Our Author of the Month for September is novelist, essayist and memoirist Deborah Levy, whose latest novel The Man Who Saw Everything was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. We at the Bookshop have long been Levy devotees, so couldn’t pass up the chance to reconvene our (very) occasional Booksellers’ Round Table to discuss this haunting, fragmentary, dreamlike work about a beautiful man with a mysterious past – and present (even though a couple of us still hadn’t actually finished reading it). Now read on...
Gayle: I just don’t know what we’re going to say without spoilers!
Katy: Are there actually any spoilers?
Gayle: Re-reading it, there are definitely spoilers. I’m reading it in a completely different way now.
Claire: ...which is interesting, because you wouldn’t necessarily think of good, really interesting literary fiction as being really plotty and spoiler-y?
Gayle: Maybe ‘spoilers’ is the wrong word, but... there’s a mystery to the book.
Rachael: ‘Spoilers’ was the word Deborah used at the event. Having edited the event podcast, and then read the book afterwards, I know I approached it in a completely different way than I might have done.
Gayle: But it’s not like: if you read a trashy crime novel and you know whodunnit, there’s no reason to read it. This is a good book! I always think this about watching Star Wars – I came to Star Wars very late and I always knew that...
Claire: ... that was his dad.
Katy: Also, I think these aren’t really plot spoilers – they just reveal more and more about the characters. You grow in your relationship with them as opposed to being: oh my gosh!
Gayle: Re-reading it now, there are little objects and symbols that recur through it, which I – maybe I just don’t read closely enough in general, but I definitely wouldn’t have picked up on the first time.
Natalia: I was so drawn to the repetitive mention of ylang ylang all through – I can’t wait to smell it and get a tree! I had to look it up – there’s an amazing Philippine myth in which Ilang, a beautiful girl, falls in love with a boy she is not supposed to marry. Before they can come together, she is transformed into a tree - the ylang ylang.
Rachael: I love the symbol thing – I like the mirrors, and the ‘yeah yeah yeah’s.
Rachael: The mirrors particularly. Deborah used the word ‘narcissism’ about Saul in the event, and I wondered if I would have identified that myself without having heard her say that? Because he is remarkably self-absorbed, but is it really pathological?
Claire: It's been enabled, perhaps, by circumstances. I’m not going to say it’s Jennifer’s ‘fault’ – because she can do what she wants – but certainly the book opens with him literally being looked at by the other person he’s constantly talking about. He’s constantly talking about being looked at and being the centre of everything.
Natalia: His appearance has dictated his life – until we see him reduced to a maimed body he hardly recognises... That bit at the art gallery with all his portraits – oh dear, that made me feel like crying. I kept asking myself if it was in some way all about beauty: the male beauty that is described, and the female body that is not allowed to be described. The thing is that Saul Adler was punished as a child for his beauty, but he is not allowed to describe Jennifer.
Rachael: Which man is it who saw everything? You start out assuming it’s going to be Saul, but I didn’t feel that by the time I got about halfway through.
Gayle: I mean, I think because of the narcisissm, he–
Katy: –he sees very little!
Katy: The Man Who Saw Very Little – it doesn’t sound so good. But it’s a book that takes a very small story about a self-involved man and then elevates it; but with such subtlety and quietness, to a part of history that – it’s not ‘gone out of fashion’, but we just don’t think about it so much, the GDR. And that provokes such questions all through. This man being self-involved – it’s so ambiguous. Is this actually the Stasi and an informer state? Or is this him being, everyone looks at me, because everyone looks at me?
[chorus of agreement]
Katy: It was so fun reading a book written by a woman about that kind of thing, and subverting so many ideas about ‘looking’. But not in a heavy way.
Gayle: I think she’s a really funny writer! I feel like no one ever talks about how funny she is. Even on a sentence level, it’s like – bits of it actually made me laugh out loud.
Katy: ...and I think the dialogue is really funny. If you took the dialogue out, you would get such a different book, I think. It’s always really strange snapshots of the characters.
Rachael: ‘The thing is, Saul Adler...’ ‘The thing is, Jennifer Moreau...’
Katy: Exactly! I love those little epithets. And the pearls that he wears – I loved it – an unconventional wearing of manhood or something?
Claire: It’s his mother’s pearls, right? The pearl necklace has just been mentioned.
Katy: What last scene did you just read?
Claire: The first discussion of having seen the jaguar, possibly.
Rachael: Oh my God – I've just realised – that's the car in 2016!
Katy: If we keep re-reading this, we’ll... there are probably so many things like that.
Claire: The car that hits him is a Jaguar? Argh! I’ve just got a shiver down my spine and I haven't even finished it yet.
Rachael: But it feels so simple. It feels very not ‘crafted’ – deliberately wrought – but actually, as you say, when you re-read it, there are all these little motifs...
Claire: She’s doing this brilliant stuff that is kind of hiding in plain sight – I don't know if that's usually used as a compliment or not, but I mean it as one in this case. She doesn’t waste words – she gets right to exactly what she means or wants you to know, at the right moments, without having to overuse stuff – it’s perfect.
Rachael: But she also does it in a way that doesn’t feel withholding, that feels very natural to the flow of the book. Sometimes you read books that are doing that for effect, and it’s really deliberate, and you feel: just get on with it.
Katy: Or loads of backstory – ‘and then when Jennifer was a child....’. Because it’s written in an ambiguous way, I was desperately reading it – it was a really thirsty read. But not like The Hunger Games is a thirsty read: that was so bingey, really great fast food; this is – I don't know what it is, but I still wanted to eat it really quickly.
