The Man Who Saw Everything
“It seems to me then,” says the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz, “as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time.
“And might it not be,” Austerlitz continues, “that we also have appointments to keep in the past …” Deborah Levy’s eighth novel proceeds in agreement with Sebald’s narrator. It sets out to show how such simultaneity of experience might be constructed using fictional means.
The result is a remarkable feat of the imagination, a pleasure to read and a challenge to chew over, brutally tough-minded and tender at once. The Man Who Saw Everything is as much a thought experiment as a conventional narrative of human experience.
The novel does not take place in a particular point in time or space, though it travels widely in both those dimensions. Rather, it is set at the X where individual trauma and responsibility meet history and the political forces that shape it.
If Levy’s work can be said to begin anywhere, it is the zebra crossing opposite Abbey Road Studios, North London, in September 1988. A young man, strikingly beautiful, is walking there when he is hit by an older man driving an expensive Jaguar. Both are shaken by the experience but, aside from a smashed wing mirror, small cuts and some bruising, no real damage is done.
Saul Adler, 28, a young historian wearing a white suit, a string of pearls that belonged to his dead mother and the eyeliner to which he is partial, is lingering outside the EMI studios because his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, an art student who has recently moved from painting to photography, has asked him to re-create the iconic cover photo for The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Moreau, five years younger than her lover, is also beautiful – but she is adamant that Adler must never praise her appearance, as though such proclamations of attraction would somehow reduce her to stale cliché. What he does do, later on the afternoon of the photoshoot, is ask her to marry him – without real consideration, just post-coital glow. Immediately she kicks him out of her bedroom and her life. This is only the first weird, non-sequiturial happening in a short novel crowded with them.
Levy’s story moves forward in a manner that is initially soothing. Here is the reassuring patina of novelistic realism – witty dialogue, explicable happenings, psychologically coherent characters, distinct and closely observed settings – which is then whipped out beneath the reader, just as a magician would a white tablecloth beneath crystal glasses. The life of Saul Adler will consist of a series of sideswipes and cross-cuts rather than any tidy, linear progression from now on.
This much retains the contours of the real. Adler, less broken than perplexed by Jennifer’s break with him, travels to East Germany – the Berlin Wall is about to come down and a historical epoch with it – to continue his scholarly research into the anti-Nazi youth movements of the 1930s. There, he falls in love with his translator, a married man named Walter, and has a brief affair with Walter’s sister, Luna. A third figure, Rainer, a hippie who helps those dissatisfied with life in East Germany to escape, becomes a friend and a fixer of sorts.
What is important here is that Adler wields his attractiveness and his Western cultural cachet in ways that are selfish and, ultimately, destructive for Walter and Luna. Walter is taken in for questioning by the authorities because of suggestive notes sent to him by Adler, and Luna disappears without a trace.
At this point, an already weird narrative is scrambled entirely. We’re back in London – it’s the near-present; the Brexit vote has just come in – and Adler is once again knocked down on Abbey Road. Same place, same car, same driver – but this time the victim is 56, no longer beautiful, and apparently badly hurt. It seems the accident and the morphine dispensed to him for pain relief have shaken Adler’s mind loose from its moorings.
As the earlier cast of the novel recurs, often in new roles (Rainer, the East German fixer, has become Adler’s doctor), formerly shadowy characters (such as Adler’s brother, who was sadistic towards his pretty, effete sibling when they were young) are permitted to give their version of events.
This abrupt shift in time, along with the phantasmagoric mind-state that the accident and its aftermath prompt in Adler, at first disconcerts the reader, then clarifies a great deal of what came before. The images that seemed to randomly echo through the text – a broken mirror, a telephone, a tin of pineapple, the scent of ylang-ylang, or that photo of Adler crossing Abbey Road – now take on retrospective significance.
Which is not to suggest that Levy ties all this oddity into a neat bow. The destabilising effects of the narrative are never fully overcome. “I was wounded like a soldier,” thinks Adler to himself in a hospital bed, “but I had been fortunate never to have to fight in a war. I knew as I took a step across the black-and-white stripes that I was walking across deep time, trying to put myself together again.”
Now. Then. There. Here. Adler’s attempt at reassembly demands that he uses whatever materials are at his disposal. And just as Sylvia Plath, in her infamous poem “Daddy”, used the vocabulary of German Fascism and the long echo of the Holocaust to give private trauma a public dimension, so too does Saul Adler draw on the psychopathology of tyrants, notably Stalin, to speak of one man and the cruelty and carelessness of which he is capable.
We all know the personal is political, but The Man Who Saw Everything teaches us that the personal is historical, too.
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything". Subscribe here.