The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton, 2019
It's 1988. Young protagonist Saul Adler gets bashed down by a car as he is traversing the iconic Abbey Road zebra-crossing. Some guy called Wolfgang has run into him. There is a strange sense they know one another. Saul is a historian interested in psychoanalysing Stalin and is due to take a research trip to the GDR, East Berlin. He gets up, cut here and there, none the worse for wear. Off he trots. His girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, is a photography student who wants to recreate the famous Beatles album cover with him in it so she snaps away regardless of his misfortune, having shunted a ladder all the way there from which to perch and get the required angle. Later they have sex. In the aftermath of the accident on Abbey Road, the condoms he bought for the tryst are not used. This will prove consequential in unexpected ways later. Then he asks Jennifer to marry him. Then she tells him he's pathetic and boots him out. Apparently she thinks he's a narcissist:
'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.
He also says things like: she loved my body which made me love her more. So perhaps Jennifer Moreau has a point?
We're now in East Berlin and Saul is assigned a translator called Walter who may or may not also be a Stasi agent keeping a beady eye on him. He keeps getting the impression Walter is looking at him in strange and suspicious ways, but the truth is that Saul is apparently ravishingly beautiful and Walter - despite the attachment of a trophy wife and kid - has quickly become besotted with him. At a country dacha they pick wild mushrooms and consummate their dalliance. Walter waltzes naked around the house which Saul finds bemusing: it is Walter who is ironically somehow the freer soul here. Saul falls head-over-heels in love with Walter but then Luna, Saul's batty sister, rocks up and she too takes a liking to Saul. They then jump into the sack, condomless, with neither sibling knowing Saul is sleeping with the other. Fine. Luna believes she is being tracked and hunted by a wild jaguar throughout the GDR. She goes bonkers when a birthday cake is presented to her containing peaches and not pineapples. Saul was meant to bring a tin of treasured pineapples with him to gift to Walter, but in the furore over the bust up with Jennifer he forgets. Again, telling ties and links are being formed in fragile yet meaningful ways.
Meanwhile Saul gets the creeps when he feels he is being watched and followed: One night, when I was walking home from the library, I became aware that a man was following me. Tall and muscular, he walked on the opposite side of the road, always in step with my step. Obviously, my Oceanic eyes had been reported to the authorities. Is it actually Walter? At a private VIP lake where Erich Honecker swims, under the protection of his personal guards, they come across an older man floating on his back who Walter somehow knows: are they lovers? He introduces him as 'Wolf' but isn't this the same Wolfgang who ran over him in his car in London, now one of the socialist elite? And, come to think of it, there is something about this man which triggers a memory of the figure who killed his mother in a car accident when Saul was twelve. The absence of his mother has deeply affected Saul who was then left to the mercy of his builder and socialist father and a bullying fat brother called Matt. Again, all is not what it seems.
Then there is a character called Rainer. He is a colleague at the university. Alarm bells ought to start ringing in Saul's ears when he first claps eyes on Rainer: he has an acoustic folk guitar strapped across his back, he talks of the beat poets, he wears American style clothing. It's obviously all too much of a contrivance but the damage is done when Luna abruptly declares to Saul one day, Bang. I love you. Rock and roll. You are my boyfriend and pressurises Saul into helping her to flee to the West (particularly Liverpool as she has suddenly developed a thing for the Beatles, particularly the song Penny Lane and its reference to a "nurse selling poppies on a tray", which makes Luna, a nurse herself, believe she can forge a new life there). Saul naively thinks he can arrange this with the assistance of the liberal-minded Rainer. Big mistake to ask Rainer, for obvious reasons, and thus he consequently imperils both Walter and Luna who soon fall foul of the authorities: What he [Walter] could not see when he stepped on to the road was that a van with the name of a furniture company written on its side had ignored the red traffic light. It pulled over and mounted the pavement to exactly where Walter stood waiting to cross the road.
It's 2016. Middle-aged protagonist Saul Adler gets bashed down by a car as he crosses iconic Abbey Road. Some guy in a posh Jaguar called Wolfgang has ploughed into him. Wolfgang is a banker having a fight with his husband on a cell phone: hence we begin to sense the binaries enter into play - socialist/capitalist, etc. This time Saul's injuries are serious, even life-threatening. He is whisked away to a hospital overlooking Euston Road. Morphine is administered. Lots of morphine. Sepsis sets in big-time. The combination of the two make for a fever-inducing drug-addled delirium in which present and past merge and fracture and constantly recalibrate into ever new sets of variations on the themes we read about in the first and more formally linear section of the book. Rainer is now a doctor, for instance, who disappears into the walls and Saul's father is alive, even though in the previous section he had taken a matchbox of his ashes to bury in East Berlin: it's a metaphoric burial, of course. From here, Saul is trying to piece together the events of the past thirty years. There is the birth and death of his son, Isaac, and his complicated after-separation life with Jennifer Moreau, now a world famous photographer who has aptly created a famous photo montage of Saul's body cut up into pieces called Man in Pieces. It is a metaphor for his life. (Similarly, the mirror of the car that bashes into him shatters into a million pieces in his head.)
'It's like this, Jennifer Moreau: we were young and clueless and reckless, but I never stopped loving you."
'It's like this, Saul Adler: you were so detached and absent, the only was I could reach you was with my camera."
Indeed, the camera becomes a way of capturing and framing key moments of life, but as the epigraph from Susan Sontag's essays on photography state, To photograph people is to violate them. Saul comes to see that he has been violated but also that he has been, in many ways, a person who violates too: there is a spectre inside every photograph. The photograph that Jennifer took of him crossing Abbey Road was the same photograph which inspired Luna to want to flee the GDR for Liverpool and thus set off a sequence of events, the spectre of which come to haunt the ill and muddled Saul. Luna disappeared. What exactly happened to Luna? Is it more than a little obvious that the son left in her wake - Karl Thomas - and now raised by Walter and his wife resembles Saul so strikingly. Again, condoms/no condoms: consequences, links, mirrors. How does Walter - who he attempts to see twice more over the coming years - and has remained the one dominant love-object in his life, now regard Saul's betrayal of his precarious status living beholden to some crazed and all-encompassing authority like the lot who mooched around in grey coats in East Berlin?
To divulge more would be to give away the novel's superbly crafted plot. Let's just say that it packs a considerable punch for the small, short book that it is. Levy has a way of blending material objects so that they become strikingly portentous: the car which collides with Saul is a Jaguar like the cat who apparently lurks in the woods by the dacha; there is much talk of wearing a tie out of respect at the university in the GDR where Saul does his research, but then ties to the past and the way we are all somehow tied together become rich thematic material. Her ability to inject a sense of disorientation into her narratives becomes, like Swimming Home and Hot Milk before, the generative source from which her endlessly inventive language spins and weaves a kind of wondrous magic over you. You marvel again and again at her use of imagery: When I asked to speak to another member of staff, she told me, in a voice that resembled two hundred kilometres of barbed wire, that I was being disrespectful. There is a great deal of bleakness in this novel, but there is also a deftness at work which grants the story a kind of surreal profundity. Levy is a writer who can pack considerable weight into a slim, flighty kind of prose. She is given to poetic whimsy but also to devastating poignancy, such as the episodes where young Isaac succumbs to meningitis or there is an attempt by Saul to piece together the life that he and Walter might have enjoyed if only their meeting one another had happened a few months later: indeed, the later scene when Saul begs Walter to come and live with him in the UK several years later is beautiful and heart-breaking.
The idea that one can "see everything" only when one is close to death is perhaps the novel's most successful ironic twist. Early on, Saul has a habit of assuring Walter and Luna that the fall of the wall is imminent: he even gives them a specific date and time. Of course he is reflecting back with the wisdom of hindsight, but the fact that the first half of the novel is foreshadowed in this kind of suspended reality makes the second section all the more impactful. Nothing quite happens as it seems to, yet everything happens all the same and it's in Saul's reconciliation with the presentation of this fragmented past which creates a new kind of process of retelling history. It's a testament to Levy's considerable imaginative abilities that the telling of what might otherwise be an affecting and yet rather schematic story is brought to life with such a sense of completeness and eventual closure. The final chapter is one of the most memorable and touching I can presently think of.
It's like this, Deborah Levy: you are a joy to behold.
It's like this, wannabe critic person: tell me about it.