The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton | Penguin Australia

In 1989 Saul Adler (a narcissistic young historian) is hit by a car on the Abbey Road. He is apparently fine; he gets up and goes to see his art student girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau. They have sex then break up, but not before she has photographed Saul crossing the same Abbey Road. Saul leaves to study in communist East Berlin, two months before the Wall comes down. There he will encounter – significantly – both his assigned translator and his translator’s sister, who swears she has seen a jaguar prowling the city. He will fall in love and brood upon his difficult, authoritarian father. And he will befriend a hippy, Rainer, who may or may not be a Stasi agent, but will certainly return to haunt him in middle age. 

In 2016, Saul Adler is hit by a car on the Abbey Road. He is rushed to hospital, where he spends the following days slipping in and out of consciousness, and in and out of memories of the past. A number of people gather at his bedside. One of them is Jennifer Moreau. But someone important is missing. 

Slipping slyly between time zones and leaving a spiralling trail, Deborah Levy’s electrifying new novel examines what we see and what we fail to see, until we encounter the spectres of history – both the world’s and our own.

This is my second Deborah Levy story, so I now know that this style of writing – the slightly off-kilter structure, narration and characters combined with oodles of symbolism and mythology – is her usual way of telling a story. However, The Man Who Saw Everything isn’t haunting me (yet) the way that Hot Milk still does, three years later.

Spectres of the past, though, are a big part of this story with personal and European histories haunting the daily lives of our characters. These ghosts of the past didn’t get under my skin, like they did in Hot Milk. I suspect the reason lies in the face value issues on display in each book – Hot Milk was a mother/daughter passive/aggressive thing; The Man Who Saw Everything was more father/brother/son stuff with a narcissistic, self-absorbed narrator. Mother/daughter angst will always resonate here.

Saul is an historian of totalitarianism and the psychology of male tyrants. His research project is about the cultural resistance to Nazism in the 1930’s. It is 1988, one year prior to the Wall coming down, when he leaves London (via Abbey Road) to go to East Berlin to work. He seems incredibly naive and light-weight to be tackling such a heavy topic.

His thoughts seem to be caught up in light-weight matters like tins of pineapple, photo shoots and who to kiss next. For Saul it is all about him. How he looks to others and what others think of him. His relationships are messy and confusing. He’s aware of the Stasi and that they are probably watching him move around East Berlin, yet he is painfully careless with his actions and words.
Levy deliberately throws in the occasional confusing phrase or comment to make us wonder when or who is telling us this story and what is their purpose. Is this a rewriting of history, a whitewash? Or is this an attempt to uncover a truth?

I did not want to know, as well as wanting to. I could not break into her thoughts and feelings. Or my own, I could not break in.

Mostly though, this first half is a relatively straight forward Cold War drama which suddenly shifts in the second part, to 2016 Brexit London. Saul has been involved in a second accident on the Abbey Road crossing, this time more seriously. He is in hospital, coming out of a coma, surrounded by a confusion of visitors, real and ghostly.
I suspect this section is deliberately confusing for all of us. Was the 1988 story a dream? Has Saul been in a coma for 28 years? Or was he revisiting old haunts trying to piece together the story of how he ended up where he found himself in 2016? We all tell ourselves stories to make our lives more habitable. These stories are not only reinterpreted by our present understandings but our present is also influenced by our beliefs about our past. Levy seemed to enjoy poking holes into Saul’s preferred story, until he was forced to face the inconsistencies. For a while anyway.
Sadly, for Saul, he failed to recover any degree of self-awareness. All his relationships continue to be messy and fraught with cruel comments and actions. Perhaps the damage of his childhood ran too deep. The early death of his mother combined with a strict disciplinarian, distant father and an elder brother who bullied him. Saul’s fluid sexuality from a young age that only alienated his more conservative father and brother even more. They all processed their grief differently, but in ways that hurt each other – forever. 
Saul, our extremely unreliable narrator, was not the man who saw everything, Far from it. Saul could barely see anything beyond the end of his own, very pretty, nose. The man who saw everything was Walter Müller.

He was always looking at me and I think he could see everything that was good and bad and sad in me.

In 1988, Walter was smitten and then deeply hurt by Saul’s careless love. He kept a safe distance thereafter, yet couldn’t escape completely. Their lives were irrevocably intertwined and Walter was very, very careful to never reveal the full extent of their ongoing connection. Protecting others from the damage that Saul could do, became Walter’s modus operandi.

Saul’s Stasi report concluded with the phrase ‘he is harmless to other people.’ Walter, however, declared that this was false – he was, in fact, VERY harmful to others.

