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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:02pm

Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything: a mixture of parable, love story and history lesson

By Leo Robson

One of the big stories in English fiction this decade – in English writing, really – has been the return and triumph of Deborah Levy. Born in South Africa in 1959, she emerged in her twenties as a novelist and playwright of unusual wildness, directness and courage. “Deborah Levy is well on her way to becoming a brand name,” Christina Patterson wrote in 1996, reviewing Levy’s fourth novel, Billy and Girl. If that has proved true, it has done so gradually. Levy didn’t publish another novel during the rest of that decade, or the whole of the next. The eventual successor, Swimming Home, was brought out as one of the first titles of a new, subscriber-driven press, And Other Stories. A compressed and eerie account of a disrupted family holiday, it made the Booker Prize shortlist in 2012.

Since then, a series of highly particular, utterly uncomplacent books has poured forth from a range of publishers: a collection of old-and-new stories (Black Vodka); a pair of exercises in “living autobiography” (Things I Don’t Want to Know, The Cost of Living); another Booker-shortlisted novel about English anxieties on the continent (Hot Milk). And now The Man Who Saw Everything, a mixture of parable, love story and history lesson with which she has completed a hat-trick of consecutive appearances on the Booker longlist. (This year’s shortlist is announced on 3 September.)

This brave, terse, dense, plangent, unsettling novel provides yet more evidence of Levy’s happy timing. Her renascence, or anyway its reception, has coincided with a golden period for the experimental and essayistic that arose at least partly in response to the perceived crabbedness of the Noughties novel – in particular Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, in which middle-aged men ruminate on personal experience against an evenly rendered topical backdrop (the Iraq War, 9/11).

The Man Who Saw Everything, though not obviously avant-garde, takes an unorthodox approach to plot, setting, the portrayal of consciousness and the wielding of ideas. It begins in September 1988, when Saul Adler, a beautiful young historian of communism, is struck by a car on the famous zebra crossing on Abbey Road, in London. Though injured, he is able to carry out a research trip to East Germany, where he intends to bury some of the ashes of his father, a committed socialist. But during Saul’s trip to Berlin, things begin to feel slightly awry. At one point he is seized by a prophecy of Soviet economic collapse and German reunification.

It’s a relief – a little overdue perhaps – when around the page-100 mark the novel’s design begins to emerge. To give it away would spoil Levy’s effects. Let’s settle for saying that The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel of two halves: one set in London and Berlin in the late 1980s, the other in London around 30 years later, and both concerned with a traffic accident at the Abbey Road zebra crossing.

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In order to make the halves a whole, Levy also strives to mend the accepted fissures between past and present, mind and world, Europe and England, fathers and sons. Short interludes in which Saul talks to his ex-girlfriend, the art student and photographer Jennifer Moreau, without the constraint of quotation marks or line breaks, suggest that the divisions between human beings is in some sense illusory. Objects – a matchbox, a tin of pineapple chunks, a Beatles record – assume an unpredictable range of meanings. The governing symbol is the “spectre” of one thing haunting another: communism on Europe, for example, or perfume in the air, or trauma on the unconscious mind, or a living subject on a photographic likeness.

Levy’s project as a writer is itself about effacing borders – between the novel of ideas and the novel of sentiment, be-tween the schematic and the fluent, the inevitable and the accidental, the cerebral and immersive, the sensuous (or somatic) and cerebral, the parochial and otherworldly, metaphor and literalism. If this sounds vague, it should. Sofia in Hot Milk says, “It wasn’t clarity I was after” and expresses a preference for things to be “less clear”; in The Man Who Saw Everything Saul concedes, “I did not understand what kind of significance I was after.” But then Levy isn’t taking her cue from the broadly familiar sources of the anglophone novelist (empiricism, lyric poetry, social history) but from the symbolism of Apollinaire and the phenomenology of Heidegger and the anthropology of Mead and Lévi-Strauss; from Freud and latter-day expositors (Adam Phillips, Darian Leader); from abstract painting and art-house cinema.

It’s almost a different way of construing what it means, or anyway feels like, to be human – less formal and orderly, more sidelong, associative, stubbornly resistant to paraphrase. It’s an effort that bears comparison to some of the recent work of Zadie Smith (who lambasted O’Neill and Netherland in her essay “Two Paths for the Novel”), Tom McCarthy (the hero of Smith’s polemic and a vocal Levy fan), Rachel Cusk, Max Porter, Will Eaves, Eimear McBride, and Ali Smith – writers with a shared sense that the only thing getting in the novel’s way was the novel itself, the Novel as routinely practised. In The Cost of Living – arguably Levy’s best book so far – the tendency of words to “cover up everything that matters” is placed at odds with their capacity “to open the mind”. (Smith complained that in Netherland “the world is covered in language”.)

In The Man Who Saw Everything, the sense of things being mixed “all up”, or occurring “at the same time”, of clashing symbols and conflicting emotions, isn’t simply asserted or described. It is enacted – manifested in the novel’s form, embodied by its structure. And yet by refusing ever to make the significance of the story neat or wholly legible, Levy has succeeded in evoking our ways of engaging as they are experienced, as a kind of groping, with patterns only appearing to form, a final sense touched but never grasped. You would call her example inspiring if it weren’t clearly impossible to emulate. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer


The Man Who Saw Everything
Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con