The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Review by Annabel, 24 September 2019

Levy came to the forefront of our attention when her 2011 novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, something she’d repeat with her 2016 offering Hot Milk (reviewed here). Neither went on to win the prize, but her reputation as a writer of slim, poetic and thought-provoking novels full of wit and intertextuality was cemented. Alongside her novels, short stories, plays and poetry, she has also written a pair of fascinating and stylish volumes of ‘living’ memoir (with a third to come).

Her new novel, her eighth, was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize before its publication, but this time didn’t make the shortlist. Levy fans shouldn’t be disappointed, The Man Who Saw Everything is a playful novel, slipping through time and déjà vu for its very unreliable narrator.

It begins in 1988 with a reference to The Beatles, when Saul Adler, a beautiful and narcissistic young man is knocked down but not hurt beyond a small cut and bruised hip on the Abbey Road zebra crossing. (Incidentally, the photo for the Abbey Road album cover was taken in August 1969, fifty years ago). The car’s driver gets out:

‘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 warding you lurched forward on to the crossing.’

I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour.

Saul was on his way to see his girlfriend Jennifer who is an artist and photographer; Saul is her muse. But this time, after sex, they break up.

Saul is an historian and is due to leave for a research trip to East Germany, taking with him a matchbox of his recently deceased father’s ashes to bury there. Jennifer and he had re-enacted The Beatles photo before their break-up so he could give a copy of the print to his host Walter in Berlin. Walter has also asked him to bring tinned pineapple, a luxury not available there – I only mention the pineapple as it will come up again and again! While in East Berlin, Saul begins a relationship with Walter, (and Walter’s sister!). When Saul’s trip is nearly over, he finds out about Walter’s real life:

I wanted to know everything about Walter Müller. The fact that he had kept the details of his real domestic life hidden from me only made me love him more. He and I had both been very lonely in our teenage years in East Berlin and East London. I had suffered in the care of my authoritarian father and he had suffered in the care of his authoritarian fatherland.

All the way through this first half of the novel, there are coincidences and events that will resonate in the second half which is set nearly thirty years later in 2016, after the Brexit referendum. Time seems to slip when Saul is once again knocked down on the Abbey Road zebra crossing, this time injured seriously. When he wakes in hospital, Jennifer is there at his bedside, as is his now-not-dead father amongst others, I won’t say more about what happens.

Saul’s search for love and truth, his questioning about how we sometimes live a lie make him a fascinating narrator, unreliable but loveable. His world’s eye view contrasts with Jennifer’s in which she seeks truth through a lens and her art, and Walter’s repressed one.

Covering a period of relative peacetime in post-war Europe, from just before the Berlin Wall would fall to our ever more complex times in the 21st century, events from before haunt this narrative. There is symbolism aplenty – from the pineapple to Saul’s late mother’s pearls, which he wears. There is more of The Beatles too, as various images from Penny Lane in particular flit through the pages.

As always, Levy leaves a lot unsaid in this novel; indeed, on Radio 4’s Open Book programme, she said she wanted readers to have multiple interpretations of this book, something that perplexed many trying to get to grips with Hot Milk too. I think I shall have to re-read this novel, as I did Hot Milk, to really formulate my own interpretation. Due to the quality of Levy’s prose, that will be a pleasure.

Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and has a personal blog AnnaBookBel.

Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton, 2019). 978-0241268025, 208pp., hardback.

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