The Cost of Reading

Ayşegül Savaş contemplates the way women’s and men’s time is valued and the uneven burden taken by women writers in literary citizenship.

Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,811 words)

Two weeks after I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, I found out that she would be speaking at a literary symposium titled “Against Storytelling” at a venue some minutes from where I live.

The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment block with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in an entirely new set-up of family, home, and work.

The book is about other things, too, like cycling up a hill after a day writing at a garden shed; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair.

It is, mysteriously, about a scarcity of time and money, of trying to make ends meet. Mysteriously, because it is such a generous book, so lush and unrushed.

One of my best friends, visiting for the weekend, picked it up from the coffee table while my husband and I were preparing breakfast on Saturday morning.

“Oh my god,” she shouted from the living room, “this book is amazing!”

I guessed that she must have read the opening scene, when the narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.

“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.

“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too… It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

My friend went home on Sunday evening. She’d just been offered a new job, and would be spending the week negotiating her terms and meeting with the people at the new office. One of her reservations about the job concerned a partner who had first approached her for recruitment. Yet he didn’t have the tact, even as he sought her out, to stifle sexist comments meant as jokes. My friend wondered whether she should call him out on this during their meeting. In their offer, the firm had praised my friend’s directness.

That week, she and I messaged back and forth about the offer, as well as about all our favorite parts in The Cost of Living. She told me she’d recommended the book to her therapist.

Another friend was struck by the book’s lightness — its reluctance to belabor any sorrow, despite the sadness that runs throughout. He felt that this was a form of respect towards readers, their capacity to understand grief and hardship without dissecting it to pieces.

Yet another friend (we were all reading The Cost of Living) said that the book had lungs. Between the empty spaces of its short paragraphs, it breathed with light and transforming meaning. This friend had just read all of Levy’s work in one stretch.

***

The author who’d organized the symposium was supposed to be in conversation with Levy. She was the last to speak; she was the only woman speaker at the four-and-a-half-hour event.

It wasn’t possible, Deborah Levy began at the symposium, to have a single woman speaker at such an event and call it an intellectual discussion.

In his introduction, the author said that Levy’s writing career consisted of two parts, separated by a gap of many years. The second part, he said, starting with her novel Swimming Home, could be called a “resurfacing.”

This is a word Levy uses in the first pages of The Cost of Living to refer to the young woman who’d resurfaced from her scuba dive to realize that something was wrong; Levy uses the same word, a few pages later, about her own marriage.

This was a fitting term for Levy’s writing hiatus, the author said, given that she wrote so frequently about water.

He went on to talk about some developments in literature since the 80’s. He listed the names of prominent, male authors belonging to a certain category.

A friend, sitting next to me, leaned in to whisper, “Remember Big Silver?”

On stage, Deborah Levy examined her finger nails.

We waited for the author to ask a question, so we could hear Levy speak in the little time remaining.

The author returned to Levy’s mysterious resurfacing which he situated within greater literary trends. He had more things to say when Deborah Levy picked up her microphone. “Let me just interject here,” she said.

If the author had read the rest of The Cost of Living, he would have known that in the period that separated the two parts of her career, Deborah Levy wasn’t under water at all, but fully on earth, unpacking boxes, teaching, writing, visiting her mother at a hospital. When her mother was too ill to eat or drink, she brought her ice lollies from a Turkish kiosk. Her mother’s favorite flavor was lime which, in the final days of her life, the kiosk did not have.

***

From The Cost of Living, I guessed that Deborah Levy was around the same age as my own mother. She’d separated from her husband some years after my parents separated. She’d then moved to the same northern neighborhood in London where I’d lived as a child, after we left Turkey for my father’s career and my mother had left behind her own career as a pediatrician.

Reading The Cost of Living, I remembered moments I’d witnessed but never articulated: the way accumulated anger and fatigue could rear up in reaction to a single word or gesture. The way daily life, despite its greater defeats, continued with color and care. (My mother lighting candles for Sunday breakfast the week after my father moved out; Deborah Levy putting strawberry trees on the balcony of her new flat.)

