Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
If war and other political disasters really thrive more or less in the same way love does, through human error and the inability to comprehend one’s own role in the course of events, then Saul – a historian who can’t get the hang of cause and effect in his own life, who never sets out to harm anyone and registers only confusion as misery flowers in his wake – may be one of Levy’s more topical exercises in perspective. The novel maps a self being pieced back together so that the weakest points show. It also addresses a moment in history that could feel like a bad dream or a bad joke, and Levy has always taken those seriously.
Once again, Levy has developed a narrative that scrutinises the interior world of her characters with laser-like precision and revealed it to us with subtle, grand design. If at times it becomes difficult to follow, that is precisely the point. Who can narrate their history with reliable memory? How can we trust any singular version of history? Levy’s prose is electrifying on the micro level and profound on the macro level; the novel bends time, subverts our expectations, and exposes blind spots with her usual sophisticated artistry. The questions it raises percolates long after the last page – how our carelessness will prove criminal to ourselves, how imperative it is that we confront our historical narratives and interrogate our sense of truth, the extent to which our futures are already written in the past. Levy throws balls in the air and steps aside to see how or if we can catch them; that is one of the great strengths of this novel but it is also the element that may frustrate readers who crave definitive answers.
The Man Who Saw Everything is about, among other things, how history ties us inextricably to each other. As Britain attempts to untangle itself from the European Union, Levy shows the ways in which some ties will never be broken.
Reading this novel provides conclusive evidence that you are in the hands of a master of this aspect of both trades. Note the fleeting reference while Saul is in East Berlin to a local pastry called “little coffins”, innocuous and forgettable, until much later, when you find its harrowing link. Listen out for the “animal growl” of the car’s engine as it speeds away from Saul, or you’ll miss the subtle first hint of a critical future theme. Better yet, don’t merely read this novel. Treat yourself and read it twice.
Levy resembles European writers more than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-aged writers of Britain. This book seems to be akin to writers such as Bertholt Brecht in its insistent alienation of the reader, and Thomas Bernhard in its sardonic, melancholy tone. It is a very lachrymose novel – Saul is continually crying for reasons he cannot himself comprehend. The story descends into a psychological abyss which is almost funny except for being truly tragic... Levy has come from being a writer known only to aficionados to being a prominent, indeed Booker shortlisted, author. She is the kind of writer who keeps the novel fresh, and for that we should be profoundly grateful
Levy handles her weighty themes in this slim novel with a lightness of touch and a painfully sharp sense of what it means to look back on a life and construct a coherent whole from its fragments. The Man Who Saw Everything has already been longlisted for the Booker prize; a third shortlisting for Levy would be well deserved.
Reading Deborah Levy’s stylish new time-slip novel, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, feels like being spun around while blindfolded. Switching between the period before German reunification and the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, it holds up a mirror to recent European history, only to smash it and jumble the shards...
As ever with Levy, the crystalline clarity of the prose rubs up against our perplexity about the bigger picture, which is part of the peculiar fascination of a book that demands, and bears, repeated re-reading.
Figuring out what the hell is going on within the fluid worlds of Levy’s fiction is not always straightforward. While other authors are increasingly drawn to autofiction, for Levy, uncertain times, it seems, call for uncertain realities. The characters in The Man Who Saw Everything shape-shift, and time bends back and then twists upon itself again. Objects and animals — wolves and jaguars; sunflowers and cherry trees; a string of pearls and a toy train — echo throughout like leitmotifs. It may be best not to try to pry apart the seams and just enjoy looping the loop along Levy’s carefully crafted Möbius strip.
It has become fashionable, as interest in literary fiction is perceived to have waned, to make a case for what it is that the novel can “do” for us. Often, this is framed around the idea of empathy. Levy’s writing is, no doubt, deeply attuned to human anguish and loss, but her real talent is to remind us of fiction’s other great function: the loosening of boundaries. As Saul picks his way, tantalisingly, through the symbols and signs of his own obscured history, we find that the borders between his emotional landscape and the material conditions he inhabits, between what he feels and what he sees, between self and other, even between the individual and collective, become eerily porous. In softening and blurring these distinctions, Levy’s implied question feels painful and apposite: how can we have any hope of resisting political tyranny when we are so tragically unable to expunge it from our personal lives?
This brave, terse, dense, plangent, unsettling novel provides yet more evidence of Levy’s happy timing. Her renascence, or anyway its reception, has coincided with a golden period for the experimental and essayistic that arose at least partly in response to the perceived crabbedness of the Noughties novel – in particular Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, in which middle-aged men ruminate on personal experience against an evenly rendered topical backdrop (the Iraq War, 9/11).
Nominated for this year’s Booker Prize, The Man Who Saw Everything is an intricate jigsaw, full of pieces that tantalisingly never quite fit together. Its sheer technical bravura places it head and shoulders above pretty much everything else on the longlist, and it ought to make Levy a household name on a par with the similarly inventive Ali Smith. Like much of Levy’s writing, the novel plays around with linear time, here to such an extent that it’s never clear at what point in time anything is taking place... The writing is immaculately controlled. Its surfaces feel endlessly reflective, as though each sentence were composed of a thousand tiny mirrors... Perhaps Levy’s extraordinary novel is, in the end, a hallucination of our broken, fractured, traumatised world, as experienced by a man who seems to hold all its damage inside him, yet who has managed to cross another sort of border, to become, finally and entirely, free.
Levy is a versatile writer who moves between genres and recently made a particular splash with her fictionalised autobiography, The Cost of Living. Such a varied writer won’t please everyone all the time, but if you secretly felt that Hot Milk, her previous novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize, or any of her previous work was just too stickily, intensely weird, don’t give up. Because this one is brilliant in a new way: cool, calm, highly atmospheric (especially the scenes in the wild forests and sinister apartment buildings of the GDR) and an ice-cold skewering of patriarchy, humanity and the darkness of 20th-century Europe.
Levy, twice shortlisted for the Booker for Swimming Home and Hot Milk, is writing with gorgeous, juicy assurance here. It’s stylish: written with a speedy, vivid economy, her characters’ eccentricities leaping off the page. It’s funny: Saul’s narcissistic narration is full of deadpan details of youthful pretentiousness, social awkwardness. It’s sexy: Levy writes keenly about layered attraction and resentment, how her characters bestow and withdraw gifts of sex and affection. And it’s political: the novel exposes the hypocrisies that accompany rigid ideology, but also questions how an individual can live with integrity if they only live for themselves.
The struggle continues, however, and the balance shifts through Levy’s skilful, dizzying storytelling, so that at the book’s close, as Saul crosses Abbey Road for the last time, he is “walking across deep time”, hearing the sounds of different episodes of his life in symphony. In the end, Saul becomes the man of the sculpture too.
This is an ambitious book that creates more questions than it answers. Levy doesn’t patronise her readers and she is able to pull off such scope because of her humour and ability to evoke a mood. There are lyrical passages about lake swimming, cold white wine and pasta restaurants in Soho alongside intense psychological probing of childhood, parental duty and sexual attraction. It’s clever, raw, and it doesn’t play by any rules.
The twice Booker-shortlisted Levy is a genius author and she returns with an electrifying new novel in which historian Saul Adler is hit by a car on London’s famous Abbey Road — once in 1989 and again in 2016. Artfully navigating both time zones, the novel explores both what we see and what we miss until the past and present are staring directly at us.