Deborah Levy’s Real Estate
(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021)
How unusual to ponder the possible advantages of relinquishing real property for the protracted existence of rootless tenancy, an eclipsed legacy to leave for one’s children, and the mere act of dreaming about home rather than owning it. What kind of “feminist” would rather be labeled, according to real estate terminology, as “chattel real,” rather than flipping that metaphor literally to “lord of the land?” With all the privileges and advantages real estate offers for wealth building, why just daydream about it if one has book advances and award money to buy a little security?
These are questions inevitably raised, but not resolved, in Deborah Levy’s third book in a contemplative memoir series, Real Estate. Her provocative installment explores what it means to be a woman writer who chooses the life of the mind instead of the life of a mortgage and the goal of reconveyance, the step toward freehold estate upon rich soil bequeathed in perpetuity (so long as tax obligations are met.) She longs for such privilege, though not without question. Yet she accepts her choice of literary estate versus real property portfolio. Sketched within the legacy of Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, James Baldwin, Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir, Levy pays homage to these historically enshrined authors/artists who selected literary legacies (or in Baldwin’s case, never had the option) over the more common aspiration for assured real property. Her writing deserves a place in history as significant as these above-mentioned authors. But some of them have had both real property and a literary legacy. They were never handed that deck of cards where a choice between the luxury of home ownership or literary freedom existed. They had both.
For an author-mother, this choice (or is it a choice?) holds far more risk than what rests on the surface of her eloquent and thoughtful prose. Levy is one of the small percentage of writers who possess literary royalties to bequeath to her daughters. Virginia Woolf, furthermore, had property with which she need not worry about the consequences. Her dilemmas were many, but certainly not real property and financial security. Of course, like Levy, Woolf wrote about the trauma of a woman writer gaining access to a room of one’s own and the mere space and validation to write and be considered a writer of ambition. Ambition: that filthy word, historically, for a woman writer to use, or any woman who conveys substantial goals. Levy interrogates these subjects at the moment she divorces her husband, her youngest daughter leaves her nest, and she relinquishes a stable home life for the peripatetic journey of travel and a most prestigious writer’s fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination—all at the turn of her 60th year on earth. Guts, no doubt.
Born in South Africa (now living in London) and growing up with a strong sense of justice she attained through her South African father—a member of the anti-Apartheid African National Congress—Levy migrates toward philosophical filmmakers such as Derek Jarman, and the ambiguities of modernist writers as political thinkers. A playwright and a prose writer, she rose to fame later in life, but never “commercial” fame. She has attained a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a Prix Femina étranger; she has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and many more accolades (what serious writer doesn’t dream of such “unreal” capital?). A prolific novelist and playwright for the Royal Shakespeare Company, she certainly has an enviable legacy that could make her intellectual property rival another stable but unsatisfied job holder or owner of personal real property. A person of influence, Levy’s is a legacy about which many can only fantasize.
Aware of her literary power and success, despite the steep climb and obstacles not faced by her male counterparts, she has (sort of) made peace with her literary unreal estate. A prolific and promiscuous reader, she dubs her body of writing as her version of real estate, in which many authors would find comfort. She also thinks of her book collection as real property (not chattel). Levy returns to a known thinker about home and the psychological value of space in one’s life; she repeatedly cites Gaston Bachelard. In The Poetics of Space (1958), he reminds: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming … the house allows one to dream in peace.” Levy is aware of the pain of not having that home of her own in which to dream. She aches:
It was not lost on me that quite a few middle-class people my age had paid off their mortgages and owned at least one house elsewhere. I’d go to dinner parties and someone would announce they were leaving the next day for their pile in France or Italy—or, and this was one that hurt most, they were off to write in a magical modernist pavilion specially built for them in the English countryside. Meanwhile, I was returning to the grim Corridors of Love, which still has not been repaired.
Deborah Levy possesses a sense of wavering some might render a trick or obsession with philosophical ambivalence. A spattering of contemporary writers abscond with such mimicry. Levy offers an honesty, which necessitates the modernist or post-World War II/post-Vietnam War style of ambiguity, rather than using the form as a gimmick. She takes the more noble route. Such is the hand of cards her generation of writers has been dealt. Her style takes its own form of real proper roots.