The world according to Deborah Levy is like an emotionally charged dream or joke. A man accepts soup from an elderly neighbour and retches, catlike, on a mouthful of grey hair. People walk around naked in public. A corpse in a swimming pool is revealed not to be a corpse but a stammering, unstable young woman; a murdered teenage daughter turns out merely to have got her first period and to have abandoned her blood-stained bed to seek comfort in someone else’s; eventually, another body shows up in the pool. A grown woman trapped in the orbit of her resentful, domineering mother, who suffers from a mysterious selective paralysis, finds herself caught between an over-priced clinic shaped like an enormous breast and an ocean teeming with medusa jellyfish. Memory ‘is a bomb’. Stakes are always very high. This is the way Levy operates in real life too, to judge from her non-fiction. On her father’s attitude to inanimate objects: ‘According to him they had to be understood, never bullied or tortured. To fill a kettle through its snout and not to take the lid off was to humiliate the kettle.’ (The reader has already learned that Levy’s father was licensed to use such language by having spent four years of her South African childhood as a political prisoner.) On separating from the father of her children in her fifties: ‘Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.’ On Marguerite Duras’s way of conveying the return of the repressed: ‘She had made a language in film that cut as close to human subjectivity as it is possible to get without dying of pain.’
Levy is engaged in her own Duras-like technical experiments with time, and in her latest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, has worked out how to ‘haul the past into the present tense without a single flashback’. In all her books the logic of the psyche – its fears and desires, fantasies and projections – trumps the more workaday narrative kind, but here what she has called ‘portals to the past’, and to the unconscious, have grown smaller and more slender such that they can appear in nearly every sentence without seeming to disturb the texture of daily living. Or rather, it’s the disturbances which make up that texture. As a character in Swimming Home puts it, the past will not ‘keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through every day’. Thus in The Man Who Saw Everything events and interactions that keep shifting as the novel progresses nonetheless seem to have their own underlying reality – just as, in life, the memories you summon to mind are reconstructed every time, so that the scenes and images you retain most strongly are likely to hold the most fictional elements.
What first appears to happen is this. In 1988, 28-year-old Saul Adler, a self-described minor historian of Eastern Europe, preparing for a research trip to East Berlin while grieving for his working-class communist father, is grazed by a car on Abbey Road. He is involved with a glamorous young art student called Jennifer Moreau, whom he took to his father’s funeral a few weeks before, and who has shown up with a stepladder so that they can re-create the famous shot of the Beatles on that zebra crossing. Saul, an effeminate rock-star beauty and Cambridge graduate, insists on wearing a necklace left behind by the mother he lost to a car crash at the age of 12. He is scarred by years of bullying by his more macho brother, Matt, an electrician, their father’s favourite and, as Saul sees it, his enforcer. Saul by contrast is seen as ‘the Marie Antoinette of the family, and the pearls did not help.’ His girlfriend loves to photograph him (she scrawls ‘don’t kiss me’ on one portrait, in tribute to Claude Cahun, and titles a deliberately blurred triptych nude ‘A Man in Pieces’) but forbids him ever to describe her physically. She says she prefers Sylvia Plath to Karl Marx, but appreciates the latter’s notion of a ghost ‘haunting a whole continent’ rather than just an old building or two; during a handjob she tells Saul that ‘a spectre was inside every photograph she developed in the darkroom,’ and reminds him of an angel in Wings of Desire who hopes ‘to enter the history of the world’. Later that day, he proposes to her, and she promptly dumps him. He leaves for Berlin broken-hearted, carrying part of his father’s remains in a matchbox but forgetting to buy the tin of pineapple his hosts, living behind the Wall, have requested. In Berlin, Saul metes out further disappointments. He sleeps with his translator, Walter, who turns out to be married, and with Walter’s sister, Luna, who asks him to elope with her. Saul clumsily tries to take Walter with him instead and leaves not knowing whether this gesture has got his beloved into trouble with the authorities.
Not only is time out of joint, but place, perspective, personalities. Jennifer’s behaviour seems inconsistent with Saul’s view of her. He gets off, as if in a reverie, with an unknown woman dressed as a nurse who seems to have wandered out of the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ and reminds him of poppies, and when he mentions these on the phone while ordering a bouquet for Jennifer, it almost makes the florist cry. Describing Jack, a friend he recalls as greedy and childishly self-absorbed, Saul appears to be drawing a self-portrait. For that matter, his descriptions of his brother and his supposedly authoritarian father seem cartoonish, too intimately informed by his own preoccupation with Stalin’s miserable childhood and ‘the psychology of male tyrants’. The father in particular begins to resemble Plath’s Daddy, always coming back to life and needing to be killed again: at night in the GDR, Saul ‘sat astride his chest, my hands around his throat. I keep pressing until he stopped breathing and his regime was over.’ Later, ‘I jumped the wall and landed safely with a thump on the other side, having avoided his dogs, his mines, his guards, his barbed wire and everything else he put in my way.’ Has Saul really attended his father’s funeral, or does he just need his father to play dead? Entering a neighbour’s nearly empty flat in London to check for a suspected fire, Saul gets a call on a big black phone in the middle of the floor that again evokes the Plath poem. The neighbour claims the line has been cut off, but he hears a voice he recognises, with a jolt of grief, as if from some other phase of life. Who has abandoned whom? Who has done harm? Not many narrators would want to cast themselves as Stalin. When other characters know a little too much about Saul, it’s conceivable they are Stasi spies, yet that doesn’t explain how he is able to predict exactly when the Wall will come down. Cherry blossom from one place and time – in this case, Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1993 – rains unexpectedly in another.