Rachael: I felt like that when I was reading it last night – when your eyes are starting to close and you’re like, BUT I WANT TO READ ANOTHER PAAAAAGE....
Gayle: I was re-reading it last night in that manner, even though I knew what was going to happen.
Natalia: It’s so gently done – smooth, and yet so full of information, from the personal to the political.
Claire: It’s wonderful, isn’t it, something that’s very deep and serious, intellectual, but still – you can just read it? There aren’t many people writing like that, I don’t think. And you never at any point feel that she’s saying to you, look what I did there! I'm just going to make sure you see this... rather than putting trust in the reader that they’ll see it for themselves. You might not get it until a second read, but it is all there for you if you want. Hot Milk was like that too. There’s a whole layer to that book that I didn’t get at first, and then I read Alice Spawls’s piece in the LRB: it was so interesting about that aspect. There’s all this uncanny stuff, and the relationship with her mother – and you can relate to it, and it also feels like something very strange. With a close reading, this whole other world, other layer opens up for you.
Katy: One thing I really loved reading this book – this doesn't detract from my enjoyment of other books, but – it doesn’t indulge in the world of self-care and psychotherapy and therapy. The events that obviously have a huge emotional impact through the book are just told as events.
Rachael: ...‘and it was all about your mother‘...
Gayle: ...even though it probably is all about his mother....
Katy: But you only know that through – spoiler danger! I'm so confused about the order of the book now, even having finished it – I don't know what comes when.
Rachael: Well, it all comes at once, that’s the thing. I was trying to think of what the right metaphor is – it’s like layers of translucent paper, almost, and you can see bits of the other layers through it.
Claire: They all co-exist. Ali Smith said something in, maybe, the event for How to be both: that every moment that ever happened, they’re all happening at the same time, and we just think it’s a line, a continuum. They’re all on top of each other. I just feel like I understand the world when people remind me that’s a possibility.
Natalia: For me, it was about two different timelines – his youth versus his old age – and the need to look back and make sense of the lives we have been through: the political age, the relationships and betrayals. What is real or imaginary? Why do we behave as we do and then years later try to make amends for who we are?
Katy: It’s so much more complex than what did happen and what’s just about to happen – because no one really lives life like that.
Claire: I think for me, structurally, that must be a really thrilling thing, and one of the most exciting things about the book?
Rachael: Deborah said at the start of the event that she started out by thinking about somebody falling through the crossing at Abbey Road – and then she decided that would break the contract with the reader, so she’d do something different. I think what she’s actually done is so much more exciting than if she’d gone down that kind of speculative fiction route.
Katy: Are you attracted to anyone in the book?
Katy: Walter’s the hot one, isn’t he?
Rachael: I think Walter’s the Man Who Saw Everything.
Gayle: He’s just – quiet and kind.
Rachael: ...and not self-obsessed.
Katy: And do you think he is actually attracted to Saul Adler?
Claire: So, maybe the way layers of time can all coexist, the two things can coexist in him. Just because there’s a possibility that Walter’s betraying Saul, misleading him, doesn’t also mean that he can’t be attracted to him at the same time. Someone in an event the other day said it’s only in Western cultures that we have a problem with this thing we call hypocrisy – that you can’t feel two conflicting things at the same time.
Katy: It was Nicola Barker.
Claire: So in Eastern philosophies and cultures, you can be a contradiction – that’s exactly what being a human being is about. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I can't wait to read the rest of it.
Rachael: I think we've done quite well at not giving any spoilers away!
Gayle [to Claire]: So you’re at the dacha?
Claire: Yeah – Walter has just suggested to Saul that he spend a week with Luna in the dacha because she doesn’t want to be alone. I don’t know what her vibe is! Well, I'm about to meet her. Very little’s been said, but you have this really strong sense of anticipation about who this person is. Her name’s just been dropped in, casually, by the characters – not by Deborah.
Natalia: Luna – oh Luna, she’s the most difficult character for me. I profoundly dislike her at some level and admire her sagacity at another.
Katy: I’m not going to spoil anything but – I loved the scene when you do properly meet her –
Gayle: ...in the flat?
Rachael: ...the first scene, with the cake?
Katy: There is a bit of analysis about it, and I just think it’s such a perfect explanation of a person.
Claire: ...the not-pineapple cake?
Katy: It’s so great. I wish people screamed more. [LAUGHTER] It’s just such a good release.
Claire: I am so fascinated by the tin of fucking pineapple.
Katy: What I love about it is it’s got such symbolism, but it is so basic, why it’s fascinating: because it wasn't available in the GDR.
Claire: It’s something to do with inattention, and not caring?
Rachael: Yes - care-less-ness.
Claire: The pineapple is just representing the idea that things are really, really fucking hard for these people and really, really easy for these people.
Gayle: There’s a bit where Saul says something to Walter along the lines of, I understand your childhood – my dad was a bastard too. Like that is the same as living in a totalitarian state! Which shows how little he can understand anyone else’s experience outside his own.
Katy: And then the dynamic of Saul’s father being such a ‘fellow Soviet’, and a communist who was so romantic about it: this is the ultimate utopia, where you have complete distribution of everything. He’s so out of kilter with the reality of actually living in it.
Claire: Is Saul fetishising it inadvertently by studying it, and not attempting to grasp people’s actual lived experiences?
Katy: Ah, I hadn’t clicked with the symbolism of the paper he’s writing throughout it... there’s too much stuff!
Claire: There’s a hell of a lot going on, isn’t there, over the course of 200 pages, bob on?
‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ is published by Hamish Hamilton, £14.99. Deborah Levy is our Author of the Month for August – explore her work here on our website or pop in to visit us at Bury Place for more.