Occasional review: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy

I remember the first Deborah Levy book I read, and where I acquired it. It was Beautiful Mutants, in its splendid Vintage paperback edition, with its Andrzej Klimowski collage cover, and I bought it from a remaindered bookshop in Tenterden in Kent, where my grandmother lived. Tenterden had a good old-fashioned sweetshop, and it had this bookshop, with two low-ceilinged rooms, at the far end of the high street, which I used to try to try to get to whenever we visited.

I’ve always preferred bookshops to libraries. I know how that sounds, and I do love libraries, but it’s true. Books are things I want to acquire. Reading them is not enough; I need to have them. There are reasons behind this beyond mere materialism: I want to be able to read the book in my own time; I want to be able to put it down and pick it up again; I want to be able to write in it; I like to read books I believe I will want to read again; I want it there in my house to remind me I’ve read it, so I can reread it if I want. And yes, book is a statement about the person who buys it. Books are part of the way I interact with the world. This is the way we make culture out of art, by sharing it, and sharing through it.

I love new bookshops, and I love secondhand bookshops, and I love the book sections in charity shops, and each of these venues offers something slightly different as an experience to browser and buyer, but I have always had a fondness for remaindered bookshops.

Remaindered bookshops (good ones – are there still good ones? perhaps there were more of them in the days of the Net Book Agreement) give you two fine things: a sense of getting something new, for cheap, a bargain; and a sense that you’re getting something that perhaps has slipped under the radar, that didn’t sell as well as the publishers thought, that is likely to be something you haven’t heard of, that you might want to take a punt on, that is perhaps not quite first rate, but all the more interesting for that, a potential future cult classic.

I can’t remember all the other books I bought from that shop in Tenterden, except for a book of the graphic design of Neville Brody, and a hardback collection of letters written to George Bernard Shaw by ordinary members of the public. I don’t think I have either of those two books any more, but I do have the Levy. 

(How I wish had written in the front of all my books the details of where I got them. Imagine the Perecesque autobiography those details would tell.)

I do know where I got the newest Deborah Levy, which was sent to me by the publisher. Real Estate is the third of Levy’s ‘living autobiographies’, sort of diary-cum-memoir-cum-essays. I read the first, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and reviewed it for The Independent when it came out, in 2013, published by Notting Hill Editions, but I don’t know where my copy is. Either I reviewed it from a digital copy, or I lent or gave it away. I certainly wouldn’t have charity-shopped it. I didn’t read the second instalment, The Cost of Living, but having now read Real Estate, I’ve ordered a copy. 

Real Estate I enjoyed hugely, and more than I was expecting to. I’ve been reading Levy since the early 90s, and loved Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography, though not so much Billy and Girl, I seem to remember. (I can’t find my copy of that either, to update my thoughts.) I was less taken with her second wave or renaissance books, Swimming HomeBlack Vodka (stories) and Hot Milk. I felt she had toned down her exuberance but lost the craziness – the burning zoo, the “Lapinsky is a shameless cunt” – that seemed to carry crackling danger in every sentence, every page. The newer novels were tilted off their axis, certainly, but either didn’t entirely find their footing or didn’t take to the air. 

I don’t remember that much about Things I Don’t Want to Know, and will reread it, to see how the three books operate together, but here’s what I think about Real Estate: it’s a swift, sure, clean, clear account of and reflection on Levy’s world, post-success, post-marriage, with both of her daughters now left home, leaving her to consider how she will make the most of her fully independent life at any age (she turns 60 in the course of the book) when one might hope she can fully capitalise on her promise, and success. 

The title refers to the question of house ownership, as a dream and as an anchor, an aspect of self-identity and self-worth. During the book Levy writes in two sheds in two different people’s gardens, packs up her dead stepmother’s apartment in New York, travels to Mumbai for a literary festival, and decamps to Paris for a nine-month fellowship, visits a friend in Berlin, and rents a house in Greece to write in for the summer. She is also haunted by the family house where she was once happy, and then unhappy.

All the while she cultivates her dream of a “grand old house with a pomegranate tree in the garden”, furnishing it in her mind with articles and objects she has accumulated over her life that would deserve their place. If Levy is playing ‘dream house-hunting’ then that’s fine with me. In a way, she herself is living a dream that belongs to many of the rest of us: writer comes into well deserved success after years of promise, and fallow years, and finds that the literary superstructure bends itself as if by magic around her and lifts her up. (Mumbai… Paris… Greece… what writer wouldn’t dream of that! What writer wouldn’t at least consider the painful end of a marriage a fair psychic payment for this other daydream!) She uses the house metaphor to bring in other themes and issues: the difficulties female writers face, the lack of self-knowledge of male writers who turn up at festivals with their wives in tow as assistants, who corner you at parties with self-centred wining.

None of this is difficult or even unfamiliar, and Levy’s narrative style is subdued, gently expansive… I almost want to say quiet. Certainly it’s quiet compared to those 90s novels, and less energetic than the prose of Hot Milk, which I’ve taken off the shelf to compare to it, and which seems almost frenetic alongside it. As I started the book I thought: is this all there is? but the longer I went on, the more impressive I found it. It is patient, in the seeding and growing and harvesting of its themes. It is considered, in the marshalling of its thoughts, and the deployment of its quotations (Bachelard, especially, but also Rilke, Goethe, Duras, Lorde, Du Bois). It nudges not towards wisdom, but towards self-knowledge (which is, I suppose, a form of wisdom). You can’t learn anything directly from Real Estate, but you can learn from how Levy learns, what she does with what she has. 

