“It’s like this, Saul Adler…”
Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything reads like the normal ramblings of a young man finding his way through life, until it very much does not. Levy slips between geographies and histories, weaving together reality and memory, trust and unease, to create this unforgettable book.
You could spend hours poring over this book, analysing every recurring motif, every codified image. At first glance, the themes sit neatly on the surface like lily pads – sight, loss, history. But when you cast a questioning pebble into the pond, the themes ripple out into bigger, greater arcs. The Man Who Saw Everything was a quick read, but it’s sat at the back of my mind for a long time since turning the last page.
It’s one of those books that I struggle to describe. How do you review the loops and slips and hops of time? How do you neatly summarise the motifs – pearl necklace, wooden toy train, wolf, jaguar – that plague the pages? How do you even begin to analyse Levy’s ability to write a novel as complicated as life itself?
The Man Who Saw Everything
In 1988, Saul Adler is hit by a car on the Abbey Road. He is apparently fine; he gets up and goes to see his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau. They have sex then break up, but not before she has photographed Saul crossing the same Abbey Road.
Saul leaves to study in communist East Berlin, two months before the Wall comes down. There he will encounter both his assigned translator and his translator’s sister, who swears she has seen a jaguar prowling the city. He will fall in love and brood upon his difficult, authoritarian father, and he will befriend a hippy who may or may not be a Stasi agent, but who will certainly return to haunt him in later life.
Split between 1988 and 2016, Levy frames Saul’s life with two car accidents. In 1988, he’s hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road in London. He’s just about to leave for the GDR and shortly gets dumped by his girlfriend. He tells us his story from this point, using past, present and future tenses liberally and indiscriminately. In 1988, Germany is about to unite; Europe is about to become whole.
Levy moves us on to London, 2016. Saul is hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road in London. The UK has just voted to leave Europe, and Saul’s memories are as fragmented as the country is.
We humans have a self-preservationist ability to recount our lives in the most logical and reasonable way. Saul is a perfect example of this. Yes, he might do things wrong, but it’s fine because future events justify it. He could be careless with Walter and Luna’s lives and hopes, because the wall would fall soon. He could dally with the girl in Cape Cod because the loss he was about to face would nearly destroy him, and such acts are more forgivable under emotional duress.
“I was walking across deep time, trying to put myself together again.”
When you recount your life, you can join the dots and make the bigger picture look better than the individual strokes making it up. But when you’re living it, you need to accept the ugliness – or live better. As Saul recounts his life, he creates a sanitised, reasonable version. But to those hearing it, it’s fragmented and shattered.
“He doesn’t care about his own life so he doesn’t care about the lives of others.”
The slips between past, present and future disguise horrific acts of cruelty and loss: you don’t realise what you’re reading until it’s too late. And likewise, from the jumbled tenses comes a deep sense of love – or the feeling that love was there at some point. He attempts to rewrite history and remember a sanitised version of his life. And as relationships crumble around him, we’re warned of the dangers of forgetting history.
Life is complicated and hard, and that’s reflected in Levy’s writing. You don’t know the significance of your life while you’re living it, and that’s a problem for Saul. He remembers his life with the luxury of filling in the gaps.
The clue’s in the title: TMWSE is all about sight and seeing. Saul is obsessed with looks, eyes and appearances. The superficiality in the first half of the novel can partly be ascribed to his narcissistic personality, but as the novel begins to warp time and place, this obsession turns into a cover for the things he lacks in life.
“I had gazed at my reflection in his wing mirror and my reflection had fallen into me.”
TMWSE is about what Saul doesn’t see as it is about what he does. He closes his eyes to clear truths: the matchbox in the garden, the wooden toy train, the results of his carelessness.
You could read this book a million times and find a different message every time. And for my first read, it was the disparity between seeing and engaging. He holds himself apart from his emotions and the people in his life: he doesn’t see them, and he doesn’t engage with them. As the novel develops, Saul is forced to open his eyes and understand the damage he’s caused by not seeing everything.
The novel is haunted by repeating patterns: the spectre that sits inside photographs, people and countries. The fear of being watched, whether that’s by Jennifer or the Stasi.
“Jennifer was making a career from looking. At me.”
One of the many questions I had upon finishing TMWSE was this: yes, Saul eventually saw everything. But how much of it did he like?
Refocusing the male gaze
As Levy reconstructs Saul’s life through fragmented vignettes, she simultaneously deconstructs traditional storytelling. Gone is the chronological narrative, the three-act plot structure. Loose ends remain loose while somehow leaving the reader with closure. Sentences brimming with confidence tail off to a cautious, timid end. And the male gaze – so apparent and destructive in most literature, especially inherent in novels with narcissistic protagonists – is reversed.
Saul is the object, Jennifer Moreau the objectifier. We see him through her gaze; never her through this.
“… to never describe, in words, how amazingly beautiful she was, either to her to anyone else. … Apparently, I had no new words with which to describe her”
He can only see himself through her gaze: his body, his life; it’s all constructed through her opinions. When he visits her art exhibition, he is the main focus – yet no one cares. He’s the object, but never a subject. I really liked Jennifer from the start. She’s ambitious and blunt, and she remains in control even while Saul tries to rewrite their history.
“No, she said, I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love.”
TMWSE is a story of love and loss, of unity and fragments. It’s achingly sad yet interspersed with startling bouts of humour and wit. It’s a lesson on being too inward-looking, a tale for the ‘I’m alright Jacks’ of the world.
“When I crossed the road that day, I was a man in pieces.”
As I’ve read other people’s reviews of this book, I don’t think I’ve seen a single shared opinion. Everyone has taken something different from TMWSE, and that’s testament to the slippery narrative and unpinnable messages.
TMWSE is a reminder to live. To be the person your loved one need. To feel the emotions that rip your chest out. To confront the bad, the good, the ugly and the wonderful. It’s as simple as life needs to be and as complex as life really is. It’s a reminder to accept our histories – or pay the consequences if we try to ignore them.
Thanks to Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Random House for my copy of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’, in return for an open and honest review.