Writers & Company

Deborah Levy fuses the personal and political in her mind-bending new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything

The British writer's latest book, The Man Who Saw Everything, is an enigmatic story about a striking young man who makes startling connections through time and space.
CBC Radio host Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Deborah Levy at Revival Bar in Toronto on Nov. 7, 2019. (Stephen Myers/Penguin Random House Canada)
Listen to the full episode59:57

Described by The New York Times as "one of the most intellectually exciting writers in Britain today," Deborah Levy has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for her novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk.

Her latest book, The Man Who Saw Everything, is an enigmatic, mind-bending story that makes startling connections through time and space. Focusing on a strikingly beautiful young man, the novel moves from the 1980s to 2016, from London's Abbey Road to East Berlin before the fall of the wall. A finalist for Britain's Goldsmith Prize, it's a richly layered exploration of history, memory and perception, which challenges the very nature of truth.

Levy was born in South Africa in 1959, to parents who were active in the anti-apartheid movement. After her father's release from prison, the family relocated to England, an experience she writes about in the first volume of her "living autobiography," Things I Don't Want to Know. The second volume, The Cost of Living, was published to critical acclaim in 2018. 

Levy spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage in Toronto.

An observer on Abbey Road

"I went to Abbey Road every day for two weeks, just sitting there. I was thinking about how a piece of history is being reenacted by all the tourists who come to that zebra crossing and choose their favourite Beatle, usually Paul and John, Ringo not so much and it's hard to know who's doing George Harrison. I would sit on the wall outside EMI Studios and watch people walk across that road. I thought, 'So this is a very playful way of doing history.' I've always been interested in imitation because we do it in families, where we torment each other by imitating brothers and sisters. To do that, you have to look very closely, observe quite closely to imitate someone.

Lots of writing, for me, isn't jotting things down in my notebooks or researching big tomes. It is just looking.- Deborah Levy

"I was looking at the imitations of the Fabulous Four, I was looking at a piece of history being enacted and I was also looking at the form of the zebra crossing because it's not clear where it begins and ends. You cross from the left, you cross from the right, but they flow, these white and black stripes, into each other. I was beginning to think of the structure for my book. Lots of writing, for me, isn't jotting things down in my notebooks or researching big tomes. It is just looking."

The cast of the musical "Let It Be" pose on the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing in London, England on August 8, 2014. (Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)

Fascination with the Berlin Wall

"On the western side [of the Berlin Wall], it was bright. People had graffitied it, they'd painted it, they'd written stuff on it, they'd quoted philosophers and written love notes. On the east side, although I never saw it, I could imagine it. It was so bleak, it was grey and there were rolls and rolls of circular barbed wire. But it's the same wall. It is the two sides of the same physical structure, designed to ideologically divide east and west. Walls are very much in the news at the moment — and borders and, in Britain, a separation from Europe. That was somehow in the ether of the novel.

"The point of the wall was not to keep people out but to lock people in, because there was this hemorrhage of East Berliners making their way to the west. They had to stop freedom of movement to keep people in. Freedom of movement is very much in the air at the moment. In Britain, at this moment in our history, there is a move to end freedom of movement through Europe. Although that's the bleak part of the book, it was in the ether when I was writing. 

Anyone who feels misrepresented by history will work very hard to build another story that feels truer.- Deborah Levy

"I was thinking a lot about history and how it's told, what we leave out. Anyone who feels misrepresented by history will work very hard to build another story that feels truer. I wanted to take a personal history — the ways that you and I might tell our histories — and a collective history, the history of Europe."

Berliners come out to celebrate as East Germany throws opens its borders, effectively knocking down the wall........ 9:10

Everyday time travel

"The book starts in 1988 on the Abbey Road and it then flips to 2016. But there's a bit of 2016 in 1988 and 1988 in 2016. The past and the future are embedded in the present. I wanted history to be simultaneous. I wanted time to be simultaneous. What I mean by that is if you are sitting on a bus today and you're thinking about yesterday, then you might go back. You might even go back quite far in time. Then you might make a few plans for the future or think about something that you really hope for in the future. You're doing this time travel. As Heidegger told us, we are beings in time.

I wanted history to be simultaneous. I wanted time to be simultaneous.- Deborah Levy

"From Saul's point of view, that's how his mind, for various reasons, is working. I don't think Saul is unaware all the time. Sometimes he's very astute and that's how it is. Somehow, a novel has to, in my view, accommodate that. It has to accommodate all sorts of fluidity."

Extreme beauty

"There is something about beauty, really extreme beauty, that I think is quite freakish. It tips over in such an interesting way. We want to look at it. We want to stare at beauty, but decorum tells us that we have to avert our eyes. When we're in love with someone and want to look at them, we don't want to be caught doing that because it is not very cool. But we do want to look.

All these poor women who were supposed to be muses — I mean, they would have been better off planting tomatoes.- Deborah Levy

"Surveillance is a theme in this book. It's called The Man Who Saw Everything. The ways we look at each other, the ways we don't see each other and the way the state looks at us. Beauty was a way in. It was like a less earnest way into some of those questions about looking. I wanted it to be male beauty because I think female beauty is written about more. Jennifer Moreau, who is a student photographer, objectifies and sexualizes Saul Adler. I flip that thing that's usually done to women. 'You'll always be my muse,' she says. He feels slightly undermined because, I mean, who wants to be a muse? A muse is just a projection, right? All these poor women who were supposed to be muses — I mean, they would have been better off planting tomatoes."

Deborah Levy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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