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Deborah Levy

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Deborah Levy
Deborah Levy

(1959-08-06) 6 August 1959 (age 64)
Johannesburg, South Africa
EducationSt Saviour's and St Olave's Church of England School; Hampstead School; Dartington College of Arts
Occupation(s)Author, playwright, poet
Notable workSwimming Home (2011); Hot Milk (2016)
David Gale
(m. 1997, divorced)
Children2 daughters

Deborah Levy FRSL (born 6 August 1959) is a British novelist, playwright and poet. She initially concentrated on writing for the theatre – her plays were staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company – before focusing on prose fiction. Her early novels included Beautiful Mutants, Swallowing Geography, and Billy & Girl. Her more recent fiction has included the Booker-shortlisted novels Swimming Home[1] and Hot Milk, as well as the Booker-longlisted The Man Who Saw Everything, and the short-story collection Black Vodka.

Early life and education[edit]

Levy was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the granddaughter of working-class Lithuanian Jewish immigrants on her father's side,[2] and an upper-middle-class "English colonial" family, as she described it, on her mother's side.[3] Her father, Norman Levy, was a member of the African National Congress[4] and an academic and historian. Her mother was Philippa (née Murrell). Her father was placed under a banning order by the Apartheid government from 1964 until the family fled to London in 1968,[3] initially living in Wembley before moving to Petts Wood. Her parents divorced in 1974.[5]

She was educated at St Saviour's and St Olave's School, Southwark, and then at Hampstead School.[6] She then trained at Dartington College of Arts, which she was inspired to attend by Derek Jarman, whom she met while working as an usher at Notting Hill's Gate Cinema.[4]



After leaving Dartington in 1981, Levy wrote a number of plays, including Pax, Heresies for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and others (Clam, The B File, Pushing the Prince into Denmark, Macbeth – False Memories, and Honey, Baby), which are published in Levy: Plays 1 (Methuen).[7]

She was director and writer for Man Act Theatre Company, a radical group that operated under the umbrella of Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, based at Chapter Arts Centre.[8]


Levy's major work as a poet is An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990), which takes the form of a conversation between an angel and an accountant. It considers the struggle between, on the one hand, spontaneity and ambition, and, on the other, logic and contentment.


Levy published a collection of short stories, Ophelia and the Great Idea, in 1985. Her first novel, Beautiful Mutants, was published in 1987 by Jonathan Cape. Her second novel, Swallowing Geography, was published in 1993, also by Cape, and her third, Billy and Girl, was published in 1996 by Bloomsbury. Her short story "Proletarian Zen" was published in PEN New Fiction in 1985 by PEN International and Quartet Books.

Swimming Home (And Other Stories, 2011) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012[9] among other awards. Levy published a short story collection, Black Vodka (And Other Stories, 2013), which cemented her reputation as "one of the most exciting voices in contemporary British fiction."[10] Her novel Hot Milk was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.[11]

One of Levy's short stories, "Stardust Nation", was adapted as a graphic novel by Andrzej Klimowski, emeritus professor at the Royal College of Art, and published by SelfMadeHero in 2016.[12]

In 2019 her novel The Man Who Saw Everything was longlisted for the Booker Prize.


Levy's first volume of autobiography, Things I Don't Want to Know, was written in response to George Orwell's essay "Why I Write" and was published in 2013.

In 2018, she published a second volume, The Cost of Living. She has described them as "living" autobiographies, since they are "hopefully not being written at the end, with hindsight, but in the storm of life".[13]

The final volume, Real Estate, was published in May 2021.

Style and themes[edit]

Writing in the London Review of Books in 2016, Alice Spawls commented on several unconventional characteristics of Levy's writing: she "doesn't like stable narrators", has a "preference for shifting perspectives – she especially likes looking at one character through another", and "is interested in women who don’t have homes and aren't sure where to look for them" ("women who like to dissect things, who reassure themselves with cataloguing and calculating, as though people and feelings could be contained by indices"). Spawls noted that Levy's stories "almost always begin with a failure of language", explaining that Levy "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.'"[14]

Leo Robson, reviewing The Man Who Saw Everything in the New Statesman, provided this overview: "Levy’s project as a writer is itself about effacing borders – between the novel of ideas and the novel of sentiment, between the schematic and the fluent, the inevitable and the accidental, the cerebral and immersive, the sensuous (or somatic) and cerebral, the parochial and otherworldly, metaphor and literalism. If this sounds vague, it should."[15]

In her review of Levy's 2013 story collection Black Vodka, Lauren Elkin emphasized the philosophical qualities of Levy's work, writing that "Levy makes an aesthetic and ethics of 'elsewhereness'--being apart is another way of being together--and she explores the bonds we choose to create or break, and the ones we can't decide about.[...] Levy sensitively conveys the phenomenology of textures, of skin and breath. Embedded in her coiled, polished sentences is the drive that pushes us together, and forces us apart."[16]


Levy was a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1989 to 1991. From 2006 to 2009, she was an AHRB Fellow in Creative and Performing Arts at the Royal College of Art. She was a visiting professor at Falmouth School of Art, Falmouth University, from 2013 to 2015, and from 2018 to 2019 was a fellow of Columbia University's Institute for Ideas and Imagination.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Levy married David Gale, a playwright, in 1997. The couple, who have two daughters, are now divorced.[18]

