Things I Don't Want to Know: On Writing

Overview

Blending personal history, gender politics, philosophy, and literary theory into a luminescent treatise on writing, love, and loss, Things I Don't Want to Know is Deborah Levy’s witty response to George Orwell’s influential essay “Why I Write.” Orwell identified four reasons he was driven to hammer at his typewriter—political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism, and aesthetic enthusiasm—and Levy’s newest work riffs on these same commitments from a female writer’s ...

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Overview

Blending personal history, gender politics, philosophy, and literary theory into a luminescent treatise on writing, love, and loss, Things I Don't Want to Know is Deborah Levy’s witty response to George Orwell’s influential essay “Why I Write.” Orwell identified four reasons he was driven to hammer at his typewriter—political purpose, historical impulse, sheer egoism, and aesthetic enthusiasm—and Levy’s newest work riffs on these same commitments from a female writer’s perspective.

As she struggles to balance womanhood, motherhood, and her writing career, Levy identifies some of the real-life experiences that have shaped her novels, including her family’s emigration from South Africa in the era of apartheid; her teenage years in the UK where she played at being a writer in the company of builders and bus drivers in cheap diners; and her theater-writing days touring Poland in the midst of Eastern Europe’s economic crisis, where she observed how a soldier tenderly kissed the women in his life goodbye.

Spanning continents (Africa and Europe) and decades (we meet the author at seven, fifteen, and fifty), Things I Don't Want to Know brings the reader into a writer's heart.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 03/17/2014
Author of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home offers a slim, nuanced autobiography that addresses Orwell’s timeless question of “Why I Write” from a woman’s perspective. Levy begins with a trip to Majorca on which she mysteriously packs one of her old notebooks, labeled “POLAND 1988”, not knowing why she has brought it with her. The incident prompts Levy to recall how she used Polish menus from the notebook in her acclaimed novel, “in which the cabin crew on LOT airlines had morphed into nurses from Odessa.” The memoir’s project becomes evident in Levy’s precise methods of showing how unrelated incidents from her life and experience become fodder, through the subconscious mind’s unknowable alchemy, for her fiction. The precise, visceral scenes soon give way to a more philosophical tone as Levy sets about to deconstruct and analyze what it means to be a woman writer, quoting such luminaries as Adrienne Rich and Marguerite Duras. Her South African childhood, her father’s abduction, and the family’s later expatriation to England form the remainder of the slender memoir’s narrative, and she continues to link lived experience to her development and process as a writer. Particularly fond of greasy spoon restaurants in England, she begins to write as a teenager inside their “steamed up windows and haze of cigarette smoke,” a “sense of urgency accelerated.” At these junctures, in which Levy explores the consciousness and central questions of a writer (“I was convinced there was another sort of life waiting for me”), this dreamlike book of ideas and memories displays its greatest strengths. (June)
From the Publisher
“A vivid, striking account of a writer’s life, which feminises and personalises Orwell’s blunt assertions.” —The Spectator

“Powerful.” —The New Statesman

“[Levy] is a skilled wordsmith and creates an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose.” —The Independent

“While billed as a response to George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write,’ it is as much an up-to-date version of A Room of One’s Own, and, like the Virginia Woolf essay, I suspect it will be quoted for many years to come.” —The Irish Examiner

"I find myself utterly captivated by Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, a profound and vivid little volume that is less about the craft than the necessity of making literature." —Los Angeles Times  

"Levy successfully weaves historical, political, and personal threads together to form a nuanced account of her life and why she writes. Her graceful memoir/essay emphasizes a woman’s need to speak out even if she has to use a quiet voice. For feminists and memoir enthusiasts." —Library Journal

"Rather than, say, telling the reader to show rather than tell, [Levy] declines to tell us anything and then shows us a great deal. What results is much more valuable than any literal writing guide or any literal response to Orwell would have been. It certainly has greater political import." —Biographile

"Few essayists have the courage and talent to go head-to-head with George Orwell. Deborah Levy's response to Orwell's iconic piece 'Why I Write' is at once a feminist call to arms, a touching memoir of small moments, and a guide to writing fiction from one of literature's bravest rulebreakers." —Barnes & Noble Review

Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-07
A slim, elliptical memoir from novelist, poet and playwright Levy.Only in the most expansive terms can this be considered a book "on writing," as it is subtitled, though it could be considered a portrait of the writer as a young girl. Most of it at least, for the framing is plainly the author's adulthood, before the publication of her well-received novel Swimming Home (2011). It begins: "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 at train stations." Levy provides no context for her existential crisis, but she recounts her geographical cure to Majorca, where she shared a restaurant table with a Chinese man, who asked her where she was born. She writes, "I'm not sure I went on to say everything you're going to read now." Levy was born in apartheid South Africa, living in Johannesburg, when her father was imprisoned for being a member of the African National Congress. The author then lived with her godmother, where she didn't quite fit with the family and, perhaps symbolically, freed a bird from its cage (as she'd desired to do for her caged father). Eventually, her father was freed, and the family exiled itself to England, where Levy wondered, "How was I ever going to escape from living in exile? I wanted to be in exile from exile." Her full-circle return to the Majorca of the book's beginning brings a perspective informed by politics, feminism, and the challenge and redemption of writing: "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?"Readers get only a vague sense of what these things we don't want to know might be in a book that seems like a catharsis for the writer but might prove enigmatic for most readers.
Library Journal
06/01/2014
In her feminist answer to George Orwell's 1946 essay "Why I Write," Levy (Swimming Home; Beautiful Mutants; The Unloved) muses on her life experiences, using as her chapter headings Orwell's four motivations for writing: Political Purpose, Historical Impulse, Sheer Egoism, and Aesthetic Enthusiasm. As a child living in South Africa, she felt the sting of apartheid's cruelty at an early age. Not only did Levy see the "White Only" signs everywhere, but she watched her father's arrest for being an African National Congress member. The family's move to London when she was nine left her feeling displaced and sad, especially after her parents separated. As a teen she decided to be a writer, hanging out in the local greasy diner, dressed in a black straw hat and green platform shoes. Later, at age 50, while in Mallorca, she reflects on the expectations society places on women. VERDICT Levy successfully weaves historical, political, and personal threads together to form a nuanced account of her life and why she writes. Her graceful memoir/essay emphasizes a woman's need to speak out even if she has to use a quiet voice. For feminists and memoir enthusiasts.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781620405659
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/10/2014
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 929,696
  • Product dimensions: 5.28 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Levy writes fiction, plays, and poetry. Her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company and widely broadcast on the BBC, including her dramatizations of two of Freud’s most iconic case histories, Dora and The Wolfman. The author of highly praised novels including the Man Booker Prize–shortlisted Swimming Home, Beautiful Mutants, Swallowing Geography, and Billy and Girl, she lives in London.

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