The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, 200 pp, £14.99, 978-0241268025
In Deborah Levy’s 2013 memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know – in a section entitled “Historical Impulse” – an enraged teacher shakes a finger in the seven-year-old Levy’s face. The finger, Levy writes, “went through my eye like a ghost slipping through a brick wall”. This image, with its metaphoric conflation of wall and eye, its ghost and its slippage, seems to haunt Levy’s complex and mysterious new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything.
The novel has two main parts, the first set in 1988 in London and the German Democratic Republic, the second in London in 2016. Saul Adler, Levy’s “leading man”, is a historian of Eastern Europe. His girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, is a photographer, influenced by Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman, artists known for adopting various roles and personae in their work. Saul has long dark hair and rock-star looks; he is Jennifer’s “sublimely beautiful” muse. But, with his “old words”, he is forbidden from describing Jennifer. A thirty-year argument between them runs through the book.
In both 1988 and 2016, Saul is knocked down by a Jaguar at the zebra crossing where the Beatles were photographed for the cover of their Abbey Road album. The wing mirror smashes and lodges inside him, his own shattered reflection. The crossing is one of many borders in the book. It is also Saul’s rabbit-hole or looking glass. Here, Levy has said, Saul goes “through the tarmac”.
Saul is not paying attention as he crosses. Where someone is looking, what they are attending to, can have grave consequences. When Saul proposes to Jennifer, he is looking elsewhere. When she dumps him, he realises his eyes and ears were closed to her art. Selective sight can sustain ignorance, and faith. Saul’s communist father “turned a blind eye to the Soviet tanks” in Prague in 1968. The cry of “Attention”, as plea and injunction, echoes through the book. Being seen is both threatening and desirable. Stasi informers were Horch und Gluck, eyes and ears. Under surveillance in the GDR, Saul feels important. The man tasked with watching him is also his host, his translator and lover, Walter Muller. Walter’s sister, Luna, cannot look at Saul. Saul favours Walter.
Saul is writing a paper on the psychology of male tyrants. But Saul is a narcissist. In researching Stalin, he finds reflections of his own sufferings at the hands of his authoritarian father and “callous” brother, Matt. Saul’s mother was a wall between him and them. Walls and borders separate and protect, keep people out and keep people in; they regulate space. A zebra crossing privileges pedestrians. But walls and borders are temporary, porous. Saul’s mother is dead, Germany reunified. Borders are breached, bodies alter and merge. Jaguars fail to stop, skin is broken, limbs entwine. The personal and political are conflated. When Walter speaks “in the voice of the state”, he speaks in the voice of Saul’s father. Time zones too merge. Saul’s present is haunted by the future and the past. Time passing has not made his mother’s death less vivid. In the GDR of 1988, he sees forward to the revolutions of 1989. The blending of time is explicit: “A light wind blew through the GDR, but I know it came from America. A wind from another time … Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.”
Though Saul narrates, it is not a stream of consciousness. The mode is uncanny, and as Levy says, “You can’t do uncanny without a fair bit of realism.” The affinities are not with Joyce or Woolf, but the JG Ballard of Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, and with Levy’s last two novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk. The uncanny deals in the dividing and interchanging of the self – Jennifer and Walter and Luna all seem versions of Saul. Images and objects recur in odd times and places – roses and poppies, fungus and seaweed, appear and reappear. A mobile phone falls to the road in 1988. In Germany images of America trouble Saul. In bed with Jennifer, blue lights flash in his head. With this obscure embroidery of displaced images, Levy does something new with old words, revealing Saul’s traumatised consciousness, the things he does not want to know but knows anyway.
Views are always partial. When Jennifer insists Saul tell her “exactly what happened”, he cannot. The driver of the Jaguar gives a “careful historical reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour”. Stalin deleted from the historical record whatever he found inconvenient. But Saul cannot delete. He is the man who saw everything. And Levy too refuses the Stalinist method of neat trimming. Desire, the desire to remember and to forget, not logical coherence, shapes the narrative. Each new detail or image repositions what has gone before, a restless recontextualisation. The second part, on which I avoid commenting for fear of spoiling much pleasure, completely alters our reading of the first. But there is no resolution. We are not in a paranoid novel, like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow, where a final sense, however elusive, may be made. There is no complex code to be deciphered, no puzzle to solve. Levy’s novel is more Lewis Carroll than The Wizard of Oz.
The two parts of the novel face one another like two mirrors. The view either side is endless. The form of the novel is infinity, two intersecting loops, and within those loops, everything is braided – like Luna Muller’s hair, “everything is tangled with everything else”. We are left with a sense of boundless complexity, the intertwining of present, future and past, of memory, dream and wish, hurt and desire, presence and absence, love and hate, and everything that slides between such simplifying distinctions. And all this complexity goes on, perhaps, in the head of one man. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Jennifer says to Saul. “In a way it was.”
David O’Connor is a writer and reviewer working in Dublin.