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'The Man Who Saw Everything' review: A life re-examined

"The Man Who Saw Everything" (Bloomsbury) is the 13th book by Deborah Levy. Credit: Bloomsbury

THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, 200 pp., $26)

Reading Deborah Levy’s novels is a lesson in humility. She is a careful and intelligent writer with an absolute command of language, one who demands you not only to pay close attention, but also second-guess your immediate reactions and responses to her work. Her novels are deceptively slim in length, but supersized with profound ideas that defy preconceived notions and easy interpretations.

 “The Man Who Saw Everything” is just such a book, and reading it is the best possible sort of challenge. Levy’s novels “Hot Milk” and “Swimming Home” were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, back before it dropped “Man” from its title; “The Man Who Saw Everything” was longlisted this year. It’s her 13th book, arriving on the heels of her unique and brilliant memoir “The Cost of Living,” which examines her painful divorce, the loss of her mother and questions about what we value in life and why.

Levy also questions the price of gender roles in “The Cost of Living,” an exploration she continues in “The Man Who Saw Everything,” which also considers the effects of such roles on the ideas of beauty, truth and how the past and present converge.

The novel opens in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A university in East Berlin has invited British historian Saul Adler to its campus to do some research. Saul, 28, is more Ziggy Stardust than fusty academic, a stunningly beautiful man with black hair and piercing blue eyes who embraces the androgyny of an earlier decade, wearing eyeliner and a strand of his mother’s pearls. “You are much prettier than I am,” his photographer girlfriend Jennifer tells him. She will get no argument from the self-absorbed Saul, whom she has forbidden to comment on her own looks.

Before embarking on his trip to the Communist country, though, Saul learns the university has assigned him a translator, and the translator’s sister is a Beatles fan. Jennifer decides he needs a photograph of himself striding across the iconic crosswalk on Abbey Road to present to this stranger as a gift.

Jennifer brings her camera and a stepladder and sets up the shot, but as Saul starts to cross the street, a car brushes him. Saul falls. Bleeds. The elderly driver apologizes, “so posh he pronounced my name as if a pebble had been inserted between the roof of his mouth and his lower lip”

More important: the path of Saul’s life is changed forever.

 “The Man Who Saw Everything” spools outward — and inward — from this act, which colors every interaction with Jennifer; with Saul’s working-class brother and father; with his translator Walter, who becomes his lover, and Walter’s desperate sister, Luna.

“Was I okay?” Saul asks. Yes. And no. Levy’s narrative twists and obfuscates, its grip on time and truth as elusive as Saul’s own. Certain he has been the muse and focus of Jennifer’s artistic life. He crashes her show in New York only to finds parts of himself on display in a triptych titled “A Man in Pieces.” Her work is not about him. It never was.

Is a man so careless with his own life able to see anything clearly? Saul is the most unreliable of narrators, and the reader will undoubtedly suffer moments of confusion. But Levy doesn’t leave us lost and wandering without a guide. We can examine the pieces and put them together — like Jennifer’s triptych — and finally understand that the man who saw everything truly saw nothing at all.

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