The Waterstones Interview: Deborah Levy

Posted on 24th March 2020 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, author Deborah Levy discusses misunderstanding and playing with time in her 2019 Booker Prize-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything.

The title of the book, The Man Who Saw Everything, seems to play both on Saul’s naïve belief in his own sagacity and the relationship between sight and insight. To what extent did you want to explore the space between what we see and what we understand in this novel?

My novel is more about the space between what we see and misunderstand, rather than understand.  It feels really bad to be misunderstood, so that’s rich territory to explore in a fiction.  Surveillance is a major theme in The Man Who Saw Everything and I give my attention to this theme on a number of levels –the ways in which we watch each other and the ways in which the state (in this case, communist East Germany in 1988) watches us. 

For a start, I explore a 30-year relationship/argument between Saul and Jennifer. How do they see each other over three decades?  They love each other and betray each other, but they do come to an understanding about the value of their long attachment. 

Is it possible or desirable to see everything?  After all, love has to be blind, because if we saw everything in each other (good and bad) we would probably run a mile. 

The opening chapter leaves the striking image of Saul aping the Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road cover photograph. It’s a visual marker that echoes throughout the rest of the novel.  It made me think about the nature of photography, of the captured scene, and what it says and what it doesn’t (or cannot) say about a real, living moment in time. How did that image come to take root so deeply in The Man Who Saw Everything?

Yes, I wanted to create a very definite sense of place in Britain because The Man Who Saw Everything slips between time zones and other places - including Germany and America. The novel often returns to the Abbey Road crossing.  I spent quite a lot of time on the Abbey Road watching tourists take photos of each other walking across that iconic Zebra.  Everyone seems to enjoys the action of crossing that road, often adding new, absurd poses that are different but reference the original album cover.  It’s as if they have been given a structured space (the zebra crossing) to fool around.  It occurred to me that the road is a mildly dangerous place – everyone has to strike a pose before a car runs them over, so they haven’t got that long to take the photo. When Jennifer takes that photograph of Saul crossing the Abbey Road, I had a quote from Susan Sontag’s essays on photography in mind: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability… All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

I found the relationship between Saul and Jennifer fascinating. Like Lee Miller – whose name crops up in the novel – Jennifer is insistent on being the onlooker, not just the subject. ‘It’s not about you.’ She tells Saul. How much of Saul’s inability to truly connect to those around him is about his insistence on being the subject of his own story? 

Saul is a man who is emotionally detached and careless with other people, so that is partly why he cannot truly connect to those around him. At the same time, he is loving, so this confuses everything for Jennifer. She is young and bold when the novel starts. She’s an art student and she’s trying to figure things out. So, she’s thinking about representation and how not to be an object and how to be a subject and how to cope with a boyfriend like Saul Adler.  Saul is physically a very beautiful man. She is obsessed with his beauty and frightened of it too, because everyone wants a piece of Saul. 

How important was it to you, when writing this novel, to separate Saul’s perception of his world from the reader’s preferential awareness of multiple other potential stories and experiences coinciding with his?

It was very important to me to hand over Saul Adler’s perception of the world  to the reader! And  to his friend, Jack, who is an important character in this story, despite Saul’s attempt to make him less important than he actually is. 

Time and our shifting perceptions of it permeate every page of The Man Who Saw Everything. You find ways of moving through time, history and experience in new and astounding ways. To what extent did you want to look beyond one experience of a moment, to explore how our perception of the past is changed by the benefits of hindsight and retrospection?

I think I did find new techniques to handle time, history and experience in this book. I mean, I didn’t set out to do that, but it soon became clear that this would be one of the major challenges of writing this novel. In this sense, I was writing way out of my comfort zone, especially because it spans 30 years of history.  So, the past is always alive in the present moment – which actually is true of how we all live our lives. To make any sort of innovation in fiction, as I discovered,  it is not really a matter of having lofty intentions – innovation happens because the story demands it.  The Man Who Saw Everything is about a man trying to cross a road for thirty years. So how to tell that sort of story?

The book is full of vividly described everyday objects, from Saul’s pearl necklace to the tin of pineapple. How important do you think these physical talismans are to anchoring us in the world and in our own lives?

The tin of pineapple is a major object and I like that it is something so small – all Saul needed to do was remember to buy it in London and bring it with him to give to his hosts in East Berlin.  The tin of pineapple is there to anchor the reality of life in the GDR – where it was difficult to find or to afford a tin of pineapple, and also to underline Saul’s carelessness. So, I give it the status that Raymond Chandler might give to a gun.  The pearl necklace carries a history, 1938 Europe, and it’s there to mess up all kinds of binaries. Saul has an authoritarian father who is embarrassed that his son wears a pearl necklace. 

You’ve spoken about how your autobiographical work as ‘living autobiography’ and it struck me that there is something of the same feel to this novel – of self-conscious experience of, and questioning of, the present moment. To what extent do you think the experience of writing autobiographically has influenced your fiction?

I don’t want a novel to behave like a novel and I don’t want autobiography to behave like autobiography. I want all my writing to be as complicated as life itself. That is easy to say, but it’s not easy to do.

In this phase of my writing life I am interested in how unreliable we can be to ourselves, and to others, and how unconscious motivations make   assignments for our fate, tell us what it is we really desire.  

I am an old-fashioned surrealist, with the caveat that I believe that actions have consequences and that the search for coherence is of tremendous value to ourselves and the world. But we don’t achieve coherence without many misunderstandings on the way. 

 In all my writing I want there to be plenty of suspense and a great deal to be at stake. All writers use the vicissitudes of their own lives as material. At the same time, I believe that imagination is the jewel in our crown and that there is immense societal pressure to give it a barcode and brand it. Fiction has to resist this impulse – but we all do really. 


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