Levy’s new book, a slim memoir titled “The Cost of Living,” is the follow-up to an even slimmer memoir titled “Things I Don’t Want to Know” (2013). Each is, in its way, about the author’s attempts to learn to wrest control of her life.

As she put it in the earlier memoir, “To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish.”

Levy has written many other books and plays besides those mentioned here, including a novella I am desperate to read called “Diary of a Steak” (1997). It is written from the perspective of a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop. Alas, it is out of print and used copies are dear.

The way to read Levy is in bulk. Her two most recent novels and two memoirs are of a piece. To get the full effect of her elliptical genius, you need to pick them off all at once, the way you would a pint of blueberries or back issues of The Sewanee Review.

These four books together don’t make a tall stack. The total page count is less than that of a typical volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series.

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Credit...Sheila Burnett

You should read them together because Levy permits a number of resonant themes and images, melodies and countermelodies, to course through all four of these books. These images overlap as if in waking dreams.

There are unhappily chained or caged animals; there are stinging creatures (bees and jellyfish); there are odd moments of social discomposure, from attending an important meeting with muddy leaves in one’s hair to accidentally leaving your shirt unbuttoned.

There is a longing for sun and southern climates. There are sick mothers and absent fathers. People are asked to read things they are not certain they want to read. Words are inked onto hands and other unusual places. There is a sense — Rachel Cusk, a writer whom Levy resembles, also takes up this idea — that humans (and especially men) are abysmal at asking other humans questions.

There are shocking moments related to food. In “The Cost of Living,” Levy bicycles home with a book by Freud and a whole chicken in her bag. When the bag splits open, a car runs over and flattens her chicken.

Levy genially serves it for dinner anyway to a friend, her own daughter and some of her daughter’s friends. This is horrifying until one considers the benefits of extreme spatchcocking.

“The Cost of Living” is about how Levy escaped a suffocating marriage and, at roughly age 50, began to take herself seriously as an artist and as an individual soul. “What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?” she asks.

After her separation, she moves with her children to a cold and somewhat shabby apartment to begin life anew. She has nowhere to write and she has deep money woes, but she learns the most primal of literary lessons: “The writing life is mostly about stamina.”

Away from her desk, Levy is interested in “creating a persona that was braver than I actually felt.” She says: “It is so hard to claim our desires and so much more relaxing to mock them.” She further wants, to steal a line from an Elizabeth Hardwick novel, “love and alcohol and clothes on the floor.”

The essayist in her has a good deal to say about female experience. “It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end,” she writes. “Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early 21st century.”

Levy leans on her themes more heavily in her memoirs than she does in her novels. If I were forced at gunpoint to select just two of her most recent four books, I’d take the fiction.

But so many minor moments of quotidian grace and wit also filter through “The Cost of Living” — while she is discussing melons or plumbing or garden writing sheds — that it is always a pleasure to consume.

She isn’t collecting her thoughts here so much as she is purposefully discollecting them. Calm and order, she suggests, are vastly overrated.

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