The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

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.

Man Who Saw Everything

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.

abbey road pic
Image Source: Reuters & BBC

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.’

You Would Have Missed Me – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

You Would Have Missed Me is the second book in Peirene Press’ 2019 series ‘There Be Monsters.’ It’s also the first time they are publishing another book of the same author – Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was considered for many prizes. And I am happy to sat this novella was another strong offering not only from the author but also from Peirene.

You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me takes place in a single day and our narrator is a little girl, who has turned seven. This is what she tells us in the opening pages…

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once gain it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

The Promised Land is West Germany in the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was at its peak.

Along with her parents, the girl manages to flee the East German refugee camp where they were living for a while to finally land in West Germany with hopes of a better life and standard of living.

Gradually, as the novella progresses, we are given a glimpse of the narrator’s life, her tenuous relationship with her mother, and the toxic relationship between her parents.

The girl’s mother is a woman who is chronically disappointed with everything around her. In the opening pages, the mother who always dreamed of having teak furniture, still finds something to complain about even when that dream comes true.

We only really spent time in the lounge when there was something to watch on television or if it was a special occasion. It was stuffed with teak furniture, as much as it could fit inside the room. Both my father and my mother now said it had been a mistake to furnish the lounge with teak because teak needed to be polished all the time to keep it shiny.

Before she came to the West, my mother always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.

This disappointment and many others pervades at various points in the novella. Indeed, the mother comes from a wealthy family, and moving to the West was something that she always wanted. And yet when that reality comes into fruition, the mother continues to remain a disappointed woman, always stating so and dropping hints to her husband of her wealthy fiancé earlier (and killed in the war).

The father, meanwhile, does not really care much for the Promised Land and has no patience with his wife’s continuous complaints. It essentially means that the atmosphere at home is not really healthy and the girl grows up isolated.

When we were in the refugee camp my father didn’t live with us to begin with because he wanted to finish his studies in East Berlin and have time to think about whether he’d rather take a job in the East than join us in the West. He studied, had loads of girlfriends, like all students, and went to Western cinemas, which meant it took him a while to decide, and so in the meantime we were in the camp without him…

Vanderbeke’s writing style in this one is quite similar to that in The Mussel Feast – the prose forms loops and is circuitous and repetitive in nature. This actually heightens the impact of the narrative propelling it forward and makes for an invigorating read even when the subject matter is dark and the environment claustrophobic.

But it’s not all bleak. There is a glimmer of hope in the form of a globe our narrator receives as a birthday present, a reminder of happier times in the East and of possibilities in the future. Plus, she also begins to find her own voice…

Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.

And only a few pages later…

Then we had supper. I didn’t forget to wash my hands, but when we were sitting at the table I said that I wasn’t hungry.

Of course you’re going to eat something, my mother said.

I heard the voice. It was slightly deeper than mine and very calm.

Like hell you will, it said.

Ultimately, You Would Have Missed Me asks us what really makes a home. Also, does an escape from a place of conflict to a freer land always guarantee a better life?

Through the eyes of our narrator, we realize that while the Promised Land has offered materialistic comforts not possible in a refugee camp, the girl was happier when they were living in East Germany. The critical factor here is relationships. In the refugee camp, she had her grandmother whose cooking she relished or Uncle Grewatsch, Uncle Winkelmann and Auntie Eka, who entranced her with nuggets of knowledge. None of which is now accessible to her in the Promised Land where the toxic and abusive relationship between her parents continue.

The broader idea of what constitutes a home is also very theme in today’s times in context of the refugee crisis we have been seeing. Those refugees who against all odds find their way into a freer Europe can’t really be sure that they will lead a more fulfilling life. There are challenges of assimilating into a completely foreign culture and adapting to a different way of life. There are economic considerations. And there are possibly those who were happier staying in their own country but were compelled by cruel circumstances to just abandon their homes and flee.

Overall, You Would Have Missed Me is an absorbing novella, although I would still rate The Mussel Feast higher.