Real Estate: A Living Autobiography

  • By Deborah Levy
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 224 pp.

A master of the philosophical memoir ponders the concept of “home.”

Real Estate: A Living Autobiography

If a critic is fortunate, she may be asked to review the sort of book she might have chosen for herself. Such a book is Real Estate, an open-hearted examination of philosophy, relationships, and the meaning of home by British author Deborah Levy.

Previously, this critic reviewed Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, a literary tour de force that challenged the convention of linear narrative and explored the simultaneity of time. In Real Estate, the challenge is more personal. And more universal. Again, the issue is time.

Levy’s youngest child is about to leave for university, and Levy herself is about to turn 60. Clearly, her life has orbited into a new phase. And the author, divorced, will have to enter it alone. Her initial reaction is to buy a banana tree and lavish it with such tender attention that her daughters dub it her third child.

Levy also becomes keenly aware that several of her contemporaries own not one but two or more houses while she continues living in a “crumbling apartment block on the hill.” She begins fantasizing about a house of her own, an extravagantly imagined place somewhere in a sunny clime. Perhaps a villa with an egg-shaped fireplace, a pomegranate tree, and a rowboat named Sister Rosetta bobbing in the river running at her property’s edge. In short, Levy wants a deliciously delightful piece of real estate.

After lugging her banana tree to her London flat, Levy travels to New York, where she cleans out her deceased stepmother’s apartment. There, she feels overwhelmed. Her stepmother had been brilliant, but her private effects — her “shower caps, cardigans, berets, nightdresses, umbrellas, and hair curlers” — convey a down-to-earth intimacy. Absent the person who used them, though, the things are exposed for what they are: merely things.

Leaving the apartment, Levy flops down in Central Park. “Lying on my back,” she writes, “looking up at the big American sky between the leaves, I saw something hanging from the branches. It was a key.” Later, she continues, “The key hanging in the branches of that tree in Central Park opened the doors to many other houses in my mind.”

The property of the mind is the real property Levy desires — the thoughts, surprising convergences, and illuminating revelations she alone can possess. The book’s title, Real Estate, reveals as much. What is “real” to Levy is what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited as real: Beyond the phenomenal appearance that the individual experiences directly lies another, elusive reality. Everything that is is much more than it appears.

Yes, the key hanging from a red ribbon on a tree in Central Park is merely a key. But it also is the object that unlocks possibilities for the new phase of Levy’s life. She returns to London, then travels to Mumbai for a writing conference, then back to London, and then to Paris for a months-long fellowship and side trip to Berlin.

Throughout her travels, Levy fantasizes about her “unreal estate.” Her abode may be as insubstantial as a cloud, but the furnishings she accumulates are as solid as a copper pot. “I trawled the flea markets and vintage shops, collecting stuff for my unreal estate,” she writes. To turmeric-colored silk sheets, she adds wooden blinds, linen tablecloths, six small coffee cups, and a watering can. “I was collecting things for a parallel life, or a life not yet lived, a life that was waiting to be made.”

Her fellowship over, Levy returns to London and then departs for Greece, where she senses her “unreal estate” becoming increasingly vague, a dream of a fantasy. Noticing a hole in the wall of her rented house, she sticks her finger in and unleashes a torrent of sand:

“It was as if my real-estate dreams were slowly but surely also turning to sand. The hole in the wall was a portal, not to another world, but to this one, in which I was endlessly searching for a home, as if it were an elusive lover.”

She concludes that the only thing she can truly claim is her own life, because in the final analysis, “We are all tenants on the earth, which is our temporary home.”

Levy’s chapter on cleaning out her stepmother’s apartment is a particularly good example of the recursive structure and ruminative speculation that undergird all good personal genres. But in other places, her linkages between disparate objects seem forced or underdeveloped. In Greece, for example, she stays on Hydra, the island where Leonard Cohen loved and left his treasured Marianne. But Levy’s own catalog of goodbyes, told through the lens of Cohen’s, doesn’t reach the level of poignancy either deserves.

On the other hand, she adroitly interweaves the tension between an artist’s — especially a female artist’s — need for solitude and need for family and friends. Not to mention the attendant obligations thereof. To Levy’s credit, Real Estate, the final installment of her triparted autobiography, holds neither a hint of rancor nor victimhood. Instead, with wit and insight, she takes us where few new books go: into the lively, varied, happy world of an intelligent older woman.

Patricia Schultheis is the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), the award-winning story collection St. Bart’s Way (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2015), and the memoir A Balanced Life (All Things That Matter Press, 2018). Her essay “Mort’s Pen” won the award for creative nonfiction in the 2020 League of American Pen Women’s Soul-Making Contest.

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