Book Review - The Man Who Saw Everything

Deborah Levy’s multi-layered novel, deservedly longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, spans three decades and blurs time and space. It opens in 1988. Saul is a beautiful but careless young man. He wears eyeliner and a string of his late mother’s pearls around his neck which he never removes. He’s twenty-eight and about to visit the German Democratic Republic where he is to research “cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s”.  Just before his departure, he suffers a near collision with a car. His girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, a talented art student, photographs him crossing Abbey Road in a white suit echoing the Beatles’ album cover. Both had lost their mothers when they were twelve and Saul’s father, a lifelong communist, has recently died. That evening, Jennifer finishes their relationship.

In East Germany Saul begins an affair with his translator Walter. He has brought with him a matchbox containing a portion of his father’s ashes, which he hopes to bury there, but has failed to bring the tin of pineapples requested by Walter’s sister, Luna. He realises that he is being followed. When Luna tricks him out of his Wrangler jeans and tries to coerce him into marrying her, Saul realises it is time to leave. Before he does, he commits a critical error of judgement.

The second half of Levy’s novel is set in 2016 and begins the day after the EU referendum. Saul has been hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road. Jennifer, older, silver-haired, is by his side. His father, whom we had presumed dead, visits Saul in hospital; his brother, derisively referred to as “Fat Matt”, pays the bills. Nothing is as we had been led to believe. Saul’s mind is back in the GDR. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he recalls certain memories, fragments of his life, that he tries to piece together. He believes his doctor is a Stasi informer and that his brother is out to get him. Another reality is gradually revealed in a series of dislocated episodes.

Levy’s beautifully crafted novels are often deliberately opaque, with several registers of meaning. In The Man Who Saw Everything, there are endless possible directions for her narrative, and she continuously plays with our expectations with echoes of film, art, photography and Freud. Resonant motifs are used in surprising ways: a tin of pineapples becomes an object of menace; a matchbox of ashes proves to be a red herring; a pearl necklace is a form of protection. Levy tends to favour character and atmosphere over plot and Saul is no exception. He straddles old and new Europe. His actions, tainted by narcissism, have consequences, but Saul only sees everything when it is too late.

Originally published by The Tablet