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The Man Who Saw Everything

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It is 1988 and Saul Adler, a narcissistic young historian, has been invited to Communist East Berlin to do research; in exchange, he must publish a favorable essay about the German Democratic Republic. As a gift for his translator's sister, a Beatles fanatic who will be his host, Saul's girlfriend will shoot a photograph of him standing in the crosswalk on Abbey Road, an homage to the famous album cover. As he waits for her to arrive, he is grazed by an oncoming car, which changes the trajectory of his life.

The Man Who Saw Everything is about the difficulty of seeing ourselves and others clearly. It greets the specters that come back to haunt old and new love, previous and current incarnations of Europe, conscious and unconscious transgressions, and real and imagined betrayals, while investigating the cyclic nature of history and its reinvention by people in power. Here, Levy traverses the vast reaches of the human imagination while artfully blurring sexual and political binaries-feminine and masculine,

199 pages, Hardcover

First published August 1, 2014

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About the author

Deborah Levy

50 books2,378 followers
Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their "intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination", including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen)

Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms (see Bookworks and Collaborations with visual artists) and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,353 reviews
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,647 followers
November 15, 2019
I loved this novel - it is impossible to explain WHY it is good without spoiling it, which I worry will deflate readerly expectation. The first 98 pages are a very good, slightly surreal novel about Saul Adler, a beautiful young man who travels to East Berlin and falls in unexpected love. The last 102 pages are incredibly ambitious and incredibly good - they turn every scene in the first half of the novel on their heads, complicate it, and explain it. Think TRUST EXERCISE mixed with Cusk - seek it out.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,716 reviews25k followers
July 24, 2019
On the Booker Longlist!

For those readers who need to be on sure and certain ground in their reading, this latest Deborah Levy novel is not for them. Levy makes few compromises here, she raises many questions and more often than not declines to provide any answers, there are nebulous, fragmented, uncertain and unreliable realities, memories and history. In 1988 a young self obsessed Jewish historian, Saul Adler, is hit by a car on the Abbey Road, the iconic Abbey Road that the Beatles are photographed on the famous cover of their 1969 album. Saul suffers no serious injuries, although his art photographer girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau breaks up with him to head to the US, whilst he takes up a research opportunity in East Germany, the GDR, with the Stasi engaged in state surveillance of its people. Saul is to find love with his translator, Walter Muller, and his sister, Luna, obsessed with trying to escape from Berlin.

In 2016, Saul is once again hit by a car on the famous Abbey Road and taken to hospital where he receives visitors at his bedside. Nothing is as it appears in this novel, where everything is disputed, including perceptions of the self and others, and history, is Saul's father the authoritarian he is portrayed as? Whilst there is surveillance, personal, family and state, what is observed and what is not? Is Saul dead or not? This was an emotionally engaging, wide ranging novel, thought provoking, and challenging, of dichotomies, the past and present, the old Europe and the New, fluid sexuality, Brexit, betrayals, conspiracies, identity and what it is to live a life. Many thanks to Penguin UK for an ARC.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews626 followers
May 23, 2019
I was intrigued and puzzled from the very first paragraph beginning in London, 1988.
Saul Adler says:
“I was thinking about how Jennifer Moreau had told me I was never to describe her beauty, not to her, or to anyone else. When I asked her why I was silenced in this way, she said, ‘Because you only have old words to describe me.’
This was on my mind when I stepped onto the zebra crossing with it’s black-and-white stripes at which all vehicles must stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road. A car was coming towards me but it did not stop. I had to jump backwards and fell on my hip, using my hands to protect myself from the fall.
The car stalled and a man rolled down the window. He was in his sixties, silver hair, dark eyes, thin lips. He asked if I was okay. When I did not answer he stepped out of the car”.

As the story continued.... sentence after sentence, I was puzzled - interested but definitely puzzled.

From a rectangle shape object the driver was holding in his hand with an angry voice inside that Saul hears - to the strange conversation between the driver and Saul about his ‘girlfriend’- and her ‘age’...
to Saul ‘meeting’ his girlfriend- has sex -( which she initiates, followed by Saul asking Jennifer if she will consider marrying him), to a sudden breakup....
there are some odd things going on.

Both Saul and Jennifer ( a photographer), baffled me...
They were interesting perplexing characters.

Basic details fill in. Saul is 28 years old. Jennifer is 23. .. a photographer.
Saul’s a historian. Saul’s father - a communist- had recently died. Saul’s going to bury his father’s ashes in East Germany.
Saul’s mother was Jewish and died in a car crash.

Saul’s also on his way to East Germany, the GDR, to do research on the rise of fascism in exchange for publishing a flattering essay about the German Democratic Republic. A journey will unfold... that will keep you reading but you’ll be having questions...

Saul’s leaving in 3 days.
He speaks German - but is assigned a German translator anyway: Walter Muller.
Saul will be staying with Walter and his family.
Walter’s sister, (Luna), is Beatles die-hard fan ... so it was Jennifer’s idea to photograph Saul on ‘Abby Road’ and bring it to her.
He was also requested to bring a tin of pineapple. I had my first laugh about slices or chunks - in syrup or juice?

Baffled and confused - (but definitely engaged) - are words to describe how I felt for the first half of this book.
As I continued reading - an ‘aha’ moment came... suggesting things are not as they seem.
Oh my gosh and then it hit me...

Can we see ourselves as easily as others see us? Do others see us more clearly than we see ourselves?

This book is odd - with lots of unraveling to do - but it’s captivating - endearing.... humorous - haunting - charming - and tender.
Most.... it’s brilliantly crafted!!!

If you’re a puzzle lover - you’ll love unraveling this story.
I leave you with one word to ponder... displacement!!!

Thank You Nicole for sending me this book!!!
Oh you naughty woman.
Yes... I enjoyed it very much!!! Going to go stand in front of the mirror now. 😉
And... that’s it - I’m reading more books by Deborah Levy! This was only my second. “Hot Milk” was odd and great too.

Other Levy fans???
Which Levy book should I read next? I’m in!!!!
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,826 reviews1,389 followers
January 17, 2022
Now unsurprisingly shortlisted for the 2019 Goldsmith Prize - perhaps a better fit for this brilliant book than the Booker Prize.

Re-read following its longlisting for the 2019 Booker Prize and upgraded twice to 5* as this is a book which relays multiple re-reads and has proved to be the most enigmatic and thought provoking on the longlist.

In three days I was travelling to East Germany, the GDR, to research cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s at the Humboldt University. Although my German was reasonably fluent they had assigned me a translator. His name was Walter Müller. I was to stay for two weeks in East Berlin with his mother and sister, who had offered me a room in their tenement apartment near the university. Walter Müller was part of the reason I had nearly been run over on the zebra crossing. He had written to say that his sister, whose name was Katrin – but the family called her Luna – was a big Beatles fan. ….. It had been Jennifer’s idea to take a photograph of myself crossing the zebra on Abbey Road to give to Luna.

The book begins, seemingly conventionally in 1988. The first party narrator is Saul Adler is a 28-year old, narcissistic historian, son of a recently deceased, domineering communist father.

Saul’s mother was the Jewish daughter of a German University professor, and who was an escapee from Nazi Germany at the age of 8, Saul’s grandmother having given her a string of pearls together with her one suitcase. When Saul’s mother dies, Saul’s father gives him the pearls, only for Saul to insist on wearing them at all times, a sign of his emerging bisexuality, which alienates him from his working class father and bullying working class brother Matthew.

At the book’s opening Saul is lightly struck and flesh-wounded by a car on the Abbey Road zebra crossing under the gaze and lens of his photographer girlfriend Jennifer Moreau – while attempting to reproduce the Beatles famous Album cover.

As the German driver asks if he is OK and explains what happens three things strike us: alternative versions of history; a small anachronism; and perhaps an anomaly in the integrity of Saul’s account (numbering mine):

1 I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour ……

2 While he spoke, he gazed at the 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 …..

3 When I told him I was twenty-eight, he didn’t believe me and asked for my age again.

Saul and Jennifer make love (Saul later finding some unused condoms), and then after he abruptly and rather unconvincingly asks Jennifer to marry him, she even more abruptly curtails their relationship, saying she is moving to America.

We, but not Saul, gain a hint of Saul’s narcissism and self-centeredness. He is for example convinced that Jennifer is obsessed with his appearance and body and that he is the muse for her photography (about other aspects of which he expresses a complete lack of interest).

We also see increasing temporal dissonance starting to emerge in Saul’s account – he is very confused that a local shop now seems to specialise in Polish food; he also starts seeing echoes of events in America and a son called Isaac.

In line with the opening quote, Saul goes to the GDR, starts an affair with Walter, buries his father’s ashes (which he carries in a matchbox) on his beloved communist soil, and is seduced by Walter’s sister Luna.

