Claiming Space in “Real Estate” – Chicago Review of Books


“Most literature, like life, is about how to have less and how to have more,” says Deborah Levy in Real Estate, the third volume of her “living autobiography” of her life as a writer and woman. In this latest chronicle, Levy wonders what it might mean to have more as she turns 60 and transitions into a life on her own, no longer called on to feed and mother. In the first volume, the brief and brilliant Things I Don’t Want to Know, she explored the subterranean links between the painful upheaval of her childhood in apartheid South Africa, her beginnings as a writer, and the first cracks in her marriage, while in the second, The Cost of Living, she cuts to her efforts to build a new life with her daughters in a shabby London apartment block, with the death of her mother sounding a somber undertone. 

In Real Estate, Levy has slipped into more comfortable clothing and unpinned her curls: the writing is looser, her tone wryer, the incidents more anecdotal than transformative. Though a lighter read, Levy’s signature vibrant take on Freudian interpretation remains, as she imbues the objects of every day —  a little banana tree unfurling in a humid bathroom, or queenly turmeric-colored silk sheets — with nearly totemic significance, and dissects “the private magic we invent to keep us out of harm’s way.”

The title, Real Estate, is in part a nod to Woolf and her call for women to claim space that is exclusively their own. Levy picks up where Woolf left off, searching for a “female character” she sees missing from page and screen, and attempts to pitch to assorted film executives. She’s grown tired of the story of a woman struggling to define herself outside of the men in her life (explored by writers like Beauvoir and Hardwick), and Austen’s reliable prospect of marriage is no longer a solution. She is looking for a new story, of a woman over 50, after the end of heterosexual family life, a character that doesn’t serve to merely “police the more interesting desires of others… or to be wise and dull.” And no “cranky eccentric stuff,” either. This is not the story of the woman feeding the pigeons, one painted eyebrow floating near her hairline. 

As in the other volumes, Levy explores the entwining of writing and life. She is contending with her own desire for real estate, and she knows the “missing character” is also herself, in a role yet unwritten: “I began to wonder what I and all the women missing their own desires and all the rewritten women … would possess in their property portfolios at the end of our lives. … And indeed, if I was writing the script from start to finish, what did I want my female characters to value, own, discard and bequeath?” 

“Real estate” is also a metaphor for the space women have not had ownership of these long centuries: “Never again did I want to sit at a table with heterosexual couples and feel that women were borrowing the space. When that happens, it makes landlords of their male partners and the women are their tenants.” A life of writing, first as a playwright, and then as a novelist, has not yielded the bourgeois comforts of some of her contemporaries. Having claimed a room of her own for the art of writing, and gained greater recognition later in her career, Levy now seeks a home for the art of living, of claiming power and respect, where power is defined as being seen and heard.

The title is also an ironic commentary on a peripatetic life. Her quest to put down roots is only in her imagination. She builds a dream house with a pomegranate tree and an egg-shaped woodstove in her imagination, her “unreal estate,” while her real life takes her from London to New York to Mumbai to Paris to Hydra, no place truly home, but all full of interesting people, sights and delectations. The memoir is a careful balancing act of withholding and revelation. Levy uses the other characters she encounters as a way to refract her own point of view. She is drawn, for example, to others also at the end of long-term relationships or living between two worlds, and shares a piece of their stories. Her unnamed “best male friend” also recurs as a provocateur, questioning her lifestyle and insisting that she needs a companion. Levy doesn’t explicitly address his advice, but the assorted creepos she encounters in her travels (see the dashing Frenchman who refers to his penis as his “jaguar” at an initial coffee outing) offer an oblique defense of her decision to remain on her own.

“Of all the arts, the art of living is probably the most important,” she affirms. In this sense, the book offers a lesson by example, where the art of living involves cultivating friendships and recognizing the good things within reach, a “peppery emerald olive oil,” a dip in the Aegean Sea, guava ice cream served with salt and chili flakes. The most satisfying definition of “real estate” means offering a place for an extended family of friends and their children. “An expanded family rather than a nuclear family, which in this phase of my life,” states Levy, “seemed a happier way to live.”

Real Estate
By Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury Publishing
Published August 24, 2021


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