June 2021

Arts & Letters

Grand designs: ‘Real Estate’

By Mireille Juchau
Deborah Levy’s latest ‘living autobiography’ finds her travelling and contemplating home, family and art’s revolutionary potential

Deborah Levy is dreaming of a grand house with a circular staircase, mosaic floors, an egg-shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree. This home, somewhere by the water, is a place to live, write and swim, with room for guests who’ll become a substitute family now Levy’s daughters are grown. Real Estate, the final work in her autobiographical trilogy, opens with this vision, and swiftly unravels some assumptions about property, power and domestic space. With the wordplay and asides that distinguish her work, Levy reminds us the Latin root of “real” is “royal” and that in Spanish real means “king”. What does it mean to dream of real estate in England, then, where one family’s 26-house estate includes a 775-room neoclassical palace with indoor pool, 78 bathrooms, two “horological conservators” to wind 350 clocks, and underground tunnels where “a very polite man from Newcastle” was said to have lived?

Levy’s dream was an intense wish, “yet I could not place it geographically, nor did I know how to achieve such a spectacular house with my precarious income. All the same, I added it to my imagined property portfolio, along with a few other imagined minor properties … In this sense, I owned some unreal estate.” Wiser, perhaps, for a writer interested in the unconscious, to invoke Lacan’s “Real” – and so Levy turns her attention to “everything that cannot be said” – the rich seam from which she has drawn her memoirs.

When Real Estate opens, Levy has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Swimming Home, Hot Milk), and is working on her eighth novel, The Man Who Saw Everything. She’s 59 and has spent seven years in a crumbling building with faulty boilers from the 1930s and threadbare carpets that the owners repair with blue masking tape. With no “room of her own” in this apartment, she writes in a friend’s shed and zips round London on an electric bike, swearing at errant motorists, venting the rage accumulated from “her old life”. As she socialises with literary types who are forever jetting off to their piles in Italy and France – their bespoke “magical modernist” pavilions – her house dream grows dimmer. She’s fortified by recalling that James Baldwin rented late in life. In Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, his house became a retreat from American racism, a “political space” visited by Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone.

Levy has separated from the man who once declared “1000 years of devotion”, a major crisis obliquely referenced in the earlier memoirs, Things I Don’t Want To Know and The Cost of Living. Now she’s exiting “epic motherhood” – “that long lesson in patience and submission” – as her daughters leave for university. She glances at her married self: “I knew she would not want to see me (so there you are, nearly sixty and alone) and I did not want to see her either (so there you are, forty years old, hiding your talent, trying to keep your family together), but she and I haunted each other across time.” Later, she’ll catch sight of her own mother in the mirror – a woman who’d offered “no vision of optimism for middle age or old age”, no “comforting lies”. Yet, recognising her elderly mother’s features in her own face, a surprising, tender feeling arises.

If she can’t afford a grand house, Levy at least has the good fortune to travel (reading her mid COVID makes her itinerary seem near-mythic). She heads for a prestigious Paris residency, visits a friend in Berlin, a writer’s festival in Mumbai, then Hydra, and she builds Real Estate’s 14 chapters around these settings with London stints between. In a spartan Montparnasse apartment, she writes The Man Who Saw Everything (2019). This dynamic novel set in multiple time zones is a mirrored maze in which questions about identity, ageing and memory are refracted.

How to live well despite the culture’s hostility towards artist-mothers, or older women, is a preoccupation of Levy’s “living autobiographies” – so called because she aimed to write them “in the storm of life”, when “the big stuff” happens. Her memoirs mostly whizz along, fuelled by rage, desires, wishes and dreams, leavened by a self-mocking, insouciant narrator. They pose questions that a capitalist “societal system” would prefer us not to ask. In fact, the interrogative is one of Levy’s favourite modes, intensifying the sense that her memoirs address herself and the reader. In Real Estate she asks, “What does maternal actually mean?” “Why was I so preoccupied with the phantasy of various unattainable houses and why was I still searching for a missing female character?” “How does [that character] get along in a world that has voided her?” If there’s a “shadow writer” in the writers’ diaries Levy loves to read, then another doppelganger inhabits her own memoirs, a feral inner voice that sabotages conformity, urging the writer towards a ruthless truth.

Levy established her unspooling, occasionally essayistic style in Things I Don’t Want To Know, a tart 108-page rejoinder to George Orwell’s “Why I Write”. In the opening, she finds herself crying on escalators, or “endless conveyors” as they were once described. The final scene unfolds in Majorca where she has retreated from her ailing marriage with her unfinished draft of Swimming Home. Between these poles of her life – mothering, marriage and writing – Levy described a childhood in Johannesburg where she fell silent for a year after her father, a member of the African National Congress, was jailed. In Majorca she attempts to recover herself and to write – for the writer, often one and the same undertaking.

