When the 2019 Booker Prize longlist was announced, The Man Who Saw Everything was one of the books on the list that intrigued me most. It is a slim book, with this evocative cover bursting with hazy colours of late autumn. Deborah Levy is also an established author with a portfolio of well-regarded works, but she is a new author to me, which drew me in even more, as I had little idea of what to expect.
The Man Who Saw Everything is one of those novels where I don’t want to spell out too much of the plot, for fear of ruining it for readers. So much of its genius comes from Saul’s construction of his story and how his memories are put together to recreate the past. For me, the first scene captures the main gist of the plot: historian Saul Adler has been invited to East Berlin to do research on the German Democratic Republic. As a gift for his translator he’s been asked to bring a highly coveted tin of pineapples. Saul is also planning to bring another gift for his host’s sister – a photograph of himself walking across the Abbey Road crossing, as a recreation of the iconic Beatles album cover. As Saul waits for his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau, who is a photographer and is going to take this picture of him on the crossing, he is hit by a car.
The way the rest of the novel unfolds from here is unconventional – we do follow Saul on his trip to Communist East Berlin, but the plot doesn’t stay linear and places and times begin to exist simultaneously: alongside or sort of inside one another. Right at the beginning of the novel we see that history is a flexible, slippery creature that can wrap around the truth. As the driver of the car that has hit Saul gets out of his car to check Saul’s ok, he immediately begins to tell his version of the accident. As Saul says, this man gives his “reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour”.
Seeing and listening are key themes throughout the novel – the most obvious link being the ever watching eyes and ears of Stasi spies. But throughout the novel, characters are very sensitive to the things that others do and do not see – Saul in particular is very aware of what details people see, that others may have missed Several times Saul commits the conversational faux pas of not asking others more about their lives – and they call him up on it. Because of these small, building details, to me the title ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ began to feel loaded with irony. The stories we tell are stories of everything we can or choose to see, not necessarily everything there is to see.
Although the novel is short and somewhat fragmented, it poetically melds together short vignettes to weave in and out of some large themes: history, gender, politics, death, loss. Common refrains appear throughout and words are extremely carefully chosen, often taking on symbolic or multiple meaning. It is the sort of book you could analyse for connections and meaning until the end of time. But at the same its technical brilliance isn’t overdone or made too obvious. In fact, it is a book full of these sorts of contradictions and in this way I found its mastery quite astonishing. How could this book that is so clever, be so readable? Be so fragmented, but somehow feel so complete? So short, yet so full?
I haven’t seen this book being discussed as much as some of the others on the Booker long list yet, but hopefully this will change when it is released later this month. I definitely think it is highly worthy of attention and I will be taking a look at the many other books Deborah Levy’s has written. The Man Who Saw Everything is so unique and so unexpected, that I get the impression Levy is one of those authors whose books each have a very different feel from previous works, with something entirely new to bring to the table.
The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy publishes on the 29th August, with Hamish Hamilton. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof of the book, in exchange for an honest review.
Sophie @Sophie_Jo_Books 📚 🐾
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