Awards and honours[edit]


  • Beautiful Mutants. Viking. 1989. ISBN 978-0-670-82892-0.
  • Swallowing Geography. Jonathan Cape. 1993. ISBN 978-0-224-02729-8.
  • The Unloved. Jonathan Cape. 1994. ISBN 978-0-224-03038-0.
  • Diary of a Steak. Book Works. 1997. ISBN 978-1-870699-29-7.
  • Billy & Girl. Dalkey Archive Press. 1999. ISBN 978-1-56478-202-1.
  • Swimming Home. And Other Stories. 2011. ISBN 978-1-908276-02-5.
  • Hot Milk. Hamish Hamilton. 2016. ISBN 978-0-241-14654-5.
  • The Man Who Saw Everything. Hamish Hamilton. 2019. ISBN 9780241268025.
  • August Blue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2023. ISBN 9780374602048.
Short story collections
  • Deborah Levy, Andrzej Borkowski (1990). An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell. Cape. ISBN 978-0-224-02653-6.
Radio plays
  • Unless, Carol Shields, BBC Radio 4
  • Chance Acquaintances, Colette, BBC Radio 4
  • Freud: The Case Histories, BBC Radio 4
  • Pax, 1984
  • Clam, 1985
  • Heresies, 1986
  • Our Lady, 1986
  • Eva And Moses, 1987
  • Heresies & Eva and Moses: two plays. Methuen. 1987. ISBN 978-0-413-17170-2.
  • Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell, 1991
  • The B File, 1992
  • Blood Wedding, 1992
  • Call Blue Jane, 1992
  • Walks on Water, 1992
  • Shiny Nylon, 1994
  • Macbeth – False Memory, 2000
  • Plays 1. Methuen. 2000. ISBN 978-0-413-75490-5.
  • Dream Mamma
  • Honey Baby
  • Ophelia and the Great Idea
  • Pushing The Prince into Denmark


  1. ^ Wagner, Erica, "Hot Milk by Deborah Levy review – powerful novel of interior life", The Guardian, 27 March 2016. ("Levy’s last novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012.")
  2. ^ Interview with Jacques Testard in The White Review, August 2013.
  3. ^ a b Testard, Jacques (August 2013). "Interview with Deborah Levy". The White Review. Retrieved 1 February 2022.
  4. ^ a b Crown, Sarah (19 March 2016). "Deborah Levy: 'Space Oddity' seemed to be about leaving the land I was born in. Being unable to return. It can still make me cry". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  5. ^ Danziger, Danny (3 October 1994). "The worst of times: Life after apartheid: snot and tears: Deborah Levy talks to Danny Danziger". The Independent.
  6. ^ Who's Who, 2019 edition. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U281867
  7. ^ Aston, Elaine; Janelle G. Reinelt (2000). The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights. Cambridge University Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-521-59533-9.
  8. ^ Deborah Levy. Contemporarywriters.com (20 February 2007). Retrieved 10 August 2011. See also The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 132.
  9. ^ a b "The Man Booker Prize 2012". The Booker Prizes. Retrieved 22 December 2022.
  10. ^ Elkin, Lauren. "The New Together." Times Literary Supplement, 13 March 2015. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/the-new-together/
  11. ^ a b "The 2016 Shortlist", The Man Booker Prize.
  12. ^ Redrup, Pete (13 November 2016). "Behold! November's Quietus Comics Round Up Column". The Quietus. Retrieved 16 November 2016.
  13. ^ Nicol, Patricia (25 August 2019). "Deborah Levy interview: why her Booker-longlisted novel 'began with glam rock'". The Sunday Times.
  14. ^ Spawls, Alice (16 June 2016). "List your enemies: Deborah Levy". London Review of Books. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  15. ^ Robson, Leo (21 August 2019). "Deborah Levy's The Man Who Saw Everything: a mixture of parable, love story and history lesson". New Statesman. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  16. ^ Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 2013.
  17. ^ "Deborah Levy | Institute for Ideas and Imagination".
  18. ^ Kellaway, Kate (20 September 2012). "Interview | Deborah Levy: 'It's a page-turner about sorrow'". The Observer.
  19. ^ Lannan Foundation Archived 19 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Lannan.org (6 August 2011). Retrieved 10 August 2011.
  20. ^ "Specsavers National Book Awards 2012". Archived from the original on 18 January 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2013.
  21. ^ BBC International Short Story Award 2012 shortlist, BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 21 January 2013.
  22. ^ Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize 2013 Archived 5 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Flood, Alison (31 May 2013). "Frank O'Connor short story award pits UK authors against international stars". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  24. ^ Onwuemezi, Natasha (7 June 2017). "Rankin, McDermid and Levy named new RSL fellows". The Bookseller.
  25. ^ "How Deborah Levy reinvents time in The Man Who Saw Everything". www.penguin.co.uk. 21 August 2019. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  26. ^ "Serge Joncour remporte le Femina 2020". Livres Hebdo (in French). Archived from the original on 17 April 2021. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  27. ^ "100 Best Books of the 21st Century". The Guardian. 21 September 2019. Retrieved 8 December 2019.

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