Things I Don’t Want to Know

Deb­o­rah Levy
  • Review
September 30, 2014

Deb­o­rah Levy’s mem­oir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, is a care­ful­ly wrought work of art. It is also a clever take, from a woman’s point of view, on George Orwell’s essay Why I Write.” She uses his chap­ter head­ings — Polit­i­cal Response, His­tor­i­cal Impulse, Sheer Ego­ism, and Aes­thet­ic Enthu­si­asm — as her tem­plate, but pop­u­lates them, in her swift prose, with her own bio­graph­i­cal details and insights. Putting them in a dif­fer­ent order, Polit­i­cal Response begins with her plight of depres­sion (“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”) and exam­ines the chal­lenge of being a cre­ative woman and, in par­tic­u­lar, a cre­ative mother.

His­tor­i­cal Impulse becomes Levy’s ves­sel for glimpses of her child­hood in apartheid South Africa, fol­low­ing Orwell’s edict that one can’t assess a writer’s motives with­out know­ing some­thing of his ear­ly devel­op­ment.” Inter­est­ing­ly, episodes when her Jew­ish­ness sur­faces are oppor­tu­ni­ties for inde­pen­dence and rev­e­la­tion. When a teacher remarks on her Jew­ish name and scolds her for not begin­ning her note­book on the top line, she defies the teacher and writes on what­ev­er line she pleas­es. She is sent to the head­mas­ter, and while he hits her, she real­izes that if you do bad things to peo­ple, you do not feel safe.” When her godmother’s daugh­ter informs her that she’ll be, the only girl with a Jew­ish sur­name on the reg­is­ter” of the con­vent school, the read­er fears for her. Instead, the nuns are lov­ing teach­ers, and her favorite, Sis­ter Joan, sets her on the path to becom­ing a writer, encour­ag­ing her to say my thoughts out loud.” Rather than speak­ing loud­ly, she writes down what she doesn’t want to know: Dad dis­ap­peared. Thandi­we cried in the bath. Piet’s got a hole in his head…” Here Levy mir­rors Orwell’s motive for writ­ing: My start­ing point is always a feel­ing of par­ti­san­ship, a sense of injustice.”

Sheer Ego­ism finds Levy’s teenage self stum­bling about on lime green plat­form shoes, writ­ing on nap­kins in the greasy spoon of a drea­ry Lon­don sub­urb: It was as if some­one pulled the plug out of Eng­land at 4pm.”

That plug reap­pears when the final chap­ter, Aes­thet­ic Enthu­si­asm, picks up where the begin­ning left off: the nar­ra­tor is con­nect­ing with a Chi­nese shop­keep­er over a bot­tle of wine on the island of Major­ca, where she has fled to sort her­self out, and where she final­ly real­izes that where I had to get to was that sock­et,” name­ly the hole in the wall, where she can plug in her lap­top to write. Thus, this tal­ent­ed writer found her spark again, and read­ers are rich­er for it, espe­cial­ly those who appre­ci­ate the sym­bol­ism of well placed details — the oranges, for instance, soft­ened under the sole of the foot and sucked dry through a hole in the peel, first by the child in Johan­nes­burg, and then by the adult in Majorca.

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