Deborah Levy Would Like to Drink With Virginia Woolf

“I suspect she would not be that interested in food,” says Levy, author most recently of the novel “The Man Who Saw Everything.” “She would be allowed to smoke in my home because I love her strength and fragility in equal measure and would want her to feel totally relaxed.”

What books are on your nightstand?

“Becoming Beauvoir,” by Kate Kirkpatrick, “Attention Seeking,” by Adam Phillips, “The Years,” by Annie Ernaux. In fact Ernaux, who is now 79, would be a good contender for the Nobel Prize. “The Years” interests me because it is an autobiography that is not written in the first person. Ernaux is more interested in writing a collective history using We, She or They to tell the story of her generation in France. Hard to do, but it works. It’s an innovation.

What’s the last great book you read?

The trilogy of novels by Rachel Cusk: “Outline,” “Transit” and “Kudos.” Conceptually magnificent, these books offer literature something new in thought, expression and structure. Neither kind nor cruel, Cusk’s female narrator is a massive presence disguised as an absence. That is alchemy.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I’m reading “Peter Pan” because I only ever saw the film. It’s as if Lacan had written a novel. It’s so weird.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

No, a great book cannot be badly written. The novels of Simone de Beauvoir, while always interesting to me, mostly dramatize her philosophical arguments via two-dimensional characters whose function it is to serve her arguments. The ideas are great, but not the writing. I don’t get the sense that in her fiction, Beauvoir ever gave up control, or was receptive enough, or open enough to let the writing take over and surprise her.

Why we read is an interesting subject. I read Georges Simenon’s books to find out what kind of meal Detective Jules Maigret is going to enjoy next. Please Maigret I say to myself, you have not eaten a tripe sausage for a while — isn’t it time?

Describe your ideal reading experience.

Summertime I like to read in the shade after a long morning swim in the ocean. Maybe under a pine tree in Greece. It always feels good to stretch the body before a long read. Sometimes the cicadas are so loud on the Greek islands (especially if I am lying under a pine tree) it’s better to read on a rock and burn up in the sun. Some books are worth the pain. The rest of the time I read on the subway, which I much prefer to reading in bed — though it has been tricky to carry Benjamin Moser’s “Sontag: Her Life and Work” around with me on the crowded Piccadilly line. It’s possible that if I drop this brick of a book it might break someone’s toe.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“It Isn’t All Mink,” by Ginette Spanier, with an introduction by Noël Coward, first published in 1959. I found it in a secondhand book store when I was heavily pregnant with my first daughter. Spanier’s courage and tenacity when hiding from the Nazi’s in occupied France, and then the rigors of haute couture when she became directrice at Balmain, were somehow a perfect antidote to my own fears of the birth.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

For a general atmosphere of irresponsibility, endless beautiful language, startling images, freedom of thought and imaginative flight, how about the poets, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud?

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

I read Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” in my early 20s. Although I regard these poems as some of the most astonishing and lucid writing ever delivered to the world, I wonder if I was too interested in despair at that age. Maybe I should have read this collection in my 40s.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Elaine Showalter is an academic who has long given me much intellectual pleasure and new knowledge. She writes with magnificent pace and narrative skill: “The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture” is a book I have dipped in to for over 10 years and it still keeps giving. I admire “Open City,” by Teju Cole; Maggie Nelson’s subversive, smart and loving “The Argonauts”; Emily Berry’s poetry collection “Stranger, Baby” — it’s about the death of a mother. Berry’s poems really do convey the vertigo of loss. I am also very taken by Lana Del Rey’s gorgeous existential song, “Summertime Sadness.”

Are any books guilty pleasures for you?

Do we need to be guilty about pleasures? Probably. “The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dalí” is my top contender. Dalí’s inflamed tone makes me laugh in a guilty sort of way: “I was born like anyone else in horror, pain and stupor.” The chapter headings are alluring: “How to Become Erotic While Remaining Chaste”; “How to Make Money”; “How to Become Paranoia-Critical.” Dalí apparently experiences the Mediterranean light like a burning arrow. Yes, why not? It’s quite wet and gray in Britain, so I’ll take it.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

It’s a rediscovery of Auden’s fine poem, “The More Loving One.” I was pleased to read these lines:

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

It has become apparent to me when writing fiction that a character who is loving, tends to have more dimensions than a hater — though the latter is sometimes more fun to write. Auden seems to agree. Whatever, love is riskier than hate because there is more to lose.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

Never tell an author what to write about. Last week a taxi driver told me he had a perfect story for me to get my chops into: “My uncle paints flamingos on all his vintage cars and only eats peanuts, now that’s a real character for you.” On the whole, authors have their writerly subjects laid down inside them, waiting to emerge like an antelope from a snail shell.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I am still moved by the power of Jane Eyre’s furious speech to careless, handsome, Mr. Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” I sometimes think of Charlotte Brontë inking that speech with her quill and wonder how she felt after she had written it. I am moved by Jean Genet finding poetry in the toughest of circumstances; also, it’s moving when an author struggles to reach an impossible idea and takes the trouble to unfold it for me in their books. Marguerite Duras is an example of that kind of writer.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

No way is intellect an emotion-free zone. Nietzsche is quite an emotional writer. So is Audre Lorde.

How do you organize your books?

Recently I lifted all books by French authors from my main shelves and gave them six wide shelves of their own in a separate room from my other books.

At the time I thought this was a good idea because I often reach for Barthes, Balzac, Camus, Duras, so reckoned it made sense to find them all in one room. Yet I now find it’s as if these books live on an island, no longer in conversation with my other books. I am thinking I might have to set them free and allow them to romp in the big bad world with every other book I own.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Various anthologies of herbs, wildflowers and various insects; also how to identify mushrooms. I use these books for life, and sometimes for my fiction — which often includes plants, insects and occasionally mushrooms. They do, after all, share the earth with us.

How have your reading tastes changed?

When my mother was dying my reading tastes flipped overnight from William Burroughs to William Shakespeare. I needed language that was as big as everything I was feeling.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers do you invite?

I would invite Virginia Woolf for an aperitif. I suspect she would not be that interested in food. She would be allowed to smoke in my home because I love her strength and fragility in equal measure and would want her to feel totally relaxed. My guests for the actual dinner would be two male writer heroes of mine, James Baldwin and Federico García Lorca. I think they’d get on and maybe fall in love. What would I cook? Peri-peri chicken stuffed with couscous. I reckon it would be a most convivial evening and that we’d probably not talk about writing at all.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

It’s a play. “Oedipus Rex,” by Sophocles, first performed 429 B.C., premiered at Theater of Dionysus, Athens. I’ve read the theory but never read Sophocles. It’s as if I thought, Oh Sigmund Freud has already explained the whole Oedipal dynamic to me, I don’t need to read it. I wouldn’t want that to happen to me. But I do note that Sophocles is listed as a Tragedian which is a cool thing to have under Occupation on your C.V.

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