It is only as you make your way through the second part of the story that you begin to see all the red herrings and foreshadowing that Levy left behind in the first. It’s like a puzzle that shifts and changes shape as you put it together. Saul is enigmatic to the end. A mystery unto himself and to others.

We are haunted by our past – individuals as well as countries and continents. Marx and Stalin continue to haunt the GDR and Russia. Hitler’s actions haunt people all around the world to this day. We are also haunted by pop culture. The Beatles music is everywhere and lives inside all of us. Images also haunt us, whether it’s four men crossing a road on an album cover, or scenes of the Wall coming down in 1989 or photographs of the Holocaust survivors being liberated from the camps. The images have become part of our collective memory, even if we weren’t there to witness it ourselves.

Which brings me to book cover choices. The Australian cover heads this post. I’m fascinated how and why different countries get very different covers. The Bloomsbury and Canadian versions remind me of the US cover for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I love the Portuguese version that clearly relates to the fateful crossing of Abbey Road. One, less sympatico Goodreads reviewer said, So, this is a novel about how some people need to be more careful crossing roads. This cover would be perfect for them!

Bloomsbury

Hamish Hamilton | Penguin Canada

Relógio D’Água Editores Portugal

It’s not only Abbey Road that features in The Man Who Saw Everything. One of the characters loves the Beatles song Penny Lane. It was only towards the end of the book that I began to realise that some of the lyrics was interwoven into the story – the barber and the nurse spring to mind – a reread would be necessary to spot them all, I suspect.

In 2009, McCartney reflected:

“Penny Lane” was kind of nostalgic, but it was really [about] a place that John and I knew … I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus, like a roundabout. It was a place that we both knew, and so we both knew the things that turned up in the story. (source)

If you’re planning on reading this book soon, here are the lyrics to take with you:

Penny Lane | The Beatles | 1967

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar
The little children laugh at him behind his back
And the banker never wears a mac
In the pouring rain, very strange

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back

In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the queen
He likes to keep his fire engine clean
It’s a clean machine

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
A four of fish and finger pies
In summer, meanwhile back

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway

In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim
And then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain, very strange

Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
Penny Lane

Epitaph Philosophy:

I’m always fascinated by the epitaphs chosen by authors to lead us into their stories. Given Levy’s penchant for symbolism, I wanted to unpack what she might have been trying to tell us with the two epitaphs at the start of The Man Who Saw Everything.

  • Karel Teige, The Shooting Gallery | 1946

Poetic thought, unlike rootless orchids, did not grow in a greenhouse and did not faint when confronted with today’s traumas.

Teige was an avant-garde Czech ‘agent provocateur and seismograph, at once provoking action and debate and yet simultaneously reacting with the utmost sensitivity to the shifting political spectrum of his time.’ (Kenneth Frampton, Introduction, Karel Teige / 1900–1951: L’Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde | 1999)

He was an editor, writer and artist during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was a Marxist, but not the card carrying kind. After the 1948 takeover by the Communists, he was not considered to be toeing the party line. Teige was denounced and forbidden to publish or speak out.

Sadly, it would seem, that Teige did in fact, succumb to the traumas of his time, as all reports claimed that he died a ‘broken man‘ in 1951.

It looks like poetic thought can be a as fragile as an orchid. Though, here we are, over fifty years later, still able to read his words, despite the secret police claiming to have destroyed all his papers.

  • Susan Sontag, In Plato’s Cave | On Photography | 1977

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

Sontag also claimed that the proliferation of photographic images had developed a ‘chronic voyeuristic relation‘ within people. I wonder what she would think of the selfie?
She also believed ‘that the individual who seeks to record cannot intervene, and that the person who intervenes cannot then faithfully record, for the two aims contradict each other‘. Was Jennifer merely having a conversation about the nature of beauty as she claimed, or was she trying to capture the real Saul? Perhaps she wanted to show Saul how others saw him or maybe she was objectifying him?

In 2003, Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others, where she revised some of the opinions she had expressed earlier. She was now concerned that ‘people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs … that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding—and remembering. … To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture‘.

Saul definitely had trouble remembering what was real, what was imagined or what he wanted to be true.

Favourite Quote:

I have sex all the time but I don’t know if it’s the sex I had thirty years ago or three months ago. I think I have extended my sexual history across all time zones, but I did have a lot of sex before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After that it’s a blur but I think I had less sex in social democracies than I did in authoritarian regimes.

Facts:

  • Shortlisted 2019 Goldsmith Prize
  • Longlisted 2019 Booker Prize
  • My 2016 Hot Milk post.

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