A couple of years ago I read Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk, mainly because of the title and because it is set in southern Spain. I was completely entranced by the novel’s strangeness and menace, and its fizzing aliveness. Her most recent novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, had a similar effect on me.
Our narrator is the historian Saul Adler, 28, who we meet in September 1988 crossing Abbey Road in London. Indecisive, he has a run-in with a car (although whether he is actually hit by the car remains ambiguous – this is a novel at least in part about the precision and imprecision of perspective). He is on his way to meet his photographer girlfriend Jennifer Moreau, with whom he will recreate the iconic Beatles album cover. He will give the photo to the family he is going to be staying with in East Berlin, while writing a report on the German Democratic Republic’s economic development. His father, a proud socialist, has just died.
In the GDR Saul becomes incredibly paranoid about the Stasi. He searches the house he is staying for bugs, taps walls to see if they are hollow, is certain he is being followed and watched by his translator Walter, perhaps out of duty, perhaps out of desire. But there is also something else going on. Saul tells his East German family strangely accurate predictions about the future of the republic. He receives strange phone calls. He has visions from other places, maybe other times.
And then, exactly halfway through the novel, everything changes. I won’t say any more except that, as you might expect from the tantalising strangeness above, that the latter half of the novel casts doubt on Saul’s account. It is necessarily a tightly controlled narrative, and I felt just slightly that this control sapped some of its feeling. Still, I cried at the end, and I rarely cry in books.
Saul is an irksome character. Possessed of an incredible androgynous beauty, his carelessness and lack of self-awareness reminded me of Nick Guest, Alan Hollinghurst’s magnificently awful protagonist of The Line of Beauty, another character who is superficially worldly but deeply self-absorbed. Other characters try over and over to shake him from narrow perspective. But he is not unsympathetic. After his mother died when he was 12 he was raised by his working class father and bullied by his younger brother, who could not or would not understand his feminine and intellectual proclivities.
As in Hot Milk, there is a delicious sting to Levy’s observations of the cruelty that supposedly well-meaning humans can do to each other, but on the whole I found this book more sentimental, more elegiac than menacing. At its beating heart this is a novel about love – platonic, romantic, parental – and its various betrayals.
Conceptually, there is a lot going on. With an epigraph from Susan Sontag’s On Photography, there is a lot about who is watching and who is being watched, about the somewhat terrifying power that we hold over others, and the responsibility that comes with it. Likewise, there is definitely something going on about how we construct and reconstruct history, and bend time and space to our will, both politically and personally. This is a book that wears history lightly, but is nevertheless deeply engaged with Europe’s recent past, from the Holocaust to authoritarianism to Brexit.
The main drawcard for me here is Levy’s writing. It is so persistently strange, full of seemingly surreal touches that turn out not be surreal at all. I felt like I was looking at a modernist painting, slightly austere and impenetrable, but endlessly fascinating.
Gay rating: 4/5 for a fully fleshed-out bi character – hooray!
The Man Who Saw Everything is published by Hamish Hamilton.