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.