November 2019

Noted

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy

By Stephanie Bishop
Cover of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’
The British author experiments with a narrative structure that collapses past and present

Deborah Levy entered the limelight after her 2011 breakthrough novel Swimming Home, a book celebrated for its formal inventiveness and cinematic movement. But these features were nothing new in the context of Levy’s oeuvre. Rather, they marked the advancement of an ambition present from the start. “I am always … trying to find new rules of form and structure,” Levy claimed in a 2013 interview. “All my books are part of that investigation.”

Her new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton), develops this concern to electrifying effect. It opens with Saul Adler crossing Abbey Road in London, 1988, en route to visit his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau. As he crosses he is hit by a car. Not too badly injured, he gets up and walks on. At Jennifer’s house they have sex and break up. Saul is soon to depart for East Germany to undertake research into 1930s fascism. He has promised to bring his translator a tin of pineapple – should he bring it “in rings or chunks, syrup or juice”? The first part of the story attends to Saul’s experiences in East Germany. On the surface life is ordinary: he falls in love, travels, has sex with the wrong person. But all the while one is disturbed by the progression of the prose: it seems too focused on banal items, like tinned pineapple, too disjointed, too much like a dream that relies on jump-cuts and irrational links. “While he laughed I realised I was thinking my message in English but saying it in German.” This uneasiness is compounded by Saul’s own sense that his actual life is somehow unreal. “I had seen that train before, or dreamed it, or even buried it.”

Saul returns to London and the second part of the book opens with him again crossing Abbey Road, in 2016. He is hit by a car. This time he wakes in hospital. Jennifer is there – but is she the same, or different? Are both accidents real? Saul talks of flowers he ordered for her in 1988, which now stand in a vase by his bed. Jennifer says she bought them for him, just recently. There is a riddling effect as objects from the first part of the book reappear in a new context. The past and the present collapse in on each other.

Bit by bit we fit Saul’s life back together, and this belated clarity is accompanied by a strange emotional force. Throughout the novel Levy proves herself a master of psychological compression, finding new and strange ways of describing the process by which we seek to invent and remember our own lives. Levy is a writer of brilliant daring, and The Man Who Saw Everything demonstrates the degree to which her experimental drive never comes at the cost of feeling, but only intensifies it.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her latest novel is The Anniversary.

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