Deborah Levy’s Disorienting, Captivating Fiction
The British novelist’s wry books veer from concrete realism to fractured blends of dream and memory.
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.
The Man Who Saw Everything, Levy’s most stylistically complex novel yet, switches between present (London in 2016, the summer of the Brexit vote) and past (Communist East Germany in 1988, the wall still intact—the era of her Poland visit and notebook). It also veers from concrete realism to a fractured blend of dream and memory.
Saul Adler is a physically beautiful, vain, and self-absorbed young historian of totalitarianism and the psychology of male tyrants. As the novel opens, he is about to leave London for East Germany in 1988 to do research on cultural resistance to Nazism, his professional specialty. In a novel that unfolds like an experimental film, with flashbacks and flash-forwards, it gradually becomes clear how deeply entwined those interests are with Adler’s personal relationships—and how much more fraught those relationships are than he recognizes.
Levy is intrigued by the ways in which history and family history can echo each other. She gives Adler a background that brings geopolitical dramas home, quite literally, for him. His Jewish mother, born in Germany, had “used her body like a human wall” to protect him against violence and derision from the male side of the family, a bullying brother and a purist Bolshevik father—a man who continued to believe in communism even after the tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. With his mother’s death in a car accident when he was 12, Adler’s rare beauty, along with what they sensed was his fluid sexuality, invited their brutality.
He only gradually becomes aware of how cut off from others, and from his own feelings, this past has left him. An abrupt breakup instigated by his girlfriend—a photographer named Jennifer Moreau, who will go on to become famous—sets the disorienting process in motion. Moreau loves Adler’s body, his “rock-star looks,” his “intense black hair and even more intense blue eyes,” and loves to photograph him. He is her muse, in the sort of upending of gender expectations that Levy likes to explore. This time the man chafes at being objectified; Adler resents the thought that she might love him for his body, not his mind. In turn, Moreau accuses him of selfish detachment. Their paths diverge, yet they become “specters” (the word recurs again and again) who haunt each other, and for a reason neither of them knows as he leaves for East Germany, she won’t vanish from his life.
In the world of the novel, specters multiply and never truly depart. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s infamous specter haunting Europe (the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto) is just the backdrop. Close surveillance—as historical-political fact and as metaphor—seems to be a constant, too, sowing deception and undermining trust. Moreau’s camera lens had been omnipresent during their relationship. In East Berlin, the Stasi violates every corner of people’s private lives. There Adler falls in love with a man and then a woman. Effortlessly crossing boundaries in his love affairs, Adler aspires to be a conduit to the freedom he presumes his new partners want, only to discover that he’s been an unwitting betrayer rather than a liberator.
Here Levy upends a story that has some of the contours and leitmotifs of a cinematic Cold War mystery. The novel jumps forward decades, and she stages a surreal reckoning for Adler, who may or may not be on the brink of death. He’s in the hospital in 2016 after being hit by a car. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he is visited by real people and by specters—it can be hard to tell the difference—as he confronts his sense of being adrift in his own life and in history. Levy, who has written plays for the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company, shifts registers deftly as different characters make cameo appearances at Adler’s bedside—or in his brain; we’re never quite sure. “Man Overcomes Space and Time,” an inscription Adler once saw on a statue in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, could serve as the tagline for a novel that, with tragicomic acuity, explores just how possible such overcoming really is.
The emotional charge of this novel builds slowly, as Levy reveals Adler’s psychic wounds and in the process rounds out an oblique trilogy: Levy’s two previous novels (the other Man Booker nominees), Swimming Home (2011) and Hot Milk (2016), also subvert genre fiction in a darkly comic way as they explore uprooted protagonists and strained family relationships, haunted by history. Swimming Home begins as if it might be a comedy of manners—Brits on holiday in the South of France—only to devolve into a nightmare of infidelity and trauma. Hot Milk has the trappings of an innocents-abroad tale, yet is set in a fever-dream atmosphere in a strange clinic in Spain, where a co-dependent daughter and her mysteriously sick English mother have come in search of cures.
For the protagonists in both novels, a reckoning with the past is in store, on different scales—a childhood as a Holocaust survivor in Swimming Home; a youthful abandonment by a Greek father in Hot Milk, which takes place in the summer of 2015. Against the background turmoil—Greece in a debt crisis, Europe overwhelmed by migrants—Levy’s lonely, eccentric characters acquire an unexpectedly emblematic dimension as dispossessed wanderers, a tribe in which Adler now claims a place.
“Using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself” in her autobiographical essays, Levy has written about her own border crossings, geographical, historical, and personal. Born in 1959 in South Africa, where her father was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities, she reflects in Things I Don’t Want to Know on the British self she forged once her family settled in England in 1968, after her father was released. The Cost of Living (2018) picks up as she reaches her 50s. Traversing some of the same landscape Rachel Cusk visits in her Outline trilogy, Levy writes about the metamorphoses of motherhood, divorce, the death of her mother. Yet compared with Cusk’s female narrator—a cold-eyed observer of others who keeps her own appetites reined in, even repressed—Levy’s “I” is messier, lustier, funnier. There’s plenty of laughing, and even some macabre slapstick, amid the domestic upheaval.
Levy’s boldness, and her voice, are hard earned. On the train to Poland back in 1988, Levy was on her way to meet a theater director, who offered thoughts on finding a voice. “To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish,” the director told her, and Levy took notes. “We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theater, I like to show the hesitation and not conceal it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish,” the director continued. “But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it into language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.”
Levy has been putting these observations to one-of-a-kind use ever since. “For myself,” she has discovered, “it is the story of this hesitation that is the point of writing.” She’s fascinated by how her characters struggle to identify their long-held wishes, and why those wishes so often get derailed—all too often by specters, personal and political, who can’t be banished. Levy doesn’t whisper in her fiction, but in her slim, elliptical books, she unspools big odysseys.
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