List your enemies

Alice Spawls

  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
    Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp, £12.99, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 14654 5

In Almería in the heat of summer, the temperature reaches 40 degrees, and no rain falls. It looks like a lunar landscape: parched, craterous, unreal. In the distance, white tents incubate tomatoes, artificially hydrated. Gas canisters stand in the sand like strange desert plants; cargo ships float past to Greece. Against this largeness, Sofia Papastergiadis, postgraduate anthropology dropout and barista, is feeling the smallness of her life. ‘The dream is over for me. It began when I left my lame mother alone … that autumn I packed my bags for university … it ended when she became ill and I abandoned my PhD. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks behind my shattered screensaver like an unclaimed suicide.’ Her laptop is broken, which means Sofia is broken too (it ‘knows more about me than anyone else’). She stares at the screensaver image of the Milky Way; it’s the sort of generic screensaver laptops come with but Sofia, whose restless mind is always looking for connections – ways of explaining things, and explaining them away – jumps from the picture to the Latin lactea to her own etymology (‘my mother told me years ago that I must write Milky Way like this: γαλαξίας κύκλος’), to Aristotle in Chalcidice, to her father born in Thessaloniki, to the oldest star (13 billion years old) and back to the stars on her laptop (China, two years old). Γαλαξίας κύκλος means literally a ‘milky circle’.

She has come to Almería with her mother to seek a last hope treatment for Rose’s leg paralysis (she calls her mother by her name) at the Gómez Clinic. Eleven years ago her father left them in London and returned to Greece. He had a religious conversion, inherited a vast shipping fortune just as the euro was collapsing, and married a woman not much older than Sofia (she calls Alexandra the ‘bride child’). Sofia hasn’t spoken to him since. As soon as her mother wakes she will ask Sofia to bring her water. In Almería – or maybe just in Sofia’s head – meanings have started to slip:

I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool … I am always thinking of ways to make water more right than wrong for my mother.

Sofia’s ‘pathetic miniature life’, as she describes it, is tied up with her mother’s illness: ‘I can’t deny that her symptoms are of cultural interest to me, even though they drag me down with her.’ Her special skill is making her own life smaller so her mother’s seems bigger. When they walk together – sometimes Rose can walk a bit, sometimes she can’t – they limp together. ‘My legs are her legs.’ That her mother can walk alone to the Spar to buy herself some hairpins, without even a stick, is something Sofia doesn’t want to think about. What she wants to think about are the things she can count and measure:

Some things are getting bigger (the lack of direction in my life), but not the right things. Biscuits in the Coffee House are getting bigger (the size of my head), receipts are getting bigger (there is so much information on a receipt, it is almost a field study in itself), also my thighs (a diet of sandwiches, pastries… ), my bank balance is getting smaller and so are passion fruit (though pomegranates are getting bigger and so is air pollution, as is my shame at sleeping five nights of the week in the storeroom above the Coffee House).

Deborah Levy is interested in women who don’t have homes and aren’t sure where to look for them, who sleep above shops or coffee houses, who seem to keep themselves displaced and feel easiest when they’re travelling or alone; women who like to dissect things, who reassure themselves with cataloguing and calculating, as though people and feelings could be contained by indices. They usually make a profession of it: archaeologist, botanist, anthropologist, librarian. Making lists and counting things is a way of seeing, but it’s also a way of dealing with not wanting to see, of seeing the wrong thing on purpose (‘To sign off the loan to pay the Gómez Clinic we had to go together to Rose’s mortgage provider for an interview. I took the morning off work which meant I lost 18 pounds and 30 pence for three hours.’) Levy’s stories – she’s written seven novels and three short story collections, as well as plays, poetry and essays – almost always begin with a failure of language; she has said that she’s not interested in the most articulate person in the room, and that her work is informed by the theatre director Zofia Kalinska’s statement: ‘We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theatre, I like to show the hesitation and not to conceal it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish.’ The progression, one hopes, is towards language, the ‘coming into language’ that Hélène Cixous talks about in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’. Cixous’s essay is starting point and structure for Hot Milk; its ideas shape Sofia’s task – to be brave, to make herself heard, to separate from her mother – and Levy’s. Women, according to Cixous (and this is 1976), need to challenge the symbolic status quo, and they can do so by inscribing their subjectivities, by writing what men can’t: ‘she writes in white ink.’ Mother’s milk, Milky Way, white ink.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in