Time fractures and overlaps in Deborah Levy’s newest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything. The protagonist, Saul Adler, is a stunning 28-year-old and he is a paunchy 56-year-old; he’s in England and he’s in East Germany; the Berlin Wall is about to fall and Britain has just voted to leave the European Union. In both of these realities, Saul has recently been hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road. As a young man, he picks himself up and goes to his girlfriend’s house. After the second accident, he awakens in the hospital, suffering the effects of head trauma and hefty doses of morphine.
Critics love the novel, which has been long-listed for the 2019 Booker Prize. And yet, beyond the fundamental elements of the plot, they don’t seem to agree on the book’s aim or even what the story is about. Is Saul a narcissist who interprets the world through the cracked mirror of pathological self-involvement? Or is he drifting in and out of consciousness, not responsible for the misfiring of his synapses? Or perhaps Saul is merely a foil for Levy’s ideas about history and politics, as Sam Byers wrote in his review in The Guardian.
“Saul’s life, we come to understand, functions as a kind of psychoanalytic mirror of Europe, with events in the material world finding their emotional counterparts in his disordered memories.”
Byers delves into the novel’s imagery and symbolism, noting parallels that emerge again and again, such as toy trains, sunflowers and roses, jaguars, and a pearl necklace. “This intricate patterning of objects and symbols, which becomes for the reader a kind of psychoanalytic code or interpretive mystery, allows for a complementary layering of phenomena and ideas,” he writes. “Ultimately, Levy is concerned with power — the forms it takes in our lives, the extent to which it is something we both possess and are subjected to.”
The Man Who Saw Everything (Bloomsbury Publishing, 200 pages, $26) is brilliant but confusing, its ultimate meaning seemingly in the eye of the beholder. In an email response to a question about her creative process, Levy writes that “all writers have arguments and emotions to chase and so characters dramatize these arguments and feelings on our behalf. I’m not that interested in symbolism. I am more interested in how one thing connects to another. Writing is a sort of ecology in which everything is in combination with everything else.” As for whether the story is about Saul’s damaged mind or about more high-minded thematic concerns, she says: “It can certainly be both these things. A novel has to have as many dimensions as there are in life.”
Levy reads from The Man Who Saw Everything on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in a Lannan Foundation presentation. She will be joined in conversation by John Freeman, author of How to Read a Novelist (2012), The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox (2009), and a collection of poems, Maps (2017).
Levy has written several books and plays. Her recent novels Hot Milk (2016) and Swimming Home (2011) were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In the past few years, she has also published two nonfiction books about her life: Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing (2014) and The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography (2018). “My understanding of autobiography is that it is usually written at the end of life, when we have some wisdom and hindsight,” the 60-year-old author says when asked whether she finds biography or literary memoir inherently more interesting. “My memoirs are written in the storm of life, in the present tense, as if it is happening.”
The same urgency can be found in her novels, which feel immediate and vital. Her prose is unusually precise, which allows her to approach the inner workings of her characters’ minds with innovative complexity. In the first half of The Man Who Saw Everything, it is 1988 and Saul is an up-and-coming historian concerned with authoritarian regimes. He is somewhat sexually fluid and likes to be subversive in his gender presentation by wearing eyeliner and women’s jewelry. When he goes to Communist East Berlin for research, he falls in love with his male translator, whose life is more complex than Saul initially understands. But when Saul wakes up in 2016, on the other side of a lackluster academic career, we learn that he has always misunderstood how he affects the people around him.
Susannah Butter of the Evening Standard calls The Man Who Saw Everything a funny novel. She writes that Saul and his girlfriend, the photographer Jennifer Moreau, are comically pretentious: “One of their quirks is that they address each other by their full names. ‘It’s like this, Saul Adler’; ‘it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau,’ they say repeatedly until it appears ridiculous.” Butter discusses the novel as increasingly surreal, highlighting Levy’s multifaceted exploration of the artist’s gaze, and commends her powers of description, but the word “symbolism” never appears in her review. Writing for The Independent, Holly Williams gets heady and metaphorical, maintaining that the novel “looks at the power of a photograph to capture a moment in time, or to capture a person. It’s about how we see — or fail to see — ourselves and others, with eyes and camera lenses and state surveillance.”
Despite several reviewers describing Saul as an unreliable narrator, whose perceptions the reader can’t trust, Levy plays the contrarian, gently pointing out the narcissism that affects us all. “I don’t think Saul is an unreliable narrator in a literary sense. It’s more like he’s trying to get his story straight for himself,” she says. “As he points out, we usually tell our story in a way that makes us look good — we construct history in our favor. So other characters intervene in my book to fill the gaps in Saul’s story. He has left out important information.” ◀
▼ Deborah Levy in conversation with John Freeman
▼ A Lannan Foundation Readings & Conversations event
▼ 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets are $8, $5 students and seniors; 505-988-1234, lannan.org/events/current
Abbey Road, London, September 1988
I was thinking about how Jennifer Moreau had told me I was never to describe her beauty, not to her, or to anyone else. When I asked her why I was silenced in this way, she said, ‘Because you only have old words to describe me.’ This was on my mind when I stepped on to the zebra crossing with its black-and-white stripes at which all vehicles must stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road. A car was coming towards me but it did not stop. I had to jump backwards and fell on my hip, using my hands to protect myself from the fall. The car stalled and a man rolled down the window. He was in his sixties, silver hair, dark eyes, thin lips. He asked if I was okay. When I did not answer he stepped out of his car.
‘I apologize,’ he said. ‘You walked on to the crossing and I slowed down, preparing to stop, but then you changed your mind and walked back to the kerb.’ His eyelids were quivering at the corners. ‘And then without warning you lurched forward on to the crossing.’
I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour.
From The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, 2019. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.