Family life with two young children had warped her into a person she no longer recognised:

Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain.

This shrewd sequence drew on Julia Kristeva’s observation that Western culture’s reification of mothers is a nostalgic fantasy designed to divert us from motherhood’s real economic and domestic humiliations. (Perhaps similar is our prime minister’s recent sanctification of wives and daughters while wilfully refusing structural changes that would protect all women from violence and rape.)

In The Cost of Living, Levy is 50 and navigating what is often the most wearying phase of life for women. Her daughters are teenagers, her mother is dying, and she barely has time to think, let alone convert a freezing garden shed into a writing space: “I draped two sheepskin rugs over my writing chair. It looked vaguely Stone Age.” In Real Estate, freedom finally arrives through travel and conversation with friends, strangers, audiences, potential lovers and daughters. While travel delays questions of future security, and the house dream melts away, it becomes clear that for Levy writing is home. Her fiction has always been less interested in concrete spaces than our imaginary or unconscious ones. What’s a realist novelist to do, she asks in Real Estate, “with the irrational, with synchronicities, with superstition and the private magic we invent to keep us out of harm’s way, with thought streams and digressions that contradict our attempt to fix the story?” These nebulous dimensions imbue her work with unexpected knowledge, the “everything that cannot be said” that simmers beneath our more compliant selves.

There were moments in Real Estate’s 297 pages when I missed the formal rigour of Things I Don’t Want To Know, with its four lean chapters. In Paris, Levy reads Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, then detours to Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and his taste for cheese – “While I was new to Paris, I was keen to taste some of the cheeses he had scoffed” – then, via Dalí’s melting camembert–inspired clocks, to the gastronome Brillat-Savarin and the cheese that bears his name. A recurring associative mode gathers every neighbouring thing into the flow of one individual consciousness. It’s most persuasive when Levy does more than catalogue, when her material has enough granularity, and leads to uncommon insights.

Back home in London after the Mumbai writers’ festival, Levy recalls a story of an Indian woman forced into domestic slavery to free her sister from an abusive marriage. Levy’s daughter imagines what she’d do in their place. Then the subject moves swiftly to breakfast, to hairbrushes. I longed for a less seamless transition here from domestic violence to the quotidian, and a reckoning with the cultural differences between forms of domestic entrapment. This is, after all, one of Levy’s themes. We know that disasters occur here, and elsewhere, unceasingly, while we shop, eat, sleep or extend our property portfolios – no obligatory bewilderment required. But for this secular reader, art is one of the few spaces where such uneven distributions of fate (domestic humiliation in London vs Mumbai) might be unveiled and transfigured – and I don’t mean redeemed. Otherwise suffering is one more thing we frictionlessly consume. Levy’s novels give equal weight to the sublime, the profane, the ridiculous and the serious. Maybe some readers will turn away from a memoir that makes space for more sober reflections. But what would it mean for an artist to try and make the reader more comfortable?

As Levy reads Éluard to teach herself French – “There is another world, but it is inside this one” – she recalls the student protesters of ’68. Their slogan: Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the paving stones, the beach!) If those activists once imagined a future beyond capitalism, their utopian beach was now “strewn with plastic and trash, sewage and oil”. Levy is interested in the relationship between resistance and creativity, in art’s revolutionary potential. She’s a searcher too, looking for women in literature and life whose desires had been sublimated: “Perhaps I was searching for a major goddess who, in the patriarchal rewrite of her existence, had become lost and gone missing?” By the end of Real Estate, her dream house with its burning egg seems like a pagan symbol for having survived maternity under capitalism. She’s guided by Marguerite Duras, who wrote “like a brute … ten hours a day”. And Gertrude Stein, who maintained that every writer “is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.”

Late in Real Estate, a reader asks Levy about constructing her autobiographical self. Levy is a commanding public speaker. I wish I could have witnessed her reply:

The weight of living has been heavier in my life than it is in my books. If this seems the wrong way round, it had to be that way. Otherwise I would have been defeated by my life. I did not wish to make light of the living, but rather to throw light on it, and shadow too, and then more light on the cost of living.

I found this unexpectedly moving. The passage ends with light, which is deliberate. The writing, she seems to suggest, was something she also needed to survive.

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a Walkley award–winning critic and the author of three novels.

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