'Real Estate' is an elegant exploration of the concept of — and desire for — home
Late in “Real Estate,” the third installment of British writer Deborah Levy's excellent Living Autobiography, Levy discovers that an acquaintance of hers knew the late French novelist Marguerite Duras in childhood. On learning this, Levy instantly wishes that Duras would join them, "sit down and give me some tips on running my house and household."
Often while reading “Real Estate,” which is a playful, candid, and a supremely elegant exploration of Levy's concept of — and desire for — home, I found myself wishing that she would come sit down with me.
Levy often makes me a greedy reader, eager for much more than she offers. I mean this as very high praise. Her writing, especially in her memoirs, tends to take the form of short, lightly lyrical sections, some no more than a paragraph long. Each one holds a beautifully distilled idea, a question worth returning to, or a description so cockeyed and lovely it begs the reader to linger. In “Real Estate,” Levy reserves her prettiest writing — which, I should note, is never, ever flowery — for her "unreal estate": the dream house she designs and redesigns throughout the book. It has an egg-shaped fireplace, a pomegranate tree, and light green shutters. Outside, in its "unreal grounds," she keeps a rowboat tied on the banks of a river.
In real life, Levy spends half the memoir living in the small London flat she shares with her younger daughter — and the other half on a fellowship in Paris, in an apartment she calls her "empty nest." She knows full well that she cannot afford the "major house" of her dreams; real estate, she writes, is not only "a self-portrait and a class portrait, [but] also a body arranging its limbs to seduce." For Levy, permitting herself to be seduced is enjoyable, perhaps more so than owning the house of her dreams might be. Certainly she is unwilling to sacrifice her personal freedom or artistic integrity on the altar of homeownership: When film executives approach her, asking her to write a movie but rejecting the complex female protagonists she proposes, she never seems swayed by the lure of churning out a bad script, cashing in, and buying her fantasy house. Instead, she holds to the pleasure of wanting: "Perhaps," she thinks, "it was not [the idea of] the house but desire itself that makes me feel more alive."
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Feeling alive is a major preoccupation of Levy's, as is feeling "like herself" — a challenge, she notes, for most women, who are more often encouraged to be likeable than to be like ourselves. She writes with deep love about her aging friend Celia, who rejects "patriarchy's idea of what an old woman should be like: patient, self-sacrificing, servicing everybody's needs, pretending to be cheerful." Visiting Celia before leaving for Paris propels Levy into a consideration of her own aging, which takes up much of the memoir's latter half. On the verge of her 60th birthday, having raised two children and weathered a divorce, Levy feels as if she has recently come home to herself. Still, though, she finds herself restless, eager to learn new ways of living well — hence her fantasy of getting life tips from Marguerite Duras, or the "unexpected honour [and] primal enjoyment" she feels when cooking for, and spending time with, her daughters and their friends. Some of Real Estate's liveliest scenes take place in Girls & Women, the imaginary café Levy jokes about opening; the main entrée, her daughters tell her, would be vodka & cigarettes.
“Real Estate” is, largely, a book about the collisions of fantasies and real life, or perhaps a synthesis of the two. This sets it apart from other recent books about homeownership, from Rachel Cusk's doomy novel “Second Place” to Eula Biss' self-serious memoir “Having and Being Had.” especially, becomes tangled in class guilt, which she investigates without addressing. Levy, in contrast, seems incapable of getting bogged down in guilt, politics, or anything else. In part, this freedom comes from her comfort with her own politics, shaped by feminism and by her South African family's dissidence against apartheid. It also comes from her style. She bounces breezily in and out of reality, relying heavily on allusive logic and odd, charming collages of ideas. In one excellent passage at the book's start, she moves from a banana tree to the tree-seller's "luscious" fake eyelashes to Georgia O'Keeffe; somehow, this progression of images delivers her to her longing for "a house in which I could live and work and make a world at my own pace."
Reading “Real Estate” is very much like occupying into a world that moves at Levy's pace. It is vibrant and kinetic, never predictable and yet always direct. Like all Levy's books, it is as good on the second read as the first, if not better. Few writers are able to give so much so swiftly. Levy's hospitality on the page is a delight.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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