How I Spend It: Deborah Levy on her writing shed

The novelist’s imagination feeds off the surreal artefacts – not to mention a pair of vintage Prada heels – that adorn the walls of her den

Image: Klaus Kremmerz

If there is one painting I yearn to hang on a rusty nail in my writing shed and stare at every day, it is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning. It features two girls, one with electrified hair, standing by a half-open door in a long corridor lined with a blood-red carpet. Meanwhile, a giant writhing sunflower is climbing the stairs.

For some reason this image always opens my mind and makes a space for something to happen in my own writing. As do the various feathers and stones I have collected on walks. I like to be surrounded by objects and art while I write my books. Sometimes a particular image becomes a sort of companion; it thinks with me in the long writing hours.

Among my collection is a translucent paperweight with a jellyfish blown from glass floating inside it. Jellyfish make an appearance in my novel Hot Milk, in which its leading character, Sofia, swims among these creatures in the warm summer sea of southern Spain. In Spanish a jellyfish is called a medusa. The mythic Medusa herself makes an appearance in this same novel. I too have swum and been stung by jellyfish in the Mediterranean, but it is this glass medusa, her delicate tendrils floating in the paperweight, that held my gaze while I wrote some of that book through the English winter.

I also always have in sight a miniature violin I bought many years ago in a junk shop in Prague. It fits into the palm of my hand and sits in its tiny curved black case, perfectly made with brass hinges and a clasp. This has a more abstract resonance for the writing. Frankly, its significance to me can’t be explained away, except to say its presence keeps me alert and curious.

Pride of place on the wall of my shed is an artwork gifted to me by Cornelia Parker. It’s a black-and-white photograph of Charlotte Brontë’s quill and is part of a series titled Brontëan Abstracts. Parker used an electron microscope to magnify various objects and artefacts belonging to the Brontë family at the Parsonage Museum in Haworth, such as their needlework and even strands of their hair. Charlotte’s quill, in this photograph, resembles the wing of a bird. In my own mind, it is there in my shed to give flight to my own words.

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Most beloved to me is a square of bubblegum pink hardboard, on which the artist Bob and Roberta Smith has painted the number 2 in a vaguely swan-like shape. Its sheer force of life is uplifting. I regard it as radical because numbers (or statistics) are supposed to be impersonal, but somehow Smith has made this number almost emotional.

On a shelf of my favourite books, I keep a cast of a roughly peeled potato that has been covered in silver nickel, made by the German sculptor Asta Gröting. This is a single potato, but it is part of a sculpture that includes many such potatoes, titled Kartoffeln. I suppose I find it inspiring because a potato is a humble everyday vegetable that here has been transformed into a kind of jewel.

I have also long been a fan of the artist Andrzej Klimowski. We collaborated on a graphic novel together, working from my short story Stardust Nation. One of Klimowski’s genius drawings in this book is of a large cake that resembles Sigmund Freud. The Freud cake is laid out on a table, a knife poised to cut into it, while a crowd of eccentric, scholarly people hold out their empty plates. They are waiting for a slice of the father of psychoanalysis, and its surrealism always makes me laugh.

A pair of Prada vintage shoes bought in a flea market in Paris have also become part of my collection. I have worn them occasionally, but now mostly keep them as art objects. These shoes are a work of complicated engineering made to appear deceptively simple. They have elongated pointed toes and two thin straps that criss‑cross around the instep. A small gold circle is attached to this strap and it erotically rests near the side of the foot. These shoes have a big splash of creative freedom in their design. They resemble a thought experiment that has come out right. How encouraging. Their form is perfect, and of course, that’s what a writer wants for her work too. It is likely that in my next novel, a character will wear these very seductive shoes. I have it in my mind that she will be standing in the rain and the heels will sink into the damp grass, near a flowering mimosa tree. 

The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, is published in paperback by Penguin at £8.99.

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