author Deborah Levy

Booker 2019: The Man Who Saw Everything

4th September 2019

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Hamish Hamilton, 2019

The novel opens with an argument about love.

“It’s like this, Saul Adler: when I was twenty-three I loved the way you touched me, but when the afternoon slipped in and you slipped out of me, you were already looking for someone else. No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: I loved you every night and every day, but you were scared of my love and I was scared of my love too. No, she said. I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love. Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.”

Historian Saul Adler, the central character of Deborah Levy’s new novel has a Phd in the psychology of male tyrants. He is struggling with the accident of his humanity, and his masculinity, which he experiences as a kind of wound. He moves through the world of the novel in a losing battle with integrity, too often barefoot and too often looking the wrong way when crossing the street. Already the central concerns of the novel are clear: we must pay attention to the world in which we live and how we move through it; love is contested territory, and is in a battle with power; getting to the other side of something is perilous, and fraught with potential disaster.

It has become a commonplace to note that the stories of our lives, of which history, poetry, pop music, politics, sociology and romance are all examples, surround us. We perceive ourselves as emerging from them, identified by them. Levy sees this plethora of stories as a kind of shimmer surrounding and arising from her characters and the decisions they make.

Saul’s life is punctuated by a series of accidents. He is injured in profound and apparently irreparable ways. He is knocked down on the famous crossing on the Abbey Road, twice. He falls in love, but cannot command the language of love – and so his loves, chiefly for Jennifer Moreau, and his East German translator, Walter Müller, are endlessly frustrated. Jennifer is a photographer who situates him as her muse. She makes a series of huge, photographic portraits of him: A Man in Pieces, Don’t Kiss Me, Saul at his Desk. These images, rather than situating Saul in a precise moment, serve to accentuate his dislocation, his deconstructed, disintegrated self.

Levy draws on an impressive range of theoretical material: she references Marx and Engels, she references Susan Sontag on Photography, she references the French philosopher Jacques Derrida but she transforms those potentially dense theoretical ideas into the stuff of fiction. And she does so in ways that are simultaneously delicate and robust. When he attends Jennifer’s exhibition, Saul muses on the ‘spectre inside every photograph’. He is, of course, himself the spectre. The subject of the photograph is the ghost of twentieth-century man, an elusive, disappearing vision; a man in constant danger of being knocked down.

We value literature, and maybe especially the kind of literature that makes the Booker longlist, in the light of our own concerns. And our concerns at the moment are somewhat hysterically encoded in arguments about tyranny, about Europeanness, about sexuality, identity and power. Levy is impressively astute in her handling of these ideas, and in Saul she creates the perfect character for interrogating them. The staging is clear: we are at the crossing – it represents nostalgia, freedom, an affirmative world of free love. Onto the crossing steps Saul, not quite looking where he is going, nevertheless confident that he can step into this iconic space – into which, repeatedly, a charismatic male tyrant roars with an unshakeable sense of entitlement.

The crash is only moments away.

This is a novel that requires us to pay attention to the stories which arise from our decisions, both personal and political. We are not what others make of us. We are what we make ourselves up to be. We must pay attention, and get to the other side of this road, which has become the locus for our most painful wounds.

“‘When I first saw you, Saul…you were like an angel, full lips, high cheekbones, blue eyes, a classical body like a statue, but then I discovered your wings were wounded. I had to carry your bag and you became human.’…

‘I was trying hard to be a man you could respect.’ I replied.”

This is a brilliant novel, and I recommend it with all my heart.

Find Your Local