Hot Milk, the book for which Deborah Levy has been nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize, explores hypochondria and the troubled relationship between a mother and daughter. It is characterised by a wicked sense of humour and sublime rhythm.
Previously nominated for Swimming Home (2011), a novel on the insidious harm depression can have on apparently well-turned-out people, Levy is the only female British author to be nominated this year, and the only Jewish one. The winner will be announced next Tuesday.
Levy grew up in apartheid South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for being a member of the African National Congress. Her family moved to London’s Wembley Park in the late 1960s. After training at the Dartington College of Arts, she wrote a number of highly acclaimed plays, and her first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989), when she was still in her twenties.
More novels followed: Swallowing Geography (1993), The Unloved (1994) and Billy & Girl (1996). Her work ranges from satire to murder mystery, stretching across time from Thatcher’s London to the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s. Her short story collection Black Vodka (2013) was shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
She has written poems, screenplays, a graphic novel Stardust Nation, and more than 20 plays, some of which have been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In her autobiographical response to George Orwell’s Why I Write, which was published by Notting Hill Editions this year, Levy writes: “To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.
“Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
This week, as Levy awaits the result of the Man Booker Prize I talked to her about her life and work:
What inspires you to write?
“There is never one answer to this question. Writing, for me, is usually about a web of associations, images, thoughts and arguments that build up over the years – I want to know how one thing connects to another thing. At the moment, I’m thinking about writing a story based on that old question: Why did the chicken cross the road? We all want to know the answer and we all want to disagree with the answer, so I wonder what we are really wanting to know when we ask this question?”
Who do you imagine as your typical reader?
“I don’t have a typical reader in mind. Gertrude Stein said she wrote for herself and for strangers. I hope my books are hospitable to strangers.”
Can you describe your transition from playwriting to fiction?
“My training as a playwright taught me that words must always resonate after they have been spoken out loud. Writing that is two dimensional has no resonance – it might be able to tell a story, but it won’t tell a story we continue to think about after we leave the theatre, or after we have finished a novel. The transition to fiction began in the rehearsal room, when I found that my mind was wandering to something I was writing, and that I was longing to get back to it.”
What is your first memory of being Jewish?
“Perhaps when I first personally experienced racism at my South African Junior school. I’ve written about this in my writing memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know. I was seven years old and the teacher was always picking on me. Why was that? Here’s the quote: ‘I was thinking about the phrase “out of the blue”. It was so thrilling to think of the blue that things came out of. There was a blue, it was big and mysterious, it was like mist or gas and it was like a planet. Out of the blue my teacher asked me how I spelt my surname?
‘”You are Jewish,” she said, in an excited voice. As if she had just discovered something incredible, like a Roman coin stuck in the paw of a kitten or a dragonfly concealed in the loaf of a bread.’
“In other words, I don’t think this teacher was excited in a good way at my being Jewish.”
What does being Jewish mean to you?
“I am half-Jewish. My father is Jewish, my mother is not. My paternal grandparents came to South Africa from Lithuania to escape the pogroms. My father’s mother was called Miriam, but I knew her as Mary, so names are always of interest to me in my novels… the way we slide between identities and histories in our names.
“When Mary/ Miriam, who was very beloved to me, was being looked after in old age in a Jewish care home, I used to visit her. She still spoke with a Yiddish accent. She would say to the staff, ‘my granddaughter and I will share a herring.’
“In my hazy memory of this, a silver herring on a slice of rye bread would be brought to her bed. Miriam/Mary would command the nurse to cut it in two – I’m not sure I really liked the taste of that vinegary herring when I was young, but to this day, whenever I eat herrings with my friend Natasha at a Polish restaurant, I always toast my grandmother. She taught me one line of Yiddish, which I never forgot and can still say to this day – it means, ‘may you catch the cholera.’ I look just like her – we both have green eyes and high cheekbones. My maternal grandmother was a tremendously skilled fisherwoman; there are photos of her smoking a cigarette in a holder, a fishing rod in her other hand. Miriam/Mary did not catch fish, she sold fish in one of her business ventures after her husband died. My own mother was an atheist and she would not put up with any kind of racism -and she made very good chicken soup, let me tell you. So you see there is never a short answer to a question about identity.”
Who’s your favourite Jewish author?
“Just one? Are you kidding? Here goes: Kafka for starters – reading The Metamorphosis when I was 17 was a revelation: this is a novella about Kafka’s turbulent relationship with his authoritarian father, but he tells it from the point of view of the son, Gregor Samsa, who wakes to discover he has turned into a kind cockroach with six legs – which is how his father has made him feel inside.
“I admire the stories of Bruno Schulz in The Street of Crocodiles; Primo Levi is there to be read and re-read for the rest of our lives; same with the philosopher Hannah Arendt; the plays and screenplays of Lillian Hellman and Harold Pinter, the fierce, clever feminist books written by Andrea Dworkin, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Paul Celan; I always browse Gertrude Stein because she is so free in her writing and fun, too, both baffling and beguiling in equal measure.
“Sigmund Freud has been a great influence of course – he won the Goethe Prize for Literature which is quite an achievement, considering he was a psychoanalyst. I have many of Freud’s books on my shelves.
“Recently, I had some work done on my apartment and it turned out they drilled through the walls above my Freud collection, so every book was covered in plaster and dust. I flipped.
“I stopped all the building work while I found a suitcase, (the guys with drills in their hands all gawping) and packed up my entire Freud library. Then I drove to my writing shed which I rent from a friend, and, as it were, carried Freud in a suitcase across the garden, to the safety of my shed.
“I am protective of Freud because he taught us so much about all the dimensions of being human. He makes me laugh, too: he reckoned that if we can achieve every day unhappiness rather than every day misery, we are doing well.
What Jewish values do you want your daughters to grow up with?
“I like the values that the film director Jill Soloway is exploring in her incredible drama series, Transparent – that is to say, progressive and loving.”
What are you reading at the moment?
“Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Transit by Rachel Cusk. Both are brilliant writers.”
What are you working on next?
“My next novel will start in 1989, a few days after the Berlin Wall comes down. I have always been fascinated by that wall – so writing this book will hopefully tell me why it has been a preoccupation for so long.
” It opens with an Englishman, two air tickets in his coat pocket, waiting in Berlin for someone he loves. Does this person turn up? We will have to wait with him and find out. Then the book will walk its way through the snow to the 21st century.”
Which book would you like to have written?
“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.”
Who do you admire?
“Nina Simone – for the suffering and joy in her voice – she was a trained classical pianist and you can hear this in every song.”
How do you feel about being short-listed for the Booker Prize again?
“It’s not the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
‘Hot Milk’ is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99)
Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle on 21 October 2016: http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/165025/looking-answers