Last month I read Deborah Levy’s short literary memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, which uses George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” as a point of departure.

Things I Don't Want to Know - Deborah Levy

I read Orwell’s essay years ago in school, like you do. But I rediscovered it recently via an article on Open Culture around the same time as seeing something about Levy’s book in relation to the upcoming follow-up The Cost of Living, the second part of what she calls her “living memoir.” 

Orwell says some very kind things about writers:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

The four qualities or motives of a writer, according to Orwell, are sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. In more peaceful times, Orwell says, he may have been the type of writer with only the first three qualities. But the fourth, political purpose, became the motive that he says ultimately brought his writing to life.

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

These four motives form the chapter titles in Things I Don’t Want to Know, but Levy doesn’t write much about writing itself. She writes about femininity and motherhood, the utopia a woman creates when she makes a home for husband and children. At a time in her life when she finds herself unhappy and crying on escalators, she takes a solo trip to a hotel in Majorca. Maria, the woman who runs the hotel and runs away while Levy is visiting, attracts her scrutiny. While there, she recalls a time in her childhood in apartheid South Africa with the women in her life during her father’s imprisonment. 

Levy connects these pieces of memoir to say something about what the world holds for women, in particular for women who write. For women who deserve more than what they have, who are looking for more and better in their lives, searching for the life they have a right to have. These connections form an idea of why she writes and what qualities and experiences have made her a writer.

“We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off. The way we laugh. At our own desires. The way we mock ourselves. Before anyone else can. The way we are wired to kill. Ourselves. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

There is a violence in facing what is really going on in a life, and this is what drives Levy in her writing. She considers her novel Swimming Home: “I realized that the question I had asked myself while writing this book was (as surgeons say) very close to the bone: ‘What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we don’t want to know?’”

I haven’t read Swimming Home, but it seems like the source of writing here is not quite addressed by Orwell’s four motives. They aren’t enough to explain that sense of, as a woman, writing in order to face what would otherwise be impossible to bear. What do you call the quality that works to make real the parts of life we would otherwise try to ignore? This is perhaps beyond history and aesthetics and politics and egoism, at least in the way Orwell means. Her questions continue:

“Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. 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.”

Those last words quote Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “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. She is at war with her lot.”

Sheer egoism, historical impulse, aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose are perhaps the central factors that motivate a writer. But Levy explores how, for a women writer, it might be more complicated than Orwell suggests.

You can read an excerpt from and a review of The Cost of Living, an interview with Deborah Levy and an essay on her writing day, which I quoted previously here and in which she gives a quote from E. M. Forster as her writing mantra: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

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