The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, provides a fascinating look at the way sentimentality persists across time.
Levy’s hallmark as a writer has been her strident, cynical voice: a tone informed by a working class English tenor. She can parody and skewer the buttoned up while reveling in a rock-and-roll sensibility. In the case of The Man Who Saw Everything, Levy’s new novel is less bombastic than some of her earlier works; nonetheless, it’s another example of her measured interrogation of form and myth.
The novel follows Saul Adler, a young history student, traveling from the U.K. to the GDR in 1988. He is precocious, self absorbed, and beautiful in a 1980s glam-rock way. He has a girlfriend, Jennifer, about to leave for America to launch her career as a photographer. There is a brother and sister duo, quirky and attractive Germans hosting Saul during his visit to the German Democratic Republic.
As Levy chronicles the sensations of newness and excitement that characterize any traditional bildungsroman, she captures the paradoxes of some enduring cliches. The album Abbey Road provides an inciting splash, a ripple, that Levy charts across the years. That album, already a way of saying goodbye – it was the last time the Beatles recorded live and in session together – captivated the imagination of an entire generation. Saul ruminates on Abbey Road as he sings along with his German hosts. Because he’s a performer by nature, he sings other songs too.
Levy highlights through Saul how such extroversion, however incredible or sensational, can come from a place of insularity. It can be dissociative. One way that Levy expands and expounds on the turmoil between Saul’s id and ego is through the interrogation of male beauty. Saul is described as an angel and a nancy boy. Reading some of the encounters that result from his remarkable beauty, I was reminded of an anarchist poster I first saw twenty years ago: “For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he is vulnerable.” Like that poster, Levy uses her novel to describe that male turmoil. In doing so, she expands the reader’s imagination. She inscribes a vulnerability to Saul’s beauty and masculinity, rendering it inert.
The novel may seem rote. It isn’t. With dexterity and formal command in the second act – something akin to the great formal jumps of high modernism – Levy introduces an element of hyper reality that brings her characters’ thinking and experience into starker relief. Besides the often unexpected examinations of sentimental tropes, The Man Who Saw Everything has a sense of scale. It details the rise of social idealism in Europe over the last 30 years.
What a crucial topic for current time.
Levy’s latest appears to be in conversation with the German literary critic Christa Wolf, in that it broaches questions about freedom and fulfillment as it relates to the GDR. While there was universal healthcare, full employment, and total literacy, there were no Wrangler blue jeans, no pineapples: hallmarks of capitalism. Levy incorporates the Stasi as a metatextual chorus throughout the novel, and even uses it as a kind of devil on the shoulder: an imagined interlocutor. Christa Wolf has always framed this conversation as one without clear answers. Levy extends these tensions to the Europe Union and the perils it faces today. This novel compliments Levy’s years of formal engagement. It’s resonant and true for the difficulties facing our modern era.
The Man Who Saw Everything
By Deborah Levy
Published October 15, 2019
Joseph Houlihan lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.