SOUTH AFRICA/UK. (Review no 158.)
Book 2 of my #20booksofsummer21 (a week off work means plenty of reading time)
Deborah Levy wears her erudition lightly. Her trilogy of “living autobiography”, published since 2013, is page-turning stuff, which I’ve enjoyed more than her fiction. Reading these works of almost-memoir makes me feel as though I have been taken into her confidence, and her prose seems effortless, though I know it can’t possibly have been.
Nominally this just-published, third work in the series, as the title, Real Estate, suggests, deals with property, whether imagined or truly inhabited. She discusses the family home in which she lived with her daughters’ father, her current crumbling London flat, and her two writing ‘sheds’, where she spends much of her working time. She clears her deceased step-mother’s apartment and muses on how the intimacy of engaging with her possessions means she feels she comes to know her almost better after death than during her lifetime. At 59, she also dreams of an idealised, permanent home (instead of a ‘perch’), a grand old house near the sea, where she could swim, with a pomegranate tree, mosaics, fountains and circular staircases. The book’s wider themes cover the things that we own, the things that we choose and that create meaning for us, the things we leave behind and, ultimately, what makes for a meaningful life or for a life well-lived.
The narrator is “myself but not quite myself“, and “the weight of living has been heavier in my life than it is in my books“. Often questioning and sometimes angrily confronting, Levy is nevertheless attractive company. Judging by Michèle Roberts’ memoir of writer’s block, Negative Capability, Levy is less grouchy than the irascible Roberts, who seems to inhabit a similar cosmopolitan milieu. Actually, grouchiness is not a problem and is oft-warranted, but Levy’s writing is imbued with humour and a sharp sense of the absurd even when, or especially when, delivering a devastating take-down. I did find myself wondering whether her close friends and acquaintances object to what are presumably at least semi-factual interrogations of their personal life: for example, Levy’s “male best friend” comes across as a particular creep.
Her evocative prose conjures up lush smells, delicious tastes and the sense of touch through her descriptions of food, soap, ink, jewellery, furnishings…. “sometimes I would sprinkle sea salt on a wedge of sour green tomato and dip it into the peppery emerald olive oil“. She evidently loves lovely things (she revels in silk sheets, north African robes and beautiful fountain pens) and carries around a nebulous mental inventory of her possessions. Self-possessed, she is at home in homes all over the world, and would presumably count as one of ex-UK PM Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’.
Born in South Africa, Levy has lived in the UK since middle childhood, but with her father in Cape Town, a stepmother who was based in New York, and with work and friends in India, France and Germany, her life sounds envy-inducingly rich in experience. She is also evidently very good at drawing people out of themselves: every time she leaves the house she seems to have an intriguing or invigorating interaction, even if the subject matter is not necessarily to her liking (one older man in Paris tells her about his revived sex life, referring throughout to his penis as ‘the jaguar’). She has cool friends who do yogic handstands while discussing Bergman, and manages to make this sound normal, and even aspirational, rather than pretentious and a bit irritating.
The book references sources as wide-ranging as Rebecca West, James Baldwin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Katherine Mansfield (“would you not like to try all sorts of lives, one is so very small“), Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir, Leonora Carrington and Walter Benjamin (“the work of memory collapses time“). As a result it is eminently quotable; for example, Levy tells us that Jane Birkin’s mother is understood to have said to her daughter: “When you’ve got nothing else left … Get into silk underwear and start reading Proust“.
My reading list is (even) longer after reading this book – starting with Marguerite Duras, who is an enduring favourite of hers. Real Estate is also inspiring with respect to gaining success later in life, and provides insights into the writing life, with asides on issues as diverse as conformity, the co-existence of power with vulnerability, and translation (“to be translated was like living another life in another body in France, Ukraine, Sweden, Vietnam…”). Levy seems to notice more than most of us do: a felicitous key, hanging from a tree; some beautiful carved fairground horses in an Afghan carpet shop, which turn out to be worth a small fortune – there are rich observations on every page.
She describes Rosetta Tharpe, “the godmother of rock’n’roll” as her “role model for middle age, ever since I saw a film of her performing when she was forty-nine in a railway station in Manchester“, but for me Levy seems an excellent role model for late middle age herself, and has inspired an enduring girlcrush (along with Elif Shafak, so she’s in good company).