I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Through the Tarmac

Through the Tarmac

David O’Connor
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…

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