The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This was a far more bizarre and disorientating reading experience than I had anticipated, and I concede that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to grant it the attention it demands. It’s a book that is difficult to talk about. Firstly, because much of its success hinges on the delivery of a structural ‘twist’ half-way through the narrative, and secondly, because it offers so few answers in response to its many questions that it’s almost entirely open to interpretation on a thematic level.
There’s no denying that Levy is in full control here. We might not always know what she’s doing, but she certainly does; repeated clues, patterns, and motifs tying the seemingly disparate threads together with skill. There are lots of interesting ideas to dive into, including commentary on the nature of memory, time, history, politics, gender, sexuality, and identity (both personal and national). It’s incredibly ambitious to tackle so much in such a slight novel, but things never feel rushed; the atmosphere one of such entrancing wonder that you are guided along gently – even when things dip into the nonsensical, and err dangerously close to the it-was-all-a-dream trope.
The most interesting aspect to me was the use of recurring motifs related to sight and the ways we document the world around us – eyes, lenses, photography, and surveillance. In many ways, the book felt like it was about what we choose to see, what we cannot face up to, and what we choose to ignore entirely. This imagery builds on that idea nicely. I also liked the contrast Levy highlighted between a still image, which captures a single moment in time, and the reality that every event in our lives is informed by the burden of past, present, and future; time bleeding together in ways both literal and figurative.
I also really enjoyed Levy’s playful use of gender roles, particularly the reversal of the artist and muse dynamic, and the book’s look at the idea that history repeats itself in spite of seeming social progress (a divided Germany of the 1980s sitting in effective contrast with the Brexit fallout of the present day).
This is one of those rare books that left me so torn, I can understand the response of those who adored it as much as I can those who found it impenetrable. It’s such a singular and at times alienating read that expectation and headspace will undoubtedly pay a key role in how much you’re able to engage with its many riddles. As it is, I could glimpse and admire the novel’s brilliance, but only ever through a dense haze; one that kept characters and emotional resonance just beyond my grasp.
You can pick up a copy of The Man Who Saw Everything from Book Depository by clicking here.