fb-pixel Skip to main content
book review

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ an exhilarating story, broken in two

Deborah Levy’s new novel “The Man Who Saw Everything” is really a novel broken in half. Or, it’s two novellas standing side-by-side, vibrating against but never quite cohering with one another. Or, to borrow the novel’s own language, it’s a “pas de deux” — a ballet of “lifts and counterbalancing” in which different historical periods, geographical locations, and emotional tonalities dance together in baffling, exhilarating fashion.

The point is, trying to encapsulate the Booker-longlisted “The Man Who Saw Everything” is a mug’s game. It’s a book that both demands the reader put its pieces together and makes sure that any perfect fit can never be found. It asks us to see everything in full: 1988 and 2016, London and East Berlin, a sense of history’s fundamental openness as well as its absolute determinism. And yet it makes sure that any such synoptic vision always slips and slides away.


As I said, “The Man Who Saw Everything” is really a novel broken in two. The first half opens in London in 1988. The narrator, a young historian named Saul Adler, possesses “sublime beauty” — his girlfriend’s words, not his — and has “been up all night writing a lecture on the psychology of male tyrants.” (Saul knows masculine tyranny: his deceased father, a Communist-sympathizing builder, loathed his effeminate son’s use of blue eyeliner.) As he’s crossing Abbey Road, Saul is hit by a car.

The injuries are minor but things immediately seem off. The driver, an older man named Wolfgang, has an unspecified “rectangular object in his hand”: “The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it, a man’s voice, and he was saying something angry and insulting.” Why is there a cell phone in 1988? Why doesn’t Saul know that it’s a cell phone? And why do both parties ignore the furious voice on the other end?


Just as soon as this uncanny temporal slippage is introduced, Saul moves on and the plot does, too. Levy, as evidenced in “Hot Milk” (2016) and “Swimming Home” (2011), is a master of the seemingly loose yet actually taut story. Here, beautiful, careless Saul drifts dream-like from one situation to another in a way that seems both accidental and inevitable. After the accident, Saul meets up with his photographer girlfriend, Jennifer; she snaps a photo of him crossing Abbey Road, now with a little blood on his white suit. They have sex, Saul proposes, and Jennifer dumps him.

Then Saul is off to East Berlin, where he is slated to study German counter-fascist movements of the 1930s but where he instead ends up sleeping with both his translator, Walter Müller, and Walter’s sister, Luna. Saul falls for Walter; Luna falls for Saul—or, rather, falls for the hope he represents of escaping into the West.

All of this is done in under a hundred pages. As in her previous books, Levy’s prose in “The Man Who Saw Everything” is controlled, refractive, sharply intelligent. There’s no wasted motion. Single sentences render character with the clarity, and cruelty, of a snapshot: “[Jennifer] was secretly proud of what she called my rock-star looks,” Saul observes, “and she loved my body more than I loved my body, which made me love her.”

Yet haunting this photorealistic style are spectre-like notes of the uncanny. At one point, Saul whispers to Walter a future he can’t yet know: “Germany East and West will be one … General Secretary Gorbachev is the man who will end the cold war.” Earlier, Saul answers a neighbor’s phone. A voice declares that it is Isaac on the line — a declaration that causes Saul intense and inexplicable pain. Then the narrative moves on, as if nothing happened.


These tremors of temporal fracturing fully erupt midway through the book. Saul is again walking across the Abbey Road; he is again hit by a car, again driven by a man named Wolfgang. This time, though, he comes to in a London hospital. Time is out of joint: Saul thinks it’s 1988, but it’s in fact (if such a phrase means anything in this novel) 2016. In 1988, Saul’s father was dead; in 2016, he’s alive and visiting Saul at the hospital. In 1988, Saul’s heart was broken by hearing the name Isaac; in 2016, we learn that Isaac is the name of the child Saul and Jennifer (now a world-famous photographer) had, and lost to meningitis, after Saul returned from East Berlin.

Details from the novel’s first half accrete meaning and change form in its second. Luna was terrified of jaguars wandering around her family’s dacha in the German woods; the car that hits Saul in 2016 is a Jaguar. In East Berlin, Saul met a Stasi informer named Rainer. In the London hospital, Rainer seems to be the doctor dispensing Saul morphine. All that is solid melts into air: “Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.”


So how are we to read these two halves in relation to one another? A lesser novelist would give the reader purchase and clarity, making the fluid solid again — unmasking, for instance, the first half as a morphine-induced hallucination. Levy refuses such easy outs. Love is unsettling, Levy suggests, and so is time, and so is sexuality, and so is the self. “The Man Who Saw Everything,” in its ghostly play of personal and political histories, bears witness to this truth.


by Deborah Levy

Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $26

Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’