CostofLiving.jpg

Deborah Levy has a unique style of writing which references a disparate range of influences and layers in a lot of symbolism in order to tease out some of the most essential questions about life. I admired the way her novel “Hot Milk” looks at what happens when familial roles are reversed or become more fluid. So it's absolutely fascinating reading “The Cost of Living” which is part of what's been branded Levy's “living autobiography” and follows the time period in which she wrote “Hot Milk”. She describes the state of flux her life was in this period with the death of her mother and a separation from her longtime husband, but also the professional success she was experiencing with her novel “Swimming Home” being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and its being optioned for a film. But rather than focusing on the mechanics and reasons behind all these changes she traces an everyday account of her life moving forward: renting a small writing studio at the back of someone's garden and considering her position in life because she surmises “We either die of the past or we become an artist.” It's an emotionally arresting account that makes many pithy observations about gender, identity and the writing life.

One of the themes Levy frequently meditates on is the gender roles for women as wives, mothers and writers. The book begins and ends with reference to the breakup of her marriage without going into the specifics of why they separated so her meditation on this subject becomes especially poignant for what Levy leaves unsaid about why her marriage ended. For instance she notes when talking to men at parties or on a train that they don't refer to their wives by name, but simply call them “my wife”. Similarly Levy refers to some of the most important men in her life not by name but by their actions such as “the man who cried at the funeral”. This is a humorous way of highlighting the glaring way men define women by their roles in life rather than acknowledging the complexity of their being.

Levy meditates on the way wives can become trapped in their status and actually transform their identities to fit in with expectations. She reflects how “The moody politics of the modern home had become complicated and confusing… Orwell, in his 1936 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, noted that the imperialist ‘wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it’. The wife also wears a mask and her face grows to fit it, in all its variations.” The situation becomes further complicated with the introduction of children and the different levels of freedom allowed to the father over the mother: “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.” Levy herself resolves to work at the writing life amidst mounting financial pressures, obligations and the responsibility of motherhood. She also poignantly describes her role as a creative writing teacher to hone her students' prose and the way she helps young female writers to embrace the legitimacy of their voices.

 Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

While Levy takes her subjects very seriously there is also a wonderful levity to her accounts which include the absurdity of the world and the comic roles we often inadvertently play. For instance she rides her electronic bike to an important meeting and encounters trouble on it, but only realises after the meeting how she had leaves and mud in her hair throughout the day. Or in the desperate last days of her mother's life she manically sought out ice lollies of a certain flavour because they were the only things her dying mother could bear to consume. These add a welcome level of humanity to what could otherwise be ponderous reflections that are too intense.

Readers can sometimes tire of the insular nature of writers who write about the process of writing. But Levy's writing is so expansive in its account of states of being that it always feels refreshing and relatable with a pressing desire to connect. Moreover it comes across as simply honest. Levy notes how “To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take” but thankfully she exerts her freedom to candidly and poignantly speak about what she feels most intensely.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy

To what degree do labels like mother, father, daughter or son define us? Ideally different relatives will take on different nurturing roles for their family members in times of need. Traditionally it's the mother who is expected to perpetually care and nourish her family. In Deborah Levy's novel “Hot Milk” the mother-daughter roles are reversed. Twenty-five year old Sofia moves with her mother Rose to the desert landscape and jellyfish-laden beaches of Andalucía in southern Spain. Rose has chronic problems with her feet and can barely walk, but these symptoms might be fantasized. Sofia takes out a substantial loan to get her mother treatment in the Gomez Clinic run by an exuberant doctor with questionable credentials and his artistic daughter who he calls Nurse Sunshine. While relations with her mother become strained, Sofia embarks on two separate affairs with an attractive man named Juan and a formidable German woman named Ingrid. She also travels to Greece to meet her estranged father who has married a woman forty years younger than him and given birth to her new baby sister. In this story Levy creates a challenging and fascinating view of families whose constantly shifting dynamics both support and destroy each other. 

