Tobias Carroll | Longreads | October 2019 | 10 minutes (2,536 words)
What makes history resonate into the present, and how does memory change that? Deborah Levy’s new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything — long-listed for the Booker Prize this year — follows a British historian named Saul Adler as he prepares for, and then embarks upon, a trip to East Germany in 1988. Whether or not his visit will be a politically compromised one is a question that Saul grapples with as he makes his way into a politically repressive — and repressed — nation. Saul also finds his own desires leading him to unexpected places, from his feelings for his estranged girlfriend in London to his growing attraction to the man he’s working with in Germany.
If this was the sum total of Levy’s novel, it would be enough for a thoughtful, challenging exploration of the personal and political — but Levy has larger goals in mind. Throughout Saul’s travels in the first half of the novel, he experiences strangely dissonant moments, places where the narrative ventures into unexpected places and suggests another dimension to the story Levy is telling. In the second half of the novel, those narrative threads pay off dramatically, creating a powerful sense of memory, history, desire, and ideology all converging on a singular point. The Man Who Saw Everything comes at a time when Levy’s work has earned an abundance of acclaim: her last two novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk, were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and her collection Black Vodka was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Longtime readers of Levy’s work will know that she’s just as capable of voyaging into the surreal and uncanny as she is documenting the social and psychological mores of her characters. Jeff VanderMeer has hailed her early novel Beautiful Mutants for its exploration of the weird, and her memoirs Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living each take significant narrative and structural risks that one doesn’t normally see in nonfiction. Add in her forays into the mythic and the archetypal, as in the verse work An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell, and you have a sense of a writer who’s capable of nearly anything.
Levy and I communicated electronically over the course of a few weeks. What emerged from our conversation was a sense of her creative restlessness: Levy is not someone content to find an existing style and embrace it, but instead engages in acts of creative reinvention. Our conversation spanned everything from The Man Who Saw Everything’s connection (or lack thereof) to her older works to the influence that films and filmmaking have had on her work. As befits a writer whose work has crossed boundaries of format and genre, Levy’s comments on the creation of The Man Who Saw Everything point towards a thoughtful examination of a layered, uncommonly complex novel.
Tobias Carroll: The Man Who Saw Everything has a very unique structure, which isn’t fully revealed until part of the way through. What made this structure the best way for you to tell this particular story?
Deborah Levy: I needed to find a structure in which the detritus of the past washes up in the present tense and events from the future are spoken about in the present tense before they have happened. I suppose in old fashioned films this would be called flashback or flashforward — but really, my cinematic mentor is David Lynch, who does interesting things with temporal rupture in films such as Mulholland Drive.
Writing this book was a weird séance with how the consciousness of the leading man might operate. It began to flow between time zones — he lives simultaneously in various time zones. Which actually, we all do. Today is haunted by yesterday, [that] kind of thing. This is old news to history and philosophy and psychoanalysis, so why is it a problem for the novel?
I began to understand that Saul Adler’s mind was not going to behave like a novel is supposed to behave in regard to pace and structure. So, then I said to myself, in the small hours of an intense writing stint in the winter of Paris (where I was living at the time) well, alright, what are you going to do about that?
Why not go with the flow and see what happens in the edit and the final cut?
Obviously, I am a reader and a writer, so I had my eye on the story and I did not want the narrative to collapse. It is much more interesting and challenging (and frankly requires more skill) to keep it together. It was so exciting to find new techniques to structure this story. In my view, a literary technique should be more or less invisible — what’s the point of a technique walking its heavy boots all over the page? So, I like to construct a light surface in which seemingly random incidents occur, but the ecology of any sophisticated structure is that everything is entangled with everything else.
In my view, a literary technique should be more or less invisible — what’s the point of a technique walking its heavy boots all over the page?
One of the recurring motifs in The Man Who Saw Everything is a re-enactment of the photograph of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Was that something in your mind from the inception of this project? What about that original image, would you say, makes it so enduring as a cultural touchstone?
Everyone can use that pedestrian crossing on the Abbey Road. Yet, it is a haunted crossing —because of that iconic album cover. My novel is all about being haunted by the past as we cross a road, and it’s about the ways in which we are all haunted by the spectres of history — collective and personal history.
You cited the works of David Lynch earlier; are there any other filmmakers whose works or general aesthetic you’ve found useful for your own writing?
Yes, film is my biggest influence — I still think about Sunset Boulevard and Blade Runner as if I saw them yesterday — various images and story-lines linger with me. I have long been admiring of the way a skilled filmmaker such as Chantal Akerman uses intimate first-person voice-over in a film such as Là-bas, while the camera is mostly focused on the everyday life of a couple in the apartment block opposite her building. So, we get a sense of exterior (the apartment, the city, planes in the sky) and interior, (Akerman searching for identity and hope) — the aesthetic here is that both Interior and exterior are happening simultaneously. As they do in life. As they must do in a novel.
Throughout the novel, Saul expresses his attraction for several characters in the narrative. Were there any challenges as far as writing a character with so much desire was concerned?
I don’t think we understand our desires that coherently, although we are supposed to. So writing about desire is always a challenge because desire is a challenge.
One of the areas that Saul is exploring is the question of whether Stalin was abused as a child — and what role that may have had in his subsequent life. Reading this in 2019, where there’s a lot of discussion of the bad behaviour of men and its origins, I was curious — did those contemporary concerns play a role in including this historical thread in the novel?
