ISS Com­pos­ite Star Trail Image (cropped), NASA on The Commons

Deb­o­rah Levy is one of England’s most ver­sa­tile writ­ers — the author of plays, poet­ry, mem­oirs, and fic­tion. Her lat­est nov­el, The Man Who Saw Every­thing, is nar­rat­ed by his­to­ri­an Saul Adler, the son of a Holo­caust sur­vivor moth­er from Ger­many and a staunch­ly work­ing-class British father. The sto­ry opens as Saul cross­es London’s Abbey Road and is hit by a car. Appar­ent­ly not seri­ous­ly hurt, he leaves for East Berlin on a research trip three days later.

But anachro­nisms in the nar­ra­tive lead read­ers to ques­tion whether Saul’s ver­sion of events is accu­rate, or a high­ly sub­jec­tive recon­struc­tion. Even­tu­al­ly we learn that Saul’s acci­dent hap­pened in 2016 — not 1988 as he ini­tial­ly claims — and that he is remem­ber­ing his inter­ac­tions with lovers, friends, and fam­i­ly mem­bers from a hos­pi­tal bed. Through this jum­bled pre­sen­ta­tion of past and present, facts and wish­es, Levy asks us to con­sid­er how we might have act­ed in dif­fer­ent eras of his­to­ry — the Holo­caust, the Cold War — and casts a new light on our respon­si­bil­i­ty toward others.

BK: In 1988, Saul tells us that his father was a nar­row-mind­ed bul­ly who recent­ly died. In 2016, we learn that his father is still alive, and Saul real­izes that to my hor­ror it seemed that my father was a kind man.” What do Saul’s fan­tasies of his father’s death reveal about his char­ac­ter, and how do they relate to his unre­li­a­bil­i­ty as a narrator?

DL: I was inter­est­ed in the way Stal­in pun­ished cit­i­zens for what Saul calls uncon­scious thought crimes” against the par­ty. That’s a case study for my intel­lec­tu­al com­pan­ion, Dr. Sig­mund Freud. Saul is in an oedi­pal tan­gle with his father. He is not the first son in the world to expe­ri­ence this tan­gle. Some­times, in his thoughts, Saul wish­es that his father were dead. It’s an uncon­scious thought crime. But it’s not lit­er­al — he wish­es that the author­i­tar­i­an parts of his father were dead, not the actu­al man. So, in this sense, his father dies and comes to life again. When his father actu­al­ly dies, Saul is distraught.

BK: How does the set­ting of East Ger­many work in con­junc­tion with the oth­er themes in the novel?

DL: I want­ed to look at an author­i­tar­i­an father and an author­i­tar­i­an regime.

BK: As I read, I also found myself think­ing about how, unlike West Ger­many, East Ger­many dis­tanced itself from the lega­cy of the Holo­caust and refused to atone for it — the polit­i­cal lead­ers insist­ed that as com­mu­nists, they were vic­tims rather than per­pe­tra­tors. Is there a con­nec­tion between this revi­sion­ist approach to his­to­ry and Saul’s own fre­quent denials and rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of his own per­son­al history?

DL: Denials and rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of his­to­ry are indeed a theme in my book. It’s only after thir­ty years pass, for exam­ple, that Saul explains to the read­er why his for­mer girl­friend, Jen­nifer, refused his offer of marriage.

BK: We know that Saul’s moth­er fled Ger­many to escape the Nazis, and while there aren’t many direct men­tions of Saul’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, I often found it to be a sub­con­text. Saul’s inabil­i­ty to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between past and present seems to take on extra poignan­cy when he falls in love with his Ger­man trans­la­tor, Wal­ter Müller. Saul is aware that while the Müllers are hos­pitable to him in the 1980s, they might not have been in the 1930s or 1940s. Con­verse­ly, while a non-Jew­ish fam­i­ly like the Müllers would have been in a posi­tion to aid Saul dur­ing the Holo­caust, it’s Saul who has the abil­i­ty to help Wal­ter and his sis­ter defect from East Ger­many in the 1980s.

DL: Saul direct­ly asks taboo ques­tions of his Ger­man lover: would you have been my friend in 1942? When I vis­it Ger­many, I am aware that I secret­ly ask myself this sort of ques­tion, too.

BK: In addi­tion to cap­tur­ing East Berlin, your book paints a dis­tinct por­trait of the UK and Lon­don. Social class, for exam­ple, has strong con­no­ta­tions for the char­ac­ters. Saul feels that his father saw his broth­er as a Bol­she­vik hero,” while he was dis­missed as being the bour­geois in the fam­i­ly.” Would you con­sid­er The Man Who Saw Every­thing to be a British” novel?

