Book review: The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

The rise of Nazism and a contemporary mental meltdown merge to create a profound inquiry into how life itself endures, writes Stuart Kelly

Deborah Levy. Picture: Sheila Burnett

Deborah Levy has mastered the art of discombobulation down to a T. This is an opaque, shifting and oblique work, and yet all the better for that. It is her finest work to date. The reader is put on the wrong foot and the back heel throughout.

It all seems fairly realist at the outset. In 1988, Saul Adler is crossing Abbey Road (The Beatles, in various ways will be prominent in the novel) when he is glanced by a car, to no real, or evident, damage. He returns to his girlfriend, they have sex, and then she splits up with him. He is about to go to East Germany to do research on the toxic patriarchy of dictatorship and the youth groups who opposed Hitler in the period before the war. Saul is openly attracted to both women and men, so when he arrives he swiftly becomes embroiled with his translator, Walter, and Walter’s sister, Luna – which apparently is short for Lunatic.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Halfway through, however, things go awry. We are now in 2016, Saul has yet again (seemingly) been involved in a traffic accident on Abbey Road, and seems no further forward with his research. He increasingly thinks about his Marxist father (who is sometimes dead and sometimes not) and his bourgeois brother. Various figures – such as Rainer, the academic support he met in the 80s – are reiterated as a doctor on his bedside. His ex-girlfriend turns up. History seems fractured and malleable, dreamlike and nightmarish. As Saul says: “My father was always trying to bring me back to reality but I never much liked it there in the first place.”

Levy resembles European writers more than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-aged writers of Britain. This book seems to be akin to writers such as Bertholt Brecht in its insistent alienation of the reader, and Thomas Bernhard in its sardonic, melancholy tone. It is a very lachrymose novel – Saul is continually crying for reasons he cannot himself comprehend. The story descends into a psychological abyss which is almost funny except for being truly tragic. “Would that be a lie or would it be the truth?” Saul wonders, “Or would it be the truth and lie knotted together? What if it was more of a lie than the truth? And what if it was absolutely true?”

The novel also has a kind of internal rhyme scheme where certain phrases and images are repeated to a psychopathic degree. There is the “mackerel breath” of Saul’s father, an obsession with the blueness of eyes, a Zippo lighter that emerges at crucial points, ylang-ylang oil, the pearls that Saul wears in memory of his late mother. But the most significant words are to do with haunting and spectres. As Marx and Engels wrote, “a spectre is haunting Europe”. Levy cleverly segues the days of the GDR with a more contemporary wraith in the form of Brexit. This holds the chaos of the narrative together: although the sands are shifting beneath the reader’s feet, these leitmotifs bind it into a coherent whole.

Although the title is The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul is more seen than seeing. He is seen by his photographer girlfriend, by colleagues who undermine him, by lovers, by the Stasi. “His eyes were on me all the time,” he states; it is a wing-mirror that shatters when he is hit on the zebra crossing. “I was wondering if I was starting to become the man she had seen from behind her lens.” If he is anything, Saul is vain – startled by his own good looks, bereft as he ages. But that vanity conceals something else. If Levy were merely discomfiting the reader for the sake of the game, as it were, this would not succeed. There is political and philosophical import behind it. Surveillance is everywhere, whether public or private.

Take, for example, the names. Adler refers to the often underrated third member of the trinity of psychotherapists: Freud, Jung and Adler, whose prime theory was the “inferiority complex”. Saul, for all his good looks, feels like a loser. He does not seem to be able to accomplish anything, from academic achievement to romantic commitment. If the novel had its own motto it might be his words – “It was true that I had no idea how to endure being alive and everything that comes with it. Responsibility. Love. Death. Sex. Loneliness. History.” But the given name is as important as the surname. In the course of the novel we meet characters with other Biblical names, such as Isaac, David and Elijah. Saul was the king who should not be king. In a similar fashion, the Saul of the novel is the centre of an absence, a fringe of a thing. At points, the novel seems like a huge exercise in over-writing: whatever it is that has placed Saul in this place can be buried under another, maybe fictional, story.

Levy has come from being a writer known only to aficionados to being a prominent, indeed Booker shortlisted, author. She is the kind of writer who keeps the novel fresh, and for that we should be profoundly grateful. - Stuart Kelly

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