“My apartment is crowded with books. Sometimes I wish they would all go on vacation and give me a break,” says the British writer, who began her career as a playwright before focusing on prose fiction; her novels include Swimming Home, Hot Milk, and, most recently, the Booker-nominated The Man Who Saw Everything, out now from Bloomsbury. “There are some books that make me think more about the writer than the writing. This is somehow critically forbidden, but I find it very enjoyable,” Levy says. Here, three books that invite readers to gossip about their authors’ “hairstyle rather than their prose style.”
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), by Andy Warhol
Warhol’s deadpan tone is rather comforting after a busy day. “People have so many problems with love, always looking for someone to be their Via Veneto, their soufflé that can’t fall.” Obsessed with beauty, he nevertheless prefers conversation: “Talkers are doing something. Beauties are being something.” Warhol is not judgmental; he just doesn’t know what it is the beauties are being. When I read Warhol, I think about who Warhol is being while he writes about himself. My mind wanders excitedly to his collection of wigs. At one point a company was interested in buying his “aura” and was willing to pay a high price for it. I suppose I bought Warhol’s aura quite cheaply in the bookstore.
Paris France, by Gertrude Stein
This charming memoir (published in 1940) has something of Warhol’s faux-naïve tone when Stein recalls her earliest childhood memories of visiting France with her parents. “I was only four years old when I was first in Paris and talked french there … and ate soup for early breakfast and had leg of mutton and spinach for lunch, I always liked spinach, and a black cat jumped on my mother’s back.” Stein returned to France in her 20s and lived there for the rest of her life. Her observations on French cooking, culture, manners, poodles, wives, war, love, and art are all interesting, but I mostly find myself thinking about how she swapped her long 19th-century hairstyle for a short Roman-emperor haircut styled by her lover and companion Alice B. Toklas. It somehow looked very modern on Gertrude, even though Alice was channeling Julius Caesar, who died in 44 B.C.
In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
I have dipped in and out of this monumental, luminous novel in seven volumes for about 20 years and still have not turned to the last page. Since I first started reading it, I have given birth to my youngest daughter and seen her off to university. Despite its many memorable characters, especially the erotic Albertine Simonet, I can’t help thinking of Proust writing these volumes while lying in bed. I see him in his silk pajamas, pen poised, pale, asthmatic, allergic to light and dust, working through the night in his cork-lined bedroom.