Author(s): Deborah Levy
In 1989, Saul is hit by a car on the Abbey Rd crossing. He is fine; he gets up and goes to see his girlfriend, Jennifer. They have sex and then break up. He leaves for the GDR, where he will have more sex (with several members of the same family), harvest mushrooms in the rain, bury his dead father in a matchbox, and get on the wrong side of the Stasi. In 2016, Saul is hit by a car on the Abbey Rd crossing. He is not fine at all; he is rushed to hospital and spends the following days in and out of consciousness, in and out of history. Jennifer is sitting by his bedside. His very-much-not-dead father is sitting by his bedside. Someone important is missing. Deborah Levy presents an ambitious, playful and totally electrifying novel about what we see and what we fail to see, about carelessness and the harm we do to others, about the weight of history and our ruinous attempts to shrug it off.
Deborah Levy’s books are not what you expect and are better for it. A simple story-line, not predictable but understandable, is usually where she opens — but where she ends is a place of surprise and delight. And always with elegance and tenacity. Levy’s last three novels, including this one, The Man Who Saw Everything, have been long-listed for the Booker Prize. In The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul Adler is a young historian fooling around with his art student girlfriend Jennifer Moreau and readying himself to visit East Germany as part of his research. It’s 1988, just a few years before The Wall comes down. Adler is good-looking and idealistic, somewhat perplexed by his girlfriend, haunted by his mother’s death (he was twelve when she died in an accident) and tormented by his bullying father and brother. When we meet Saul has just been knocked down by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Bruised and a bit bloody he gets himself sorted and limps on to Jennifer's flat. Jennifer Moreau — photographer. Favourite subject of her final year exhibition — Saul Adler and his body. Or so he thinks:
“It’s like this Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you.
It’s like this Jennifer Moreau: you have made me the main subject.”
In this situation, Levy turns the artist's-muse-as-role in on itself, reversing the gender stereotypes. In her work later, Jennifer Moreau is recognised for her observing eye — her ability to see a body in all its fragments through the lens. Saul is banned from saying anything about Moreau’s ‘beauty’ and must be content with the role of the observed rather than the observer. A day like any other — sex with Jennifer in the afternoon — turns out to be the last day of their relationship. Jennifer Moreau is off to America, and when Saul proposes she sends him packing. In East Germany, he meets Walter Müller and his sister Luna. He falls in love with Walter, sleeps with both Walter and Luna, and proceeds to make a hash of his time in East Germany by putting them both under suspicion with the local Stasi. Or so he thinks. There are some clues in this part of the novel to the state of Saul Alder’s mind — he is somewhat paranoid — often questioning people’s behaviour towards him, and the black telephone he sees in Mrs Stechler’s flat in London and in Walter’s mother’s flat are too similar to be ignored, especially when starts tapping the wall, looking for something, but what he is not sure. Levy is playing with her reader, but in the most humorous of ways, as she unpacks Saul for us. And when we arrive in 2016 — Saul is knocked down for a second time on the same crossing — we sense that some cogs have become undone. This time there is no brushing himself off and limping to Jennifer Moreau’s place. He's in hospital and Jennifer is there, as is Rainer the East German informer, and his brother, Matt. As this section of the novel unfolds, you are cast into confusion — not helped by our narrator’s concussion. Memory and time are flipping over each other and Saul Adler is no longer a reliable narrator, but he is our only guide — so read the prompts carefully. It will be rewarding. Excellent writing from Levy reminds me why I return to her work and am always impressed just a little bit more by her concepts of the self, of identity, memory and the impact that human action (and inaction) has on the other and oneself. In The Man Who Saw Everything, she reminds us that the truth is within our grasp but easily clouded by our own disillusion and self-importance.
Longlisted Booker Prize 2019