Levy opens with a characteristically striking visual image: a man stepping into the zebra crossing on London’s Abbey Road as a car approaches. He is Saul Adler, a historian specializing in communist Eastern Europe, and he is there to meet his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, a photographer who wants to emulate the Beatles’ famous “Abbey Road” album cover with Saul in it. The year is 1988, and Saul is about to spend two weeks doing research in the German Democratic Republic; Jennifer intends the photo as a gift for his East German translator’s Beatles-obsessed sister.
Saul jumps back to avoid an oncoming car and falls on his hip. His subsequent exchange with the driver immediately establishes that each has a different version of what happened, and Levy expertly plants another clue to the many disruptions that will follow: “a small, flat, rectangular object” lying in the road that suddenly emits a man’s angry voice. “We both pretended not to hear his words,” Saul tells us. He’s the novel’s narrator, and he engages our sympathies with a poignant self-portrait of a sensitive boy who lost his mother at age 12 and was brutally bullied by his brother and their father, who is now recently deceased. Attentive readers will note, however, assertive Jennifer’s oft-repeated criticism, “It’s always about you, isn’t it?”
Saul’s account of his stay in Germany initially seems straightforward enough. He falls in love with his translator, Walter, but ends up also having sex with Walter’s sister Luna, who grasps Saul as her ticket to the West. He has two mysterious visions of communism’s imminent collapse, which teasingly suggest that Saul’s fall may have turned him into the all-seeing man of the novel’s title. Yet at other times, his grasp of reality seems tenuous, particularly when he endangers Walter and Luna by confiding in a man everyone except Saul knows is a Stasi informer.
This sets the scene for the dazzling, disorienting second half of “The Man Who Saw Everything.” The year is now 2016, and we are back in London the day after the Brexit vote. Once again, Saul steps into the zebra crossing; once again he falls as he jumps back to avoid the oncoming car. His exchange with the driver is almost the same, but different in significant ways. This time, Saul has severe internal injuries and is taken by ambulance to the hospital. His father is there, not dead but eating a sandwich at his bedside, and so is Jennifer, now famous and 51 years old. But he just got back from East Germany, Saul insists. “He is not entirely with us,” says the doctor whom Saul keeps confusing with the Stasi informer.
Jennifer, his father and several other significant hospital visitors do their best to bring Saul back to reality, but “I never much liked it there,” he admits. Indeed, the memories that unfold under their prodding don’t show much to be proud of. Jennifer is his principal goad; over and over, the former lovers state their competing visions of the past in exchanges structured and repeated like the choruses in a song: “It’s like this, Saul Adler”; “It’s like this, Jennifer Moreau.” Levy’s formal inventiveness is never mere game-playing; it wields emotional weight as virtually every significant detail from Saul’s account of events we thought took place in 1988 proves to have additional meaning or a completely different meaning. Many of them reveal Saul as a man given to unthinking cruelty and willed blindness, the “man in pieces” exposed in Jennifer’s first solo show. Retrieving the memory of that 1996 exhibit, with its reminder of his worst failure with Jennifer, takes Saul to perhaps his lowest moment.
For all the holes that Levy pokes in Saul’s story, she is not suggesting anything so simple as an unreliable narrator. What Saul tells us is true for him, at one time or another, and it’s both fascinating and desperately sad to watch him dismantle his self-protective version of the past and confront its reality. Levy’s conclusion is deliberately ambiguous, but it’s clear that her title is painfully ironic; the man who thought he saw everything in fact saw almost nothing.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING
By Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury. 200 pp. $26.00