“You are only significant if you are significant.”
This line from ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’, Deborah Levy’s eighth novel, and third in seven years to be nominated for the Booker Prize, has haunted me ever since I put it down. That was well over a month ago. I haven’t been able to write this review for some weeks. It was as if I had to let this mesmeric, bewildering and often confusing book ferment and gently settle in my mind.
In an effort to write this review I read some other reviews, I listened to podcasts and interviews with Levy, and scrolled through Twitter to see what others had said. ‘Electrifying novel about beauty, envy and carelessness’, said one tweet, ‘fever dream of a book that meticulously details the life and history of Saul Adler, as a fragment monologue that begins on the Abbey Road…’, said another, ‘an historian lost in time.’
But in a way, I felt short-changed. Few came up with strong opinions, there seemed to be more questions than answers; inconclusive was a word that sprang to mind. I wasn’t sure what to think. Even the longer, more in-depth reviews couldn’t quite decide if this was a book about ‘personal analysis and political power’ (The Guardian), ‘… concrete realism to fractured blends of dream and memory’, (The Atlantic) or ‘a Rubik’s Cube of a book,’ (The Independent). All perfectly valid, but I was left with the feeling that other reviewers were in the same predicament as me, how to fit a book about everything into a review?
Abandonment and loss is a theme that runs throughout many of Levy’s book. In ‘Hot Milk’ (2016), Levy constructs a beautiful tale of a broken mother and daughter relationship while the Greek economy collapses around them. She eloquently discusses the unpredictability she feels when writing in ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’ (2013), and the way history can weigh heavily when intertwined with complex feelings of loss, longing and suffering in ‘Swimming Home’ (2011). Levy’s sharp sparse style and level upon on level of complication encourages introspection and thought, and more often than not her characters and situations linger long after the book is finished.
I seemed to be missing something though. Looking back at the notes I made when reading the book, I spotted the words ‘The Conversation’, scribbled in my notebook, and it came back to me. As I’d read ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’, I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1974 film by Francis Ford Coppola, ‘The Conversation’, released during the height of the Watergate scandal.
In it, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, also described as ‘the best bugger on the west coast’. He is unnervingly meticulous in his approach to recording the conversations of people, and over the course of the film becomes obsessed and haunted with the recordings of the snatched moments from one conversation he records of a couple in a busy public square. A devout Catholic, a loner, with no friends apart from a lover, he eventually becomes racked by guilt that his recording has inadvertently led to the murder of three people.
What ‘The Conversation’ tried to show is that nothing is private anymore, nothing is comfortable. As you watch it there’s a strange background hum, a white noise that pervades your ears like tinnitus and the photography quickly switches from expansive to close-up making watching unsettling and jittery. Importantly, this sense of unease and nervousness makes the viewers more curious and persuades them to want to find out more. But throughout, Coppola was asking the viewers the same question. Do we know and understand the full picture or do we make up our own opinions based on our own prejudices and what we don’t see or hear?
I began to think that maybe ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ is a Brexit-equivalent to ‘The Conversation’. I pondered this as I re-read the excerpts of the book I highlighted.
It opens in 1988, when Saul Adler, a 28-year old insignificant historian, is supposedly knocked down by a car on the crossing made famous by the Beatles on Abbey Road, London. He’s on his way to meet his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau; a photographer who has made Saul her subject. They soon break up and Saul moves to East Berlin in the former-GDR, to research the cultural opposition to fascism. There he falls in love with his translator Walter, and Walter’s sister Luna. The reader is then transported forward to 2016 and once again Saul is run over at exactly the same place on Abbey Road, as if he’s been sucked back up from the ground where he was knocked over previously. But, this time Saul is seriously injured and hospitalised. There he spends time drifting in and out of consciousness as he meets his family, friends, and his ex-girlfriend Jennifer. As the novel progresses we are taken deeper into Saul’s psychological state as he starts to piece together the events of his life, his memories, his family life, his relationships.
What intrigued me throughout was the use of photography and the character of Jennifer Moreau as the photographer and girlfriend who captures the beautiful and elegant Saul in all his guises. Levy uses an epigraph from Susan Sontag from her essay, ‘In Plato’s Cave’, from ‘On Photography’ (1977) where she says, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” This sets the scene for what follows, a kaleidoscope of memories, images and scenes that alternate in colour, reliability and setting as they flick in and out of the turning wheel of time.
As the novel progresses, everything becomes unreliable. I often wondered where I was in the book, who was talking, who was telling the truth, was Saul who he said he was? It was through this unreliability that I thought about what was at stake or what is at stake? Levy’s writing has an undercurrent. Things are at stake in the world and need to be brought into the open. In the case of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’, the use of Jennifer as the photographer and Saul as her muse is this spectre of close surveillance. Using this theme, the reader is given a constant drip drip of fact and fiction that helps to undermine trust and create further mystery.
Levy wants us as readers to take a leap of faith with her and think of ourselves as her characters, all flawed, all uncertain, all complex. These characters, very much like the times in which we live twist and turn, declare one argument and then another, bend, cajole, trick and dream.
And much like ‘The Conversation’, the reader slowly becomes obsessed with surveilling Saul’s life. We hear snatches here, grab images there, and have to make up our own minds about what we see, hear, smell, see. Sometimes we are left clutching to moments and glimpses, but meanwhile we are asked to question the truth that lies behind the photographs that Jennifer takes of Saul. Much like the conversations recorded by Harry Caul, Saul’s memories ‘become slow and weird’, the longer you look and listen, the more unreliable they become, the more you’re unsure who believe.
But, maybe that’s the point. This mesh of constant political and personal surveillance as portrayed by Saul’s life is a mirror image of what society is feeling today. An unending questioning of who to believe, who’s right and who’s wrong. Perhaps much like in ‘The Conversation’, where Harry is haunted by his inaction, Levy is asking us, as readers, to look into ourselves, just as Saul looks into himself, and think about the consequences of our own inaction, to ask, who do we really believe and are we ok with doing nothing?
The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) by Deborah Levy is published by Hamish Hamilton.