The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Welcome to my first review of 2021 where I say absolutely nothing about the plot of the book.

Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything is best read cold. There’s a blurb, but don’t worry about it. If stories about East Germany, or The Beatles, or how memory works are of interest, add this book to your list. If that’s not enough to convince you, know there’s an extraordinarily clever plot twist.

I was embarrassed beyond measure to have brought such a large portion of my own sorrow to the GDR. Yes, it was such a big helping.

If you’ve read Levy in the past and appreciate her off-beat, slightly weird characters and her particular writing style – is there a word for detailed but pared-back at the same time? – then The Man Who Saw Everything won’t disappoint.

As always with Levy, I feel as if there’s meaning embedded in every single detail, half of which I miss. In this story, the Berlin Wall is the central motif. Levy uses the Wall as a way of exploring before and after; conscious and unconscious transgressions; and real and imagined betrayals.

She wanted to escape from a reality that was so rational it was a little bit mad.

The structure of this book is creative, and it is through structure that Levy challenges our concept of memory – how much does memory inform who we are in the present? Are our memories all we are? How and why does one person’s memory of an event vary so significantly from another’s?

To my horror, it seemed my father was a kind man.

And lastly, just so you know that Levy has a sense of humour –

I have sex all the time but I don’t know if it’s the sex I had thirty years ago or three months ago. I think I have extended my sexual history across all time zones, but I did have a lot of sex before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After that it’s a blur but I think I had less sex in social democracies than I did in authoritarian regimes.

4/5 Clever.

If you’ve read this book, the obvious food pairing is a tin of pineapple… but I enjoyed the scene where the new vice chancellor at the main character’s university has his staff racing around preparing his elaborate tea-trays. His afternoon tea always included gazelle horns.

12 responses

  1. I’ve been all day writing a review about a big book and saying nothing about the plot. It’s hard work. I detest blurbs and the last thing I’d want to sound like is a blurb writer.
    I had the State Library catalogue up so I checked and I see lots of Man who saw Everything, but all print. But. Two libraries have audiobooks of Swimming Home. And I might also borrow: Things I don’t want to know : a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I write’

    • I loved Swimming Home and thought Hot Milk was even better (this one is closer to the style of Hot Milk than Swimming).
      I also wonder about star ratings… but I think I’m fairly consistent handing out stars and it does help when I look back on reviews/ Goodreads).

      • I think I am too: three for a good read, four for a great one, and five for James Joyce and George Eliot. I don’t rate things I abandon, and ones and twos are rare because I don’t often continue with books not worthy of a three or four.
        But it’s not so much whether I’m consistent with my own standards, it’s how they’re interpreted by others. I do worry a bit about that, and whether I’ve hurt the feelings of an author who’s written a good but not great book…

  2. Agreed that the less you know about this one, the better. I felt like there were a lot of references I didn’t get but the book still worked and that twist! I never guessed it!

  3. Like you I adored HOT MILK. This one was not quite at the level for me, but it was intriguing.
    I do love how you note the food that pops up as you read. I remembered the tinned pineapples obviously, but had forgotten about the tea tray treats.

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