Monday 16 September 2019

The Man Who Saw Everything: A novel full of men under threat or hiding from their best selves

Fiction: The Man Who Saw Everything

Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 208 pages, €21

And in the end: One of Levy's characters is hit twice by a car at the Abbey Road crossing, 28 years apart
And in the end: One of Levy's characters is hit twice by a car at the Abbey Road crossing, 28 years apart
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Joanne Hayden

One of the characters in Deborah Levy's new novel knows a lot about limitless time. The character, it turns out, is largely irrelevant but her specialisation is like an early clue. Time, in The Man Who Saw Everything, is not limitless but it is so mind-swimmingly bendy that initially there's nothing to do but surrender to uncertainty and have faith in Levy's mastery of her craft.

Longlisted for this year's Booker Prize, the novel is composed of two halves - the second of which answers most, but not all, of the questions raised by the first. It's a book appreciated fully in retrospect; Levy trusts her readers to pay attention - something her protagonist does not always do.

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The jumping-off point is London in September 1988. Saul Adler, a 28-year-old historian specialising in communist Eastern Europe, is photographed by his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, while crossing Abbey Road. As Saul imitates The Beatles on their famous album cover, he's hit by a car but doesn't appear to be badly hurt. Soon afterwards, Jennifer dumps him and he leaves for a research trip to East Berlin.

In the GDR he falls in love with his translator, Walter, who is also spying on him for the Stasi. Walter's sister has an agenda - she wants Saul to help her escape. Partly to get away from her, Saul cuts his trip short, but not before potentially endangering Walter. The novel then jumps forward to 2016. Saul is now 56 and has recently been hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road. It's impossible to reveal too much about the second half of The Man Who Saw Everything without spoiling the pleasure and satisfaction of the reading experience. The novel's originality and intrigue stems largely from how it subverts chronological time so that the present (if that's what it is) is often interrupted by the future as well as the past. There are countless mysteries in the first half. How, for example, two months before it happens, does Saul know the date the Berlin Wall will fall? Who has planted tomatoes with him in the "future soil" of East Anglia? What do his foresight and dreamlike encounters mean and why don't they perturb him more?

Initially, when the explanation comes, it seems a little too neat but ultimately this doesn't weaken the power of the book, rather it allows Levy to cast a fresh light on Saul and on his appraisal of those he has loved.

Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Levy is a beautifully nuanced writer, the tightness of her prose matched by its philosophical and psychological depth. Her last book, The Cost of Living, an outstanding memoir or "living autobiography," details the aftermath of her marriage breakdown and opens a window into her emotional and intellectual lives.

Aside from its succinctness and emotional truth, her work is characterised by subtle humour and The Man Who Saw Everything is as witty as it is serious. Like Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the first novel by Kate Atkinson - another writer who knows how to play with time - it's partly about gaps and how they relate to loss. It's also about translation - and not just of words and language.

Jennifer Moreau describes Saul's beauty as exquisite while forbidding him to describe hers. A photographer, she visually interrogates him with her camera, upending the traditional male gaze just as later, she upends his take on their relationship.

There's another more disturbing interrogation in the book, a funny, sinister transcript of Walter being interviewed by a Stasi agent. Levy is also a playwright and her dialogue is unfailingly excellent, operating on several levels, never more so than in this scene.

"And is the Baltic Sea a code for something else in this context?" the Stasi agent asks Walter. "You will have to interrogate the Baltic Sea," Walter replies.

Saul's father, an emotionally abusive Communist who called his younger son a "nancy boy" and the "Marie Antoinette of the family," is both alive and dead in the story. Through Saul's relationship with his father and older brother - who used to beat Saul at their father's behest - Levy draws parallels between toxic masculinity and authoritarian states.

The novel is full of men who are under threat, in crisis or hiding from parts - often the best parts - of themselves. Fraught with difficulties though it is, Saul's love affair with Walter - who can cope and empathise with another man's tears - is a counterbalance to the violence of his upbringing.

For much of his life, Saul looks without really seeing. Never asking Jennifer about her art or appreciating the reality of Walter's situation in the GDR, he's caught up in his own damage, trapped by his own walls but in a roundabout way, he is his own historian. As he acknowledges what he has repressed, as others call out his narcissism and cruelty, the novel becomes even more mesmerising.

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