Geburtstags-Stilleben, Series 296, 1910, Oilette postcard depicting a birthday cake, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
I was very blue for the weeks running up to my sixtieth. I suppose I was triste. I couldn’t explain to myself why I was so low. When I wasn’t researching and writing or sorting out my daughter’s university accommodation, I trawled the flea markets and vintage shops collecting stuff for my unreal estate in the Mediterranean. So far, I had found a pair of wooden slatted blinds, two linen tablecloths, a copper frying pan, six small coffee cups, and a watering can made from tin with a long spout. I was collecting things for a parallel life, or a life not yet lived, a life that was waiting to be made. In a way, these objects resembled the early drafts of a novel.
I was thinking about existence. And what it added up to. Had I done okay? Who was doing the judging? Had there been enough happy years, had there been enough love and loving? Were my own books, the ones I had written, good enough? What was the point of anything? Had I reached out enough to others? Was I really happy to live alone? Why was I so preoccupied with the fantasy of various unattainable houses and why was I still searching for a missing female character? If I could not find her in real life, why not invent her on the page? There she is, steering her high horse with flair, making sure she does not run over girls and women struggling to find a horse of their own. Does she scoop them up and ride the high horse with them? Do they scoop her up and take over the reins? Did that feel true? I hoped so. My fifties had been a time of change and turbulence, energetic and exciting. A time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming. So there you are! Where have you been all these years?
Winter had truly arrived in Paris. When I made my way to the exit from the Métro, a cold wind came in from the Seine and blew the hairpins out of my updo. I had to find sturdier pins. Or perhaps I should live with the curls and have my hair down for a while. There were days writing in my apartment when I realized something was wrong with my hands. They were so cold that my fingers had gone numb, even though the heating was on full. I could not get warm and worst of all my local swimming pool was closed down for repairs.
One of my colleagues knew I was melancholy. She took me out to dinner on the condition that I taste something entirely new. We made a date and two days later we sat in a café on rue des Abbesses and I cracked into my first sea urchin. It was like eating the reproductive organs of an alien. Strangely enough, it was a poke of life and I began to enjoy the harsh winter, its sharp nudge on my cheeks. My melancholy was lifting. I’m not sure it was all due to the urchin, but it was true that I felt most alive in the sea.
Something incredible happened. Another of my colleagues, Emeka Ogbu, a visual artist and a DJ from Lagos, thought it would be a good idea if I invited some friends to dance to his music in the nightclub Silencio, where he soon had a gig, for my birthday. Silencio was a semiprivate club for performers and artists, a place to meet and exchange ideas. Every room was designed by David Lynch, one of the film directors who had most inspired my approach to fiction. I took Emeka up on his offer and began to put together the guest list.
My daughters couldn’t believe their mother was so cool as to be partying at Silencio. They arrived in Paris on the eve of my birthday and their gift to me was an ice cream maker. A state-of-the-art ice cream machine. I told them I would churn now for many years. When I heard that Helena had gone to Zurich to spend time with my best male friend, I decided to delete them both from my guest list and invite Nadia instead. All the same, he had heard whispers about the ice cream machine and sent a friend to deliver a box of guavas via the concierge to my empty nest.
“Yes,” I said to my daughters, “I am going to make us the exact same guava ice cream I tasted in India.” Every time I looked at them, I couldn’t get over their beauty. When I told that to my daughters, the oldest said, “Actually, I think guavas are quite ugly,” and I replied, “No, not the guavas, I mean you.” They both agreed that all mothers think their children are beautiful, and gave me an update on the banana tree.
Perhaps I did not have one foot in Death Boulevard after all. Silencio had the perfect atmosphere for my sixtieth. Its design was mysterious, glamorous, a dimly lit inward world tucked into this world, and it was part of the history of cinema. There was even a smoking room, and this chamber in which one could fume was designed to resemble a forest of mirrors. There were nooks and crannies to have conversations and there was the adrenaline of the dance floor itself. Emeka’s playlist drew us all in and then it sent us crazy. Every now and again I would look at him up on the stage, headphones over his ears, his arms in the air, our arms in the air. He gave us energy and conquered the room.
We all cooled off at 4 A.M. on the banks of the Seine. It was tempting to take off my sweat-drenched clothes and dive in, but Nadia told me, “No, do not so much as dip your feet in the Seine, she has things to do. She is on her way to the English Channel, where she will flow into the sea at Le Havre.” I was not sure what she was going on about, except that perhaps she was talking about herself. Nadia was going to flow away from her husband. Yes, my best male friend was doing his best to lose his third wife, who was planning to free herself in Le Havre, or wherever.
It was slightly dizzying being a sixty-year-old female character. Perhaps a character is someone who is not quite herself. I think that is what is meant when someone in life is described as being “a bit of a character.”
As the winter melted into spring, I found myself very homesick for my friends in England and Ireland. I was missing the trees and plants and flowers in my local parks and the dignity of speaking a language I understood. At the same time, as Brexit raged, I wondered what it would take to leave Britain and live elsewhere.
I reread Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and began to understand the magnitude of his exile from Prague to Paris, the huge endeavor of learning another language and actually thinking in that language when alone in the bath. Kundera had claimed his French identity. He described himself as a French-Czech novelist. It was a shock to realize all over again that I was part of the trail of writers who had made the long journey from their country of birth to somewhere else.
Deborah Levy writes fiction, plays, and poetry. Her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, broadcast on the BBC, and widely translated. The author of highly praised novels, including three Booker-nominated titles, The Man Who Saw Everything, Hot Milk, and Swimming Home, the acclaimed story collection Black Vodka, and two parts of her working autobiography, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, she lives in London. Levy is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Excerpted from Real Estate. Copyright Deborah Levy, 2021. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.
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