About Deborah Levy’s “real estate”



The THIRD and supposedly final part of Deborah Levy’s “living autobiography” opens at a flower stand in Shoreditch. Instead of choosing cut stems a la Clarissa Dalloway, Levy buys a banana tree – something with roots. As her youngest daughter prepares to leave for university, Levy pays attention to the plant, which her daughters jokingly refer to as their third child. It so happened that Levy was also leaving London to get a scholarship in Paris, entrusting the care of a banana tree to his friend.

Levy’s trio of memoirs document her ongoing quest for freedom – financial, personal and creative. 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, which chronicles Levy’s childhood in South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for opposing apartheid before the family emigrated to the United Kingdom. Second book, Cost of living (2018), talks about the dissolution of her 23-year marriage and the death of her mother. Despite the tumultuous divorce, Levy felt that her 50th birthday was “a kind of homecoming.” Although she has been writing since she was 20, she only became famous mid-career when her 2011 novel Swimming house was nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. (Her next romance, Hot milk, also shortlisted in 2016, and The man who saw everything was nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize.)

V Real estateLevy, now 60, ponders what the next chapter of her life might look like without her daughters at home. After settling in an empty apartment in Montmartre, she discovers that the empty nest takes on a literal meaning. Despite her male best friend’s persuasions to find a companion, Levy remains a bachelor. When an acquaintance assumes that life without a lover is only half of life, Levy thinks to himself that “if that were the case, the idea would be to live half of your life very well.” And she lives well – elevates everyday life and relishes her time in Paris, listening to jazz radio, tasting Georges Perec’s assortment of cheeses and reading Annie Erno on the Banks of the Seine.

Levy’s novels are imbued with imagination, using fairytale sequences, time warps and quasi-enchanted objects. Her work is replete with vivid images: who could forget the chicken from the supermarket that spills out of her bag and gets lost Cost of living – Was the Roadkill rescued, fried and savored despite the tire marks? Likewise, in what she calls her “fake real estate,” Levy fantasizes about a home she would like to own: a “stately old home” with a pomegranate tree in the garden, an egg-shaped fireplace inspired by a New Mexico hotel. (where she made a pilgrimage to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s home), and a dedicated freezer to cool glasses. Knowing that such a shelter is beyond her means, Levi nevertheless accumulates objects to furnish it, recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s “storage of inanimate things”. At a flea market, Levy finds wooden slatted shutters, 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 for its incarnation,” she explains, comparing the exercise to writing the first draft of a novel.

Levy recognizes the importance of having a room of her own – “a table, chairs and light coming in through a window,” as she told a young visitor at a bookstore. LRB Bookstore launch. Yet she knows that property is not a panacea: she does not envy a friend who has several houses, whose constant movement she equates with homelessness. Freedom also lies in not being obliged to a mortgage: “For a writer, even more useful than a separate room is an extension cord and a lot of adapters,” Levy concluded in his conclusion. Things i don’t want to know… She liked the garden shed in which she wrote three books; although she rented out, she was “in control of her mood.” Maybe mood is all we can ever have.

Displacement – and the tension between freedom and rootedness – is a recurring theme in Levy’s work. “Each new journey is a mourning for what is left behind,” says the narrator of his 1993 novel. Swallowing geography… Levy confesses to both her imaginary real estate portfolio and her childhood home in Johannesburg (on a street dotted with hakaranda), and the longing is compounded by exile. However, she realizes that desire may be more important than possession. “It may be good for us to keep a few dreams of a home in which we will live later, always later,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book. The poetics of space (1958), “so much later, in fact, that we will not have time to achieve this.” While renting a coveted holiday home in Greece, Levi admits that “it may not have been a home, but desire itself, that made me feel more alive.”

Property ownership in patriarchy is a theme that Levy takes from her feminist ancestors – Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras – and her contemporary Rachel Kusk. At stake is not only the earthly, but also the artistic field. When Woolf visited Oxbridge College to give a lecture on women and fiction, she was kicked off the grass, leading her to the conclusion that “only fellows and scholars are allowed here; gravel is the place for me. ” Nearly a century later, at a literary party in London, a male author tries to refute Levy by calling the revelation of her success “vulgar.” “[H]I viewed every writer as a sitting tenant on their land, ”she writes. Echoing Wolfe’s reasoning Own room (1929), Levy argues that if women ever trespass, they have yet to be torn down.

The crux of Levy’s concern is how to live the creative life of a woman. Ignoring Beauvoir’s injunction that women are exempt from household duties, she takes the primary pleasure in cooking for young women surrounded by her daughters. “I wanted them to find the strength for everything they need to do in this world, and for the whole world to rush at them,” she explains. When her daughters come to visit her in Greece, she painstakingly squeezes out fresh orange juice before their arrival, but they give it up in favor of a cold beer. Despite the hour Levy took to “squeeze the juice out of this old plastic device, scooping up the bones and cores.” […] they didn’t want to be told that they wanted a complete stop. ” In a trilogy about women admitting their desires and claiming a place on the grass, this is certainly a sign of progress.

One of the pleasures of this volume is that Levy talks about his grown daughters. What legacy will she leave to them, she asks: “What do we value (although it may not be appreciated by society), what can we own, discard and bequeath?” This is the question she faced while cleaning her stepmother’s apartment after her death, and as her late mother’s “ghostly thoughts” continue to haunt her from the annotated books. Levy’s tangible assets include an apartment in a “dilapidated apartment building” in North London, three electric bicycles and three antique wooden show horses from Afghanistan. But wealth, of course, is not limited to movable property. “After all, I consider these three books to be my real estate,” she says. “These are the houses that I have built.”

Books are undoubtedly a pleasant place to spend time. Levy’s wry humor and attention to the art of living keep her good company on the page, with wisdom woven into it from her touchstone writers including James Baldwin, Walter Benjamin and Leonora Carrington. At a time when the pandemic was limiting travel, I appreciated the chair travel option offered by Real estate: I could taste guava ice cream with salt and chili powder in Mumbai and feel the cold December sleet in a cafe in Berlin. I also enjoyed looking behind the scenes of Levy’s creative process: When Mumbai’s “supernatural transition” influences events “indirectly” The man who saw everything, For example.

For now Real estate lack of internal influence Cost of living – which the V The keeper Chosen as one of the “Top 100 Books of the 21st Century,” and this is one of a small handful of books that I regularly plant in the hands of friends. While Levi in ​​this volume has put the scalpel to her soul, here the dramas are played out mainly among her friends; observation can be discerning, but emotion remains secondary. It all seems to stop before what Levy herself calls the goal of her writing life: “To go towards danger, to hit something that could just open his mouth, roar and overturn the writer.” Against, Real estate remains on safe – if picturesque – land.


Mia Levitin is a culture and literary critic from London. She is the author The future of seduction


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