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.