“This is a Marmite kind of a novel” – The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy 

Cited on the title page of The Man Who Saw Everything is this salient quotation by Susan Sontag from ‘In Plato’s Cave’, one of five essays in the collection entitled, ‘On Photography’ (1977):

“To photograph people is to violate them; by seeing them as they never see themselves; by having knowledge of them they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

The sentiment chimes with the protagonist’s thoughts in the opening lines of the novel: 

“I was thinking about how Jennifer Moreau had told me I was never to describe her beauty, not to her, or to anyone else. When I asked her why I was silenced in this way, she said, ‘Because you only have old words to describe me.’”

Books are like people. With some you gel immediately. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but you end up becoming best friends, almost organically, without noticing. At other times the acquaintance is hard work and your head tells you to give up, but your heart says perhaps the relationship deserves another chance. So, imagine, then, that the novels written by one specific author are like a family. They all have something in common – the style of writing and method of storytelling – which you either love or feel somewhat ambivalent about. For me, Deborah Levy’s books are one such example. By reading The Man Who Saw Everything I wanted to give this author another opportunity to get me onside.

Levy writes about flawed, generally unsympathetic people. In Hot Milk the characters are not particularly likeable, but their humanity does actually shine through to evoke empathy in this reader. Arguably, those in the present novel are Levy’s strangest yet. There is a spectral quality to them which makes one wonder whether they are real or ghosts of themselves. The novel poses more questions than it ever manages to answer. The author has taken as her starting point the urban myth that Paul McCartney had supposedly died in a car accident in November 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike so that Beatles fans would not desert the band. 

The Man Who Saw Everything begins in September 1988 when Saul Adler, a historian and teacher, whose interest is the cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, goes to meet his girlfriend, Jennifer, outside the EMI studios on London’s Abbey Road. He is about to take a research trip to the German Democratic Republic and wants to have a photograph of himself crossing the iconic street as a gift to the Beatles-obsessed younger sister of his German translator, Walter Müller. Jennifer, an arts and photography student, arrives not only with her camera equipment, but also carrying a small stepladder so that she can photograph Saul crossing Abbey Road from the same angle that is depicted on the album cover. As he waits for Jennifer Saul is almost knocked down by a car that doesn’t stop at the zebra crossing. Apart from grazed knuckles, gained when he tries to stop himself from falling, he is unhurt, but already there is a sense of the uncanny. Does this event actually occur or is it merely a fantasy of history repeating itself? 

That night after they make love Saul proposes to Jennifer, but she rejects him, because she wants to go to America to further her studies and doesn’t believe their ambitions are compatible. As soon as they meet in the GDR Saul becomes infatuated with his translator and Walter with him, even though he is married and has a daughter. Walter invites him to his weekend dacha in the forest and events there feel very surreal and oddly fragmented. Not only does Saul come to understand that he is bi-sexual, but he is burdened by his Jewish upbringing and the Marxist thinking of his communist father who has recently died. He remembers:

“In his view, freedom of speech and movement were not as important as eliminating inequalities and working for the collective good, but then he could catch the ferry to France any time he liked and no one was going to shoot him from a watchtower in Dover. He turned a blind eye to the Soviet tanks rolling through Prague in 1968, because he obviously thought we were related to Stalin.” 

When they go swimming Walter pays attention to a man called Wolfgang who is probably another of Walter’s lovers. Saul thinks he recognises Wolfgang as the man who drove into him on the Abbey Road, but when Saul asks him whether he has ever been to London Wolfgang denies it. Again, we are in that literary twilight zone of not quite knowing what is real and what is not.

The ambience of the real versus fantasy continues when Saul meets Walter’s sister, Luna. She is twenty six, but acts much younger. She is determined to escape the cloistered existence of life in East Germany and to go to Liverpool where she wants to walk down Penny Lane, not realising or just  not bothered that the song is not on the Abbey Road album. She has somehow managed to obtain a copy of the LP which she plays over and over on a broken record player held together by brown tape.

The second part of this short novel, of just under two hundred pages, takes place twenty eight years later. We discover that in the intervening years Jennifer has born Saul’s child, but sadly little Isaac became ill and died. It is now 2016 and Saul has another identical accident crossing the Abbey Road. Only this time the result is much worse. He suffers a brain haemorrhage and broken ribs, necessitating a lengthy period in hospital. Saul drifts in and out of consciousness, by turns hallucinating and reflecting on the events and people in his life:-

“I had asked Jennifer to marry me and three seconds later she dumped me. It was as if she had punished me for an unconscious crime she knew I wanted to commit and had ended our relationship because it was going to end anyway. She had already dumped me once before. On that occasion her fingers were covered with oil paint.”

The notion that it’s all a dream and nothing is what it seems is the thread that binds this story together. Maybe Saul and the experiences he relates aren’t real at all. The reader has to decide how he wishes to interpret Deborah Levy’s latest work. It’s an intriguing read, but not without its challenges.

Any Cop?: This is a Marmite kind of a novel. Are you willing to give it a go?


Carola Huttmann

One comment

  1. I’ve read a a couple of Deborah Levy novels (Swimming Home and Hot Milk) and found them a contradictory experience each time – there’s been something dislikable about the characters yet I’ve warmed to them and the story has been hovering between too strange and utterly believable! This sounds the same and having decided that I’m in the ‘like’ Marmite camp when it comes to her writing, am definitely going to read this

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