Things I Don’t Want to Know

Deborah Levy

Things I Don’t Want To Know by Deborah Levy does not, judging from the blurb on the back, sound like the sort of book I’d like to read.

‘…it is feminist and political while being an inspiring act of writing.’

Whenever a book is ‘feminist and political’, it’s like being hit over the head with a length of dowel; irritating and painful, but not hard enough to knock you out – or into unconsciousness so you don’t have to listen anymore.

Luckily, I didn’t read the back – I picked it up and flipped it open. I am one of those annoying people who makes a judgment on a strange book based on the first page. It’s not because I need to be hooked in by the plot; it’s more because I want to hear the writer’s voice.

Like Holden Caulfield says, there are certain writers you’d like to ring up and speak to one the phone. When I read those first few lines, I feel like I’m listening to their language with its timbre and cadence as it comes trickling down the line. And Levy’s voice is fantastic. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a writer who is trying to sound like one. As Charlie Bukowski said, ‘Don’t try’. Nothing puts me off like a try-hard.

Levy reminded me of Bukowski; perfectly natural and idiosyncratic. First few lines:

“That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators as train stations.”

To be perfectly natural and idiosyncratic requires a lot of horsepower.

Long story short: Things I Don’t Want to Know is a kind of literary autobiography built on the last of George Orwell’s Why I Write. I read that one too, but I don’t remember much about it. I certainly don’t remember Orwell hitting as hard as Levy does. Her book kind of meanders around, starting when she was writing a novel called Swimming Home (from what I can gather, this is her major work) and heads backward into her childhood in apartheid South Africa, beginning with the arrest of her father for his involvement with the ANC.

Levy gives us anecdotes about growing up as a small child in South Africa and how the language around her, spoken and written in official places, like instructions, directions and signs, and from the mouths of other people and parents and teachers, becomes loaded with connotation and meaning through her experience. This habit becomes more skilful and complex as she grows, eventually becoming the backbone of the style that lights her writing.

I had to pick up a book called Things I Don’t Want to Know. I understand the impulse to write a book about them; I have a strong (possibly illogical) belief that the things I don’t want to know are probably the portals I need to walk through. It’s Jacob wrestling with the angel.

The book held my attention well enough, until I hit page 65.

“I had been told to say my thoughts out loud and not just in my head but I decided to write them down. It was five in the morning and I could hear Rory barking at the reed frogs in the pond. 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.”

True enough, but startling all the same.

You know the interesting thing about the things you don’t want to know? They are precisely the things other people want to know about you. Case in point: a friend of mine who I had offered to publicize on my blog, recently declined after perusing it and deciding that he did not want either him or his product featuring on the same page as a near-naked beauty recumbent under the masthead: ‘Home Made Porn, Or, The Girl in the Red Photo and the Trouble She Caused.’

(To be honest, I thought this was fair enough; I had given him the heads-up beforehand, encouraging him to scroll through and decide as to whether or not Theme Park At Its Darkest was the place for him). He seemed agitated when we spoke, and made a few comments about what he had read. Wanting to test him out, I asked if he had read the whole article.

‘Too right I did!’ he replied, and I heard a combination of shock, agitation and arousal in his voice, which is, after all, the holy trinity to any artist.

I reckon Deborah Levy’s attitude to the things she doesn’t want to know is similar to mine, but she deals with it in a different way. Her book is like a step-brother or step-sister confiding in you about their relationship with the same moody, capricious and remote mother or father who doesn’t make any sense, but controls you just the same.

In any case, I’d like to talk to Deborah Levy on the phone.


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