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 an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, writing and studying the country’s Jewish history, and another year in Germany volunteering at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. She lives in Brooklyn.