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26 May 2021

Deborah Levy and the domestic

In the final instalment in her of “living autobiography” trilogy, Levy asks: how does a woman construct a life after losing the scaffold of the traditional family home?  

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

The writing of lives almost inevitably involves the writing of homes – real, imagined, remembered. For many of us, the pandemic has forced a reassessment of where we live. Cocoons have become cages; doors have remained closed; familiar comforts have become overfamiliar. Lockdown has also denied us the great pleasure of returning home after an absence – that sense of being re-embraced by our living spaces rather than imprisoned within them.

How, I wonder, would Deborah Levy’s characters function within this dynamic? Last spring, the South African-born author wrote a diary for the Guardian in which she resigned herself to observing events through a “door left ajar”: “We will have to investigate the magic of the universe from home.” Remaining closed off at home is not something that has ever come naturally to Levy or the characters in her seven novels, most of whom are exiles or in transit.

But they are not always desperate or dispossessed. In Real Estate, the third and final instalment of Levy’s “living autobiography”, there’s a wonderfully wry description of a wealthy friend of the author, who owns houses in Paris, Vienna, Paxos, Scotland, Spain and London, requiring her to forever fly around the world, maintaining all these properties. “In a way, she had so many homes that she was homeless,” Levy notes.

A sense of the absurd, coupled with a gift for a striking image, runs through these three elliptical but exuberant volumes of memoir. Written in a first person described by Levy as “close to myself, but not quite myself”, they are singular and generous explorations of womanhood and writing. The first book, Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), which began as a feminist response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, focused on Levy’s childhood in South Africa – where her father was arrested and imprisoned for opposing apartheid.

But the first book also foreshadowed her upheavals as an adult. We see her mysteriously fleeing London for Majorca and crying on escalators. The source of her anguish becomes clear in the second volume, The Cost of Living (2018), which begins at the end of her 23-year marriage and offers a manifesto for “a new way of living” as an independent woman in middle age who is “no longer married to society”. She and her daughters move into a shabby flat in a crumbling apartment block on a hill, where she carts her groceries around on an electric bike, keeps an electronic screwdriver in her handbag and fixes the plumbing in a black silk nightie and a postman’s jacket.

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Despite the chaos, Levy experienced a creative renascence in her mid-fifties and became determined to write while still “in the storm of life”, rather than at the end of it. In Real Estate, which is more wistful but just as shrewd as the earlier volumes, she interrogates what she terms the “missing female character” whose desires are so often sublimated in literature and art, as in life. She encounters men who want to erase women’s identities and diminish their successes; men who won’t look their wives in the eye; men who boorishly talk over women at parties; men who never refer to their wives and girlfriends by name.

She stumbles on a novel by a male writer she read many years ago and realises that its women only think and feel things that are related to the male protagonist. “For this reason, the author’s book had been useful to me. Its lack of consciousness was a house I had attempted to dismantle in my own living and working life. Real estate is a tricky business. We rent and buy and sell and inherit it, but we also knock it down.”

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[see also: Rachel Cusk and the art of the midlife crisis]

Approaching her 60th birthday, she wonders not just how to write this liberated, resourceful female but how to be her. A woman who chooses to live alone with her children is a threat, because “if she can create another sort of household, she can create another sort of world order”. She is proud of her “small and humble” north London flat, her “perch in the sky”. Still, the communal corridors are gloomy, the carpet is ripped and she dreams about owning a grand old house in a warm climate. Her missing female character needs a fictional world: she imagines living in a villa with a pomegranate tree in a garden that slopes down to a river or the Mediterranean Sea.

Instead, Levy finds herself in Paris, having been awarded a writing fellowship that begins as her youngest daughter is starting university. Taking in her bare rental apartment in the 18th arrondissement, it strikes her: “This is what an empty nest looked like.” The apartment has two cups, two knives, two forks, one cooking pot and a breadboard. It’s a depressingly meagre and suspiciously studenty set-up for someone who dreams of opening a café called “Girls & Women” and hearing the guests’ “oohs and ahhs” as dishes are carried to the table.

But her life is eventful. She makes friends with cosmopolitan students and academics; celebrates her 60th birthday dancing at the hip Paris nightclub Silencio; and gets sucked into the drama of her male best friend’s tempestuous marriage. She travels to New York to clear out her stepmother’s apartment; to Mumbai to speak at a literary festival; to Berlin to celebrate a friend’s birthday; and to the Greek island of Hydra, where she writes and swims. But in her imagination, she keeps returning to her fantasy home, her “unreal estate”, embellishing it with more fantastical features: a fireplace in the shape of an ostrich egg like Georgia O’Keeffe’s in Mexico and mimosa trees with radiant yellow blossom and a bittersweet scent (mimosa is a gift given by women to their female friends).

