Real Estate by Deborah Levy – Review
By Barney Bardsley
This is the third volume of memoirs by author Deborah Levy, in which she examines, with wry humour and penetrating insight, the pleasures and pitfalls of a long, writerly life.
In Volume One of her self-styled ‘living autobiography’, Things I Don’t Want to Know, Levy explored her roots in South Africa, as the daughter of white anti-apartheid activist parents, and the beginnings of her writing life in London, where she produced brilliant, short, experimental novels, such as Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography.
Volume Two, The Cost of Living, saw her at fifty, recovering from a traumatic divorce and the death of her mother, and rattling around London on her beloved electric bike, to get to a friend’s garden shed, where she was writing still more eloquent and unsettling novels.
In this third and last volume, Real Estate, Levy has reached another turning point in her life. She is about to turn sixty; her youngest daughter is leaving for university; and, like so many women of her age, she is left to reflect on her own life, now that the nest is empty. Freed from the domestic responsibility of husband and children: what now? What does a single woman of sixty want or need, to make her life complete?
At the start of the book, the ‘real estate’ of the title is what the author craves: ‘a grand old house… a pomegranate tree in the garden… with fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors…’ This is a far cry from Levy’s actual home: a North London flat in a crumbling mansion block. But it soon becomes clear that the image of the house running through her mind and dreams, is merely a metaphor for Levy’s actual life – her real self, rather than real estate. The beauty and opulence of which she dreams, is, she comes to realise, already present, in the colourful and eventful world of her imagination.
There is a bitter-sweet paragraph, where Levy describes helping her daughter pack her suitcases, as she leaves home to pursue her studies. This is a melancholy moment – but one of revelation, too. For out of this separation and ending comes an exciting beginning, not just for daughter, but for mother, too. The writer has adventures of her own to navigate – just back from a writers’ festival in India, she is soon off to Montmartre, Paris, for a nine month fellowship awarded by Columbia University. Then there are trips to Berlin to see a beloved friend: a new world opening up.
She writes, “I knew epic motherhood was now moving into a new phase. It seemed to involve many suitcases, both hers and my own, a journey to somewhere new, yet also a journey backwards to a life I had lived before having children.” It is stirring to see these sentiments in print, since society so often lazily assumes that a woman’s life becomes less interesting and vibrant, once the childbearing years are over. Although not every woman leads quite such a bohemian or exotic life as Deborah Levy, nonetheless, the decades that open up past the age of fifty prove to be quite a revelation – even a liberation – for many. As Levy defiantly writes “…in every phase of living we do not have to conform to the way our life has been written for us, especially by those who are less imaginative than ourselves.” This is her mantra, and should be that of all women, young and old.
Levy is such an expert craftswoman – her sentences full of sensuality, wit and poignancy – that she is always a pleasure to read. Never more so than in this book, which is filled with quirky and insightful anecdotes, told by Levy with a mixture of charming self deprecation and a steely determination to conquer and thrive in her new, expanding life. Even when she is writing of something as ordinary as bedsheets – made of silk, mind you, and coloured a rich, deep turmeric – she does so with subtlety and verve.
Her love of beautiful objects shines through on every page: the fine pen and ink bought for a dear friend (and then thrown in the rubbish bin in Paris by mistake, in a hasty bit of multi-tasking on the way to the airport!); the particular furniture in a room; pointed green shoes; delicious food and intoxicating liquor. Levy may not have her imagined ‘grand old house’ – for a writer’s life is rarely a life of great wealth – but she does, by the evidence of this book, have a rather wonderful, if precarious existence. And as she herself realises, in the concluding pages, her investment has been, not in bricks and mortar, but in the many books that she has written, the two daughters that she has raised, and the many friends who sustain her.
She says, in the final paragraph, “I suppose that what I most value are real human relations and imagination.” Such is Levy’s own imagination that it is both comforting and inspiring to be in her company, even if ‘just’ through the pages of her book. She never writes at great length, either in her memoirs or her novels, so one is able to luxuriate in every carefully chosen word and sentence: sad only, that the ending has come too soon, and eager to read it all again, just as soon as the book is closed.
‘Real Estate’ is published by Hamish Hamilton, £10.99 hardback