The living autobiography book format does everything immediately, like a diary – if you keep a diary with the gift of metaphors and literary references at the ready. Her pantheon includes Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, The Feud, and surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose work she reads aloud with her friend Celia, 80.
Those who have read Levy’s previous memoirs, The Cost of Living, will recognize Celia as the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell, who rented a writing shed for Levy. You don’t need to read Levy’s earlier memoirs (the trilogy began with “Things i don’t want to know”), But those who had will be happy to read about Celia, weakened in body, but not in spirit.
When she landed in the letter shed, it was a rough time in Levi’s life – she broke up with her husband and wrote to support her family. In addition to her memoirs, she wrote three novels that were nominated for the Booker, the most prestigious English art award – two were shortlisted and one longlisted. She is also a playwright and poet, and meets film producers who all too often find her female characters unpleasant.
The idea of a major contract with the cinema supports her dream of real estate. It is imaginary and concrete and malleable: “I yearned for the big old house (now I added an oval fireplace to its architecture) and the pomegranate tree in the garden. It contained fountains and wells, wonderful circular staircases, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of everyone who lived here before me. ” This is very different from the real estate show that dominates American HGTV – and it is also a metaphor. “That is, the house was lively, he enjoyed life,” she continues. “It was a loving home.”
Levy’s desire for a home with a sunny landscape stems from her hybrid upbringing. She was born in South Africa to white parents who were anti-apartheid activists who fled to England after her father was imprisoned. In Real Estate, a German chef in love with Japan encourages her to think about hybrid identities by thinking back to the South African coast where she learned to swim. “These two weather systems and ecology were transformed within me, forever in conversation with each other,” she writes.
Her writing is elliptical and episodic, as if tracking the movement of her mind. But it is well thought out, ideas are repeated and expanded as the book is written. And despite everything we see in her travels around the world and her work, her discussion of the places where she writes, and the mention of the machines on which she is written, she does not portray herself in the process of writing. The book seems like we are listening to her thoughts, but still these thoughts are taking shape behind the scenes.
Books about the present moment have a moment. In England, Ali Smith published four novels, written in real time and named by seasons, and Rachel Kusk’s trilogy of direct autobiographical works made a splash both there and in the United States. Levy is less involved in politics than Smith, and much more in her text than Kusk. She finds Paris uplifting, tries out new shoes as if they would make her a new person, and admits that she has turned blue by her birthday. She is warm and, dare I say, cute.
As a woman turning 60, Levy is partly trying to find a place, partly trying to redefine herself, and partly trying to answer the most important questions. “I thought about existence. And what did it add to. Am I okay? she asks. “Have there been enough happy years, enough love and love? Were my own books written by me good enough? What was the point in that? “
Levy’s publisher said it would complete her autobiographical trilogy. Perhaps this is because she chose to focus on writing fiction rather than telling her own story. Perhaps this is a way to complete the fairy tale without the traditional big bang – so as not to stop when she buys her dream house, sells a script for a big movie, or gets married. Whatever the reason, I hope she gets what she wants. And if she decides to come back and tell us about it in other memoirs, so much the better.
Caroline Kellogg is a former book editor for the Los Angeles Times.
Real Estate: A Living Autobiography
Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $ 20.