The simplest explanation is that none of this is happening within the narrative’s chronological timeframe: that what the reader sees and hears is a dreamlike tangle of the events of Saul’s life as they appear to him following a disabling car crash in 2016, when he is 56 and a different division of Europe is about to take place. That overdetermined tin of pineapple reappears as a hospital staple, the matchbox containing the dead father is a stand-in for something still more painful. A few things make sense only when looked at this way – among them, the geographically inappropriate jaguar that’s rumoured to stalk the East German landscape where Saul’s hosts have their dacha. Luna insists on climbing into Saul’s bed one night, afraid ‘that the jaguar was about to crash through the windows and pounce’; Saul thinks of the creature as silver rather than black or dappled gold, perhaps a ‘wounded silver beast’, like the old man who will run him over, like the leaping hood ornament on the front of the old man’s E-Type that will make violent contact with his head in three decades’ time.
While this interpretation could threaten to drain the situation of its urgency and drama – everything that happens has already happened – Levy instead conveys the way both the past and the future are constantly changing, the course of events predetermined only by our determination to repeat our errors. As she knows from Greek tragedy via psychoanalysis, what is not faced is what most powerfully recurs. Levy puts a characteristic twist on the kind of dramatic irony in which characters move towards a catastrophe they can’t foresee but the reader can: she shows how people avoid what they know about themselves. It’s not so much that they understand their responsibilities only when it’s too late as that they half-intuit the damage they’re wreaking as they go along, and still don’t stop. That’s why Saul can see his own faults in others, and feel revulsion for them. Rather than constituting a jumble of fragments, his experiences have been rearranged into a web whose logic is moral and emotional. Connections between people work in the same non-linear way. Levy has described the ‘appeal of writing’ as ‘an invitation to climb in between the apparent reality of things, to see not only the tree but the insects that live in its infrastructure, to discover that everything is connected in the ecology of language and living.’
It’s clear from Things I Don’t Want to Know, Levy’s 2013 riff on George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Why I Write’, that this view of things is sharply informed by her childhood in apartheid South Africa. Domestic objects were charged with moral significance, reading between the lines was a life-and-death skill (she recalls the sign outside her godmother’s house that said ‘armed response’), and what couldn’t be talked about (whether an ‘undisclosed hurt’ or an irreconcilable contradiction) was always what was most urgent. The rare places in Levy where language turns hazy or imprecise are those where desires and drives are warping it – for Josef in Swimming Home, for instance, the gaze of the young woman Kitty Finch, ‘the adrenaline of it, was like a stain, the etcs in her poem a bright light, a high noise’. Levy has said that she didn’t speak for a year after her father was taken, and she retains a strong pull towards what is resisted, unsaid, unthought: ‘It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance.’ Writing about a trip she made to Warsaw around the time Saul goes to Berlin, in the autumn of 1988, during which she met the avant- garde theatre actress and director Zofia Kalinska, she acknowledges the influence on her own later work of Kalinska’s notes to her actors. ‘To speak up,’ she quotes Kalinska, ‘is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something … It is an attempt to defeat the wish.’ As for ‘strategies a writer of fiction might employ’, Levy notes, ‘to unfold the ways in which her characters attempt to defeat a long held wish – for myself it is the story of this hesitation that is the point of writing.’
Nations as well as individuals, of course, suffer recurrences and proffer self-serving reconstructions. ‘You are history,’ Luna tells Saul, and later he thinks: ‘Perhaps I was history itself, flailing around in a number of directions, sometimes all of them at the same time.’ Early in the book he claims that the main difference between him and his communist father is that ‘I believed that people had to be convinced and not coerced.’ In 2016, less confident, he seems to glimpse ‘Britain’s food banks and rough sleepers’ through his father’s eyes. He imagines telling a young man:
There will be no wars that will destroy your life as you know it. You will always wear your own clothes, your shoes will always fit your feet and you will never have to sleep in an asylum shelter in a foreign country. A new Europe has been forged. The corpses scattered in the ruins of 1945, the rubble of the smashed buildings, the blown-out windows, everyone on the move in search of home and food and missing people and no one owning up to being the sort of person who would have anything to do with genocide, none of this will ever happen again. Would that be a lie or would it be the truth? Or would it be truth and lie knotted together?
In The Cost of Living, Levy describes watching a currywurst vendor in Berlin and telling her German publisher that she wanted to write a scene featuring a wagon like that, where a man might stand ‘waiting for someone he had betrayed’ – the scene now appears in The Man Who Saw Everything. The publisher (already taken aback by Levy’s display of halting tearfulness during a reading) protests that currywurst ‘is not a romantic dish’ and Levy insists that ‘love is like war; it always finds a way.’ That’s a sly line, a sentimental cliché with a fatal memory-bomb embedded at its heart, smithereened in advance – which is also the way The Man Who Saw Everything is structured. If war and other political disasters really thrive more or less in the same way love does, through human error and the inability to comprehend one’s own role in the course of events, then Saul – a historian who can’t get the hang of cause and effect in his own life, who never sets out to harm anyone and registers only confusion as misery flowers in his wake – may be one of Levy’s more topical exercises in perspective. The novel maps a self being pieced back together so that the weakest points show. It also addresses a moment in history that could feel like a bad dream or a bad joke, and Levy has always taken those seriously.