Deborah Levy is a writer’s writer; her work hallowed in literary circles by those who perceive it as a masterclass in craft. And the establishment agrees. Of the seven novels she has authored, this latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything is the third to be acknowledged by the Booker Prize committee. Swimming Home was shortlisted in 2012, followed by Hot Milk in 2016 – an impressive track record and one that is well deserved. Levy sets the standard for contemporary psychological narratives that are unflinching in their pursuit of truth.
This month marks 50 years since the iconic photograph of The Beatles crossing Abbey Road was taken. The Man Who Saw Everything begins with an enigmatic narrator, Saul Adler, waiting at the same pedestrian crossing for his artist photographer girlfriend, Jennifer, to come and recreate the image with him as the subject. It is 1988 and Saul – a beautiful, narcissistic historian – is about to embark on a research trip to Communist East Berlin where his access has been approved in exchange for a positive account of the German Democratic Republic. His homage to the famous Beatles image is intended as a gift to his translator’s sister who is obsessive about the band. Before Jennifer arrives, however, he is hit by a car, and despite just minor injuries, the course of his life is altered.
The hallmark of a Levy novel is an all-encompassing mood that infuses every page regardless of whether it contains evocative lush imagery or deep psychological probing – both elements are integrated seamlessly into one compelling voice that draws the reader in.
Saul is excellent company despite his self-involved, socially awkward nature and oftentimes pretentious interpretations of the complex world he is struggling to navigate. Jennifer has become irritated by his apathy towards her art beyond his presence within it and upon terminating their relationship she says, “It’s like this, Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you.”
It is interesting to see Levy explore her recurring themes concerning women and their creative lives through the lens of a male protagonist; examining how Saul navigates the different levels of control he can exert over the lovers in his life.
In the aftermath of their break-up Saul departs on his trip, two months before the Berlin wall will fall, and the first phase of the novel is dedicated to Saul’s time there. Amongst other significant encounters, Saul falls in love, whilst also brooding over his deceased authoritarian father who he believed was offended by what Jennifer called his “sublime beauty”; a man who encouraged others to beat him but now in his absence is missed. Interspersed throughout are some perplexing interjections and playful asides that unsettle the reader’s grip on the reality of Saul’s world as it becomes increasingly surreal. It is worth persevering, however, with the spiralling trail that leads to the revelatory final section where time slips and it is now 2016; the kaleidoscope of Saul slowly is pulled into focus.
Once again, Levy has developed a narrative that scrutinises the interior world of her characters with laser-like precision and revealed it to us with subtle, grand design. If at times it becomes difficult to follow, that is precisely the point. Who can narrate their history with reliable memory? How can we trust any singular version of history?
Levy’s prose is electrifying on the micro level and profound on the macro level; the novel bends time, subverts our expectations, and exposes blind spots with her usual sophisticated artistry. The questions it raises percolates long after the last page – how our carelessness will prove criminal to ourselves, how imperative it is that we confront our historical narratives and interrogate our sense of truth, the extent to which our futures are already written in the past. Levy throws balls in the air and steps aside to see how or if we can catch them; that is one of the great strengths of this novel but it is also the element that may frustrate readers who crave definitive answers.
In The Man Who Saw Everything, old and new Europe, political lines and sexual boundaries are blurred as we attempt to find the truth, to ask if we ever have the capacity to see everything, and to recognise when we don’t.