Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.
In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.
Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.
The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.
We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.
Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”
Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”
Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.
Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.
The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”
The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.
I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.
But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.
Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.
Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.
While looking at my reading habits over the last few years, I realize I haven’t read too many essay collections (something I need to correct), but I have been quite impressed with the ones I have –Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick is the one book that comes to mind. Now, I will also add Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self to that meager list.
Notes to Self is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Emilie Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence.
There are a total of six essays in the collection, but for this review, I will focus on the first two essays, which are simply brilliant and worth the price of the book alone.
Let me begin with what to me is the standout piece – ‘From the Baby Years’, a poignant essay on Pine’s emotional upheaval when it dawns on her that she will never experience motherhood. Pine was not always sure she wanted to be a mother though. In her twenties and early thirties, she observed her friends leap into parenthood and witnessed the extraordinary range of emotions they underwent. But she and her partner R weren’t very sure it’s a step they wanted to take. They debated a lot on the pros and cons, and also talked about their lives as people who loved quiet and calm and the space to read and write. For them, this was a rich and fulfilling life and having a child would mean giving up all of that.
But then, one day she accompanies her friend and her child to the park and observes the love between the two. Yearning for that very same bond, Pine decides she wants to be a mother. She manages to convince R, who is still unsure, but they decide to take the plunge.
There is no luck though after a lot of ‘trying’. And thereby begins Pine’s ordeal of closely monitoring her cycles, endless tests and hospital visits to determine the root of the problem. At one point, Pine does become pregnant only to miscarry and she writes about the emotional pain this caused and the ambiguity surrounding it – the foetus was growing, but there was no heartbeat, and under stringent Irish laws, the foetus is prioritized over the mother, so she couldn’t abort it either unless there was more clarity on its status.
All of this begins to take a toll on the couple’s relationship. It comes to a point when they have to decide whether to go in for IVF treatment. And after an important conversation – possibly the most important of their lives – Pine and R decide not to.
I loved this essay for its frank and honest portrayal of the range of emotions that the author felt – the love of a child that evoked the desire to be a mother, difficulty in comprehending what’s going on inside her body, the jealousy she felt when her sister became pregnant, and the grief of realizing that her dream of motherhood will remain unfulfilled.
But what I loved most is how the author came to terms with this fact, displaying hope and courage. Why grieve over something you can’t have, and focus instead on what you do have? Pine realized that she has a great relationship with her partner and why not treasure that rather than going after something that is not likely to happen?
And it hit me. We are growing old together. This is what it will be like as we watch each other age, as our partnership ages. And this unexpected moment made me happier than I could have imagined. I see a life ahead for us, a shared life. A great life.
It is Pine’s way of saying that she chooses to be happy and put these ‘baby trying’ years behind her.
The first essay in the book “Notes on Intemperance” explores the difficult relationship between Pine and her alcoholic father. The essay hits you in the gut right from the first few sentences. Pine and her sister are in an understaffed and poorly managed hospital in Greece, where their father has been admitted for liver failure. Travelling all the way from Dublin, when the sisters find him, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.”
Pine’s feelings for her father are very complicated. She resents him for his endless drinking during her younger years, and at the same time she knows that when he eventually calls her for help, she will not be able to refuse. Pine’s father manages to pull through, but the author uses this incident as a medium through which to explore the trials of caring for an alcoholic parent – one who does not even grasp the consequences of his actions. And yet she can’t give up caring for him.
But we are not lost, not just yet. Our relationship may be an unyielding kind of story, a chain of unalterable moments, from arguments in bars to vigils at hospital bedsides. But it is also, just as powerfully, an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter, a conversation that we are both grateful is not over.
In Notes to Self, then, Emilie Pine touches upon crucial themes – alcoholism, infertility, taboos around female bodies and female pain – topics which cause emotional disruptions, but which are never part of ordinary conversations lest it gets uncomfortable for the audience. And yet these are necessary conversations and cannot be swept under the carpet. These are essays laced with fearless and astonishing honesty; they reveal devastating truths and dole out dollops of wisdom.
November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.
But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.
When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.
What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood.
Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.
NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.
DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox
Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.
THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)
Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.
THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer
A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.
As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.
To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.
On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.
Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.
All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.
Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:
All the books are written by women.
Five of the titles (or 10 books) are translated works of literature from countries such as Italy, Denmark, Argentina, Colombia, and Japan.
One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).
So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…
(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!
It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.
One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.
Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.
The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.
In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all.
While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.
2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).
Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.
This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!
Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated.
At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.
This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.
Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!
The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.
Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.
Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!
When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.
I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.
I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.
Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.
In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.
Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.
Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.
In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.
Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.
Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.
The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.
There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.
I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.
I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.
In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.
The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.
Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!
The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.
Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…
That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.
Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!
I have to read everything that Deborah Levy writes. I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that one and have gobbled up every work of hers since then. Last year, the second installment of her ‘living autobiography’ called The Cost of Living made it to my Best of 2018 list.
The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything.
Abbey Road is the last major album that The Beatles recorded together before the band officially split in 1970.
But a few months earlier, on 8 August 1969, the band did a photo shoot for that album cover on Abbey Road outside EMI Studios. The photo shows the Fab Four crossing the zebra in a single file. John Lennon was first, followed by Ringo Starr, then Paul McCartney who was walking barefoot, and George Harrison at the end. It is now considered the most iconic photo of The Beatles.
