The Man Who Saw Everything

Image of The Man Who Saw Everything
Release Date: 
October 15, 2019
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Each novel Man Booker finalist Deborah Levy writes comes nearer perfection. Reread The Man Who Saw Everything for the deep pleasure of it, but also to savor each scene's multiple meanings.”

Deborah Levy’s newest, The Man Who Saw Everything, is a work of philosophy and art. Unreliable narrator Saul Adler, more absorbed in his own beauty than anything else, journeys from London to Communist East Berlin in 1988, ostensibly to publish a favorable essay about the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). He brings Walter, his host and translator, a photo of himself (Saul), a weak facsimile of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album as a “gift,” instead of the can of pineapple Walter asked for, a special request for his sister Luna’s 18th birthday.

A car hits Saul as he awaits his photographer girlfriend Jennifer to shoot his picture. The events of this day change the trajectory of his life and that of most of the people he knows.

His East German hosts must settle for substitutions for pineapple and Abbey Road, along with a series of betrayals from the self-absorbed Saul. Saul must settle for unhappiness until he finally gets to the other side of his proverbial road. It takes Saul three more decades to realize his trip’s impact on his own body, mind, and spirit, and more importantly, his impact on all around him. He must bring his past and future experience to bear to do so, and thus, witness and absorb the results of his actions. But is he remembering or misremembering?

The novel's ironic title sets the stage for the recounting of Saul’s major life events: what he sees, what he doesn't see, what he remembers, and his interpretation of it all at two pivotal points in his life, 1988 and 2016. It examines how our perception alters the very little we actually do observe and how our recollections, as time and space elapse, are more about personal narrative than reality. Its disjointed recapitulation of details is a circular, labyrinthian puzzle, taking the reader deeper each time without giving absolute clarity. Is there such a thing?

Levy asks a question posed in her previous work: “How real is our experience, and what do we imagine?” As she delves into this question, she explores dichotomy in politics, history, sexuality, gender, time, space, and above all, love. Complex in theme and symbol, this story packs an entire world—in fact, different versions of this world—into 200 pages.

The author accomplishes this through incisive use of sensory detail, creating a multi-dark-and-light-layered cake of a sort, in which each layer is a different rendering of one life's most defining moments. Levy continues to dissect and compare Saul's point of view, his relationships, and the reality the other characters endure--until she arrives at the novel's final brilliant moment of truth. With unswerving precision, she brings the reader full circle, at full impact—from one side of life to the other. Has Saul Adler seen anything at all?

“‘Yes,’ I said, linking my arm with his, ‘that’s what I have been struggling with while I have been in the GDR. Space and time. But no way have I conquered it. In fact, it has conquered me.’”

Through a dreamlike prism, the reader moves forward bit by bit into story. Just as the reader finds steady ground, the story shifts in time and space again. This attention to every detail and nuance is not meant for a rapid read. The novel is much like the mind's recurring thought loop or recurring nightmare that doubles back on itself, to tweak reality a bit more with each rendering, each time examining another version of truth.

The plot itself revolves around a microcosmic, personal rendering of global events, examining life before and after the Berlin Wall, especially for academics, artists, and people with differences—centering on how the Wall (and smaller, symbolic, more personal walls of the characters' own making) affected the European people, and two families in particular: Walter’s in Eastern Europe, Saul’s in Western Europe.

Most will appreciate Levy's subtle management of metaphor and theme: how life reflects art, and art, life; how time changes our experience, our memory, our history—whether personal or political, local or global. And how our perceptions, often blocked by roads and walls, are the key to connecting it all, connecting us all.

Each novel Man Booker finalist Deborah Levy writes comes nearer perfection. Reread The Man Who Saw Everything for the deep pleasure of it, but also to savor each scene's multiple meanings.