:: Article

Real Estate

By Madeleine Feeny.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, 2021); Photo courtesy of penguin.co.uk

Do you build fantasy homes in your mind, revisiting them to add a veranda here, a swimming pool there? Would you introduce a stream, moor a boat to a jetty? The human instinct to claim and put a stamp on territory is innate. Yet in the twenty-first century, property ownership remains a dream to many people. The era of design-led estate agency The Modern House is also, conversely, that of Generation Rent. We’re drooling over antique bathtubs on Instagram while sharing a shower with near strangers.

In her new book, Deborah Levy takes a swipe at that culture: ‘Look at this slice of buttered toast next to the modernist lamp. Look! Look at you looking on Instagram!’ You might imagine that the twice-Booker-shortlisted author’s thoughts dwelt on higher matters than the bourgeois pursuit of ‘interiors goals,’ to quote the hashtag, but in fact, they often slip off the bus, or the e-bike she’s grinding uphill to her north London flat, and escape to the grand old house of her dreams, with its egg-shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden.

Real Estate is the third book in her ‘living autobiography,’ a triptych of life writing voiced by an ‘I that is close to myself and yet is not myself.’ An intimate reflection on home, possession, time, memory and storytelling, it is rich with the cultural allusions and recurring symbols that characterise her distinctive style – elliptical, dreamlike, splicing erudition with humour, the philosophical with the sensory. Hers is a sly, subtle surrealism, which flits from landscape to dreamscape, from literary reference to everyday encounter. Her theatrical origins – she wrote plays in her twenties – are discernible in her flair for striking vignettes. Fragmentation and non-linearity are among her trademarks, her earliest novels resembling a series of tableaux. Alongside her Booker Prize-shortlisted novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk and, most recently, the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted The Man Who Saw Everything, these layered memoirs, composed of vivid snapshots of her life, have cemented her reputation as one of the most original authors writing today.

Her admiration of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar – whose flamboyant, hallucinatory aesthetic is similarly unmistakable – comes as no surprise. Reading a Levy novel is not unlike watching an Almodóvar movie: you come with expectations, but you’re always surprised. Sharing themes such as gender identity, motherhood and madness, both conjure intense, hypnotic worlds that could only be theirs, juxtaposing brutality with humour, tenderness, eroticism and lyricism.

Levy has described film as her greatest influence, not least the work of David Lynch; in Real Estate, she celebrates her sixtieth birthday at Silencio, his nightclub in Paris. Like Lynch’s ambiguous, highly stylised movies, Levy’s writing inspires cultish fandom and critical debate. Overlapping tropes in their work include doppelgängers, dream sequences, keys and missing female characters, as both artists explore consciousness, illusion and reality. There’s even a dream sequence in Real Estate, a short story that acts as a distilled allegory of the memoir. In it, the narrator (Levy) inhabits a crumbling Parisian mansion she has bought with a former lover, Gregorio. Various ‘quite handsome literary men’ come to live with them, and the narrator’s friend tells her they should be paying rent. Jolted awake, she’s crushed to realise the mansion was a dream and that all the men were Gregorio. Yet she gradually accepts ‘that Paris itself was the aphrodisiac and not Gregorio,’ and finds new joy in the city’s pleasures.

With its looping motifs, the cinematic qualities of Levy’s writing are on full display in Real Estate – a book about authorial vision and responsibility: how we build narratives, define the ‘cast lists’ of our lives, transpose stories between mediums and languages. Throughout it and The Cost of Living, Levy conducts a series of fruitless rendezvous with ‘baffled’ film executives, recalling the bizarre Hollywood meetings in Lynch’s 2002 Mulholland Drive, in which a director is forced to cast a female lead by mobsters, and the creative impasse in Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 work of metacinema. In The Man Who Saw Everything, Levy’s 2019 time-slipping novel about the fall of communism, Levy deploys her ‘flashback in the present’ technique to powerful effect. As in Mulholland Drive, a car accident acts as a turning point, causing a splintering of time or identity. Yet in The Cost of Living Levy stalls before film executives when trying to articulate how to capture the coexistence of past and present without using flashbacks. In every medium – theatre, books, film – and in the domestic sphere, Levy seeks to dismantle and rewrite the rules of structure and form.

