Things I Don't Want to Know
On Writing
Deborah Levy
Deborah Levy jams in three snippets from her very interesting young life into Things I Don't Want to Know. She manages to stuff them all in as we are, at the same time, trying (with her) to figure out why she weeps on up-escalators in train stations. Not on the down-escalator. Not in airports or department stores. Only the up, in the train stations. A behaviorist would have a field-day with this one:

    There was something about standing still and being carried upwards that did it. From apparently nowhere tears poured out of me and by the time I got to the top and felt the wind rushing in, it took all my effort to stop myself from sobbing.

Some of us can sure as hell relate to this weeping-at-the-drop-of-a-hat business. It happens to me all the time. Driving, listening to an especially mawkish piece of music from my childhood. Doesn't even have to be on the radio --- can be in the juke-box I carry around in my head: "It's Been a Hard Day's Night," will do it every time. "When I'm home, feeling you holding me tight when I get home to you you know I feeel alll riiiight...." Sob weep bluster. The lacrimal glands start spouting just like that. I pretend to have a cold, or the sneezles, and the guy in the next car is watching at the stop lights.

Well, Levy has the same problem ... on planes, too. It got so bad that the guy sitting next to her watched for a while and then "stuck a teddy bear into my face and said, 'That'll cheer you up if nothing will.'"

But that's not what we want at all, Levy and I agree. We have something to cry about. For her: when she was five years old she was building a snow man with her father and just as they are topping it off --- two big ginger biscuits for the eyes --- along come the Johannesburg security police heavies, load him into their white cars and haul him off, to be gone from home (and her) for years. For you see, he was a member of the African National Congress which had been banned by government, Dad ended up in the slammer with Nelson Mandela, and Deborah remembered a conversation between her mother and father where they talk about how the police guys who have "swastikas tattooed on their wrists" torture the prisoners. Prisoners. Helpless. Like her father. Something indeed to weep over even if it is on an escalator thousands of miles and dozens of years away from that awful night when they hauled him away.

§   §   §

Prisons and being in cages play a big part in Things I Don't Want to Know. Dad is going to be caged up for a long time and then Deborah gets shipped off away from mother, off to Durban to live with her Godmother. Who is huge: "When she hugged me, I disappeared in the folds of her stomach," she recalls. Godmother has a budgie named Billy Boy and Billy Boy lives in a cage in the living room. Deborah is very quiet and she is told that she has to learn "to say my thoughts out loud and not just in my head." She has a problem with this stuff coming out so she decides to write them down: "I found a biro and had a go at writing down my thoughts. What came out of the biro and onto the page was more or less everything I did not want to know."

One thing she did want to know was what would happen if Billy Boy got out of his cage. "I lifted the grey blanket off the cage. Billy Boy opened his little brown eyes. They were the same colour as my father's eyes."

    I wiggled the latch and opened the cage doors ... A flutter of wings. The silver cup falling from the mantel shelf. A small dot of blue. The sweet pea smell coming from the garden. Billy Boy flew out the window just as the ginger cat padded into the living room, its tail held high in the air.

Soon enough, Deborah is back on a plane, headed back to her mother and Johannesburg.

    My father is standing in the garden. His face is pale grey like dirty snow. Only his eyes move. His arms hang stiffly by his sides. Dad is back, so very still and silent, standing in the garden. He looks like he has been hurt in some way. Very deep inside him.

    "Daddy, the cat died while you were away."

    He squeezes my hand with his cold fingers.

    "It's lovely to be called Daddy again."

§   §   §

We've run across a couple of other books by Levy before this one, and they are humdingers. About a year ago, Bloomsbury sent us Swimming Home. Weird is not exactly the word I would chose to stick on it, but it will have to do. It seems to be much more than a story of a couple of families on vacation in Nice ... more like Six Characters in Search of a Suicide, as though the novel was there to plant them and their problems in our brains. But while it was baffling us, it was sucking us in, so that we wrote, finally,

    Death, dying, suicide. These themes pop up throughout Swimming Home no matter how merry the reading. They're a regular drumbeat in the background throughout the novel, and thus drift in so naturally at the very conclusion. Someone, we know, is going to die, violently, by their own hand: we just don't know which one of them it will be. One of the six characters is going to commit the ultimate act of violence --- what Camus called the only real choice we have in all of our lives --- and one of the other characters here is going to push them to do it.

Then, more recently, there was Black Vodka, ten stories that plagued us for a couple of months until we could finally get something down on paper and be done with it. For these are not stories that you get, these are stories that get you. You read them over and wonder what the hell is going on while trying to fiddle with the various locks and keys hanging around on the page...

...and yet you find that it all works, works in an uncanny fashion, comes together in some sort of odd black magic: words phrases ideas symbols pictures thoughts jell, and jell in a funny kind of way so that you can't really get them like a puzzle, only you just put up with them and wonder how Levy is able to stick them all together and make them do.

So it's the same old thing with Things I Don't Want to Know On Writing (the last two words stuck in there in smaller type at the end as if we aren't too sure they belong there at all). And the cover looks like one of those text-books they force you to buy for your English II-A, the bonehead writing course, what with the lined paper and the spiral notebook binding, "How To Write Seamless Fiction" or something flaky like that, only when you open it up it has nothing to do with a writing course and Levy sure as hell ain't about to teach us anything about seamless writing ... in fact, her expertise comes from the seams bobbing open all around us as if we are sitting through major tectonic upheavals in these times in her life, age five (snowman, father gone), nine (fat granny; Billy Boy fly free), fifteen (a foreigner in West Finchley and, as an aside, "My mother and father had just separated.") And finally this vacationing writer off in Majorca in a B&B in Palma with a laptop and the manuscript of Swimming Home. Everywhere there's this big question, one that all of us --- writer or no --- must come back to again and again ... the one that Levy tries to unweave from this terrific mashpot of reflections, the demand that she --- who may not be the writer at all --- explain what went on in Swimming Home.

For if she didn't explain it too well in the original book (she didn't), at least she gets to lay it out on the page here.

What is it about this writing business, anyway: a Chinese shopkeeper, a mute piano in the B&B, a window opening like an orange? And the Polish notebook she had brought to Majorca "connected to my unpublished novel, Swimming Home?

"For I realized that the question I had asked myself while writing this book was (as surgeons say) very close to the bone, and that question was:

What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to lie with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?"
--- Lolita Lark
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