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Deborah Levy: finding a voice

The latest part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ makes for a compelling read, says Lucy Popescu

03 June, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

Deborah Levy. Photo: Sheila Burnet

DEBORAH Levy may have found literary success relatively late in life, but she is making up for it now. In her three-part “living autobiography”, she describes her determination, from an early age, to become a successful writer and her lifelong yearning to be widely read and translated.

After Levy’s 2011 novel, Swimming Home (published by indie press And Other Stories), was nominated for the Man Booker Prize – her dreams looked closer to becoming reality. This was followed by a collection of short stories, Black Vodka (2013) and two further novels Hot Milk (2016) and The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), also nominated for the Man Booker.

In 2013, Levy published the first part of what was to become her living autobiography in response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write. In Things I Don’t Want to Know (Notting Hill Editions) Levy examined writing from a feminist perspective and reflected on her difficult childhood in South Africa.

Her father was imprisoned for membership of the African National Congress and Levy, aged seven, terrified of what they were doing to him in prison, could only whisper: “The volume of my voice had somehow been turned down and I didn’t know how to turn it up.”

It’s an extraordinary book. Finally recognising her worth, Penguin snapped up Levy and began to release her backlist. They published the second part of her memoir, The Cost of Living, in which Levy described the loss of her mother, her family home and marriage in exquisite prose.

The breakdown of her marriage she likens to surfacing from a deep swim in the midst of a storm and realising she didn’t want to make it back to the boat – “I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown” – while “to unmake a family home is like breaking a clock”.

The Cost of Living won Levy new fans.

Levy makes a living from her writing but, despite her literary success, is not wealthy.

In Real Estate, the final part of her living memoir, she remains in her flat in a crumbling apartment block at the top of a hill in north London, described so memorably in The Cost of Living, and dreams of the “real estate” she’d like to acquire.

“I dreamed of a grand old house… and a pomegranate tree in the garden. It had fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of all who had lived there before me. That is to say the house was lively, it had enjoyed a life. It was a loving house.”

Now widely translated, Levy is invited abroad for various reasons. At a literary festival in India she develops a passion for guava ice cream and ponders a line by the Bengali philosopher and poet, Rabindranath Tagore: “It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.”

Just as her youngest daughter leaves home for university, Levy is given a fellowship in Paris where she inhabits an “empty nest”, approaches her 60th birthday with trepidation, and witnesses the marriage break up of her best male friend who becomes involved with a much younger mutual friend.

Next, Levy visits Greece and pitches a film script to a Greek film producer. (Levy realises that one way to ensure a good living from her art is to write film scripts, but the problem is how to “sell” her complex female protagonists.)

Real Estate offers a fascinating insight into a female writer’s mind: “I did not have a tranquil relationship with language because I am in love with it.” Levy writes.

She also reveals the sexism she has endured from male colleagues in the industry. “Most married, heterosexual male authors of my age were looked after by their wives at literary events,” she comments drily.

Later, she describes how “a male writer of some note, but not in my own hierarchy of note” tried to undermine her by asking whether she thought her success had come “rather late in the day”.

Levy is wise. She realises: “All writing is about seeing new things and investigating them. Sometimes it’s about seeing new things in old things.”

By the end she concludes “what I most value are real human relations and imagination… I own the books that I have written… my books are my real estate. They are not private property”.

It is Levy’s refreshing view of the world, her repeated calling out of gender inequality and her honesty about the art of writing that makes her work so compelling.

Real Estate, By Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, £10.99

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