AUGUST 24, 2021
THE THIRD AND purportedly final installment of Deborah Levy’s “living autobiography” opens at a flower stall in Shoreditch. Rather than selecting cut stems à la Clarissa Dalloway, Levy buys a banana tree — something with roots. With her younger daughter preparing to leave for university, Levy lavishes attention on the plant, which her daughters jokingly refer to as the third child. As it happens, Levy, too, ends up leaving London to pursue a fellowship in Paris, entrusting the care of the banana tree to a friend.
Levy’s trio of memoirs documents her ongoing quest for freedom — financial, personal, and creative. The first volume, Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), was structured as a feminist response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” recounting Levy’s childhood in South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for opposing apartheid, before the family emigrated to the United Kingdom. The second book, The Cost of Living (2018), covers the dissolution of her 23-year marriage and the death of her mother. Despite the turbulence of divorce, Levy found her 50s to be “a sort of homecoming.” Although she had been writing since her 20s, it wasn’t until mid-career that she achieved mainstream notoriety, when her 2011 novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. (Her next novel, Hot Milk, was also shortlisted in 2016, and The Man Who Saw Everything was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019.)
In Real Estate, Levy, on the cusp of turning 60, reflects on what the next chapter of her life might look like without her daughters at home. Taking up residence in a bare apartment in Montmartre, she finds that the empty nest takes on a literal dimension. Despite prodding from her best male friend to find a companion, Levy remains single. When an acquaintance suggests that living without a lover is only half a life, Levy thinks to herself that “if that was the case the idea would be to live half a life very well.” And live well she does — elevating the quotidian and savoring her time in Paris by listening to jazz radio, sampling Georges Perec’s inventory of cheeses, and reading “Annie Ernaux on the banks of the Seine.”
Levy’s novels are imbued with imagination, employing dreamlike sequences, time warps, and quasi-enchanted objects. Her oeuvre teems with vivid imagery: who could forget the supermarket chicken that spills from her bag and is run over in The Cost of Living — “roadkill” rescued, roasted, and relished despite the tire marks? Similarly, in what she calls her “unreal estate,” Levy fantasizes about the home she’d like to own: “a grand old house” with a pomegranate tree in the garden, an egg-shaped fireplace inspired by a hotel in New Mexico (where she took a pilgrimage to see the house of Georgia O’Keeffe), and a dedicated freezer for chilling glasses. Aware that such a refuge is beyond her means, Levy nonetheless amasses objects to furnish it, bringing to mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s “repository of unlived things.” Levy’s flea-market finds include wooden slatted blinds, linen tablecloths, a copper fondue pot, six small coffee cups, and a tin watering can. “I was collecting things for a parallel life, or a life not yet lived, a life that was waiting to be made,” she explains, likening the exercise to writing the first draft of a novel.
Levy acknowledges the importance of having a room of one’s own — “a table and chairs and the light coming in through a window,” as she told a young attendee at the book’s LRB Bookshop launch. And yet she knows that property is not a panacea: she doesn’t envy a friend with multiple homes, whose constant movement she equates to a kind of homelessness. There is freedom, too, in not being beholden to a mortgage: “Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors,” Levy concluded in Things I Don’t Want to Know. She was content with the garden shed in which she wrote three books; although a rental, she “owned its mood.” Maybe the mood is all we can ever own.
Displacement — and the tension between freedom and rootedness — is a recurrent theme in Levy’s work. “Each new journey is a mourning for what has been left behind,” notes the narrator of her 1993 novel, Swallowing Geography. Levy admits to carrying both her imagined property portfolio and her childhood home in Johannesburg (on a street lined with jacarandas) within her, a longing exacerbated by exile. She recognizes, however, that the wanting may be more important than the having. “Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1958), “so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it.” Renting a covetable holiday home in Greece, Levy concedes that “perhaps it was not the house but desire itself that made me feel more alive.”
The right to property in a patriarchy is a thread Levy picks up from her feminist forebears — Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras — and her contemporary Rachel Cusk. What’s at stake is not only terrestrial but also artistic turf. When Woolf visited an Oxbridge college to deliver a lecture about women and fiction, she was shooed off the grass, leading her to conclude that “only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.” Nearly a century later, at a literary party in London, a male author tries to undermine Levy by calling the exposure that comes with her success “vulgar.” “[H]e viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land,” she writes. Echoing Woolf’s reasoning in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Levy argues that, if women are only ever trespassers, there is still demolition to be done.
At the crux of Levy’s concerns is how to live a creative life as a woman. Disregarding Beauvoir’s injunction that women emancipate themselves from domestic duties, she derives a primal pleasure from cooking for the young women in her daughters’ entourage. “I wanted them to find strength for all they had to do in the world and for all the world would throw at them,” she explains. When her daughters arrive to visit her in Greece, she painstakingly squeezes fresh orange juice before their arrival, only to have them reject it in favor of cold beer. Despite the hour Levy had spent “juicing on that old plastic device, scooping out the pips and pith […] they did not want to be told what it is they want full stop.” In a trilogy about women owning their desires and staking claim to a spot on the grass, surely this is a sign of progress.
One of the pleasures of this volume is Levy’s relating to her daughters as adults. What will be the legacy she leaves them, she wonders: “What do we value (though it might not be societally valued), what might we own, discard and bequeath?” It’s a question she confronted when clearing out her stepmother’s apartment after her death, and as her late mother’s “ghostly thoughts” continue to haunt her from annotated books. Levy’s tangible assets include the flat in a “crumbling apartment block” in North London, three e-bikes, and three antique wooden fairground horses from Afghanistan. But riches, of course, go beyond chattel. “In the end, I regard these three books as my real estate,” she says. “They’re the houses that I have built.”
The books are undoubtedly pleasant places to spend time. Levy’s wry humor and attention to the art of living make her good company on the page, with wisdom weaved in from her touchstone authors, including James Baldwin, Walter Benjamin, and Leonora Carrington. At a time when the pandemic restricted travel, I appreciated the armchair travel on offer in Real Estate: I could taste the guava ice cream with salt and chili powder in Mumbai and feel the chill of December sleet at a café in Berlin. I also enjoyed peeking behind the curtain of Levy’s creative process: when an “uncanny crossing” in Mumbai “obliquely” influences the events of The Man Who Saw Everything, for example.
Yet Real Estate lacks the visceral impact of The Cost of Living — which The Guardian chose as one of “the 100 best books of the 21st century,” and which is one of a small handful of books that I regularly press into the hands of friends. While Levy took a scalpel to her soul in that volume, here the dramas play out predominantly among her friends; the observations may be astute, but the emotions remain second-degree. It all seems to stop short of what Levy herself puts forth as the goal of the writing life: “To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge.” By contrast, Real Estate stays on safe — if scenic — ground.