Sofia's engaging, funny and perceptive voice brings this story to life. She trained as an anthropologist but her career has only consisted of working at a coffee house. The novel starts with her dropping her laptop. Now that the image of the universe used as the background on her screen has shattered, her view of her life and those around her becomes fragmented. The tone of her narrative fluctuates between comic moments such as when she contemplates a cartoon character's personality: “Is Donald Duck a child or a hormonal teenager or an immature adult? Or is he all of those things at the same time, like I probably am? Does he ever weep? What effect does rain have on his mood?” and deeply-moving starkly-metaphorical statements such as “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.” She sees the world from a really interesting point of view that made me think differently about ways in which we are perceived and how we perceive others.

I admire the way Sofia's fluid sexuality plays out in the novel. She engages in passionate sexual relationships with a woman and man with equal force stating “Ingrid and Juan. He is masculine and she if feminine but, like a deep perfume, the notes cut into each other and mingle.” Her relationships with them are more determined by their personalities. Her affair with Juan is casual and comforting whereas she finds her affair with Ingrid (who is also in a relationship with a man named Matthew) to be more tumultuous and energizing. In a strikingly symbolic scene Ingrid kills a snake with an axe as if demolishing the need for any man's presence in their lives.  

Although many people find her beautiful and seductive, Sofia views herself as something of a monster who swims with jellyfish in the sea (locally known as medusas). At several points in the novel the narrative breaks from Sophia's point of view to short statements from someone who is persistently observing her from a distance. Sophia is conscious of steadily gaining weight and her mother makes her feel ashamed about this: “It is true that I have shape-shifted from thin to various other sizes all my life. My mother’s words are my mirror. My laptop is my veil of shame. I hide in it all the time.” Negative self-perception is also reflected back at her in how Ingrid views her “She wanted to behead her desire for me. Her own desire felt monstrous to her. She had made of me the monster she felt herself to be.” These relationships make a compelling view of the way that women can sometimes sadly demean each other. Also, by focusing on the importance and power of women's relationships to each other she annihilates the notion that a woman's most important relationships are with men: “Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots.”

Images of milk and motherhood abound throughout the novel which gives its title a steadily increasing power. It's suggested that she go to visit a statue of the Virgen del Rosario that “is made from a delicate marble that is the colour of mother’s milk.” At another point she contemplates “Is home where the raw milk is?” Dr Gomez has a cat named Jodo who gives birth to kittens which eagerly feed from their mother in a scene that makes powerful statements about the meaning of nurturing. Sophia watches her young step-mother feed her infant sister from her breast in a way that makes her emphatically stand apart from any traditional notion of engaging with motherhood herself. Instead, she defiantly declares her physical being as separate from that course in life: “I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap.”

One of the most powerful lines in the novel comes amidst Sophia's anthropological musings about the power of signs in our culture. She questions the degree to which individuals fit into the common symbols for male or female as seen in signs for public toilets. Subsequently she wonders about the labels in family life: “A wife can be a mother to her husband, and a son can be a husband or a mother to his mother, and a daughter can be a sister or a mother to her mother, who can be a father and a mother to her daughter, which is probably why we are all lurking in each other's sign.” There is something beautifully freeing in this statement that we don't need to feel trapped as any one kind of thing in how we relate to our family members. Our ways of being come out of how our unique familial situation exists at any one point, not out of predefined roles which we must play.

 "the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes."

"the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes."

It's interesting thinking about “Hot Milk” in relation to Elizabeth McKenzie's recent novel “The Portable Veblen”. Both centre on women with distinctly original points of view who have difficult hypochondriac mothers that they feel compelled to care for. They each come from different story angles to show how we can grow into different relationships with our parents, that we can move freely between being nurtured and nurturing. However, McKenzie focuses more strongly on the development of a sustainable balanced romantic partnership where Levy's novel is concerned more with developing a substantial individual sense of self outside of society's expectations.

I think “Hot Milk” will continue to have a subconscious effect on me in the future. You know how sometimes you'll recall a scene or character or original point of view from a novel many years after you've read it? There are aspects of “Hot Milk” which I can already feel echoing through me. Deborah Levy has a powerful use of imagery which unsettles in a way that is welcome because it helps broaden my perspective. It's a fantastic, distinctly powerful novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
7 CommentsPost a comment