DL: That’s such an inter­est­ing ques­tion. Is it a British” novel?

Excuse me for five min­utes while I go off to have an iden­ti­ty crisis.

Okay, I’m back.

It does include quite a lot of the atmos­phere of con­tem­po­rary Britain. But it’s also set in East Berlin in 1988, and ref­er­ences Ger­many in 1938 and Amer­i­ca in the 1990s.

So, per­haps it is a British, Euro­pean nov­el writ­ten by an author born in South Africa who has lived in Eng­land since she was nine, and whose pater­nal Jew­ish grand­par­ents were from Lithua­nia. (My grand­moth­er force-fed me her­ring and taught me a phrase of Yid­dish, which I lat­er learned meant May you catch the cholera.” I think she was giv­ing me a curse to fend off adver­saries, though to this day I haven’t tried it out.)

My grand­moth­er force-fed me her­ring and taught me a phrase of Yid­dish, which I lat­er learned meant May you catch the cholera.”

BK: Abbey Road — both the phys­i­cal place and the Bea­t­les album — appears through­out the book: in 1988, Jen­nifer takes a pic­ture of Saul cross­ing it, and the nov­el ends with Saul attempt­ing to cross it again in 2016. Could you say a bit about the sig­nif­i­cance of Abbey Road?

DL: I spent a lot of time watch­ing tourists from all over the world fool around on the Abbey Road cross­ing while I was research­ing my nov­el. They all imi­tat­ed the walk of their favorite Bea­t­le. It was real­ly fun to be there. But I also real­ized they were enact­ing a piece of his­to­ry in a mild­ly dan­ger­ous place — the mid­dle of the road. So there was a risk that they would be run over. It was impor­tant for the sto­ry to keep return­ing to a place that most read­ers would recognize.

BK: You empha­size that see­ing and telling are two very dif­fer­ent things. Phys­i­cal appear­ance is shown to have a kind of pow­er, but so does being able to artic­u­late it. Jen­nifer doesn’t let Saul talk about how beau­ti­ful she is, insist­ing that he only has old words” with which to do so. Lat­er, when Wal­ter tells Saul not to men­tion the run-down appear­ance of East Berlin in his report, Saul thinks: I had become used to being cen­sored because Jen­nifer had for­bid­den me from describ­ing her in my own old words.” What do you con­sid­er to be old words”? For you, as a writer, what are the chal­lenges of describ­ing phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es in words?

DL: Well, we all have bod­ies as well as minds. But if a female char­ac­ter has no func­tion in a fic­tion except to pro­voke male desire — if she has no point of view, no desires of her own — that’s not a book I want to read. As I write in my mem­oir The Cost of Liv­ing: He had tak­en a risk when he invit­ed her to join him at his table. After all, she came with a whole life and libido of her own. It had not occurred to him that she might not con­sid­er her­self to be the minor char­ac­ter and him the major character.”

If a female char­ac­ter has no func­tion in a fic­tion except to pro­voke male desire — if she has no point of view, no desires of her own — that’s not a book I want to read.

BK: In The Cost of Liv­ing, you also write that a minor char­ac­ter can become a major char­ac­ter and vice ver­sa — it’s all a mat­ter of how the writer or read­er looks at them. How did you approach con­struct­ing the char­ac­ters in The Man Who Saw Every­thing? Did you always know that Saul would be the nar­ra­tor, for example?

DL: Yes, Saul was always going to be my lead­ing man. But I am not inter­est­ed in writ­ing from the point of view of nar­ra­tors who hold all the pow­er and crush the sub­jec­tiv­i­ties of oth­er char­ac­ters with their supe­ri­or wit, wis­dom, intel­li­gence, or whatever.

That sort of nar­ra­tor is rather like a guest at a din­ner par­ty who hogs all the con­ver­sa­tion and silences every­one else. At first, we might be pleased to have them at the table — after all, they break the ice and appear to keep things cheer­ful and live­ly. Yet, after a while, we can’t wait for them to stop talk­ing. It’s a relief when they leave. At that point, the appar­ent­ly minor char­ac­ters at the table start to speak and usu­al­ly have some­thing valu­able to con­tribute to the conversation.

So, my nar­ra­tors — Sofia in Hot Milk, Saul in The Man Who Saw Every­thing—are major char­ac­ters, but it is the seem­ing­ly minor char­ac­ters who offer them some­thing like wis­dom, and who com­plete the story.

Bec­ca Kan­tor is the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca was award­ed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to spend a year in Esto­nia writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry. She lives in Brooklyn.