You don’t need to have read the first two memoirs to enjoy Real Estate, but I would urge anyone who hasn’t to undertake all three in succession – a holiday in itself, for travel is among the things Levy writes about best. Real Estate moves from London to New York, Mumbai, Paris, Berlin, the Greek island of Hydra and, fleetingly, Majorca. ‘As Camus said of himself,’ she comments, mixing a Campari spritz as a storm rattles London, ‘there was an eternal summer inside me.’

Each book in the triptych traces a new stage in Levy’s personal and creative development; as a whole, they can be read as a manifesto for female self-realisation and autonomous living. In Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), conceived as a response to George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write,’ Levy reflects on her Johannesburg childhood under apartheid, her ANC activist father’s political imprisonment and her family’s migration to London. The Cost of Living (2018) chronicles her establishment of a new home and modus vivendi in the aftermath of her marriage breakdown, and her mother’s death.

When Real Estate opens in January 2018, we find a woman approaching sixty, to whom mainstream success has come comparatively late, whose fifties were ‘a time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming.’ Yet she keeps retreating to the ‘unreal estate’ in her mind: that grand old house with its pomegranate tree. But how to fund it? The film executives hold the key, but she can’t confine herself to their narrative requirements: the list of major and minor characters, the ‘likeable’ female protagonist.

When a friend is criticised for being on ‘her high horse,’ Levy is astonished: surely ‘a woman steering her high horse, with desires of her own’ is a good thing? Wondering if such as woman is ‘likeable,’ she quips: ‘Only if she steers her horse off the cliff. She is allowed to be exceptionally skilled at dying.’ The high horse metaphor keeps rearing its head, for in toppling a woman from hers, we deprive her of dignity, perhaps sanity. Watching Feud, the drama about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, sparks a preoccupation with missing female characters for Levy. She realises older actresses’ parts are written without any inner lives of their own; these women exist only as a foil or appendage to male or younger female characters. They are mad (comic), sad (pitiful) or bad (tyrannical). She spots missing female characters everywhere: mythical goddesses such as Medusa or Athena, monstered or militarised by ‘patriarchal scripts’; the vanished Lila at the end of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child; Victorian women locked in asylums for their regal delusions, from whom John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, drew inspiration for the Red Queen, White Queen and the Queen of Hearts. When she sees ‘mentally fragile’ elderly women feeding pigeons, Levy thinks, ‘Yes, there she is, she is one of those cut-­down goddesses who has become demented by life.’

Alongside the allusion and analysis, Levy’s writing conveys a passion for life’s aesthetic and sensory pleasures. Take shoes. The teenaged Levy’s brothel creepers represented a ticket out of suburban Finchley. As a fledgling writer in her twenties, ‘I was finding a way through the forest (wearing silver platform boots) to meet the wolf,’ (a psychedelic, folkloric vision of ‘the adventure of language’). In 1991 Almodóvar, who, like Levy, enjoys subverting gender norms, released High Heels, a thriller riffing on the performed femininity of the click-clacking of stilettos. For both he and Levy, shoes are more than just footwear; they are signifiers – of identity, independence – but they can betray their wearers or be misinterpreted. Levy believes her gender-neutral ‘flâneuring shoes’ are perennially appropriate until she slips on wet rocks and realises they are unsuitable for a Greek island. On a fellowship in Paris, she buys some sage-green ‘character’ shoes and wonders if they’ll allow her to ‘step into another sort of character,’ as her younger self stepped into her writer’s identity. But instead, the shoes invite unwelcome advances from an old roué, never to be worn again.

The more Levy you read the greater the rewards as you recognise the leitmotifs that re-echo not just through each book but her whole oeuvre, shape-shifting yet insistent, like a symphony’s recurring phrases: water, swimming, fish, fruit (especially oranges), birds, bees, flowers, clocks, bicycles, food, drink, keys, glass. Her writing makes you want to plunge into the Aegean, or taste the guava ice cream she samples in Mumbai, yet terming it sensual is inadequate. Her prose is startling, agile, textured, playfully undercutting grandiosity with bathos: ‘Yes, she would have lustre as she rode her high horse down the North Circular to repair her smashed screen at Mr. Cellfone.’ Its quicksilver quality has drawn inevitable comparisons to the element that forms one of its most persistent motifs: water.

Levy frequently invokes her influences, including Marguerite Duras, Sigmund Freud, Guillaume Apollinaire, James Baldwin, Jean Genet and Simone de Beauvoir. It’s interesting to consider her impact, in turn. She is often mentioned in the same breath as Rachel Cusk, and shares ground with Sheila Heti, Jenny Offill and Chris Kraus. Levy has praised The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, and her influence is perceptible in the work of young authors such as Olivia Sudjic and Megan Nolan. All these writers are linked by a disregard for formal and generic conventions, an explicit, wide-ranging intertextuality, and a focus on female subjectivity.

Although many of her literary heroes wrote in French, Levy encountered them in translation. The first translated book she ever read was One Hundred Years of Solitude, which unlocked unimagined worlds. Now her own books are being given new lives in other languages – not as doppelgängers but as distinct entities. Levy’s translators can’t produce mirror images, for each language possesses its unique cultural context, as the mediums of film, theatre and literature have their own possibilities and limitations. Just as writing her imaginary script represents creative reinvention as well as potential real estate, being translated is like ‘living another life in another body in France, Ukraine, Sweden . . . wherever.’

Yet Levy – a product of her past like all of us – already holds South Africa and Europe within her. A desire to redefine home is nothing new for a South African émigré who embraced an English identity in her teens. According to Gertrude Stein, ‘writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.’ Levy seeks home as relentlessly as ‘an elusive lover,’ as energetically as her best male friend, a man of complex romantic entanglements, pursues new flirtations. For Levy, the desire for ‘unreal estate’ has replaced the urge for romantic love. Unable to satisfy her longing for a dream home, she indulges smaller impulses – new shoes, silk sheets.

Yet home can be a trick, a cage. Marguerite Duras writes that ‘some women . . . can’t handle their houses, they overload them, clutter them up, never create an opening towards the world outside . . . make the house unbearable, so that the children run away as soon as they’re fifteen, the same as we did.’ Levy’s own mother fled her family’s conventional expectations, then to England with her husband. Levy herself ran from Finchley, then from her marriage. We witness Levy’s daughters depart for university, leaving their mother to reinvent home again.

If a woman ‘can create another sort of household, she can create another sort of world order.’ The patriarchal home is another cage, where female desires are often sacrificed. Levy has unhappy flashbacks to the one she escaped and experiences an involuntary jolt backwards when she finds a book given her by her ex-husband, featuring a woman with no consciousness or purpose beyond her devotion to a man. Writer and film director Céline Sciamma’s observed ‘that when a female character is given subjectivity, she is given back her desires.’ In hunting for women ‘missing their own desires’ or ‘who had acted on their desires but then been cut down’ Levy is surely seeking the subsumed aspirations of her past self: isn’t she – in a Lynchian twist – a missing female character?

A meditation on imaginative longing that probes the link between the conscious and unconscious and the intersection of film and literature, Real Estate highlights a disconnect particular to the arts in which success doesn’t necessarily translate into material wealth. A rented villa in Hydra promises temporary fulfillment, but when sand starts pouring through a hole in the wall – a striking surrealist image that evokes the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Leonora Carrington, and J. G. Ballard’s decaying resort in Vermilion Sands – it seems both the house and Levy’s real-estate fantasies may dissolve to nothing. ‘Yet my encounter with this rented house was a taunt, a provocation; it made me feel more alive . . . the fact that I did not have the means to buy it only accelerated my desire.’

How do we build a meaningful life on our own terms, asks this invigorating, open-hearted memoir. Once women have avoided being reduced to real estate ourselves, how do we claim rooms of our own? How do we make a home that provides both freedom and security, that nurtures but doesn’t stifle? Does this entail sharing one’s life, as her best male friend insists? If so, are we prepared to compromise, or would we prefer absolute liberty, accepting the solitude that brings?

If every writer cannot resemble Rebecca West, who by forty had purchased a Rolls-Royce and an estate in the Chilterns on the strength of her book sales, are silk sheets and the Aegean’s healing powers enough? The answer lies in the circling connections and intricate patterns of this exquisitely crafted narrative: our desire is more important than its object. It sharpens us, keeps us going. Once satisfied, it will simply migrate to another object. Home is a symbol of sated desire: a necessary illusion that dissolves at close quarters. A life’s true riches – our real estate – are love, friendship, memory, imagination; a writer’s books, a filmmaker’s movies; and the unexpected pleasure of a poem, a banana tree, or a key dangling from branches in Central Park.

Photo by Olivia Thompson.

Madeleine Feeny is a London-based literary critic and editor. She is the founder of a literary events platform and has worked in publishing in London and Barcelona.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 11th, 2021.