During our time abroad, my father made huge leaps in his career: he was the youngest, the first, the most successful in many posts he held.

In my childhood, my mother was always hosting dinners for the people my father worked with. It was not unusual for her to host three or four dinners per week, for two people or a dozen. The meals started with soup, then phyllo pastries — with potatoes, feta cheese, or spinach. Main dishes were meat roasts and rice. Often, the meat would be placed on fire roasted, hand-peeled, pureed aubergines — an incredibly tedious dish to prepare for the pleasure of a few, velvety forkfuls. Along the length of the dinner table were the “side” dishes of sautéed vegetables, yogurt spreads, and salads.

Some days later, my mother would make the whole meal again.

It feels, as I write this, as if I’m doing something inappropriate — revealing a secret, making light of my father’s work and success. Why turn things on their head when we have fond memories of those years, when my parents are now on perfectly good terms?

***

During the symposium, Levy asked the audience to consider what was at stake for the topic at hand. She didn’t like abstract discussions, she said. Nor was she necessarily against storytelling.

But she wondered: what sorts of things did storytelling obstruct?

***

Over the years, my family had agreed on the story of our years abroad — its particular telling, causes and effects. Why we left, why we returned, what was achieved in between. We had all told the story many times.

But I want to point out that the story contains many other times within it: many other hours, and days, and years. Other labors.

***

The symposium was part of a series on “literary activism.” Earlier that afternoon, before introducing Levy, the author had discussed the effects of a global market economy on literature. Books were now branded with literary value — as “masterpieces,” “classics,” the “most important” of their genre. These terms, the author argued, were basically ways of saying that a book would sell many copies. This vocabulary made “literary fiction” — another marketing term — available to unsuspecting, ignorant, poorly-read consumers who were eager to satisfy their intellectual needs in digestible ways.

The author had written about this topic elsewhere and talked about it at other events. His wish, I think, was to counter the capitalist market — the way it presented an obstacle to the sincere production and readership of books — through literary activism.


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I’d just begun to see the workings of such a literary market in the months preceding the publication of my first novel. Before they were released, the new books of the season were included in (or left out of) lists and reviews meant to inform readers and publishers what was worth reading in the flood of books coming out. These lists created a framework for the value of books by labeling them as the most exciting, the best, the unmissable. Books gained merit by accumulation: appearing on one list increased its chances of appearing on another; the more a book became known, the safer it was to praise it highly, since it had already acquired its “legitimate” value through repeated exposure. But on many of these lists, I noticed, the books hadn’t actually been read by the writers compiling them, but were included on the basis of an author’s fame or biography, the prestige of a publisher, or the recommendation of certain literary celebrities.

Writers who didn’t have the luck to be major characters in this story of publishing could easily think that they’d lost without even having started, because it was easy to think of this system as one involving winners and losers.

What, then, could literary activism accomplish?

***

Some months earlier, I’d nominated the author — the one who had organized the symposium and introduced Levy — to teach at a writing retreat. I’d read three of his novels and many of his essays; I found his writing style interesting and often lyrical.

When I learned that he would be in town for a year-long residency, I wrote to ask him whether I could give him an advance copy of my novel; he said he would be delighted.

We went to a café for tea. I asked him many questions about his writing process, how he overcame obstacles in structure or plot, how his career had progressed, how he negotiated the muddy grounds of publicizing his work without making a fool of himself.

He asked me to sign my book. He said, also, that he was quite busy, meaning that he might not have a chance to read it.

When we were saying goodbye, he said we should get together again, soon.

***

In my childhood, my father was very strict about assignment deadlines he gave me and my brother: memorizing poems, writing essays, drawing maps from memory. He was very strict about time in general; being late was among the worst possible sins. Alongside the lesson of promptness, I internalized a dread of wasting my father’s time.

When my father left for work trips, time in our household suddenly expanded. There were no deadlines, no family meetings to discuss important topics. We could often sweet-talk our mother into letting us stay up late or skip some work we had to do, or walk our dog while we slept in.

What had we internalized about our mother’s time?

***

Following our meeting, the author sent me several of his essays to read, on topics we’d discussed over tea. I’d already read some of these essays. I read the others as well.

‘I haven’t actually read your book,’ the author then said to me, ‘but I’ve read paragraphs here and there.’

One of them was about the author’s fascination with single paragraphs. He wrote about one that he admired in a novel he’d read long ago. He’d read the paragraph many times, without wanting to read the rest of the book. The opening paragraph, the author believed, held possibilities for the imagination that were diminished with the tedium of plot and story.

When we were having tea, I’d asked him whether he was intending to visit some of the unusual places in town that were described in minute, haunting detail in Sebald’s novels, remembering the author’s praise of Sebald in one of his essays. The author said he’d actually never read an entire work by him.

In the following months, the author invited me to attend his various lectures and readings around town. I heard him talk about the idea of the paragraph on several occasions. He liked to repeat that he was bored by stories and that he didn’t enjoy reading entire novels. At the same time, however, he quoted works often and with authority, fitting them into literary eras and styles. I couldn’t tell whether his knowledge was gleaned second hand or belonged to another phase in his career when he’d read entire books. He spoke of turning points in literature with the publication of this or that novel, historical moments when things had changed in relation to a particular law or policy. The books and events he singled out seemed random to me, one of thousands of changes in the world and in human consciousness. I was amazed, if not a bit incredulous, at the author’s far-reaching perspective in drawing attention to them. Of course, his was also a form of storytelling: the authorial narrative which creates an illusion of a full vantage point. Despite the author’s dislike of plot and his boredom with cause and effect, his technique of narrating literary history was the very same one used to craft stories.

One evening after a reading, the author introduced me to a poet as a talented writer. “I haven’t actually read your book,” he then said to me, “but I’ve read paragraphs here and there.”

I understood that this was not a personal affront but simply a preservation of the author’s time, in line with his priorities and aesthetics.

***

I think that my father would have wanted us to switch time codes with him, too; for us to whine about daily concerns and the insignificant routines of our days. He would have liked for us to make unnecessary requests from him as well. But such intimacies are nothing more than the accumulation of un-plotted time, without goals or priorities.

***

The most lauded books of the season, I noticed, were often about contemporary issues. They were innovative, were the first in their genre to cover a certain topic, were daring in their styles. The praise for these books was often wrapped in their utilitarian value and in what the book could provide its readers: a unique perspective, a different geography, a brand-new technique. It was easy to overlook the books that simply investigated their topics with a quiet curiosity. There was, simply, no time for them.

***

After we returned to Turkey, my mother started working full time at a clinic, Monday through Saturday. In the years we’d been abroad, her colleagues had specialized in their fields, acquired prestigious positions as professors or at private hospitals.

My mother was anxious about going back to her practice. But there was no time, or money, for her to indulge her anxiety: we were in a financially precarious situation following our move back. Our two cousins from my father’s side had just moved in with us, after their mother passed away. (Another story with wildly different and disputed narratives, which often left out the core: two grieving children moving to a strange home.) Not long after this, my parents separated.

To say that these were difficult times for my mother would be an understatement. More than this, they were unimaginable times, contrary to any future she would have dreamed for herself, to the story she’d participated in for decades as a supporting character. Suddenly, she had to figure out an entirely new way of living. And even though she was cast out of the main story, she was still expected to stick to that unchanging role: a gentle, loving caregiver.

Levy writes:

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be a phantom. What sort of questions does this phantom ask of me? It asks political questions for sure, but it is not a politician.

***

It wasn’t possible, Deborah Levy began at the symposium, to have a single woman speaker at such an event and call it an intellectual discussion.

She was impatient throughout the author’s questions, which he asked in academic, abstract terms. She kept asking him to be direct, cut him off when he veered off into generalizations. It was clear she didn’t have time for any of that. She wanted to get to the heart of the matter, to whatever was at stake.

When I was leaving the symposium, I saw her smoking beneath a newly blooming Judas tree. The sky had just darkened; the cool air soothed my flushed cheeks.

I walked up to Levy and thanked her. It was a relief to hear her speak the way she did, I said. I added that I’d felt an urge to kick someone.

“Oh, thank you,” she told me and waved as I walked off. It occurred to me afterwards that she might have thought my reaction was in defense of her; that I’d been offended on her behalf.

***

My friend, the one who had whispered “Big Silver” in my ear, texted me the next day: Did I think the author even understood what Levy was reacting to?

I wondered that, as well.

***

We — my cousins, brother and I — recognized my mother’s anger before it came alive. We heard it rising in the comments of strangers and relatives, of well-meaning, oblivious friends who told her to liven up a bit, to get some rest, to live her life.

When we had just returned from abroad and were barely making ends meet, one of my father’s relatives asked my mother when exactly she planned on contributing to the household. More accurately, he asked when she would be “useful”.

Over the years, my family had agreed on the story of our years abroad — its particular telling, causes and effects. Why we left, why we returned, what was achieved in between.

One time, a famous businessman greeted my father at a weekend retreat outside the city, where we’d gone as a family. He then looked over at us, wife and children: “I see you’ve arrived with your harem,” he said.

Not that we always stood up for her.

When my father’s relatives visited my mother, after the separation, we hoped that she wouldn’t say something rash. We could almost hear her interior monologue as these relatives praised my father, the pride of the family.

We wished, at those times, that she would just keep it together. We were teenagers, we wanted to have a good time. We didn’t want to take sides or make a fuss.

***

The publisher sent me 20 advance copies of my book. I understood that I was meant to give them to influential people. I felt humiliated when I was asked who I knew in the literary world. I had the sense that this was part of the contract of having a book published and that I now had to “admit” that I didn’t know anyone; that I was a fraud.

I gave some of the copies to my good friends.

The others I sent to writers I admired — an equal number of men and women, all of them strangers, whose addresses I found online, or through their agents. I sent them the books by post, with the exception of the author who was in town, telling them how much their writing meant to me.

Of course, the author in town wasn’t the only one who didn’t have time to read my novel. But I want to point out, because it suddenly seems relevant, that the only ones who read my book were women.

One evening, I got a postcard from the writer Dorthe Nors. She was on book tour, she said, so she was sorry that she would be reading my book in bits and spurts. But she had already started and was enjoying it very much. Her handwriting was lively, looping, crawling all the way up the sides of the card. She had written every inch of it with questions and observations, with good wishes for the future of my book. She asked whether an endorsement from her might be helpful; she included a short one along the side of the card. I put the postcard in my tin blue box of treasures.

Some weeks later, Nors wrote again to say that she’d read more of the book on her book tour and wanted to expand her endorsement.

The male authors who responded to my emails all said they were delighted to learn that I liked their books. They told me about their other books coming out, or essays I may have missed.

They said I should feel free to send them a copy of my book but warned me that they were very busy and didn’t know if they would be able to read it.

No, it’s not the lack of time which surprises me.

It is those people who have no time but are generous nonetheless. Those radical, literary activists.

***

Every morning, before going to work, my mother made us fresh juice from carrots, apples, oranges. She made omelets, feta cheese and tomato sandwiches. I say this because that’s one meal a parent can get away with. On Sundays, her only day off, she baked us pastries and cookies.

Some weekday mornings, for the sake of sleeping an extra 15 minutes, I would beg her to let me miss the school bus. I asked, in my most pathetic voice, whether she’d like me to go to school having had my breakfast, brushed my hair, and dressed neatly. Then please, I pleaded, would she drive me to school and not make me rush for the bus?

More often than not, she did. In the car, we blasted Turkish pop or Mozart’s piano concertos.

***

At the symposium, the author began his talk by saying he had given the same talk before. He’d hired someone to transcribe it from YouTube and would now deliver it to us with some small changes. It was more or less the same talk as the one I’d heard a few months earlier, and very similar to one of the essays he sent me. The small changes he’d made for the symposium were the opening paragraphs of another essay.

To save him the time, I could probably have given the talk on his behalf.

* * *

Ayşegül Sava‘s debut novel Walking on the Ceiling was published in April 2019 by Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, among others. She lives in Paris.

Editor: Sari Botton