So, when she told me that she not only regretted her professional achievements — her three-decades-long career, her MBA, everything — but also that a work-life balance for mothers is impossible, I felt suddenly unmoored. My vision of my own parenthood — which at that point entailed me handily pairing Chuck Taylors with diaphanous nursing dresses, really letting my multitasking skills shine — suddenly seemed less certain. If my mother felt that having a career and a family at the same time was a mistake, I no longer had proof that the opposite was true. What had happened to my feminist hero? And also, as I yelled at her over roast chicken at Rosh Hashana dinner, why didn’t she tell me this before I got knocked up?
I'm not sure why I was so blindsided by this reality; it's easily gleaned from any number of Atlantic think pieces and Sarah Jessica Parker movies. I'm guessing a combination of being too self-involved during my childless years to care about the experiences of young moms and too arrogant to think that I would be vulnerable to the same pitfalls that typically befall working moms. (Would I, a superior specimen of womanhood, ever be caught dead wearing spit-up-stained yoga pants at brunch? Hell no.) But it turns out that most of my peers, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum, have their eyes wide open.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
Orwell’s critique of political language was grounded in a belief that thinking and language are intertwined. Words, in his view, are not just vehicles for thoughts but make them possible, condition them, and can therefore distort them. Where words stagnate thought does too. Thus, ultimate control in 1984 is control over the dictionary. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”
It is wartime, and a train is packed with Yugoslav Jews bound for death. A father, using a knife concealed in his boot, pries loose the wooden boards of the carriage’s floor. He pushes his little boy out onto the snow through the hole he has made, so that he can join his younger brother, who slid out easily, being smaller. The older boy, Albert, is only seven years old, and his parents have entrusted him with the care of Elijah, who is still too young to understand what is happening.
Albert squeezes through the narrow gap and scrambles to his feet in the moonlight as the train, carrying his parents, moves off. But he can’t find his baby brother. He never does. All his life he is haunted by that innocent failure; his nightmares and waking hours are dominated by the sound of trains.
In a TED talk, Lightman drew the distinction between his two habits of mind in this way: “The scientist tries to name things; the artist tries to avoid naming things.” As he approaches his three score and 10, the gap between those two positions apparently becomes ever more urgent to him. This latest curious book of essays is another stab at resolving that universal either/or.
WH Auden once said that writing about your life was “using up capital”, but this is what makes memoir such a generous form. And Deborah Levy is a most generous writer. What is wonderful about this short, sensual, embattled memoir is that it is not only about the painful landmarks in her life – the end of a marriage, the death of a mother – it is about what it is to be alive.