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Real Estate reads a little like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own crossed with Pedro Almodóvar’s 2019 film Pain and Glory (Almodóvar is one of Levy’s favourite directors), with a dash of Alan Bennett’s diaries – though the form is very much Levy’s own. She delights in the uncanny – Freud and surrealism feed her imagination – but doesn’t like to overexplain, leaving enigmas for the reader to unlock, and placing images next to each other with none of the connective tissue.

Symbols become enticing companions that you follow through the book. Doors and keys are prominent motifs: she wonders if Hecate, the keeper of keys, should be a guiding goddess in her life. Before her departure for university, her daughter drops her keys on the flat floor, a foretaste of a more permanent leave-taking. Her male best friend tells her she’s obsessed with keys, like his wife, Nadia. When the marriage falters, Levy gives Nadia the keys to her London flat in an act of female solidarity. Door keys later become typewriter keys, a different sort of symbol of freedom for a writer.

Doors, meanwhile, are used to visualise the shift from one stage of life to the next. Levy quotes Gaston Bachelard’s seminal 1958 work on architecture, The Poetics of Space: “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to reopen, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.” But doors can also just be funny. One woman describes how her boyfriend’s penis became so hard after taking his “rising potions” that he had to knock it against a fridge door to calm down.

***

Now that we can see the full arc of Levy’s memoirs, it’s clear that her theme is displacement. How does a woman construct a life and identity when she no longer has the scaffold of the traditional family home? Ostensibly, Levy’s lost home is the Victorian townhouse she shared with her husband, but it’s also her childhood home in South Africa, which still “lived inside me”. She was “practically mute” for a year following her father’s imprisonment, she tells us in the first book. Sent to live with her godmother at age five, she was expelled from that house after – symbolism alert – freeing the family budgie from its cage.

A concern with dislocation also defines much of her fiction, which is peopled with characters who drift freely between temporary accommodation and holiday villas, train stations and hotels; they wait at airports or lose their baggage, or else try to find somewhere to store their possessions between homes. They are wanderers or gatecrashers, often uprooted and disorientated, with no idea how to make a home.

As Kitty says in Swimming Home (2011), “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.” In Hot Milk (2016), the narrator Sofia’s ill mother has remortgaged her Hackney flat to pay for treatment at a mysterious Spanish clinic, forcing Sofia to give up a PhD to accompany her. “My mother has a mortgage on my life,” she says. Buildings are never just bricks and mortar. Levy quotes the artist and writer, Leonora Carrington: “Houses are really bodies. We connect ourselves with walls, roofs, and objects just as we hang on to our livers, skeletons, flesh, and bloodstream.”

Homes are also places where women are thwarted or made to serve the designs of men. An image, or series of images, came to my mind while reading Real Estate: Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison paintings, created between 1945 and 1947, which depict naked women with houses for heads. They have no eyes – or if they do they can only see the walls of their domestic space – while their breasts and genitals are exposed for everyone else to see.

Levy has previously discussed how Bourgeois’s art has influenced her fiction – and there are plentiful allusions here to Marguerite Duras, whose memoir, Practicalities (1987), contained a similarly playful mix of essays, vignettes and aphorisms, as well as cinematic jump-cuts. Levy says that the chapter entitled “House and Home” has stayed with her ever since she read it, especially the observation: “Some women can never manage it – they can’t handle their houses, they overload them, clutter them up, never create an opening towards the world outside.” Duras was in the habit of leaving the front door of her Left Bank apartment unlocked for her writer friends, and Levy always pictures her “unreal estate” with the doors open, the gate unlatched.

Ownership and the guarding of territory are considered conventions of the patriarchy. Men are repeatedly portrayed as landlords. At a launch party that Levy “gatecrashes”, a Cambridge-educated male author asks if she feels that her success necessitates a “vulgar” level of exposure. She concludes that he “viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land”. Her own instinct is towards communal living.

The obvious comparison is to Rachel Cusk, whose semi-autobiographical trilogy also follows a recently divorced woman navigating middle age, and is similarly preoccupied with homes and property, transit and dislocation. But I couldn’t help but recall Martin Amis’s Inside Story (2020), another late-career memoir that plays fast and loose with form (and truth). The boorish men described in Real Estate often feel as caricatured as the skirty, flirty women in Inside Story (which describes one ex-girlfriend as “tits on a wand”) – but Levy’s male grotesques suit her surrealist landscape.

Amis makes a grand show of inviting the reader into his fancy Brooklyn townhouse to share his fears that a writer’s powers decline after mid-life. Levy welcomes us into her humbler home only to tell a contrasting story: that of a writer who has become serenely confident with age. Their real estate has very different values.

Real Estate
Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £10.99

[see also: Parenthood in an age of crisis]

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism