Alone with the melancholy fountain for company: Real Estate, Deborah Levy
What a waste of time it was to read this sack of clichés. The opening scene has Deborah Levy shopping on Shoreditch High Street only to find herself being “seduced” by a banana plant. She is captivated by the “shivering, wide green leaves, also the new leaves that were furled up, waiting to stretch out into the world.” She goes on to describe the stall holder’s eyelashes, “blue-black and luscious”, which she imagines stretching “to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico.” This leads her to a riff on Georgia O’Keeffe, whose flower paintings are “peculiar, sexual, uncanny.”
As you can tell, Levy’s writing style combines the book-reviewer’s love of slightly distorted adjectives with the creative writing student’s ability to gush. It’s all very art house aspirational. The clichés aren’t just limited to the phrasing (such as her “crumbling apartment block” — what is this, a 1980s New York movie?) but to the story, such as it is. The first chapter ends with her daughter, about to leave for university, telling her the banana plant is her third child.
Most of us buy plants on a whim, and plenty of people adjust to their children leaving home. We don’t all, God be praised, write about it in this writerly Poetic Striving manner. Imagine not just thinking, or saying, but actually writing and publishing the sentence, “Was I alone with the melancholy fountain for company?” As Kingsley Amis said about Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven — is she joking?
[Side note: maybe she is joking, with an ersatz irony about herself that I don’t get or that’s just not very good. If she is, the writing is all the worse.]
This idiom of Poetic Striving is a way of trying to be interesting. Levy is turning her otherwise ordinary life into Writing. And when she uses displaced epithets like “melancholy fountain” it’s difficult not to roll your eyes. Displaced epithets were a favourite technique of P.G.Wodehouse, and we might remember Bertie Wooster sulking in the bath “soaping a meditative foot.” Wodehouse didn’t take Bertie seriously, of course, whereas Levy seems to take herself very seriously all the bloody time.
This intensifying of ordinary life carries on with abandon. A hyacinth’s perfume is “overwhelming and melancholy in equal measure. Perhaps its perfume was even violent.” Levy’s writing shed is in a garden planted by her New Zealander landlord who planted with “flair, imagination, maybe even nostalgia”. (Is she using the adjectives she wants plastered over her front cover? Levy writes with flair, imagination, maybe even nostalgia.) If you are wondering why he planted with flair and nostalgia rather than a fork and a spade, it’s because he was being haunted by his homeland, you see: “his homeland was haunting his London garden because it still haunted him.”
You might think at this point that Levy had used the word haunted enough in a short book that isn’t a ghost story. Alas, no. A few pages later she struggles to throw out some of her stepmother’s books after finding annotations in them: “How could I throw away her ghostly thoughts speaking to me from these decaying books?” Similarly, when she finds a book inscribed by her ex-husband Levy tells us “a spectre lurked right there in my garden shed.” She must be living on a ley line.
We are only thirty pages in, and you may not think this is too bad, but soon enough she’s visiting a “desolate” part of East London to buy some Afghan rocking horses on whose “alert ears” she ripens avocados. Later on she discovers that silk has healing properties, which is to say, she realises (shocking news) that she’s pretty boujee. Let me quote, for the sake of illustration, and as a warning to anyone who might be tempted to take this sort of prose seriously:
When I replaced the silk with the cotton sheet on which I had slept all my life, it suddenly felt very harsh on my skin. I kept it there for a week, perhaps in the way hair shirts were worn as a means of keeping in touch with the harsh realities of life.
Presumably she’s joking here, but fuck my life. I really want to write to her and suggest that with just one more sheet she could start an effective rotation system. The joke, such as it is, continues:
I was hospitable to this strange desire for silk, but couldn’t work out what was going on. I truly thought I might be dying. Perhaps I was psychically preparing to be embalmed in silk like an Egyptian Pharaoh.
Could I ask a concerned reader to see to it that I am embalmed in silk, please? I truly think I might be dying.
Levy’s thesis is that women do not ruthlessly pursue their own desires as much as men do — and perhaps they should. This is fairly unarguable. At least it would be if someone other than Levy were making the case. First up is the fact that she’s a cash service, a payer of mortgages. “Those people who relied on the talents of others were often resentful and hostile. They wanted to pull these women off their high horse, but their own bread and butter depended on her skilfully staying on the high horse”. This argument comes at a time when she’s trying to pitch a movie idea to a film company whereby a Bergman movie would be essentially remade but with a woman protagonist not a man. The suits are worried this woman wouldn’t be “likeable”.
Talk about Levy taking a legitimate argument and turning it into a straw man. (That is a talent of sorts, I suppose.) Levy pitches this Bergman remake idea because she wants to earn enough money to buy a house. The fact that likeable characters sell more movies, that her idea isn’t really an idea, and that most men on high horses are paying mortgages too doesn’t seem to figure.
Levy’s problem is that she is right — right about movies with an older man and a younger woman never getting made the other way round, right about the demands of parenthood, right about people who follow their desires having to compete with their obligations to others, right about the uneven position of women who want to be ruthless — but being right isn’t enough. It doesn’t make you insightful or validate your writing. It is necessary but not sufficient. Levy is arguing with the past — literally, in the case of her Bergman remake. She is not new. For a book that is, try Blue Ticket by Sophie Macintosh.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the book is deeply, literally, naively, Freudian. (Or should that be, “Levy is haunted by her past and writes about Freud with flair, imagination, and maybe even nostalgia.”) When she types MUMBAI into an airplane booking system and it is not recognised we are treated to a short rant. “India’s largest city, at the forefront for independence, did not exist.” Just when the book is about to flip into a manual for anti-colonial theorists trying to book plane tickets everywhere, Levy realises she mistyped. Instead of MUMBAI she wrote MOMBAI.
In South Africa, where I was born, a mum is a mom, and that is what I had always called my mother.
I could not accept her death.
It seems unfair on those of you who haven’t read the book to put you through this shamanism disguised as rational thinking, but at least you are only getting the excerpts. Perhaps Levy really believes in Freud, despite the lies and the fake evidence in his case studies. Perhaps when you are this deeply invested in a false idea (she is a Freud translator) it simply isn’t possible to let go. Perhaps I ought to be sympathetic. Still, when I write to her about the bed sheet I might point out that “o” and “u” are really very close to each other on the keyboard. Mind you, LEY line is only one letter away from being LEVY line, so she might have a point after all…
In case any enquiring minds out there were wondering if the clichés had trailed off as the book went on, let’s pause for a roll call of some of the best. Two bankers she meets in Mumbai are “urbane and sophisticated”. Her daughter’s “curly locks were primped and preened”. Leonora Carrington’s novella The Hearing Trumpet is “wild, surreal, joyful”. (I honestly think she would have been great at writing dust jacket quotes.) When her daughter goes to university “epic motherhood was now moving into a new phase”. On an airplane, “I was very taken with ylang-ylang. Its sweet, evocative fragrance was warm but harsh, like a hamper wrapped in fur.” (What?) She found Paris to be “a seductive host”. The banana tree has competition. Although despite being seductive “The City of Lights” has “no interest” in Levy. What does she think seduction is? Anyone’s guess, especially after we learn that one of her friends “has a lovely, light-hearted way of speaking, as if seducing herself with her own words.” Did Nigella Lawson ghost write this book? Her manner of introducing deserts certainly haunts it like a spectre.
Worst of all is that the central conceit of this book is flat wrong. I endured this book — which is the literal opposite of “wild, surreal, joyful” — only to find that Levy’s milk-and-water Marxist daydreams of owning a big house are actually a false longing. What she really values, she comes to understand on her not-so-spiritual journey from the banana plant stall to her crumbling apartment block, are “human relations and imagination”. You see, dear reader, her books are her real estate, and she leaves them and their royalties to her daughters.
The important distinction is that the books are “not private property” — there are no guard dogs, no signs forbidding you to go on the grass, and a whole load of other gripes Levy has about forms of property that aren’t her books, far too boring to go into here.
But, of course, they are private property. Very much so. The fact that the royalties can be bequeathed at all, that they will carry on being in copyright for seventy-five years after Levy’s death, means there very much are guard dogs and signs saying do not go on the grass. Levy is too much of a flaneur/flâneuse to see it that way, of course. The flimsy language of Poetic Striving triumphs over all thought. Levy was too busy feeling bad about her life to think of this, presumably, with her cotton sheets, her crumbling apartment, people who didn’t want to buy a Bergman re-make from her, or, in what must be the most prize-winningly bad passage, about the corridors of her building:
Although my flat was small and humble, it was certainly my home, our home, our perch in the sky, though I needed some Buddhism to help me endure the grey communal corridors.
What a life, when seductive banana plants and the violent perfume of a hyacinth aren’t enough, but you need Buddhism too. Another favourite moment was this little gem about French Literature:
It was odd, really, to discover I was so ignorant of the language in which all the books that had most influenced me were written.
What’s going on here is that Levy wants to be interesting, or recognised as such. Fair enough. That’s why she writes about motherhood as “those invisible years”. She wasn’t invisible to her children, but to the people who could recognise the talent she was “hiding”. The striving to be interesting — one of the most persistent, invisible biases in society, as recently suggested on Marginal Revolution — is presumably what leads to sentences like this, where Freud meets the language of Poetic Striving, and you feel like you might be having a brain haemorrhage:
I was finding my way through the forest (wearing silver platform boots) to meet the wolf. Who or what is the wolf? Perhaps that is the whole point of writing.
If you can stop yourself being bamboozled by the fashion cliché, the fairytale cliché, the symbolism cliché, and the Freudian cliché here, you end up with a paragraph of blather. There’s a story in the book where a woman tells Levy in great detail all about her collection of brogues — seven pairs in various shades of blue and tomato. “It was so strange,” says Levy, “I couldn’t work out why she had given me this information.” What an apt place to end. I would much rather have read a book by the woman with the tomato brogues.
Truly, I thought I was dying.
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment at the bottom.
If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.