The book also makes me think about form and genre.

The jacket copy of Real Estate calls the three books (Things I Don’t Want to KnowThe Cost of Living and Real Estate) ‘memoirs’ and ‘living autobiographies’. I don’t know if Levy has called them that anywhere, or if it is the publisher’s term, or the publisher’s term that she has endorsed, or even suggested. I’m not sure the books are particularly formally innovative, as the jacket flap also suggests: they are very like something you might find in an LRB Diary piece, by Alan Bennett or Jenny Diski. Ali Smith doesn’t (so far as I know), write directly personal autobiography, but if she did it might read like this. (This has the calm clarity of Smith’s writing.) None of this diminishes the effect of the book, and there is one truly formal moment that, on turning the page, made me purr with pleasure.

What does interest me is the way Levy deals with other people as characters. Some people (writers met at conferences: Vayu Naidu and Shreevatsa Nevatia; her friend the actor Celia Hewitt) are given their full names, but not the awful male writer at the party. Her daughters are unnamed. For some of her friends we are given their first names (Helena, Nadia, Rainer) but for others not (“my Berlin friend”, “my best male friend”). This becomes particularly interesting when Levy’s “best male friend”, who is the book a fair bit, leaves his (third) wife, Nadia, for Helena. 

The question of the rights and wrongs of this are discussed at more than one moment, as you might imagine, following the end of Levy’s own marriage. She discusses it with her best male friend, and comments to us on the age differences between him and her, and the other women. She runs into Helena in Paris. This is what she says about her:

To like Helena was a hard call, but that didn’t make her less amusing or interesting to me.

Now, while I have no interest in knowing who these people (there characters) really are, I am interested, to an extent, in what the three of them think about having themselves written about like this. Or rather, I’m interested in what Levy thinks about what they think about it, if she gives it any thought. (The jacket copy also calls the trilogy emotionally daring, and perhaps that’s what this refers to: not so much her own emotions, but the emotions of her friends.)

To write about people like this is not a new thing. It has been discussed over and over. But to have this little folie à trois play out in the background of a book that is, on the surface, about Levy’s life, Levy’s desire for a particular house, and her desire to make a life for herself in writing, and with her daughters, and their friends (a memory of cooking for all of them all in the London flat is particularly powerful) is odd, to say the least.

A thought experiment, for Creative Writing class:

all students must insert each other as secondary characters in their submission for next week’s workshop.

I won’t do this, obviously, but equally I’d love to do this. It’s so easy to think your way into writing about other people, or using them to feed your characters, in your own work, but most of us I think would be pulled up short to see how we figure in other people’s prose.

“I supposed that what I most value are real human relations and imagination,” Levy writes at the end of her book, but what is never quite clear is how these two things combine, interact or intersect in the preceding pages to give us the story of Helena, Nadia and “my best male friend”. Is that imagination? Or real human relations? Or both?

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, after all, that any of one of them is right now writing about Levy as Levy writes about the “male writer of some note” at the party, disparagingly (“not in my hierarchy of note […] his face was red and he was sweating”).

It’s also not beyond the bounds of possibility that Helena, Nadia and the “best male friend” are more or less made up, themselves, genuine fictive constructs. Ours is not to know. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte, says the theorist. There is nothing outside the text. Though of course there is: the book jacket copy is a classic example of the paratext. As always, how we read books is partly a result of how we come to those books, or how they come to us.

This, after all, is why I picked up that copy of Beautiful Mutants, in the low-ceilinged back room of that remaindered bookshop, all those years ago: because it felt like serendipity. This wasn’t being pushed on me by a bookshop, or a promotional campaign. This was a book that had failed to find its intended readership, and had found me instead. And that, combined with that amazing cover, and that bold, half-faded V on the spine, was enough.

Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for the copy of Real Estate.

6 comments

  1. JacquiWine

    Love the sound of the Levy. I’ve only read her fiction so far – a couple of her second wave / renaissance books, Swimming Home and Black Vodka – but I liked them a lot. She’s someone who interests me because she seems thoughtful, reflective and precise. (I saw a video of her interviewing Francesca Wade about Square Haunting recently and was very impressed.) Could I dive straight in with this one, do you think? The fact that it’s been a while since you read the first memoir suggests so, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    You certainly could jump in with this one. So far as I can tell there’s no narrative/chronological reason to have to start at the beginning. I’ve just bought a new copy of Things I Don’t Want to Know, and have ordered The Cost of Living, so this will be a partial assessment! I’ve glanced at Things… since I bought it yesterday and it’s certainly of a piece with the new one in style and approach. My guess is that I will think Real Estate better than Things…, either because she is better at weaving her different elements together, or because she’s writing from a more confident place, professionally, and that has affect the poise of her writing. So, yes, go for it, I think!

  3. JD

    Hello Jonathan Gibbs,
    I enjoyed reading these notes on Deborah Levy as I just finished The Cost of Living. Your comments on her treatment of characters’ names and the formal aspect of the book fully apply to the second novel of the series, so I look forward to reading your critique. The book is often quite humorous. Now I was wondering whether you have written about Knausgaard’s Struggle on your blog. The WordPress Search function doesn’t yield anything but it may be limited in scope. Thanks in advance.

  4. Pingback: March & April Reading 2021: Lockwood, Moore (Lorrie), Levy, Moore (Susanna), Nelson, Garner, Hall, Musil | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

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