Luna, an intense ballerina, is obsessed with a Jaguar she believes is roaming near the family’s dacha (one Saul believes is silver rather than black). She is bitterly disappointed that Saul forgot to bring a tin of pineapple chunks he had promised to help feed her insatiable taste for the West (pineapple is mentioned no fewer than 30 times in Saul’s account of his trip); her seduction of Saul is effectively blackmail to secure a temporary marriage and permanent trip to the West.

Instead of helping her escape Saul tries, via Rainer (a University colleague of Walter’s) to arrange for Walter to escape, although realising too late that instead he has betrayed Walter to the Stasi.

But again during this tale, we see some apparent oddities and mixings of time:

A light breeze blew into the GDR, but I knew it came from America. A wind from another time. It brought with it the salt scent of seaweed and oysters. And wool. A child’s knitted blanket. Folded over the back of a chair. Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.

‘Listen, Luna.’ I felt as if I were floating out of my body as I spoke. ‘In September 1989, the Hungarian government will open the border for East German refugees wanting to flee to the West. Then the tide of people will be unstoppable. By November 1989, the borders will be open and within a year your two Germanys will become one.’

You know Walter, I don’t think that [1988]’s the right date
So when are you living?
Further on.

Someone had planted the tomatoes with me in the future soil of East Anglia

The book then shifts to 2016. Saul Adler steps onto Abbey Road and is struck by a German driver Wolfgang who attempts to blame Saul for the accident, while trying to ignore his own distracted driving and echoes of each of the same three issues as before emerge:

1 I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour ……

2 I was lying on the road. A mobile phone lay next to my hand. A male voice inside it was speaking angry and insulting words.

3 When I told him I was twenty-eight he didn’t believe me.

And then, in what is the final disintegration of any attempt at a conventional narrative, Saul finds himself in hospital, no longer sure of what time period he is in, surrounded by Stasi agents, with again history being disputed

I could hear him explaining to my doctor, who might also be a Stasi informer, that I was a historian. My subject was communist Eastern Europe and somehow I had transported myself back to the GDR, a trip I had made when I was twenty-eight in the year 1988. Now, nearly thirty years later, while I was lying on my back in University College Hospital, I seemed to have gone back in time to that trip in the GDR in my youth.

Saul is visited by a number of people:

Jennifer Moreau, now a famous artist, who has oddly aged 30 years whereas Saul believes he is still 28

His elderly and dying (but apparently not dead) father; when Saul points out he buried him in a matchbox some 30 years ago, his father says “I think you were remembering a very small coffin”.

Jennifer we learn, as a single mother, had Saul’s son Isaac. Isaac then died suddenly at the age of 4, Saul having visited Jennifer in America when Isaac fell ill, but then deserting her for a quick fling with her neighbour, just before their son died in Jennifer’s arms – something which lead to a final breach between them.

Jack – his lover, who lives, and gardens, with him in East Anglia

And we realise, if we did not already, that Saul’s accident has shattered his memory, leading fragments of different periods of history to flow through his mind, that his narcissism has turned into literal mental self-absorption, that even oddities are reflections of what he has seen.

A few minutes after he left, I head a mirror shatter. It was an echo of something that had happened on the Abbey Road crossing. I had glanced at myself in the wing mirror of the car, Wolfgang’s car, and it had exploded into a heap or reflective shards. Some of these were inside my head.

I realized there was glass everywhere and that some of it was inside my head. I had gazed at my reflection in the wing mirror of his car and my reflection had fallen into me ……

I’ve mixed then and now all up …….. “That’s what I do in my photographs”

Your head hit the silver cat on the bonnet of my Jaguar.

For a start, I had his Jaguar inside my head. His wing mirror, from which he had glimpsed the man in pieces crossing the road, had shattered. A thousand and one slivers of glass were floating inside my head.

I had been given a plastic bowl of tinned pineapple by the woman who wheeled the lunch trolley.

What had happened between thirty and fifty-six? Those years were lost to morphine

I’m trying to cross the road …. Yes, she said, you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way

At times it is almost impossible to know whether memories are altering perception of reality, present day reality is distorting past memories, or whether both are bring influenced by something external. An example is a lady in a blue dress Saul chats to when he revisits Abbey Road in 1988: a blue dress also appearing in East Germany and in the hospital (where he reads the same poem to a Nurse as he shares with the lady) but all three of these perhaps being inspired by the famous blue dress on the back cover of the “Abbey Road” album.

This is an intriguing book. It is not a book about narrative, the story itself could be said to lack interest but that is because it has been sacrificed on the altars of ideas (for example the binary offset of feminine/masculine, East/West, past/present) and analogy (at one point for example Saul mentions that while he was oppressed by his father, Walter was oppressed by his fatherland).

Saul is a very unlikable character – convinced that everyone loves him other than those who cannot cope with his exoticism and physical beauty (and missing his own selfishness and snobbery)

I had been proud to have glamorous Jennifer Moreau on my arm, what with her exotic French surname, vintage powder-blue trouser suit and matching suede platform boots. I had watched Fat Matt and his shabby wife and their two young sons sitting in the front pew like they were the royals of the family, and wondered what it was that I had done so wrong in their eyes, apart from wearing a pearl necklace.

And the repeated motif underlying the dialogue between Saul and Jennifer only increases this sense

It’s like this Gumble’s Yard, this is how people talk to each other
No it’s like this Deborah Levy, your characters are deliberately pretentious

However this is an intelligent and deep book – with multiple possible interpretations.

One key idea is of a spectre - the spectre of the past haunting the present.

Early on Saul mentions Marx comment on the spectre haunting Europe; Jennifer we are told believes that “A spectre was inside every photograph she developed in the dark room” – her own photos designed (like so much of the book) to mix “then and now” . In total the word “spectre” is mentioned twenty times in the book. But spectres are everywhere - subjects haunting photographs, associations haunting objects, past relationships haunting current ones.

A key theme for me then is the idea that our memories/views of the past are inevitably interpreted in light of the present; while our views of the present are necessarily coloured by our believes or memories of the past.

And I think that Levy uses this theme to obliquely examine Brexit and the attitudes and believes behind it – answering the challenge that Karel Tiege poses in the epigraph

“Poetic thought, unlike rootless orchids, did not grow in a greenhouse and did not faint when confronted with today’s traumas”

My thanks to Penguin/Hamish Hamilton for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,594 reviews2,830 followers
November 4, 2020
Nominated for the Booker Prize 2019
Nominated for the Goldsmiths Prize 2019

Deborah Levy's new novel certainly tells a captivating story, but what makes this book so fantastic is her smashing (ha!) narrative concept. Our narrator is Saul, a British historian and expert on Eastern European communism. After his girlfriend Jennifer breaks up with him, 28-year-old Saul travels to the GDR as part of his research. It's 1988, but mysteriously, Saul already seems to know that the wall will come down only one year later...

...which brings us to the narrative concept. This is a book in two parts, and both start with Saul being hit by a car on Abbey Road while trying to cross the street on the famous zebra crossing. Saul crashes into the wing mirror, which shatters, its reflective glass entering his head: "I had gazed at my reflection in his wing mirror and my reflection had fallen into me." In part 1 of the book, the events described above occur after the accident, but in part 2, it's 2016, and Saul has to be hospitalized and undergoes surgerey. Suffering from sepsis and drugged with morphine, all his memories, the reflections of himself and others, are still there, but they are shattered, and Saul is struggling to put them back together. He conflates people and scenes, lead by feelings and perceived similarities and connections, but those around him correct his efforts again and again with their own subjective views. (I have experienced a situation where one of my relatives suffered a head injury followed by major surgery and sepsis, and I feel like their mental state of trying to re-connect the dots after waking from a coma is extremely well renderd by Levy.) Saul tries to remember what happened with him and Jennifer, what he experienced in Berlin almost 30 years ago, and the repercussions of these events, thus questioning part 1.

Throughout the whole book, Levy works with the term "spectre" which seems to signify the subjective meaning, feelings and associations that become attached to people and events in our minds and memories, profoundly and often sub-consciously shaping our perception. These spectres are also used to connect people and events in Saul's life after the accident. The family of Saul's Jewish mother had to flee Nazi Germany, his father is part of the struggling British working class. So did his mother flee the fascists and married a communist? Is the father an authoritarian figure just like the GDR is an authoritarian fatherland? Did Saul want to cut all ties with his working class background while the "worker's and peasant's state" was holding its citizens hostage? Did Jennifer, a photographer, really see him through her camera, and did his friends in the GDR really listen to him or were they just taking notes for the Stasi? In which timeline do those dogs, turtles, toy trains, cherry tree petals and funerals belong, and why can they time travel?

This book is fairly easy to read and to follow, but it is packed with little twists and riddles, the biggest of all possibly being who this Saul Adler actually is - we see more and more fragmentary reflections, and while many aspects of his personality come together, others remain ambiguous or even contradictory, but then again, our reflection in the mirror is never flawless. A beautiful, touching book about human connection and identity that - fingers crossed - will go on to win some prizes.

Now available in German! Der Mann, der alles sah
You can learn more about the German edition in my radio piece and in the new episode of Papierstau Podcast!
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,082 reviews620 followers
February 3, 2023
It’s London in 1988 and Saul Adler, a Jewish historian, is preparing for a visit to East Berlin. He’s been invited to visit the GDR on the understanding that he’ll write a glowing paper on the economic miracle he finds there. As a gift for the sister of his German host, who is known to be infatuated with the Beatles, he’s asked his photographer girlfriend to take a picture of him crossing Abbey Road, as John, Paul, Ringo and George had done on the cover of their legendary album. But Saul is clipped by a car that fails to stop on the crossing and though he is not seriously hurt the incident is to have long term repercussions.

Once in Berlin, Adler soon has sexual interaction with his both male host and the female Beatle fan, Luna. It’s clear that Luna is hell bent on finding a way of leaving her restricted Communist existence and of travelling to Liverpool. There is the constant suspicion that they’re all being watched, so instead Saul soon escapes back to London. This first half of the book felt fragmented and slightly off-centre to me, I couldn’t settle to it at all. There just seemed to be something about it that didn’t quite add up.

In the second half the scene moves to London in 2016. Has there been a second road accident in the same spot? It isn’t clear to me, but Saul is now hospitalised and in his semi-conscious state he revisits events and relationships from the past. Certain figures reappear in the present and I begin to understand that everything here has not quite been what it seemed. As this short tale plays out I realise that there is now a completely different interpretation of events being dangled in front of me.

It’s a very cleverly told story, in part it’s frustrating (I came close to abandoning it early on) but it’s also an insightful commentary on sexuality, betrayal and on the games that memory can play. The conclusion to this book was, to me, ambiguous – perhaps intentionally so. Even so, and perhaps partly because of this, it’s a piece that has occupied my thoughts more than most books I’ve read in the past twelve months.

Levy is an author I’ve enjoyed before (Hot Milk and Swimming Home) and here she has again provided something that is challenging and refreshingly different. My thanks to Penguin Books (UK) and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
October 20, 2019
So, this is a novel about how some people need to be more careful crossing roads. Basically, that's all. The rest is pointless meandering between locations, times, discussions between some random characters who do nothing for the plot, oh, yeah - there's no plot to do anything for! How convenient!

There was supposed to be some mystery somewhere and it was about as undewhelming as to be absolutely invisible. No, I found one mystery about it - why was this paragon of averageness rated so highly? No idea.

We start at 5 stars.

+1 star for the gorgeous cover. I never would have pickied this one up if not for it being so magnetic!

+1 star for a couple of quotes I actually liked.

-1 star for total lack of plot. There's no rhyme or reason to this volume.

-1 star for having a geniune hard-on for Stalin. In all seriousness, he's mentioned on every other page!!! Is this trying to be propaganda fiction? Is it why this absolutely worthless book got the glowing reception and even some awards nominations?
It's like this throughout the book:

‘It’s an unconscious thought crime,’ I said. ‘Stalin knew about those and wanted to assassinate anyone who had them, which is all of us.’ (c) Come oooon. How do you get to know what anyone wanted? He might have wanted an oversized pizza, for all we can know today!

-1 star: Genuinely bad dialogue:
‘So, Karl Thomas,’ I leaned over the chair and saw he had an ace in his hand, ‘have you learned your ten commandments for the new socialist human?’
‘What’s that?’
‘Don’t you belong to a youth group? The Young Pioneers or the Free German Youth?’
‘I’m English,’ he said. ‘And my name is Elijah.’ (c)
And I was looking at Donatello’s David and I was trying to figure out if the penis is what makes a man a man.’
‘I know you liked my penis.’
She laughed. ‘I did.’
Rainer was standing next to us.
‘I’m sorry to hear about your father,’ he said.
‘We were just talking about my penis, Rainer.’ (c)

-1 star: Lots of rambling:
I was not happy but he was not in the mood to indulge my middle-aged melancholy, though he was not unkind. I explained that I was functioning okay. I could hold a conversation and argue coherently with friends in the pub and walk across town and look respectable. My clothes were clean, no buttons missing on my shirts, no one would know I was indifferent to making it to my sixtieth year. I now lectured on post-communist Eastern Europe. My students could not afford the uncontrolled rising rents in the cities and lived with their ageing parents. Walter had lost some of his hair. It was now cropped close to his head, his face was thinner, he wore spectacles with light aluminium frames. (c) Is it just me or is it straight-our rambling?
‘You still have your lips,’ he said, as if he were still taking notes. ‘Did you ever write your report on our economic miracle?’
‘Yes, I did. I engaged supportively with the realities of life in the GDR.’
He laughed his excellent laugh, head back, new teeth bared; it was very open and sexy. (c)

So, overall this is 2 stars.

I smiled at his careful reconstruction of history, blatantly told in his favour. (c)
I told him not to be sorry, because my father had died many times. The first time he died was around thirty years ago. I had got used to him dying and coming back to life and then dying again. (c)
‘Yes, Saul.’
‘I have to tell you something.’
‘Go ahead.’
‘I am in love with someone else. I am in deep with a man.’
‘Who?’‘Walter Müller. I want to spend the rest of my life with him.’
‘That’s old news,’ she said. ‘That was when you were twenty-eight. By the way, I am in love with a man too.’ (c)
Did she want to study the length of my toes and check if they were harmoniously and evenly spaced? (c) Of course. Not.
‘Yes.’ He was still stroking my arm with his new gentle fingers. ‘You and I read the New Yorker in our armchairs. We wake up together and take it in turns to make toast. Our garden is blooming. The blackberries are ripening.’
Morphine silvered my tongue, lifted it this way and that way. I chased it, trying to bite its ripening into truth, but it was too late.‘Everyone is replaceable,’ I said, ‘but your love is not the love I want.’
Jack was looking in the direction of the stainless-steel lift. After a while he stood up and I walked him over to it.
‘I suppose,’ he said, ‘it offers me an exit from your cruelty.’ ...
I thought that he was lonely in every time, and so was I. (c) This was supposed to be quirky and emboldened?
Given that she was always going on about my own sublime beauty, I wondered if it meant anything. (c) Ewww.
Please, Herr Müller, we want to know more about your English friend, Saul Adler. Will you help us?Yes.
What is the meaning of this line here? In this letter he has written to you.
The words mean to put the palm of his hand or his fingertips on the stomach of his correspondent to better understand how he is feeling.
And what is the feeling?
Why would a man place his hand on the stomach of another man to better understand a feeling?
You will have to interrogate the hand.
Did you have sexual relations with your English friend Saul Adler?
If you are asking me if I have plans to leave the East and live elsewhere, I have no plans to leave.
What is the meaning of this sentence here referring to the Baltic Sea in winter?
The words mean the correspondent wishes to see the Baltic Sea in winter.
And is the Baltic Sea a code for something else in this context?
You will have to interrogate the Baltic Sea.No, we will interrogate your sister instead. We believe she is pregnant with Herr Adler’s child. Is this your understanding, too?
You will have to interrogate his penis. (c) That's an interesting possibility.
Profile Image for Doug.
2,048 reviews747 followers
January 16, 2023
Update Aug. 11: Since my ARC disappears in a week, and now that (I am delighted to say) it HAS made the Booker longlist, I wanted to re-read it and see if it held up as well as in my initial read, and also see if I could glean even more meaning on a second go-round. Reading it more or less in a single sitting, and with some foreknowledge of what transpires did help me to ferret out some additional connections and resonances I missed the first time through, and I also had more of an emotional reaction to Saul's story also. It still sits atop my rankings of the nine Booker titles I've read so far, so am keeping fingers crossed it proceeds onto the shortlist and perhaps takes the prize.

PS ... I find it interesting that many reviews have erroneously pointed to Saul as the titular character... and in my second reading, I noted that twice Levy refers to Walter Müller as the man who saw everything... not sure what to make of that, but it does give one pause.

Original review:

My sincere thanks to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for an advanced reading copy of this book, in exchange for this honest review.

I'm not quite sure why (or how) Levy has emerged as one of my favorite authors - I have now read almost everything she's ever published (the one exception being Diary of a Steak, which I finally tracked down a reasonably priced copy of, so will read soon, completest that I am). She never really repeats herself in either style or topics, but you can bet a Levy book is always carefully crafted, intriguingly obtuse, and each book almost demands multiple readings to parse out the hidden meanings.

Her latest tome is perhaps her most erudite and jam-packed box of tricks; a kaleidoscopic investigation of the fractured mind of protagonist Saul Adler, with two sections set in two different time frames (or are they?) - in 1988 the then 28 year old budding historian undergoes a minor accident while attempting to have his girlfriend Jennifer take a picture of him recreating the iconic Beatles Abbey Road album cover. Then, in 2016, the middle aged Adler seemingly has another, more serious accident, that splits his mind and memory into many fragments, calling into question everything that has gone before in the previous hundred pages.

I found myself racing through to find out what happens on a basic level, which perhaps does a disservice to how beautifully Levy weaves her various threads together, so fully intend to go back very soon and reread so that I can appreciate more fully her luminous language. I also expect this to garner as much praise and awards attention as her previous Hot Milk, and hope to see it make the Booker list this year, and perhaps walk away with the prize. If nothing else, it is guaranteed a spot on my top 5 of 2019.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,172 followers
September 4, 2019
For the first half of The Man Who Saw Everything , I was hooked. It’s the 80s, and beautiful Saul and peevish Jennifer have just broken up, prior to Saul’s research trip to East Berlin. Why does Saul hear a typewriter hammering in his head? What is the significance of Abbey Road? It seems like Saul can predict the future?

This enigmatic, intriguing story, with dialogue just slightly off-kilter, repeating motifs, and oneiric inconsistencies was so alluring, and I dutifully gobbled up Levy’s bait-like foreshadowing. Where would this all lead? I found myself paying close attention to the most minute details, like a detective on the lookout for clues.

But when the tantalising mystery began to resolve… that excitement fell away and the second half of the novel just left me cold. I was so ready to be dazzled but instead this ended up feeling like a card trick I’ve seen before. It didn’t help that, in carefully crafting this narrative of regret and splintered memories, Levy positioned lacunae in exactly the places where the emotional impact should be. There is poignancy perhaps, in grieving the loss of someone you can’t even remember, but it is a cold, detached kind of poignancy.

Spotting the clues and connections is fun though. The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ appears over and over: Luna, the ‘pretty nurse’ sings it in a German dacha; the Stasi informers are known as ears and eyes - in German, Horch und Guck - (“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes”); Wolfgang manages hedge funds (“a banker in a motor car”); Saul goes to the barber for a shave (this last one felt a bit shoehorned in). At that level, you can play this game all day long, but I wanted something deeper from the underlying story. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Neale .
310 reviews144 followers
September 3, 2019

Saul Adler is more shocked than bewildered when his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, not only flatly turns down his marriage proposal, but tells him that they are finished and that he can grab his stuff and leave. Here we get a glimpse of the prose that will follow,

“because my marriage proposal had sunk to the bottom of the sea. I was shipwrecked amongst the empty oyster shells with their jagged sharp edges and I could taste Jennifer Moreau on my fingers and lips.”

Earlier in the day Saul had been hit by a car while crossing Abby Road, the crossing made famous by the Beatle’s Album cover which was their last record produced at EMI studios close by. The old man who was driving the car, Wolfgang, stops to make sure he is ok. A strange conversation ensues. The man seems very interested in Saul and asks some personal questions that seem inappropriate in the circumstances. He also has a rectangular object which seems to be spitting out obscenities. At the time Saul has no idea of the ramifications and just how much change this little accident will set in motion.

Saul is an historian, and in three days he will travel to East Germany to write about its history and struggles with fascism. It is 1988 and the Berlin Wall still splits the country in two, separating the communists from the capitalists. Saul is given access to the archives, but in return he must write a favourable essay, focussing on education, and health care, etc.

We find very quickly, that Saul was bullied badly growing up, verbally from his father, and physically from his brother.

Things start to go a little surreal when Saul returns home and decides to order some flowers to be delivered to Jennifer. He is looking for sunflowers, on his third attempt a man who Saul believes to have given his name as Mike, says he cannot understand the language he is talking in when asked what to write on the card. Saul realises that he has been talking in German. When he eventually finishes and thanks “Mike”, the man says his name is not Mike. The man tells Saul to “take care”, just like the old man Wolfgang from the accident in the morning.

As the narrative continues, more and more strange little details start to pop up. Things that are slightly different to his perception of them. A photo that Jennifer took of him crossing Abby Road shows him barefoot, but he is sure he was wearing shoes. An old lady, who lives in his building and has crippling arthritis, using a zimmer frame to walk, tells him she is going to a Polish shop to buy a poppy cake, but he cannot recall a Polish shop being where she says it is. Lost in thought for a few moments thinking about this, he is then startled to see the old lady walking rapidly to the bus stop with no sign of any arthritis, or the walking frame.

This continues, with every little detail, every occurrence that Saul encounters being strangely, even if only slightly nuanced, from his initial perception. At this point, the reader must start to wonder if Saul has been injured in the crossing accident. Maybe a form of concussion?

When he is in East Germany objects initiate memories that he seemingly knows nothing about. The sight of a little red train,

“I had seen that train before, or dreamed it, or even buried it, and here it was, returning like a spectre to torment me.”

He also describes the unification of Germany and the fall of communism in Russia, the end of the Cold War, to his translator, Walter, exactly how it happens in the future. Later he does the same with Walter’s sister, Luna, again foretelling a future with complete confidence and certainty that he is correct.

The second part of the book jumps to 2016 and I feel that if I told anymore of the narrative at this point, it would rob the novel of its greatest strength. It is extremely cleverly written and as the reader progresses through this second part of the novel, light will be shed and understanding slowly is realised. Levy’s job of taking the reader inside Saul’s head and experiencing what he is experiencing is simply superb. The narrative is slowly pieced together from a “fractured”, a word used extensively throughout this novel, damaged mind. The reader, along with Saul, must sort through these fragmented and sometimes contradictory memories, to discover who he really is and what has happened.

I may be a little biased because I love these types of novels. A novel that you will return to and, just like Saul, pick up connections and points that you may have missed upon the first read.

Wonderful! 5 Stars!
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,309 followers
December 26, 2022
Now, deservedly, longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’

The Beatles album Abbey Road (the recording sessions for which were the last in which all four participated) famously has on its cover no words but just a photograph, taken in August 1969, of the fab four crossing a zebra-crossing outside the EMI Studios in the road of that name.

I say 'all four' but of course the iconic photograph actually contained various clues confirming rumours that Paul McCartney had, in reality, died in a car accident in November 1966 and had been replaced by a look alike William Shears Campbell: the funeral procession like setting, with Lennon dressed as an angel, Starr an undertaker, and Harrison the gravedigger; the corpse; McCartney out of step with the others and barefooted; his cigarette held in his wrong hand; the numberplate of the strategically placed Beetle 28IF (Paul would have been 28 if he was still alive *); and the mysterious lady with the blue dress on the reverse cover, among others.

(* silly objections that he would actually have been 27 not 28 completely miss the symbolic way age is calculated in the eastern mystical cultures important to the late pop idol)

Further proof of McCartney's death, if any was needed, was that while John Lennon was to produce arguably his finest work after the break-up of the Beatles, the supposed 'McCartney' went on to front the band Wings and to compose The Frog Song.

The photograph is perhaps the most imitated in pop culture, and Deborah Levy's new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything opens with her narrator Saul Adler (not Paul given he is from a Jewish family), a young historian specialising in Eastern Europe, attempting to do the same in 1988, the photo to be taken by his art photographer girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. Adler is about to embark on a trip to the GDR (the fall of the Berlin Wall one year later unforeseen) and the photo is a gift to the sister of his state-appointed interpreter, a Beatles fan, although she is rather keener that he brings a tin of hard-to-obtain pineapple chunks.

While traversing the zebra-crossing he is struck a glancing blow by a car, causing him minor injuries. But various clues alert us that all is not as it seems:

- the driver queries his age - see * above:

When I told him I was twenty-eight, he didn’t believe me and asked for my age again.

- when he later returns to the scene, the mysterious woman with a blue dress appears

While I was thinking about this, a woman came up to me waving an unlit cigarette in her hand. She was wearing a blue dress and asked if I had a light.

- and when the photo is taken - Saul who had been trying to play the Lennon part has mysteriously ended up shoeless and actually fulfilling the Paul/William role - a Damascene conversion perhaps:

There I was, walking barefoot on the zebra crossing in my white suit with the flared trousers, my hands in the pockets of the white jacket.

There was a note from Jennifer: By the way, it’s not John Lennon who walked barefoot. That was Paul. JL wore white shoes. Managed to get you in mid-stride like the original, thanks to my trusty stepladder.

But Levy's story is more than just a retelling of the Paul is Dead conspiracy,

Is Saul dead? Or is he reliving his mother's death in a car-crash? And is it actually 1988 at all - Saul seems the one person who actually knows the Berlin Wall is about to fall in the next year - or is it not 1998 at all but actually 2016-7 and the aftermath of another key moment in European history, Brexit? The novel poses many questions and provides few answers as Saul's tale unravels rather confusingly, at times almost surreally, into shifting settings and times, and characters that morph into one another. But Levy's focus seems to be surveillance, gender fluidity, betrayal and envy, cyclical time and political dislocation.

A novel I hope to revisit later in the year when it is published.

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,120 followers
July 28, 2019
This doesn't come out in the states until October but this might be the book that finally wins Deborah Levy her Man Booker Prize! I love how it starts as one kind of novel and then plays with expectations, while the writing is still able to resonate deeply with the reader. This is a novel to be experienced so don't read a lot about it, just read it.

I did get early access from the publisher through NetGalley after someone at NG helped me with a file issue, but even though this is on the MB longlist, American readers have to wait until October 15!
Profile Image for Peter.
504 reviews608 followers
August 11, 2019
This is such a clever book. Though at times the plot was so elusive I couldn't help find it frustrating. I'm sure I missed certain motifs and allusions but on the whole, it was an enjoyable read.

The story begins in 1988. Saul Adler is our protagonist, a handsome 28-year-old historian. On his way to meet his girlfriend Jennifer, he is hit by a car on Abbey Road, but apparently left unscathed. He proposes to Jennifer - instead she breaks up with him. A little glum, Saul travels to Berlin so that he can research a paper about life in the GDR. There he falls for the enigmatic Walter and they begin a brief relationship. He also spends a night with Walter's unhinged sister Luna. Strangely, Saul seems to know the future - for example he can predict that the Berlin Wall will fall in 1989. When the second half of the book begins, it is 2016, and Walter is in a hospital bed, having been struck by a vehicle on Abbey Road. Curiouser and curiouser...

So what is this novel trying to say? I think it's primarily about perception: how we see ourselves and and how other people see us. Saul is a total narcissist and completely unaware of this. The reason Jennifer breaks up with him is because of how self-absorbed he is. It's also a story about memory. Saul's mind has been fractured by his accident, and his recollections from his hospital bed are becoming completely muddled. He sees people from bygone days in his room and mixes up past events. The few friends and family who attend his bedside are saddened by his shattered mental state.

It's a book that impressed me with its style and intellect. But it never really moved me, and I found it hard to care about any of the characters (I guess that's the problem with having such an egocentric narrator). However, it is a fun novel to analyse and decipher, and I will enjoy reading other people's interpretations of it. I think it deserves its place on the Booker longlist, even though it is competing with novels more deserving of the prize.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
October 3, 2019
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2018
Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2019

Deborah Levy's books are often a little difficult to decode, and I found this one a bit of a struggle, not least because I struggled to find much sympathy for the narrator Saul Adler. In the first half of the book we meet him in 1988 in his late 20s - he is a university lecturer who specialises in studying Eastern European communist regimes. He is hit by a car while crossing the famous zebra crossing on Abbey Road wearing a white suit. He is there because his younger girlfriend Jennifer Moreau, a photographer, wants to take a picture of him there. He proceeds to Jennifer's shared house, and at the end of their encounter Saul proposes marriage and Jennifer announces that she wants to end the relationship.

In the next part of the book, Saul travels to East Berlin, where he has an affair with his married host Walter and also his sister Luna, who is obsessed with the Beatles and wants to leave Berlin and travel to Liverpool. Luna tries to persuade him to pay to have her smuggled out, but he chooses to attempt to persuade Walter to leave Berlin and East Germany instead.

The second half of the book takes place in 2016. It opens, almost identically, with a car crash on Abbey Road, in which the older Saul is seriously injured. The rest of the book sees him recapturing and reevaluating his memories in hospital - initially he has lost most of his post-1988 memory (for example his memory of his long term male partner is almost entirely lost, as is his memory of two later meetings with Walter). Most of his thoughts are still in communist East Berlin, and he places almost everyone he meets in that context. This section is undoubtedly very clever, but rather lacks the immediacy and narrative drive of the first part.

As always the writing is fine, and overall I found the book interesting and stimulating, without ever really getting a feeling for what the overall point is. I would be happy to see this book on the Booker shortlist, but I remain to be convinced that it is a potential winner.
Profile Image for Left Coast Justin.
419 reviews90 followers
July 1, 2023
The impossibly-pretty blue eyes of a poncey British academic are perhaps not the lenses through which I'm used to seeing the world, but author Levy made me look through them anyway. I have come away enriched. Five stars, because this is another of those books that feels less like a reading experience than an actual experience.

This is the first book I've read by Levy, but will not be the last. She is an author who recognizes that fiction can do things that other art forms cannot, and seems determined to wring out of this novel as much craziness as she can get away with. I mean that literally -- the narrator is not well. Trying to keep up with him is like going to the county fair, eating four corn dogs and then riding the Tornado. Good luck with that.

The book is not violent, or pornographic, but is jarringly strange. You can only get away with this stuff if you really know how to write. I was already hooked by Page 2, when the narrator, a historian, teaches me something I didn't know about Uncle Joe:
I had been up all night writing a lecture on the psychology of male tyrants and I'd made a start with the way Stalin flirted with women by flicking bread at them across the dinner table.
I actually highlighted a lot of beautifully-written passages, but when I go back and look at them now, in isolation, they just seem....kind of crazy. I don't mean to imply the sort of craziness that most fictional characters have, smearing lipstick all over their faces and setting fire to the gerbil. This is more of your One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest crazy, people who simply are not cut out to function in our complex world, and are generally tearful and depressed and apathetic as a result.

This book touched me, and I feel like one of the cool kids for having read it. A treasure.

Led to this one by Meike's review of "Hot Milk" by the same author.
Profile Image for Pedro.
198 reviews437 followers
October 14, 2019
Had I read this book ten years ago, I’m sure I would have hated it. But this is 2019, and not 2009, and I ended up really liking this story.

For the first couple of pages, and because this was my introduction to Levy’s writing I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought this was going to be a straightforward read. Man meets woman, they fall in love, etc. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was as far from straightforward as you can get. Metaphors and symbolism everywhere and in everything; The characters and their actions, their origins, the various settings, their dialogues, even their drinks and favourite dishes. All of it. Everything can be interpreted and analysed in different ways.

And it didn’t get any clearer in the second half (quite the opposite in fact!), as this was actually where I found this story to be a social and political commentary disguised as something that might resemble an individuals life’s story and/or a critical analysis disguised as a novel.

Don’t get me wrong though, I think all the symbolism was very clever and made for a very intelligent and sometimes humorous read. Levy’s writing was spot on and I think this book is going to be more relevant tomorrow than today. It just left me feeling a little bit cold.

And Pedro’s prize for the most ambiguous book of 2019 goes to... “The Man Who Saw Everything” by Deborah Levy.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews651 followers
October 28, 2019
Now re-read as publication day approaches and after its inclusion on the Booker Prize longlist.

If I were to create a list of books that require (not just deserve) a second reading, I think I would put this one at the top. On my first reading, I highlighted several passages as I saw them refer back to earlier parts of the book, but, of course, I could not look in the other direction. On a second read, I was able to use my knowledge of the book to look forwards and the number of highlights rose dramatically. As I read knowing what was coming, I found something, it seemed, on almost every page that foreshadowed something that would come later.

Also, just before reading this, I saw that Gumble's Yard had re-read it and commented on the repeated imagery of a "spectre" and this is indeed very clear.

I also noticed several instances of playing with song lyrics ("Yeah, yeah, yeah" being the most noticeable, but also "black is the colour of her true love's hair" and others (there's probably a game to be played here, but I got a bit distracted by all the other things going on in the book)).

Most of all, I noticed more and more references to time being messed around. It would be a spoiler to discuss this much, but it seems appropriate that a book that plays with time so much requires this second reading when the future (the upcoming pages) is known so the present (the current page) can be projected into it. There's still something Schrodinger-esque about the the book for me - multiple, contradictory possibilities existing simultaneously.

But you have to read it, and read it twice, to even start to get to grips with it all. The good news is that it is worth multiple reads.

This book is about a lot of things. It's about love, sexuality, surveillance, Brexit, the fall of the Berlin wall, the photograph taken at Abbey Road of the Beatles, I think the list goes on for quite a while. Levy herself said (see interview quoted in my initial review below) that it was about masculinity and about an amazing man. She said that when she was "halfway through" writing it and I wonder if the book re-shaped itself a bit as she continued to work on it because it is about a damaged (physically, mentally, emotionally) man and you could potentially claim he is amazing (sort of) and it is about masculinity to a degree, but I don't see those as the main themes.

After reading it for the second time, I am moving it to the top of my rankings of the 11 Booker Prize long list books I have read. I do love a book that requires, deserves and rewards multiple readings.

I've left my original review here, too...

To start with a disclaimer. I think most readers would agree that there are some authors who write in a way that somehow, maybe not easily explained, ticks all the boxes for them. Deborah Levy is such a writer for me. When I read what Levy writes, I can almost feel my brain being re-wired to open up new possibilities.

Interviewed in April 2018 by The Guardian, Deborah Levy ended by saying

I’m halfway through my next novel and it is all about masculinity. It’s about an amazing man and it’s called The Man Who Saw Everything.

Is this a clue to help us unravel Levy’s new novel? Yes. And no.

The pre-publication blurb says the book is about beauty, envy, and carelessness. Another clue.

The book itself contains the phrase about loneliness, love, youth, beauty.

That’s enough clues. What is this book about? Well, it’s about all of the above and more besides. It’s about living under surveillance whether by state or family. It’s about Brexit.

It’s also about the weight of history. In her seasonal quartet, Ali Smith is cycling through the seasons while simultaneously showing us how the events of linear time influence one another (each book has a historical event that ties to current events). Here, Levy uses a man’s fractured mind to compress time and run multiple timeframes in parallel. She also makes several (oblique) references to Schrodinger’s famous cat experiment:

”We don’t know whether Luna is alive or dead”.
She lifted Hannah on to her lap and start to draw a cat…

Of course, in Schrodinger’s experiment the fate of the cat is unknown until the box is opened. It is popularly misinterpreted as simply that, whereas Schrodinger designed his (thought) experiment to illustrate that the cat was, in fact, simultaneously alive and dead until the box was opened. It is not as simple as not knowing until you look: in Schrodinger’s world, both possibilities exist together until observation when the quantum state collapses to a single outcome.

The story, as we read it, begins in 1988 when Saul Adler has a minor road traffic accident while waiting to have his photograph taken by his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, on the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing. Then she dumps him and they head in opposite directions - she to America and he to East Germany. We follow Saul to the GDR where he falls in love again (more than once).

But there are hints that things are not quite what they seem. Saul seems to have some kind of prescience:

A light breeze blew into the GDR, but I knew it came from America. A wind from another time. It brought with it the salt scent of seaweed and oysters. And wool. A child’s knitted blanket. Folded over the back of a chair. Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.”

Saul finds himself telling people about what will happen in the future. How does he know?

I won’t spoil the plot, but everything takes on a new perspective at about the halfway point and we realise what we have been reading is not quite what we thought it was.

It starts to feel like we are Schrodinger’s cat, or that Saul is that cat. Simultaneously in two different times, waiting for the observation that will collapse it down to a single outcome that makes sense. I am not sure if it is Saul who is waiting for that or the reader.

Coincidentally, Saul has been being watched. He grew up under an authoritarian father (or perhaps he didn’t). And Jennifer, who took the photographs at the start, is a photographer who made him her prime subject, always watching him, always taking pictures of him.

A lot of this book seems to be about the effect of being seen on the person or thing being seen.

I became completely engrossed in this book. Part of it is because, as I started out by saying, Levy writes in a way that my brain responds too very positively. But I also loved the way the story develops and the huge number of ideas Levy throws out. I read it all in a single sitting (I was fortunate that I had a day of waiting around for something so I could sit and read uninterrupted for a long time). I would have been very cross with anyone who tried to take me away from it before I finished.

My thanks to Penguin Books for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,736 followers
August 6, 2019
Well done, Deborah Levy, on cramming so much thoughtful stuff into such a relatively short book: in little more than 200pp she makes us think about reflections and connections, about time and space, about history and its formation, about families and love affairs, about death and living, about Europe and its divisions, about spectres that haunt from the future (Marx's 'there is a spectre haunting Europe') and from the past, about gender and its porosity ('he told me I was the Marie Antoinette of the family and the pearls did not help'), about what can be said and not said, about state surveillance and intimate looking, about language and translations, about doubleness and loneliness.

This is perhaps the most accessible of Levy's novels that I've read but it also requires a kind of decoding: this is a book that those of us who love classic 'close reading' can throw ourselves into joyously - in fact, it operates like poetry, not in terms of word choices but in the way words are resonant, echoing and reverberating, sometimes with different meanings ('"I did wear a tie in the GDR," I recollected. "I wore a tie when I visited Walter in Berlin last year. Before Britain set about untying its ties with Europe."')

There's a symbolic substructure that is the foundation upon which the story is built: spectres and ghosts, mirrors and glass, the jaguar (so clever!), the 'little coffins' that are cakes (a memory of Proust?) but also something more emotionally wrenching. There are times when Levy is a little too heavy-handed: the equations between an authoritarian communist father and Stalin/Eastern bloc rulers, the figuring of masculinity as a wall (a boundary which polices what is allowed to go in and out, which separates and confines - but which can also be breached or come down, like the Berlin wall in the story).

Reading this feels easy and natural but it's a tight and carefully composed piece which rewards an attentive reading. Clever without being clever-clever, I'll be very interested to see how this does in the 2019 Booker.

Thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews896 followers
November 19, 2019
Simply put, one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had. I think it’s best to approach this book while knowing as little as possible about it, so I’m not really going to talk about the plot. Instead I’ll just say that this book is like Penelope’s tapestry; Levy weaves a brilliant tale in the first act, only to unweave it halfway through and then stitch it back together, and she does it carefully without sacrificing either the details or the big picture.

It’s arguably easier to talk about this book’s themes than its actual plot, but I don’t want to suggest that my interpretation is the be all end all, because this is the sort of book that lends itself to discussions and contradictions. Above all else this is book is about memory – are we more than our memories, or are our memories all we are – but what also stuck out to me was Levy’s deft meditation on what it means to age, what it means to live as a foreigner abroad, what it means to love, what it means to be a part of a culture’s shifting landscape. It seems like a tall order to balance all of this in just under 200 pages while also prioritizing structural innovation, but this book is a case of form and content coming together perfectly. I wouldn’t change a single page – a single sentence – of this book, and I cannot say that often.

That said, I understand why this hasn’t worked for some readers, especially those who err on the side of more traditional storytelling, but for anyone who’s willing to take a risk, and willing to stumble blindly through the dark at times, you can rest easy with the confidence that Levy knows exactly what she is doing here. I can say with absolute confidence that I am going to reread this at some point, and I’m sure I’ll find it even more revelatory when I do.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
May 16, 2023
At one point Saul Adler, the blue-eyed, dark-haired protagonist in this welterweight-lengthed novel, gazes at his maybe-son Karl Thomas, and author Deborah Levy has him describe it this way: "When Karl Thomas finally removed his sunglasses, his eyes were bright, clean blue, shocking as a snake bite. I wondered how he would use his extreme beauty, which is always useful and always a burden, sometimes even freakish."

Given Saul's broken-glass narrative, those words resonate and offer a cautionary tale. Male or female, if you have ever looked at a model slash actor slash athlete and said, "I wish I looked like her!" or "If only I looked like him, all my troubles would be solved," you will think again after reading this.

To be sure, beautiful Saul seems to have no trouble landing the objects of his desire, female or male, but desire comes at a cost in life and pipers, both pretty and plain, must be paid.

Divided in half, the first half covers young and dashing Saul from an Abbey Road setting start (yes, here's a bookended-book where the Beatles figure --- go figure) to an Abbey Road setting finish. The difference? The second jumps 28 years to show Time victorious again. While reading, I somewhere seemed to hear Robert Herrick's lines,

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Me, I enjoyed the fragmented, messed up second half more than the Carly Simon-like "You're So Vain" first half. It was more of a page-turner. It ends in a hospital where the food is awful but at least there's just deserts.

This was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize but have you seen how long those lists are? You and I may be in there, even. (If I had time to get through it, I'd find out.)
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,390 reviews115 followers
December 4, 2019
Booker Prize Longlist 2019. Saul Adler is literally the Man-In-Pieces, his former girlfriend’s stunning portrait of Saul broken into fragments. Levy’s cleverly written book is filled with circular timelines and ironic metaphors. For instance, Saul is hit by a 1968 Jaguar crossing London’s Abbey Road once in 1988 and again in 2016—both times by a man named Wolfgang. He is barely injured the first time, but develops a dangerous sepsis on the second occurrence. The sepsis causes him to lose his memories of the previous thirty years. He is visited in the hospital by both living and non-living people he knew.

There is Jennifer Moreau, the woman who rejected his marriage proposal in 1988 and is now a famous artist. There is Walter, his translator in East Germany, with whom he fell in love with the week after Jennifer left him; and Walter’s Beatle-obsessed sister Luna. Oh yes, he has sex with her too. Is he clairvoyant? He foretold the fall of the Berlin wall to both Walter and Luna. Or is there time-travel involved? Wolfgang drops his 2016 cell phone the first time that he hits Saul on Abbey Road in 1988. He is also visited by his father—who seems to die more than once; and his previously abusive brother who is now paying for his care.

Levy lets the reader explore the pieces of this complicated man. Enjoy!
August 4, 2019
(3.5) It’s best to read this book cold, not primed by reviews that provide too much information about the plot, so I’m going to give only the barest of details. The narrative revolves around the apparently surpassingly beautiful and self-absorbed Saul Adler, a 28-year-old graduate student in history. As the novel opens, it is 1988, and he is preparing to travel to the German Democratic Republic to conduct research on cultural opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. However, he has a private research project closer to home about the psychology of male tyrants, and he is preoccupied with the totalitarian currents in his own family. He has strained relationships with his father, who has long been committed to the socialist cause, and his brother, Matthew, whom Saul describes as the preferred son, a “Bolshevik hero”, and a bully.

Before he leaves London, Saul’s ambitious art-student/photographer girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, is scheduled to take a photograph of him at the famous zebra crossing on Abbey Road. Jennifer will attempt to replicate the iconic cover of the Beatles’ 1969 album in a photograph that will be presented as a gift to the Beatles-obsessed sister of Saul’s East German interpreter. We are told that while Saul waits on the famous street for Jennifer to arrive with her camera and gear, he is hit by a car. Although there’s some blood and bruising, his injuries are apparently minor. The photograph is taken, a parting amorous episode between Saul and Jennifer transpires, a marriage proposal is rejected, and Saul goes on his way to the German Democratic Republic, where he proceeds to fall in love with his interpreter.

The first half of Levy’s inventive and allusive novel reads rather strangely. Because of the novel’s epigraph—a quotation from Susan Sontag about the ways in which photography violates its human subjects, as it presents them as they never know and see themselves— and because Jennifer refers to Saul as her “muse” and forbids him to describe her physical beauty, I was under the impression that Levy was aiming to subvert stereotypes about women and art—those in which the female is the object for the male creator to “symbolically possess”. Levy suggests that even though Saul and Jennifer are lovers, Jennifer isn’t interested in Saul as a person; his striking appearance is useful to her —a commodity to be exploited. In the end, though, this theme is a secondary one. Jennifer is not Levy’s main interest; although important to the story, she’s not its focus. Instead, Saul’s curious, occasionally surreal experiences on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall take centre stage. There are odd, inexplicable elements to this part of the story, and Saul’s thinking and behaviour are often puzzling. He is paradoxically highly observant and peculiarly obtuse.

If the first half of the novel is a kind of rich but strange tapestry, the second half exposes how that material came to be woven. The narrative now becomes propulsive as the reader learns what the threads actually consist of and how they’ve been interlaced to create a particular, deceptive picture. The strangeness of the first half of the book becomes understandable. This makes for very satisfying reading, and I mostly admired Levy’s skill and cleverness. At the same time, I felt there was something lacking in her depiction of Saul’s psychology and conflicts. His strained relationships with his father and brother and an early, formative loss are not convincingly explained. Some of the dialogue is a bit too mannered, and there’s a slightly soap-opera-ish feel to this part of the book. For these reasons, I’ve rounded my rating down rather than up.

Thank you to Net Galley and Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with a digital ARC of this book.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,079 reviews555 followers
January 21, 2020
I went into this novel cold, only deciding to read it because Hot Milk was my first experience with Deborah Levy’s elliptic fiction, and I had enjoyed that so much. The same definitely applies to her latest: The less you know about it, the more an immersive reading experience it’ll be in the end.

Suffice it to say that the central event concerns a man, Saul Adler, crossing the famous Abbey Lane in London, at the zebra crossing where the iconic Beatles album cover photograph was taken in 1969. However, Levy recounts this event from two entirely different, yet interlinked, perspectives: 1988, when the German Democratic Republic was still in place, and Britain in 2016, just after the Brexit vote.

In both timelines, Saul gets struck by a mysterious man driving a Jaguar. However, what happens directly after is where events diverge. Exactly which narrative strand is privileged is, well, up to the reader to determine, as events, people, and places either blend together or, increasingly towards the end, co-exist.

If this sounds bonkers, it is. But Levy makes it work. The clues she sprinkles throughout the text range from the subtle to the more nuanced and, occasionally, in-your-face-obvious. I do think the text kind of loses some essential coherence in the 2016 section, but this is deliberate, especially as here Levy ties up all of the loose ends, as it were. Or we just end up with a massive Gordian knot.

In 1988, Saul is invited to the GDR to conduct research for a thesis on fascism, on the condition that he delivers a favourable report on the authoritarian state, and the benefits it offers its citizens. Saul unexpectedly falls in love with his German translator, who may or may not be spying on him, and embarks on an intense, but ultimately doomed (or is it, asks the later section?) affair.

Poor Saul is rather distracted, and also sleeps with his lover’s sister … who becomes pregnant as a result. One of the reasons he has fled to the cold embrace of the GDR is having his girlfriend Jennifer emphatically reject his marriage proposal. Of course, all that transpires in this section is jarringly disrupted by Saul having mysterious foreknowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example. And then these events are again refracted, and cast into doubt, dispute, and interrogation through the lens of the second section.

Observation – whether it is the spycraft honed in the GDR, Jennifer turning the male gaze on its head by objectifying Saul via her camera lens (she is a photographer who becomes famous due to such iconic works as ‘The Man in Pieces’) – is a key theme in this book. In fact, everything you need to prime you for the reading experience is actually revealed by the title itself …

I was amazed to learn that Levy was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1959, the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants. Norman Levy, her father, was a member of the then-outlawed African National Congress (the ruling party since democratisation in 1994). The family emigrated to London in 1968.

It is clear that the so-called ‘immigrant experience’ has had a lasting impact on Levy, as she is so adept at conveying the outlook of people living (or lurking) on the edges of normal society. What exactly constitutes a ‘normal’ society is also up in the air for Levy, as both GDR and Brexit Britain can be seen, in context, as attempts at establishing a socio-political reality that idealises a particular outlook or philosophy. One hesitates to use the loaded word ‘utopia’ in such a context.

But the nature of revolt, and what it means to be a revolutionary taking a stand against an oppressive regime (or a tyrannical family) is perhaps an even more pressing concern for Levy. Abbey Road ultimately becomes a symbol of attempting to broach such polar opposites in a meaningful manner, without courting dissolution or transcendence of the self. Exactly which of these dominate the ending is, of course, again wide open to interpretation.

NPR reviewer Heller McAlpin damns with faint praise by labelling Levy a “risk-taker”, stating that she plunges “us into a sometimes-confusing narrative that involves a man who actually sees nothing clearly. Her anti-hero is an addled British historian who blurs the boundaries between past and present, East and West, love and carelessness, reality and fantasy, life and death, and binary sexual orientations.”

I loved this book. You do need patience to wade through the initial confusion, but clarity does occur, even as the narrative itself becomes ever more complex and twisted, building to an unexpected groundswell of a profoundly moving ending.

Or is it the beginning?
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,064 followers
August 28, 2021
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3 all bark no bite stars

For readers in want of an incisive and creative account of life in East Germany, I strongly recommend picking up something by Christa Wolf.

While I'm glad to see that many of my friends and other readers were able to enjoy this latest release by Deborah Levy, I found it to be yet another example of all flash no substance. I think that from now on I might stick to Levi's non-fiction.

There is little to no depth or feeling in the story and characters of this relatively short book, but rather an intentionally oblique narrative that time and again chooses style over substance.

To me, it seemed that the way the story was being told was all that mattered. And I admit that occasionally I found Levy's use of repetition to be clever; these recurring word-plays, dialogues, and images did give a rhythm to the narrative and could occasionally serve as comedic relief. In those instances the novel reminded me of the verbose and sardonic style of Muriel Spark but for the most part I was irked by the novel's own self-awareness at its own irony. This short novel could have benefited from being even shorter...but I guess then it wouldn't have been longlisted for the booker prize.

In spite of what its title may suggest, the protagonist of The Man Who Saw Everything presents readers with a myopic narrative that deliberately misinterprets the people and events in his own life. The author has created an intentionally disjointed, and occasionally feverish, narrative at the expenses of its own main character whose role is soon apparent as being that of the Fool. His poor judgement and general lack of direction result in a series of would-be-humorous incidents in which he often embarrasses, and even mortifies, himself to others. Later on the paranoia pervading Saul Adler's mind skewers his view of others so that potentially emotional scenes are negated by his fragmented narrative.
What is also of notice is that the structure of this novel disregards time's linearity. In Beckett-like-fashion the author neglects to explain the construction of her novel or to clarify why certain events unfold in such a particular way. Although readers are not as in the dark as Saul Adler, we still have to puzzle out why the story is arranged in such a manner.
To begin with, I tried to extrapolate some sort of meaning or reason for this increasingly bizarre narrative but I soon gave up. One could easily attribute any sort of meaning for the idiosyncratic arrangement of this narrative without reaching any real conclusion.
Much of the weirdness of The Man Who Saw Everything seemed calculated to me, weird merely for the sake of being weird. Perhaps other readers will be able to immerse themselves in the narrative, but I, in all honesty, mostly perceived a degree of artificiality in the way the story was being told that exasperated me.
Because of this I never believed in the story or its characters. Our main character seemed so conveniently blind-sighted as to seem a mere caricature of the type of vain and solipsistic man who self-fashions himself as the wronged and alienated hero of his own story. His unreliability is apparent from the very first page, which is the likely reason why I wasn't all that surprised by the revelation that we should not take for granted his descriptions and recollections of others.
The Man Who Saw Everything struck me more as a clever performance on the part of the writer, a studied demonstration of her writing's skill, of her ability to 'trick' her readers, then an actual book with a story worth telling.