This photo was clicked by the late Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan who stood on a ladder in the middle of the street while a policeman blocked the traffic. The whole shoot took roughly ten minutes. The photo also fuelled a weird conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was actually dead and the man walking barefoot was a lookalike signifying a corpse, while Lennon was the priest and Harrison, the undertaker.
8 August 2019, incidentally, was the 50th anniversary of that iconic photo being taken.
Coming to The Man Who Saw Everything, this is how the novel opens…
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.
We move on to Part One, which is set in September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. The car’s mirror procured in Milan is in smithereens. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau.
It is Jennifer’s idea to replicate the iconic Abbey Road photo of The Beatles. But here, it would be only Saul crossing the zebra.
I asked her why she (Jennifer) was carrying a stepladder. She told me that was how the original photo of the Beatles on the Abbey Road zebra crossing was taken in August 1969 at 11:30 am. The photographer, Iain MacMillan, had placed the ladder at the side of the zebra while a policeman was paid to direct the traffic. MacMillan was given ten minutes to take the photo. But as I was not actually famous in any way, we couldn’t ask the police for five minutes so we had to work quickly.
Then Saul and Jennifer spend some time together before she abruptly breaks off with him. Jennifer has ambitions to pursue photography in America. While Saul, who is a historian, is set to travel to East Berlin shortly to research an article he is planning to write on the GDR (Germany is not reunited yet, and Berlin is divided by The Wall).
For this purpose, Saul has been assigned a translator in East Berlin, a man called Walter Muller. And Saul will be lodging with Muller’s mom Ursula and his sister, Luna.
Meanwhile, Saul falls in love with Walter Muller. And Luna, a big Beatles fan to whom Saul gifts the photos he clicked, is a nurse desperate to escape from the GDR. Then there is a friend, who the Mullers know, called Rainer, who may or may not be a Stasi spy.
This may all seem straightforward. But then some off-kilter moments begin to show up in the narrative.
Here’s one, in a conversation between Saul and Luna…
‘Listen, Luna.’ I felt as if I were floating out of my body as I spoke. ‘In September 1989, the Hungarian government will open the border for East German refugees wanting to flee to the West. Then the tide of people will be unstoppable. By November 1989, the borders will be open and within a year your two Germanys will become one.’
When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.
As he lies in the hospital, various people close to him sit by his bedside and try to bring some coherence to his thoughts.
The Man Who Say Everything then is a wonderfully disorienting novel. If you are looking for a solid anchor, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. Reading this novel is akin to accepting that the ground you are standing on is not steady but is constantly shifting. Nothing is certain.
The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel of ideas, themes and recurring motifs.
Here are some motifs, which brilliantly display Levy’s play with language. Luna Muller is scared of jaguars prowling outside their family dacha in East Berlin. The car which hits Saul while crossing the zebra is a Jaguar.
Crossing the zebra on Abbey Road is another recurring concept. There is the actual Beatles photo. Then we have Jennifer recreating the photo shoot with Saul crossing the zebra on the same Abbey Road. Thrown into the mix is Luna’s love for the Beatles memorabilia. Luna is a nurse, and wants to go to Liverpool because she wants to see Penny Lane for herself.
Then there is the theme of a shattered man. In one of Jennifer’s photo exhibitions in New York, a triptych depicting Saul is mounted on the wall and is titled ‘A Man in Pieces’. Later in the novel, Luna sends across an envelope in which Saul’s photo crossing the zebra is torn in pieces. And then Saul, in a way, is in pieces mentally when his accident occurs.
There are some dominant themes in the novel too.
One is the presence of authoritarianism. Saul Adler is harassed by a domineering father, while Walter Muller and Luna have to grapple with a restrictive fatherland, the GDR. Saul is also writing an article on Stalin and his father and male tyrants in general.
The other theme explored is time blurring and merging into one another. When the past is entwined with the present and the boundaries are hazy, do we perceive the past with the lens of the present? Or the does the past always stain and weigh heavy on the way we live in the present? The novel also examines the role of history on a broader scale and the events in personal life, how both can collude to impact the life of an individual.
But The Man Who Saw Everything is ultimately a story of the protagonist Saul Adler. He is portrayed as a very attractive, self-centred man, something that is pointed out to him by not only Jennifer and Walter, but as events play out is also apparent to the reader. Levy also highlights the fluidity of sexuality as Saul Adler is as capable of falling in love with Walter Muller as he is with Jennifer Moreau. He is a good looking man with intense blue eyes and always wears his deceased mother’s pearls around his neck.
In his relationships, Saul Adler is selfish. An affair leads to a final breach with Jennifer. And he only thinks of himself when he tries to get Walter Muller out of East Berlin.
‘He doesn’t care about his own life so he doesn’t care about the lives of others.’
More importantly is Saul Adler’s mind. Does Saul perceive himself in the same way that others see him? Is he trying to selectively recall events in his past, while suppressing others?
The Man Who Saw Everything has all the hallmarks of Deborah Levy’s craft – finely chiseled prose, play with language, oddball moments and a wonderful feeling of strangeness. The narrative is fractured as memories, morphine and a muddled mind morph into one another. The view appears skewed just like the shattered fragments of the Jaguar’s mirror. Indeed, it’s a haunting, stunning novel suffused with sadness, loss, betrayal and missed chances.
Even as I write this, I realize that there are many facets of the novel I have not touched upon or even uncovered for that matter. And that many more layers will be revealed if I choose to re-read.
Here’s a final quote…
‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’
‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’