As accomplished writer Deborah Levy’s youngest child sets out for college, she sees that she might depart from the crumbling London apartment block she’s lived in since her divorce. In the delightful, ruminative memoir “Real Estate,” Levy takes us along as she writes her way toward freedom.
First there’s a trip to a literary festival in India; next, a fellowship in Paris. She jaunts off to Berlin, New York, Greece. But this is far from a house-shopping travelogue; instead, she is searching for a way of living. She pays particular attention to other women: Some are companionable; one is wealthy and cloistered; another is grieving; one slips into an affair with a married man. Levy seems to be determined to find a feminist narrative that doesn’t depend on marriage for a happy ending.
The book’s “living autobiography” format makes everything immediate, like a diary — if you were a diarist with a gift for metaphor and literary references at the ready. Her pantheon includes Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, the TV series “Feud,” and the surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose work she reads aloud with her octogenarian friend Celia.
Those who’ve read Levy’s previous memoir, “The Cost of Living,” will recognize Celia as the widow of poet Adrian Mitchell, who stepped in to rent Levy a writing shed. You don’t need to have read Levy’s earlier memoirs (the trilogy began with “Things I Don’t Want to Know”) but those who have will be happy to read about Celia, diminished in body but not spirit.
When she landed in the writing shed, it was a precarious time in Levy’s life — she’d split from her husband and was writing to support her family. In addition to memoirs, she composed three novels that were in the running for England’s most prestigious fiction prize, the Booker — two shortlisted, one on the longlist. She’s also a playwright and poet, and meets with film producers who too often find her female characters unlikable.
The idea of landing a big film deal keeps her real estate dream alive. It’s imaginary, both specific and malleable: “I yearned for a grand old house (I had now added an oval fireplace to its architecture) and a pomegranate tree in the garden. It had fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of all who had lived there before me.” That’s vastly different from the real estate shows that dominate American HGTV — and it’s also a metaphor. “That is to say the house was lively, it had enjoyed a life,” she continues. “It was a loving house.”
Levy’s desire for a home with a sunny landscape comes 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 besotted with Japan prompts her to think about hybrid identities, recalling the South African beachfront where she learned to swim. “These two weather systems and ecologies were morphed inside of me, forever in conversation with each other,” she writes.
Her writing is elliptical and episodic, as if tracing the movement of her mind. But it’s clearly crafted, with ideas recurring and expanding as the book goes on. And for all we see of her moving through the world and her work, her discussion of the places she writes and mentions of the machines she’s written on, she doesn’t portray herself in the act of writing. The book feels as if we’re listening in on her very thoughts, and yet those thoughts are composed off-screen.
In-the-moment books are, er, having a moment. In England, Ali Smith has published four novels written in real time named for the seasons, and Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of immediate autobiographical fiction has made a splash both there and in the United States. Levy is less engaged with politics than Smith and much more present in her text than Cusk. She finds Paris heartening, tries new shoes as if they’ll make her a new person, and admits she’s blue running up to her birthday. She is warm and, dare I say, likable.
As a woman turning 60, Levy is in part trying to find a place, in part trying to redefine herself, and in part trying to answer the biggest questions of all. “I was thinking about existence. And what it added up to. Had I done okay?” she asks. “Had there been enough happy years, had there been enough love and loving? Were my own books, the ones I had written, good enough? What was the point of anything?”
Levy’s publisher has said that this will conclude her autobiographical trilogy. Perhaps this is because she’s decided to focus on writing fiction instead of narrating her own story. Perhaps it’s a way to end the tale without a big traditional bang — to avoid having to stop when she buys her dream house, sells a big movie script, 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 another memoir, so much the better.
Carolyn Kellogg is the former books editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Real Estate: A Living Autobiography
By Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $20