The Man Who Saw Everything

  • Review
By – March 30, 2020

The Man Who Saw Every­thing begins with an acci­dent. It’s 1988 and Saul Adler is hit by a car while cross­ing Abbey Road. Body scraped, brain rat­tled, it’s unclear how much dam­age has been done, but while his aches and bruis­es linger, life goes on. As Saul recounts the events of the days, weeks, and years fol­low­ing the acci­dent, it becomes appar­ent the car knocked some­thing loose with­in him. Dazed and out of sync with the present, he con­fus­es Ger­man with Eng­lish, receives phone calls from oth­er decades, slips Bea­t­les lyrics into his rec­ol­lec­tions, and finds him­self able to recall infor­ma­tion from the future: the Berlin Wall will fall, he will one day grow three dif­fer­ent types of toma­toes in a gar­den he doesn’t yet own. For the first half of the nov­el, these fre­quent time slips are per­plex­ing, but clar­i­ty comes in a poignant reveal. To be any less opaque would spoil the plot and Deb­o­rah Levy’s craftsmanship.

While Saul may be addled and his mem­o­ry faulty, Levy’s writ­ing is clear and affect­ing. Draw­ing on The Bea­t­les, Social­ism, the endur­ing trau­mas of being Jew­ish in Ger­many, and the con­vo­lut­ed rela­tion­ship between artist and muse, Levy weaves an impres­sive nov­el that sweeps and jumps across decades. This may sound like dense read­ing, but The Man Who Saw Every­thing is grace­ful and lean, with Levy’s sil­very lan­guage cut­ting right to the point, even when her char­ac­ters can’t seem to.

Saul may be the man who saw every­thing, but he is unwill­ing to acknowl­edge the truths in front of him. In East­ern Ger­many, where tins of pineap­ple are cov­et­ed, blue jeans a rar­i­ty, pri­va­cy non-exis­tent, and sur­veil­lance ram­pant, Saul remains defi­ant­ly West­ern and incon­sid­er­ate. Saul, in his mother’s pearls and blue eye­lin­er, is not uncar­ing. He loves deeply, but wields his love, throw­ing his lovers’ lives off course with his self-cen­tered recklessness.

Though Saul seems intent on telling his sto­ry with can­dor, he is con­stant­ly refram­ing the past, col­or­ing his own rec­ol­lec­tions by omis­sions both inten­tion­al and acci­den­tal. Con­test­ed mem­o­ries are scat­tered through­out the book. It’s like this,” Saul says. No, it’s like this,” responds Jen­nifer More­au, his girl­friend at the time of the accident.

After get­ting hit by the car, Saul and Jen­nifer set out to recre­ate The Bea­t­les’ icon­ic Abbey Road album cov­er. The pho­to­graph of Saul on the famous zebra cross­ing will be a present for one of his hosts in the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic where he is head­ed to write about cul­tur­al resis­tance to facism in 1930s Ger­many. For the pic­ture, Jen­nifer makes a point to stand on a steplad­der just like Iain Macmil­lan, the orig­i­nal pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Jennifer’s com­mit­ment to view­point and the photo’s fram­ing rep­re­sents a crit­i­cal ele­ment of Levy’s sto­ry. His­to­ry, how it is told and recast, shifts depend­ing on who focus­es the viewfind­er. What sur­vives is always col­ored by the one doing the recall­ing. Through Saul, Levy co-min­gles past and present in a man­ner that speaks to the slip­per­i­ness of mem­o­ry and of his­to­ry itself.

It’s like this: The Man Who Saw Every­thing is a bleak alle­go­ry that speaks to how his­to­ry is inher­it­ed. No, it’s like this: The Man Who Saw Every­thing is a stir­ring reflec­tion on mem­o­ry and time that braids togeth­er sto­ries of love, social­ism, and regret.

Discussion Questions