The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy brings us full circle in pondering the political and personal walls we construct, and invites us to separate our perceived truth from reality.
After her memoir The Cost of Living, fans of Deborah Levy may have speculated what direction her next novel might take. She hinted at a move away from the “phantom of femininity” to “find new main characters with other talents.” Despite a male protagonist at the helm in The Man Who Saw Everything, the stance of women in society still claims its stake. But the state of our global politics and obsession with self are both under intense scrutiny.
The Man Who Saw Everything yields a voice and writing style unique to its author. Fusing a soon to be united and soon to be divided Europe, characters span the Berlin Wall and Brexit eras. Cleverly constructed, both past and present are relayed in the present tense.
‘What was I aiming for? What did I want? What did I deserve?’
The book opens in 1988 with young historian Saul Adler aiming to cross Abbey Road in a state of self-indulgence to replicate The Beatles album cover. However, as he steps onto the famous zebra crossing he is knocked to the ground by a car. This same act is repeated some thirty years later. However, the time zone remains deliberately unclear to the reader until the author is ready to sharpen the focus.
‘Jennifer was always looking at me through the lens of her camera.’
Believing keen photographer Jennifer Moreau obsesses over his beauty, Saul visits her following the first accident for sex and sympathy. As he sits licking his wounds he asks for her hand in marriage. Jennifer immediately steps into her own power and discards him. Wielding her sexual ylang-ylang scent she is a welcome contrast from the women Stalin flirts with by flicking table bread at them. With Saul’s ego bruised, much like his hip following the accident (as he continues to remind us), he travels to East Germany to research communism for a paper and consequently invites a love interest in the form of translator, Walter Müller.
“It’s like this, Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you.”
Upon rearranging the letters of Saul Adler’s name we realise that the tone has always been set. The Sad Allure of a burdened narcissist on a quest to quench his thirst drinking from the cup of others. His obsession with self screams from the page. Although the book title describes him as all-seeing, he is not listening to the needs of others. His continual expression conveys his own humiliation, neglect, abuse. Lunging from sadness to relief mid paragraph, his narcissistic perceptions are overpowering. His intense blue eyes and irresistible torso charm others until they discard him, as he sees it, inexplicably.
‘I was to live with my father and brother without my mother, who had used her body like a human wall to protect me from them.’
Perhaps the root source of Saul’s psychological trauma was losing his mother to a car accident when he was young. Clinging to the vivid memory of his mother, the string of pearls which belonged to her cling to his neck. (As a side note, the author herself wore pearls daily until the string snapped during a minor debate so it is interesting a set should end up here). Adrift from society, yet unwilling to return to a motherless home, Saul seems incapable of loving or living without sorrow. As a result these pearls are of great significance to him.
‘Surveillance was the air everyone breathed.’
Despite the communist regime, bisexuality and beauty prevail in Saul’s world: Eyes, lips, a seductive laugh. While the communists are watching the tyrants treading the soil of East Germany, Saul is himself busy: Viewing how his own reflection bleeds into him and considering how others view him.
Perhaps by surveying the world through the eyes of a narcissist the author is asking us to question the current global climate. The unrest which resides. The walls and borders ever deeper. Perhaps she is asking us to stop looking within and to look with’out’. To take an interest in something other than self. To think beyond the beauty of the rose to how the garden needs to be tended.
‘Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.’
Just as Sofia in Deborah Levy’s Booker nominated Hot Milk was vague about what she wanted to see, so too is Saul Adler. He suggests his desire to cross the road is to bridge a linear connection with something bigger than himself. But he masks his true desire: To carelessly play with others, observe them quiver at his behest, whatever the cost.
With complex layering and time slip motif, Levy’s eighth novel is as much a demanding read as it is demanding. Provocative and unflinching the book requires an adjustment of our own lens to separate our perception of what is real and imagined. She is urging us to view the spectre hidden within our inner and outer worlds and seek a truth which unifies not divides us.
A deserved contender for the Booker Prize longlist.
Thank you Penguin Random House and Netgalley for the proof.