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Things I Don't Want to Know: A response to…

Things I Don't Want to Know: A response to George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Why… (2013)

by Deborah Levy

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I was frustrated by Political Purpose,the opening chapter of Deborah Levy’s four-part memoir which some call “a feminist response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’.” I found it hard going, pretentious, and opaque. Could you just get to the point, I wondered. Well, Levy does eventually manage to do that—sort of. One spring, she writes, “life was very hard”, and its difficulty was often most apparent to her when she was ascending on an escalator. Something about being moved passively upwards would cause her to cry, almost to the point of sobbing. A good part of her trouble was related to her having been submerged in the role of mother for years. Motherhood is a qualitatively different role from fatherhood, she writes, and it is not uncommon for women to cancel their own desires. According to Marguerite Duras, whom Levy quotes, being a mother “means that a woman gives her body over to her child, her children . . . they devour her, hit her, sleep on her.” Women become “shadows of their former selves,” metamorphosing into hormonally programmed creatures whose breast milk flows at their babies’ cries. Such women become people who no longer understand themselves.

In an effort to come to terms with what was happening inside, Levy removed herself from the domestic scene, traveling to an out-of-the-way pensione in Palma, Majorca, a place where she’d found solace in the past. In the humble little hotel run by Maria, a woman who’d managed to avoid the traditional roles of a wife and mother, Levy could rest, reflect, and take stock.

In the second, strongest and richest section of her memoir, Historical Impulse, Levy looks back on her South African childhood. She identifies an early awareness of the deep inequities within that society and her discovery of the power of the written word to bring to the surface the things she might not want to know.

In 1964 when Levy was five years old, her father was picked up one night by the special branch of the security police. Both of Levy’s parents were members of the African National Congress, the banned political organization that was fighting for equal human rights for Africans, Coloureds, and Indians. For the five years her father was incarcerated, Levy was expected to be brave. Knowing she was not to mention his whereabouts, she made up stories about his being in England. Mostly, though, she did not talk. It was an effort to get any words out; the volume of her voice had somehow been turned way down. At school, her “nonsense” (not speaking audibly) and her refusal to fill her notebook pages as directed inflamed her Afrikaner teacher, who evidently perceived those acts as political resistance. The woman sent the girl to the head-master’s office where she was slapped, ostensibly for her failure to comply, but actually for being the Jewish daughter of a political prisoner, a man who dared to challenge the racist status quo.

Levy writes a compelling account of subsequently being sent to Durban to stay with her godmother, Dory, and her family, where the young girl’s understanding of the society into which she had been born would only grow. In Durban, the now seven or eight- year-old Deborah was befriended by Dory’s spirited teenaged daughter. Melissa not only encouraged the child to speak up, but the teenager defied racist policies by having an Indian boyfriend. Not surprisingly (given her father’s incarceration), Levy became preoccupied with freeing her godmother’s caged budgie At this time, too, her father wrote to her from prison, encouraging her to say her thoughts out loud, not just in her head. This was the point at which Levy discovered that her real voice was most likely to emerge through writing. The experiences that troubled her, the things she really didn’t want to know would come out with biro and paper.

There are some other striking details provided in this section of the memoir. As a child who was aware she must be stoical in facing her father’s imprisonment, Deborah saw in her plastic Barbie doll a kind of model for the way a girl should be. “Untouched by anything horrible that happened in the world,” Barbie was calm, pretty, and plastic. Levy wished that she too could be plastic with painted-on blue eyes “that held no secrets.”

From early childhood, Levy was acutely aware of the racism of the society into which she’d been born. She had heard all about the Sharpeville Massacre that happened a year after her birth. She was also an early reader and had no trouble decoding the signs restricting parks and beaches to whites. She loved the family’s Zulu servant, “Maria” (Zama), and was sensitive as to the toll that the political situation had taken on the woman. Maria was separated her from her family in the townships, including her daughter Thandiwe (“Doreen”), who was the same age as Deborah. All African house staff (and their offspring) were given easily pronounced English names, further removing them from their African identities—from themselves.

Overall, I found Things I Don’t Want to Know an uneven work. The second chapter alone is worth the price of admission, but I was less impressed by the other sections. The third section focuses on Levy’s teenaged years when the family lived “in exile” in England, her parents having separated, and Levy indulged in writerly pretensions. Occasionally humorous, the chapter, with its slapstick elements, didn’t quite work for me.

As for the fourth and final chapter: Levy returns to the Majorcan setting, which she’s used as a framing device. The reader learns that Maria, the hotel keeper, also apparently unsatisfied with her lot—perhaps because of restrictions imposed by her brother, who has part ownership of the hotel and controls the finances—is fleeing the place she so lovingly tended. Again, as in the first chapter, the prose is somewhat unfocused and a bit precious There are some strained metaphors, including one involving a window opening like an orange. If this was a memoir intended to communicate why Levy writes, I think it missed the mark. Overall it feels somehow incomplete, the work of someone trying to find herself, which perhaps is the point. It is more a book about being “on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life.” ( )
  fountainoverflows | Mar 10, 2019 |
First in Levy's trilogy of memoir, structured as a response to Orwell's essay 'Why I write'. Her childhood in SA, arriving in London, writer's block. Some gorgeous sentences make it a compelling read. Read more on my blog here: http://annabookbel.net/pfd-sunday-times-young-writer-award-freeman-mozley ( )
  gaskella | Jan 2, 2019 |
"What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know? {…} A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. --A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf"

This is one of those vignette-ish little memoirs on how life inspired the writer within, published only by writers of a certain renown (I wish for more). It’s Levy's feminist response to George Orwell’s Why I Write (onto the wishlist). She writes beautifully about her not-beautiful childhood in South Africa during apartheid, teen years in England, a depressed midlife. I loved this and long to read more by her. ( )
  DetailMuse | Aug 10, 2014 |
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Things I Don't Want to Know is a unique response to George Orwell from one of our most vital contemporary writers. Taking Orwell's famous list of motives for writing as the jumping-off point for a sequence of thrilling reflections on the writing life, this is a perfect companion not just to Orwell's essay, but also to Levy's own, essential oeuvre.… (more)

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