It is 1988 and Saul Adler, a narcissistic young historian, has been invited to Communist East Berlin to do research in exchange for publishing a favorable essay about the German Democratic Republic. As a gift for his translator's Beatles-fanatic sister, Saul's girlfriend will shoot a photograph of him standing in the crosswalk on Abbey Road, an homage to the famous album cover. As he waits for her to arrive, he is grazed by an oncoming car, which changes the trajectory of his life. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The Man Who Saw Everything is a gently ironic title. Yes, Saul sees everything — in part because he’s seen it all before — but he understands nothing. It’s a risky device, employing as first-person narrator an amnesiac narcissist, a narcissist moreover who isn’t even an outsize baddie but merely indifferent, self-pitying. The price is that the other characters in Levy’s novel remain figures from a Greek chorus whose chief function is to remind Saul, in vain, not to forget the canned pineapple or to look both ways before he crosses the street ... Deborah Levy, one of the most intellectually exciting writers in Britain today, has produced in this perplexing work a caustically funny exploration of history, perception, the nature of political tyranny and how lovers can simultaneously charm and erase each other.
With such playfully coiled sentences and sly conjunctions, Ms. Levy instantly reels us into Saul’s spacy consciousness. And for the course of this slim, oblique narrative, we remain ensnared in his thoughts, delighting in his dry perceptions ... The truth emerges incrementally as Ms. Levy, with exquisite precision, stitches in a clue here, another there, weaving together past and present—how we cannot see until she allows us to see—all the while suspending her characters in a preternaturally sharp present. Many scenes have the clarity of hallucination ... [a] distinctively intimate voice and elliptical perspective that quickly seduces and constantly surprises the reader. Her novels in particular are small masterworks of inlay, meticulously constructed. The Man Who Saw Everything is perhaps her cleverest. But cleverness for its own sake is clearly not what interests her. Being human does. That is mystery enough, she repeatedly proves, as she tantalizes us with connections and secrets that seem to hover at the edge of our vision. Few writers, for example, can summon sadness with such force ... These big ideas thud onto the page, like apples hitting the roof of that garden shed, but we hardly hear them. Deborah Levy makes us listen instead for the fragile rhythm of a breaking heart.
Ever the experimentalist, Levy has some fun with temporal boundaries here, but Saul’s beguiling voice and the pacy narrative make it a joy to read rather than a mere exercise in literary trickery. Saul’s viewpoint turns out to be something other than it seems, which makes for some heart-stopping moments of surprise ... The most interesting aspect of this highly readable double mirror of a novel is the way Levy uses sexuality to explore the nuances of human interaction. Saul is not your typical male lead: here is a boy wearing a pearl necklace because it was his late mother’s; a man who is picked up and thrown down by a woman who has power not only over his body, but his public image ... If he were a woman, we might barely notice the way he is constantly gaslighted and robbed of agency, but casting this innocent soul as male, the injustice of it feels rightly shocking ... Such a varied writer won’t please everyone all the time, but if you secretly felt that...any of her previous work was just too stickily, intensely weird, don’t give up. Because this one is brilliant in a new way: cool, calm, highly atmospheric...and an ice-cold skewering of patriarchy, humanity and the darkness of 20th-century Europe.