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The stuff of everyday life: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy, reviewed

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

Real Estate Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton, pp.128, 10.99

Real Estate is the third and concluding volume of Deborah Levy’s ground-breaking ‘Living Autobiography’. Fans of Levy’s alluring, highly allusive fiction will appreciate the insights into her life; moreover, anyone with an ounce of curiosity will be fascinated by her compelling tour of city streets, island rocks and meandering diversions into ideas from a wealth of writers and artists.

We begin the book with the author buying a plant from a flower stall. (Our modern-day Mrs Dalloway purchases a banana tree in Shoreditch rather than cut flowers in Westminster.) Levy then steps from this familiar act of flower-buying into the world of Georgia O’Keeffe, and we accompany her ‘from the bagel shops and grey cobblestones of east London to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico’, where she presents us with a beautiful quotation from the artist: ‘When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.’

She describes O’Keeffe’s home, and lingers over its oval fireplace, a ‘burning egg’, that Levy covets for her ideal home. So we are off on a further digression about her fantasy home, her ‘unreal estate’, glimpsing the shadow of the book’s title, Real Estate. Immediately, we see Levy’s talent for revealing the extraordinary hiding beneath the mundane, her freewheeling skill for interrogating quotidian acts and examining commonplace expressions to take us beyond their surface simplicity into complex depths.

Ideas introduced in these early pages resurface throughout the book. Levy’s love for the banana tree becomes a point on which her two daughters tease her — noticing how her nurturing instinct has latched on to this ‘third child’, just as her youngest daughter is preparing to leave home for university. The O’Keeffe quotation reappears in Paris, where Levy buys roses wrapped in a Métro map. Her search for an ideal home, and her anxiety about who will share it with her, haunts the entire book.

This opening episode with the flower stall is the first of the author’s many dives into the productively murky depths of everyday life. She performs similar leaps with shoes, silk, food, horses and more, relishing moving from the material into the metaphorical — challenging, for instance, the negative implications of the phrase ‘on her high horse’. Often revelations come via other writers and thinkers; the pages are thick with allusions and quotations from Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag, Marguerite Duras, R.D. Laing, Georges Perec, W.E.B. Du Bois and many others.

Feminism is a strong thread that links many of her wanderings and wonderings. She shows us — and rails against — how society’s expectations diverge according to gender. In a meeting with film executives she points out that male characters are allowed to be ruthless, not ‘likeable’, and pleads in vain for a female character to be granted the same freedom. At a literary party, she pushes aside a drunk male writer who accosts her, noting: ‘There will always be a man and his female consorts who wish above all else to take down a woman who takes herself seriously.’ She goes so far as to ask: ‘Are women real estate owned by patriarchy?’

What, then, is Levy’s ‘real estate’? This is the central question to which the author returns through her global travels in the book. She notes with affection the accruements of her north London home — her fleet of electric bicycles, antique wooden fairground horses, the banana tree — and she imagines many additions to her fantasy unreal estate, such as the ‘burning egg’ fireplace, a pomegranate tree, a river and rowing boat, butterflies in lavender bushes, light green wooden shutters.

In the closing pages, she looks at a different kind of property. ‘Language,’ she notes, ‘is a building site. It is always in the process of being constructed and repaired. It can fall apart and be made again.’ From this building site, she has made her home — both real and unreal — as she concludes: ‘My books are my real estate.’ While the royalties are bequeathed to her daughters, she emphasises that her books ‘are not private property. There are no fierce dogs or security guards at the gate.’ Thankfully, Levy’s books are here to inspire, delight, rouse and provoke us all.

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