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads
Profile Image for Lee.
352 reviews8 followers
June 28, 2019
(3.5) Charming and funny but possibly more slight than it imagines it is and perhaps a bit cute.
Profile Image for Paula Mota.
1,040 reviews323 followers
January 12, 2023
“O Homem que Via Tudo” é um enigma que tem como leitmotiv os Beatles e, mais especificamente, o seu mítico álbum “Abbey Road”.
Saul Adler, a caminho da casa da namorada Jennifer, que lhe vai tirar uma foto a imitar a célebre passagem dos Fab Four pela passadeira de Abbey Road, é atropelado. Independentemente das mazelas, quando termina a primeira parte do livro, passada em Setembro de 1988, Saul é, antes de mais, um homem de coração partido.

When I crossed the road that day, I was a man in pieces.
I must have said this out loud.
‘I was a man in pieces’.
‘Yes’, Wolfgang said, ‘I own that photograph.”

A 35% do livro, completamente perdida com as discrepâncias espácio-temporais...

I leaned forward and whispered in Walter’s ear, like a lover, ‘Germany East and West will be one. There will be a revolution.

...recomecei da primeira página para tentar apanhar pistas que pudessem fazer sentido, pois não podia acreditar que a magnífica Deborah Levy tivesse escrito uma viagem no tempo. De facto, não é disso que se trata, mas a forma como ela funde tempo e espaço revela um enorme traquejo.

She walked back to the kitchen and left me alone with a sorrow so much bigger than the grave itself. I felt raw, as if I had just been disemboweled by a jaguar. A light breeze blew into the GDR, but I knew it came from America. A wind from another time. It brought with it the salt scent of seaweed and oysters. And wool. A child’s knitted blanket. Folded over the back of a chair. Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.

Não há uma única interpretação para a forma inteligente como esta obra se desdobra, mas antes de iniciar a segunda metade, que decorre quase 30 anos depois, eu já tinha elaborado uma teoria para explicar os momentos absurdos que povoam a narrativa. Faltava-me, porém, uma informação que poderia ter-me apontado para o caminho certo muito antes, mas que eu não possuía porque, apesar de gostar muito dos Beatles, não estou por dentro de toda a sua mitologia.
É, pois, na segunda parte de “O Homem que Via Tudo” que está a chave do enigma, mas ela visa não apenas a descodificação do texto mas também a exposição do protagonista que, tal como Tony Webster do fabuloso “Sentido do Fim”, de Julian Barnes, é um narrador duvidoso, cuja memória e egocentrismo o levam a ter uma visão pouco clara ou até deturpada dos acontecimentos.
Saul Adler é, ironicamente, historiador e na linha temporal de 1988, a poucos meses da queda do murro de Berlim, visita a Alemanha Democrática, onde teme ser observado e escutado pela Stasi, mas essa ênfase dada à observação e à escuta repercute-se por todo o livro, através da ideia de que olhamos mas não vemos, ouvimos mas não escutamos, e nem sempre aquilo que os nossos sentidos nos transmitem é devidamente processado pelo cérebro.
Deborah Levy é uma das minhas autoras contemporâneas preferidas e gosto da familiaridade de encontrar nas suas obras os cenários recorrentes, como os corpos de água que até na Alemanha Democrática ela consegue incluir. No final deste livro, também eu já estava de coração partido.

That night a warm wind lifted the blossom off the cherry tree in Massachusetts and blew into Abbey Road, London. I heard Luna singing ‘Penny Lane’ in the pink rain.
Profile Image for But_i_thought_.
186 reviews1,537 followers
October 19, 2019
It is London, the year 1988. Saul Adler, a 28-year-old historian, is grazed by a car while attempting to cross Abbey Road, a street made famous by the Beatles’ breakup album cover. The driver’s wing mirror is shattered during the accident. But why does the driver, stepping out to apologize, possess a device that resembles a cellphone (this being the 80s)? And why does he doubt Adler’s age? Moreover, why is the driver interested in Adler’s profession and the age of his girlfriend?

So begins Levy’s book, published on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Abbey Road photo shoot. On the surface, we follow a straightforward story of a self-involved British historian, a minor car accident and a research trip to East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. But sprinkled here and there are little glitches in the “matrix” that don’t quite add up. Adler is haunted by recurring objects — a tin of pineapple, a string of pearls, a jaguar, a toy train and a cherry tree with pink blossoms. He hears the sound of typing in his head. Images and impressions from another time, another place, embed themselves in his brain. The key to the puzzle is hidden in plain sight.

In form, the novel resembles the shattered glass of the driver’s wing mirror — it is splintered, fractured, uneven, overlapping — creating the portrait of a “man in pieces”. Some of these pieces fit together better than others. Others are missing entirely. As a result, the book only truly comes alive on second reading. (Take the Beatles hit “Penny Lane”, for example, which Adler hums. The lyrics of the song, when consulted, mention a barber, a banker with a motorcar and a pretty nurse — all characters which appear in the novel.)

Not only does Levy thwart conventional narrative, she also takes a sledgehammer to the binaries that define us, the walls that divide us — male versus female, gay versus straight, then versus now, here versus there. In doing so, she gives us a Möbius strip of a novel, with a shot of Murakami dream logic and a pinch of the supernatural.

She also gives us a note of hope. If history is cyclical, our current political divide is but a temporary glitch. When in 1988 Adler predicts the fall of the Berlin Wall, his East German peers dismiss his prediction as lies. They cannot imagine a united Germany. It is only with the lens of the historian that we can see the world clearly. And it is only when we remove ourselves from the noise of the present that we can anticipate tides of change. I hope Levy is right.

Mood: Surreal
Rating: 8.5/10

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Profile Image for Joy D.
2,073 reviews240 followers
February 23, 2020
Unusual and creative literary fiction that explores memory, identity, and time. This book contains two starkly different sections. It starts with a seemingly direct tale of a man that gets grazed by a car while crossing Abbey Road, and travels to Germany, but very quickly the reader senses all is not what it seems. Protagonist Saul Adler, a British historian, will be visiting East Berlin in 1988 for academic purposes. Before he leaves, his photographer girlfriend recreates the famous Beatles Abbey Road album cover for him to take a gift to his translator’s sister, a huge Beatles fan. At the zebra crossing, he is hit by a car and injured. While in Germany he engages in relationships with both the translator and the translator’s sister and finds out that the Stasi is using him. In this first portion of the novel, I was fairly interested but kept wondering where it was headed.

In the second portion the scene shifts to 2016 London. The pieces that had previously been puzzling begin to form into a different story entirely. It appears something serious has happened to Saul Adler, causing him to confuse reality and fantasy, and current times with the past. We wonder if he is mentally unstable, suffers from amnesia or depression, is more severely injured in the accident than it first appeared, is engaged in an elaborate self-deception, or something else. The reader gradually gains knowledge of Saul’s life, but this book is going to be interpreted differently by each person that reads it.

I found it wonderfully creative, but at the same time a bit perplexing. It would definitely merit a re-read to glean more from all the hints that are placed throughout the narrative. I can see why it was nominated for awards, but it is not a book for those that prefer a straight-forward or chronological story. It will appeal to those that enjoy piecing together an elaborate puzzle that leaves lots of room for interpretation.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books818 followers
April 19, 2020

I loved the beginning of this novel. I loved being thrown off-kilter and wondering how the man who saw “everything” knew what he knew. I loved all The Beatles references. In fact, knowing they were there is why I read the book right now. My pandemic-anxiety has been soothed by all things Beatles, a rekindling of my child-/teen-/adult-hood obsession. I’m almost as loony about them as this novel’s Luna is.

As the next part of the book came into focus, I was glad I was reading it on a Kindle, because it was easy to search and double-back to compare what was happening now (2016) to what had already been narrated as happening (1988). I liked its theme of the dangers inherent in friendship, love, and opening up oneself to another. Perhaps counterintuitively, I became less invested in the story once I realized how the man saw what he saw.

I enjoyed noticing recurring words such as spectre. The ending was sublime.


Over the past few weeks, I’ve already re-listened to all The Beatles albums and re-watched their documentaries and A Hard Day’s Night. Now it’s time for some Help!


Please, don't wake me, no, don't shake me
Leave me where I am, I'm only sleeping
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