Yes to all. But if I totally understood why people behave as they do , there would be no point in my going through the slog of writing a novel. Which reminds me of something that made me laugh. Apparently, the reason Gertrude Stein wanted to study psychology under the tutorship of William James at Radcliffe College, was because she observed a man hitting a woman with an umbrella. She wanted to investigate the clinical reasons for his behaviour. It made me laugh because this propelled her towards eight long years of attempting to get a medical degree — until she bailed out and went off to Paris to hang out with Picasso.
In this sense, I was at a bus stop recently and observed a father being verbally cruel to his young son. This sort of thing really upsets me. At one point, I looked into that father’s eyes, and I saw his own childhood unfold before me in the present tense of 2019 waiting for that bus. I realiszd that like most bullies and tyrants (Stalin was one of those), this man was frightened, furious, ashamed, fragile. He needed his poor young son to feel what he was feeling or had felt when he was a child himself — that is to say, frightened, furious, ashamed, fragile. As I saw it, that father was living in a number of time zones simultaneously, perhaps 1994 and 2019, as he acted out the dynamic of his own childhood with his son. This is not a new story, but in a novel, this is usually called back story. It is not “back” though, it is a story, a history, operating in the here and now while we wait for a bus. So what might a contemporary novel do about that?
Saul is a minor historian and he investigates Stalin’s brutal childhood as a way of understanding his own dogmatic, authoritarian father. He often wishes him dead. Stalin wished to punish people for their unconscious thought crimes against his regime. I’m guessing that boy at the bus stop would have many unconscious thought crimes against the regime of his father. All the more complicated because they might be mixed in with love. And anyway, authoritarianism is an interesting, contemporary subject, unfortunately.
I think it is true to say that I do not write authoritarian books, in that I am not interested in grand narrators, wise or foolish — not in Hot Milk or in The Man Who Saw Everything.
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In The Man Who Saw Everything, you’re able to keep Saul’s historical investigations thematically resonant even as the novel’s more experimental structural elements come to the forefront. Was balancing these two aspects of the book particularly challenging for you?
Yes, this is technically the most challenging novel I have written. Is the structure experimental? It’s certainly intricate. Saul is hit by a Jaguar (a car) on the Abbey Road crossing. The wing mirror shatters and some if its shards end up inside his skull. Luna has a phobia about jaguars (an animal), so in a sense she has a jaguar inside her head, too.
Is this an experimental idea? Maybe it’s an expanded idea.
Your earliest novels, like Beautiful Mutants, operated in a very surreal register. Given the role of memory and subjective experiences in The Man Who Saw Everything, I was curious — do you see this as a return to the surreal tone of those earlier books?
It’s not possible or desirable to return to a tone used in books written 30 years ago.
No, it’s a new palette I have been developing since my 2011 novel, Swimming Home.
I would say my recent books are more uncanny than surreal. You can’t do uncanny without a fair bit of realism, though it’s true to say that my most flamboyant influences have been the visual art and poetry of the early Surrealist movement.
If I totally understood why people behave as they do , there would be no point in my going through the slog of writing a novel.
In terms of the Surrealists as an influence, are there any particular writers or artists from that movement that you’d cite as having had a particularly significant impact on your work?
The Surrealist movement was exciting to me because it embraced the visual arts, psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy, film, poetry and politics — after two world wars it privileged imagination and dream as subversive and intellectually valuable.
The artists who had made a language that interested me as a young writer were Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and particularly the photographs of Francesca Woodman. I have written about Woodman for Tate Magazine.
Since the publication of Swimming Home, you’ve also had two works of nonfiction published. Do you find that some of the thematic and structural work you’re doing there feeds back into your fiction, or are the two distinct in your mind?
Yes, it is likely that the writing will thematically flow into each other, nonfiction and fiction,
because it comes from the same mind, that is to say, the mind of the author.
You mentioned Swimming Home as being the first of your novels to make use of a new palette. Was that a conscious decision, or something you realized was happening as you were working on Swimming Home? How would you say that palette has differed within your most recent novels?
Swimming Home was the novel in which I attempted to honour the unconscious part of everyday life and embed it in narrative rather than in streams of consciousness — which is where old-fashioned modernism tells us it is supposed to live. I have continued working with this palette in Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything.
My image for this was an artwork by Louise Bourgeois. She had simply pierced a sheet of lined paper and made little holes across the page, as if she were making an opening for something to seep into the page.
And I thought, well then, how can I find techniques in literature that resemble this piercing, in which the unconscious seeps onto the page, without drawing attention to this?
So, I am interested in surface and depth in my novels, and in my view, if you have the depth, the surface can be as light as it’s possible to make it. In this sense, I don’t mind that Swimming Home is sometimes described as a “beach read” — actually that’s a triumph because I’m not uncertain about its depth.
You can read it as a beach read or you can read it as an existential enquiry into why its leading character has a death wish, or you can read it both ways. You can look at a painting by Mark Rothko and burst into tears or find yourself in its mood , or you can look it and say, yeah, I like the colors, but why are all these abstract shapes on the canvas supposed to be art — maybe he could take a few lessons in life drawing? Every artist of note will be prepared to risk this sort of response.
The past- and present-day sections of the novel also each have a significant global event in the background: the last days of the Berlin Wall in 1988 and the rise of Brexit in 2016. What (if anything) did you find to be the synchronous moments between these two events?
Building walls and closing borders or building new borders is very much in the news in our young 21st Century.
Closer to the end of the novel, there’s a scene that discusses art and raises questions of authorship. How does that tie in with the issues of memory that run throughout the book?
There is a debate in my book about the authorship of memory. Often it is what we don’t remember that is more important than what we do. Sebald explores this in his 2001 novel, Austerlitz, in ways that are extraordinary and true.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky