Deborah Levy: “The unconscious does not exist in a separate room”

Deborah Levy on her Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything, freedom of movement and the Beatles.

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Deborah Levy is an author of novels, short stories, plays, poetry and two “living memoirs”. Her latest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.

It follows minor historian Saul in both 1988 East Germany and London in 2016, and centres around a fateful car accident on the Abbey Road zebra crossing. Goldsmiths Prize judge Sjon describes it as “a mosaic celebrating the inevitable sadness of life”.

The Man Who Saw Everything has been described as your “most stylistically complex novel yet”. How did you come to settle on the particular elliptical style of The Man Who Saw Everything, and do you see it as a departure from your other novels?

No, it’s not a departure from my other novels. Maybe it’s an extension of reach and technique. After all, I have braided together a personal history (that of Saul Adler and his various lovers) and a collective history (aspects of post war-Europe). Since writing my novel Swimming Home and onwards, I decided to embed the unconscious of a character in narrative and not in streams of consciousness – which is where old-fashioned modernism has told me to put it. The reason for this is that the unconscious does not exist in a separate room – it accompanies us when we take out the garbage and it accompanies soldiers going to war and children going to school. Yet at the same time, this is a novel about a man who is coming to consciousness – by the end of the book he understands something of his own culpability in the sorrows of others. So, it would be true to say that all of this has made a palette that is new to me.

What was the genesis of this novel?

The mystery and freakishness of beauty; the horror of rising nationalisms and authoritarianism; the fragility of rigid masculinity (connected to authoritarianism and nationalism); investigating (from my leading man, Saul Adler’s, point of view) the pains and pleasures of committing to love and detaching from love; borders and walls; history experienced simultaneously in various time zones; the ways in which we look at each other; the ways state surveillance looks at us; zoning out when life gets difficult; the pleasure of music; the need to find another sort of language for everything, including how to describe women’s bodies (what are they for, who are they supposed to please?); the transcendence of art; homesickness for Liverpool – even if it’s not your home, but you’ve heard about it in the song “Penny Lane”; East German hot dogs.

A significant section of this book is set in the last months of the German Democratic Republic – another is set in the more recent past of 2016. Did you always envision this as a novel of two halves, with two distinct temporal settings? How did you come to that structure?

Yes. I wanted the structure of the book to resemble a mirror with a crack down the middle and for both parts to reflect each other. You will find some of 2016 embedded in 1988 and vice versa.

What made you want to explore East Germany in 1989, 30 years on?

Well, I’m hearing rumours that freedom of movement and borders and walls are very much in the news in Britain at the moment! The GDR put a stop to free movement. It was an authoritarian regime in the not too distant past. So it was interesting to throw a character like Saul Adler at it and to see how he gets on. Obviously, citizens who have experienced no freedom of movement are not going to recommend it to you and me.

Another key setting that much of the book orbits is the zebra crossing on Abbey Road, made famous by the Beatles album. What drew you to that particular, well-known location?

It was so cool to watch people from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Abbey Road and actually act out a piece of the Beatles history. I loved watching the way they walked across the zebra. So in a sense this playful and theatrical relationship with history was an inspiration. Obviously, it is a slightly dangerous place to fool around because you can be run over! I also needed a very anchoring sense of place for my novel, somewhere most readers would know.

In Things I Don’t Want To Know, you observed: “It seems that what interests me […] is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe”. What attracts you to writing about personal relationships in the midst of political chaos?

We have bodies and desires and lips and emotions, even in the middle of a political catastrophe.

Your narrator, Saul Adler, is unwilling – or unable – to recall and face up to his own personal history. Why did you decide to make Saul a historian?

Saul is a minor historian. That’s how he describes himself.  His subject is communist Eastern Europe. It’s his way of connecting with his communist father, so in my mind it’s a bit of an oedipal career choice. Saul is more interested in Marc Bolan than Vladimir Lenin.

Specific photographs are a recurring motif in this novel, and you open with an epigraph from Susan Sontag’s On Photography. Were there any particular photographs that were important to you during the writing of this book?

The only way Jennifer Moreau can possess slippery, detached Saul is to photograph him.  So, when I found the quote from Sontag I thought: aha, maybe I’m doing something right. Here’s another Sontag quote: All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Well, time does literally melt in The Man Who Saw Everything. Of course, the most important photo is that taken by Iain Macmillan, from the top of a ladder, for the Abbey Road album cover. I have Jennifer Moreau research how he did it and she brings her own ladder to the zebra to photograph Saul.

Tell me about another piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Tony Judt’s superb Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was my guide. I watched many films, obviously, including those by Fassbinder. And listened to punk banks from the GDR around 1988 – and, obviously, to everything by the Beatles – our national treasures, The Fab Four! We had a great launch for my book at the amazing Tate Liverpool: Penny Lane was sung in both German and English by the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir.

Are there any past Goldsmiths winners or nominees that you particularly admire? 

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both cracked out masterpieces.

What past British or Irish novelists deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Anna Kavan, Ann Quin, Virginia Woolf. They were so clever. All of them made a strange, alluring, essential language for the novel and were an inspiration when I first started writing. Quin and Woolf drowned themselves, and Kavan probably died of a heroin overdose. Yep. Life should not have been such a struggle for these brilliant female writers, all of whom are most beloved to me.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.