In her autobiographical essay Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), the British novelist, playwright, and poet Deborah Levy reexamines a notebook she kept during a visit to Poland in 1988. On a train from Warsaw to Kraków, she observes a soldier saying goodbye to three women: his mother, his sister, and his girlfriend. He kisses his mother’s hand, his sister’s cheek, and his girlfriend’s lips. In her essay a quarter century later, Levy considers the political backdrop—Poland was in economic collapse and food prices were soaring, but the Solidarity-led strikes at shipyards had yet to spell doom for communism—and then she considers the soldier’s farewell. “It seems that what interests me,” Levy writes of her old notebook, “is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.”
Levy’s eighth novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, features plenty of kissing in the middle of political upheaval, and outside it, too. Her third novel in seven years to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize, it confirms Levy’s rare—and ever more relevant—vision. In one short and sly book after another, she writes about characters navigating swerves of history and sexuality, and the social and personal rootlessness that accompanies both. If the themes sound weighty, Levy’s elliptical fiction is the opposite, thanks in part to her wry appreciation of dramatic ironies at work. Her restless protagonists travel the Continent trying to forge an identity, only to discover that history has a way of laying traps for us—and also offering escapes when we least anticipate them.