The Man Who Saw Everything

Deborah Levy

Published by Bloomsbury US/Hamish Hamilton UK

October 19/ August 29 2019

208 pp, hardback, $26/£14.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Deborah Levy is a shape-shifter. Her work can seem concrete or conceptual, her preoccupations sometimes easy to share, sometimes more abstract. With her latest novel, she turns her attention to life, time, memory, truth, in a thrillingly intangible fashion. Her book spans an existence, but in a non-linear and initially perplexing manner.

It all begins at that famous zebra crossing in Abbey Road, London, in 1988, when a young man named Saul Adler bends to his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau’s will and allows himself to be photographed on the crossing, dressed up like John Lennon. The event does not pass without incident. Firstly, Saul is knocked down by a car. His injuries are only glancing, allowing the couple to go back to her place and make love. But then Saul proposes to Jennifer, and not only does she reject him but she ends the relationship too.

Saul’s work is in historical research and he’s about to make a visit to East Berlin. There he will fall in love with a translator, Walter Müller. But he will also sleep with Walter’s sister Luna, and swim in a lake with an acquaintance of Walter’s who bears a strange likeness to the man who knocked Saul down in Abbey Road.

As the story deepens, so perturbing echoes and glimpses of other, possibly future or slightly altered places, people and scenes occur. The reader, while engaged with Saul, his love life and actions, struggles to keep a sense of mental order. But then history repeats itself, and Saul is knocked down in Abbey Road all over again.

No, it’s not Groundhog Day. Yes, there are repetitions and do-overs, but Levy is attempting something different, something simultaneously disconcerting and lucid, comic and deadly serious. While the author reveals herself to be in calm control of her characters and their overlapping lives, she leaves it up to the reader to reach some conclusions, notably on the question of Saul, the freakishly beautiful man of shifting sexual identity and moral strength.

Levy covers a lot of ground here – philosophical, historical, personal – but lightly and empathetically. Her novel, while ambitious, is intricate and deft. There’s a moment in Berlin when Saul’s attention is snagged by a copper relief on a wall. It’s entitled “Man Overcomes Space and Time” and that’s Levy’s achievement in her daring new work.

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