Real Estate: A Liv­ing Autobiography

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By – August 16, 2021

In the West­ern world, own­ing real estate is often seen as the cul­mi­na­tion of a lifetime’s worth of work — the sign that some­one has tru­ly made it.” Writer Deb­o­rah Levy already owns her North Lon­don flat as well as a small writ­ing shed, but she dreams of her future unre­al estate” — a grand old house” with a pome­gran­ate tree, an egg-shaped fire­place, and a riv­er at the base of the gar­den. It is fit­ting that the idea of both a phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al home would be ever-present in Levy’s mind giv­en her fam­i­ly his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion and dis­place­ment — she was born in South Africa as the grand­daugh­ter of Lithuan­ian Jews, and moved to Eng­land at age nine.

Levy has been com­pared to Vir­ginia Woolf for her use of stream-of-con­scious­ness, and in Real Estate, the third install­ment of what she calls her liv­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy,” she deft­ly moves between thoughts on her fam­i­ly and rela­tion­ships to the works of art she loves (Ele­na Ferrante’s nov­els, Paul Éluard’s poems) and the places she vis­its (Mum­bai, Paris, Berlin, Greece). At the begin­ning of the book, she is liv­ing in North Lon­don and prepar­ing for two big life changes: her youngest daughter’s move away from home, and her six­ti­eth birthday.

Levy sug­gests that we inhab­it a space as much as we inhab­it our phys­i­cal bod­ies, which is per­haps why she is so focused on her unre­al estate” — in prepar­ing for a mile­stone birth­day, it could be tempt­ing to imprint one­self onto the per­ma­nence of a grand old house. But there is a dark side to this incli­na­tion as well — the per­ma­nence of a place means that it can be imbued with mem­o­ries we would soon rather for­get. In Real Estate, Levy does not often dis­cuss her Jew­ish his­to­ry, but on a trip to Berlin she sees a dis­used show­er head sit­ting incon­gru­ous­ly in a restau­rant, and it caus­es her to think of the atroc­i­ties her rel­a­tives faced in the Holo­caust. The nar­ra­tive moves on quick­ly, and Levy won­ders if she should just leave things as they are,” but by putting the moment in her book, she is work­ing to reclaim the mem­o­ry, ascrib­ing more pow­er to her writ­ing than to the phys­i­cal space.

The cli­max occurs when Levy returns from a writ­ing fel­low­ship in Paris and goes to a lit­er­ary par­ty. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, she is cor­nered by a well-known male writer who has been look­ing for a female writer in the room to under­mine.” He asks her whether she ever looks in the mir­ror and thinks her lat­er-in-life suc­cess is vul­gar” and fatigu­ing.” She pon­ders these impli­ca­tions for sev­er­al pages (amus­ing­ly, per­haps keep­ing the man wait­ing in the process) and push­es him out of the way. She begins to think of giv­ing up her unre­al estate,” which feels sad, but also like drift­ing back to dry land” — sug­gest­ing that she no longer needs the val­i­da­tion of real estate to sym­bol­ize her worth.

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