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Hot Milk: Deborah Levy

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Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother's unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant - their very last chance - in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at 50, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

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. Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their "intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination", including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen) Our book club (Wine Women and Words) had plenty to say on this one. For some the exploration of the mother daughter relationship touched more than a few chords with its insights into the tensions of the relationship between Sofia and Rose. Did Hot Milk do more than scratch the surface on this though? Some thought so and praised the depth of characterisation while others felt they never really got to know the two main characters well enough. All were agreed on the beauty of the book's language though and the power of the themes that made us think - family ties, responsibility and mothering. But one of Sofia’s problems is that she can’t see herself straight on. In thrall to her mother, she fails even to succeed in the simple task of bringing her the right kind of water. Preparing for their visit to the Gomez clinic, having described herself as both illness’s witness and its detective, she remarks: “My mother will display her various symptoms to the consultant like an assortment of mysterious canapes. I will be holding the tray.”

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And so the book evolves into an experiment with truth and identity. This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language. There seem to be no other patients at the Gómez clinic, its outer walls built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”. Sofia becomes obsessed with a German seamstress, Ingrid Bauer, “whose body is long and hard like an autobahn”, and who stitches her a shirt with the word “beloved” sewn into its fabric – unless, of course, she has embroidered another word entirely. When Sofia is stung by jellyfish, a young man called Juan tends to her injury; she takes him as her lover, too. After a while she abandons her mother and Ingrid to visit her estranged father with his new young wife and baby in Athens, a broken city, even more damaged than Spain by economic collapse; her father, a wealthy man, confines her to a storeroom with no window and a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Deborah was born in South Africa in 1959, the eldest child of anti-apartheid activists Norman and Philippa Levy. Her father was arrested when she was five and was imprisoned for four years. During this time, Deborah became an almost silent child, but was encouraged by a teacher to write down her thoughts, sparking her love of creative writing. After her father’s release, the family relocated to the UK and first lived above a menswear shop in London. As a teenager Deborah worked as a cinema usher, and a chance encounter with the film-maker Derek Jarman inspired her to change her plans to take a degree in literature, and instead she headed to Dartington College of Arts, where she studied writing for the stage and performance.

Levy’s last novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012, having initially failed to find a publisher at all. Rejected for being “too literary” for the marketplace, apparently, it was taken up by And Other Stories, a subscription-based, not-for-profit publishing house. Since Hot Milk is being published by Penguin Random House, it seems fair to guess that the accolade of a Booker shortlisting has removed the presumed literary stain from this novel, which shares themes and obsessions with its predecessor. There is a sun-bleached, Mediterranean setting; explorations of troubled familial bonds, of the nature of sexuality, an examination of exile – and repeated motifs of incantatory language. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says, more than once. “It cuts very deep.” This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language

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It was futile to try to fit an old life into a new life. The old fridge was too big for the new kitchen, the sofa too big for the lounge, the beds the wrong shape to fit the bedrooms. Most of my books were in boxes in the garage with the rest of the family house. More urgently, I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time in my life. I wrote wherever I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. I could say that it was these years that were the most self-sacrificing, and not the years in our nuclear family unit. Yet, to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of this time.

Anyhow, I began to see that cow as one of Charcot’s patients, and DiARy of A sTeAk was born. The camera was crucial to the study of hysteria at the time, and so there we were, because of the camera, watching this poor cow in various states of distress. I thought, ‘Why not look at hysteria through the BSE crisis?’ And so in the book you have an official from Westminster broadcasting through a tannoy to a herd of cows, ‘You are normal! You are the national anthem!’ The following year, she published Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first in a trilogy of what she calls “living autobiographies”, to convey their selective, fictive nature. Over the next few years, she alternated two more novels, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything, with two more volumes of living autobiography, which spoke of how, after her marriage ended, she recomposed a life for herself and her daughters in her 50s, outside the old patriarchal structures. All of these books, she told me, flew out of her “like a cork coming out of a bottle”. Through the opposing figures of mother and daughter, Deborah Levy explores the strange and monstrous nature of womanhood. Dreamlike and utterly compulsive, Hot Milk is a delirious fairy tale of feminine potency, a story both modern and timeless. What Levy found in her writing was a way of giving her story a shimmering, attractive surface, while allowing her preoccupations with literary theory, myth and psychoanalysis to occupy its murkier depths. The novel can be taken as “a kind of holiday novel gone wrong”, she said – and it has been slipped into many a suitcase as a beach or poolside read. “I’m happy if the surface is read,” she told me. “Because everything else is there to be found. And I’m working hard for my readers to find it. But I don’t look down on readers who don’t. I think, ‘Something will come through.’” The “something” might include the Freudian desire and death-wish that suffuses the novel; its peculiar linked imagery of sugar mice and rats; above all the immense treacherous undertow of history – of the Holocaust, of 20th-century suffering and wars – that Levy sketches into the story with almost imperceptible strokes.

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A Deborah Levy— I just have no idea why anyone wouldn’t be attracted to modernism. It’s incomprehensible to me. There wasn’t really much writing like BeAuTifuL muTAnTs when it was first published in the UK and I wrote it because I had to find out what I could do with language, I had to find out everything. I didn’t set out to write like a modernist or a surrealist, but I didn’t set out to write a realist novel either. I wasn’t really writing in protest against other kinds of writing either. I obviously had my aesthetic enthusiasms, but language was the great adventure of my life. BeAuTifuL muTAnTs represents the sum of those early technical experiments. Deborah Levy is a writer whose novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Last year she published the final instalment of her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy of memoirs, and her earlier work includes plays for the RSC as well as short story collections and poetry. It was not that easy to convey to him, a man much older than she was, that the world was her world, too. He had taken a risk when he invited her to join him at his table. After all, she came with a whole life and libido of her own. It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals. She could have stopped the story by describing the wonder of all she had seen in the deep calm sea before the storm. That would have been a happy ending, but she did not stop there. She was asking him (and herself) a question: do you think I was abandoned by that person on the boat? Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their "intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination", including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen) A Deborah Levy— Absolutely, and he called his first son after Jean-Martin Charcot, he called him Jean-Martin Freud, and his son had to change his name to Martin Freud because everyone thought he was a girl.

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