Real Estate

Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton, £10.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Deborah Levy’s muse is Simone de Beauvoir, whose wisdom permeates this and the earlier volumes of her memoir. It is Marguerite Duras, however, who comes closest to describing the artistry behind Real Estate: “I think what I blame books for, in general, is that they are not free. One can see it in the writing: they are fabricated, organized, regulated; one could say they conform. A function of the revision that the writer often wants to impose on himself. At that moment, the writer becomes his own cop.”

Duras’s disappointment with the timidity of most writing could be the inspiration for Levy’s individual, seemingly effortless but highly crafted style. Real Estate, the third and final part of her “living autobiography”, is like few memoirs you will read. As with its predecessors, Levy’s intention is not to offer a potted history. Decidedly uninterested in curriculum, instead she offers abundant vitae. There are more questions and philosophical musings here than dates or facts, and the book is propelled by her daydream of owning “a grand house … with a pomegranate tree in the garden”. Slowly she adds to this picture, filling in the rooms of her imaginary home, with which she replaces the dreary London apartment block with its soulless Corridors of Love where, for 10 years, she has raised her daughters. The previous volume, The Cost of Living, saw the end of her marriage, when she was 50, and depicts what happens when a woman is suddenly free in a world suspicious and sometimes actively hostile to women without a tether.

The concept of property in various shapes forms the architecture of this book. “Are women real estate owned by patriarchy?” Levy asks. And later, “Never again did I want to sit at a table with a heterosexual couple and feel that women were borrowing the space. When that happens, it makes landlords of their male partners and the women are their tenants.”

As it relates to authors, the theme is not new. From Virginia Woolf to de Beauvoir, and as far back as Mary Somerville and Margaret Oliphant, the woman writer’s need for a room of her own has been a cri de coeur. In The Cost of Living, Levy angrily used the same framework: “To strip the wallpaper off the fairytale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children has been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.”

Real Estate is conversational and coolly confessional, as Levy navigates a period of roughly a year. With her second daughter about to leave home for university, she seizes her situation as the springboard to leap into her past, and her unfolding thoughts. Its overarching tone is witty and un-self-pitying, with glimmers of rage. Still sore from her broken marriage, an astringency colours her reflections on relationships, as exemplified during the course of the book by her “Best Male Friend”. Visiting her while she is on a fellowship in Paris, he sets about dismantling his marriage, thereby embodying many of her theories.

If this book were a house, then the first floor would be Levy’s perspective on the imbalance between what is expected of and given to women and men. The upper floors, with the best view, would be her own story, and the people who have enriched her life: her daughters, her late mother, the father she cannot bear to consider she will one day lose for ever.

Alongside her preoccupation with the meaning of property and home is a literary quest: the search for the “missing female character”. Levy now recognises this absence in much of the male fiction she has read over the years. As her birthday approaches, this search takes on a direct significance: “I had no idea how to be a nearly-60-year-old female character.”

Real Estate does not offer answers to this problem. Instead, it pulses with ideas and emotion. Honest, original, invigorating and at times challenging, it captures Levy’s singular life, and the foundations on which it is built.