In her latest book, the protagonist's psyche splits, leaving questions about how past relationships inform our presentby Francesca Wade / December 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Strange things happen in Deborah Levy’s novels. People send birds’ eggs in the post, arrange rabbit tails in vases, wear capes made of swan feathers and flirt with strangers under crystal chandeliers, and eat the chocolate left out for rats. They are drawn to water: sometimes they float through azure pools in leopard-skin bikinis, at other times they thrash around fully dressed, or drown. Characters set fire to things—someone’s hair, the zoo, themselves (a swig of petrol and a cigarette). They want to communicate but forget how to speak, or find themselves speaking languages others don’t understand. Often, they are assumed to be ill or insane. Objects break and shatter and dissolve—a pearl necklace, a laptop screen, a faux-Greek urn. Sometimes there’s a gun—carefully wrapped in a drawer, or lying on the table.
These moments of fracture reward close attention. Levy’s novels often take place against precarious political backdrops—the Greek financial crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, anti-colonial uprisings in 1950s Algeria, consumer capitalism under Thatcher—where borders and systems are being made and unmade. Her characters, too, are usually in transition, unsettled in temporary homes, waiting at airports, riding escalators, or trying to cross a road. From myriad angles, Levy’s work examines the queasy states of dislocation, dispossession, alienation and their attendant anxieties and desires.
Her characters rarely have a straightforward answer to the question “Where are you from?” or even “What is your name?” Lapinski, the heroine of her first novel Beautiful Mutants (1989), is a migrant whose “mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow.” Sent to London after her parents died, she joins a group of outcasts struggling for survival in exile. In Swallowing Geography, which came out four years later, a character called JK (for Kerouac) wanders through European cities “looking for rooms and coffee and company and comfort,” and searching fruitlessly for her “redemptive homeland”; in 2016’s Hot Milk, Sofia wishes she could speak Greek, the language of her estranged father, who has set up home elsewhere with a new wife and child while Sofia cares for her hypochondriac mother. Unmoored from the usual external markers of identity—family, language, nationality, property—Levy’s characters embark on a desperate search for what they have lost or imagined. They are often intent, as she puts it in Swimming Home, on “an impossible flirtation with catastrophe.”
Born in South Africa in 1959, Levy moved in 1968 to Britain where she later studied theatre. Since Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, her whole body of work—now considered one of the most important in modern literature—has received renewed attention. Encompassing plays, poetry and two works of memoir as well as fiction, Levy has challenged the boundaries of form and language with her heady, disorientating collages of memories, scents, sounds, voices and illusions. Perspective, in her novels, is often unstable; details and meanings echo and shift in careful patterns. Her work takes elements from noir, surrealism, theatre and psychoanalysis (she has dramatised Freud’s case studies for the radio). Above all, Levy writes characters who touch each other where it hurts.
It’s not unusual to find them intent on humiliating one another, arguing over cigarettes and drink late at night. Often, they struggle to tell the difference between love and pain. “There is no love without rage,” says a character in The Unloved, a sort of avant-garde murder mystery that is a precursor to Swimming Home. In the later novel, when Kitty Finch tells Joe Jacobs she loves him, he takes it as a threat. If there’s one thing that unites her characters, it’s their explorations, in the words of an angel from her poem “An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell,” in “the theatre / of the living and the furious / the task / to keep on becoming / more of a human being.” Opening up to both love and pain can help us expand our sense of what it is to be alive. But this often means confronting emotions or facts that we might prefer to keep repressed: acquiring knowledge which will force us to question the narratives we have built up around ourselves, or to keep in check the freedom whose boundless possibility may actually scare us.
Across her work, Levy has been interested in how we edit the past, consciously or otherwise, and the ways we find to express, or hide, our subliminal fears and desires. “The things we don’t want to know,” she writes in a 2011 essay, a response to George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write,” “are the things that are known to us anyway, but we do not wish to look at them too closely.”
The question of what happens when we do look at them—or when we refuse to—drives Levy’s latest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, which again saw her shortlisted for the Booker. The book follows Saul Adler, a character whose trauma has given him unusual insight, yet who remains blind to the betrayals and suffering he may be inflicting on others. Like Levy’s previous novel, Hot Milk, in which the petrifying gaze of the Medusa is a central trope, this is a book closely concerned with seeing, and as attentive to what we fail to see as it is to the unsettling visions that keep the plot in motion.
The new novel opens in September 1988, when Saul, aged 28, is hit by a car as he crosses Abbey Road, while restaging the famous photograph of the Beatles. Subsequently—or so it seems—his artist girlfriend Jennifer Moreau throws him out of her house, and he leaves London for East Berlin, where he intends to research cultural opposition to the rise of fascism. There, he falls in love, first with his translator Walter Müller, and then with Walter’s ethereal sister Luna. Throughout, odd incidents make Saul question his sanity: he finds himself kissing strangers in the street or answering the telephone in neighbours’ apartments, becomes paranoid about being followed or bugged, and confuses himself and others with detailed knowledge of events that haven’t yet taken place.
The novel’s second part is dated July 2016. Saul has awoken in a hospital in London to find characters from his past gathered around his bed. He’s as disorientated as we are: his dead father appears to be alive; a man he recognises as a Stasi informer he encountered in the 1980s introduces himself as his doctor; Germany has been reunited, and it’s now Britain that’s divided by the recent EU referendum.
Somehow, his memories have been shuffled out of order. He is able to see at once all the lives he might have lived, but didn’t: with Jennifer, with Walter, with Luna, in the east or the west, as a different father, or as a different son. Yet as well as revealing how many possible selves lie within us, the novel lays bare the devastation wreaked when we are forced to repress parts of our identities: sexuality, memory, dreams or desires.
In Levy’s novels, the “things we don’t want to know” often concern a family past. In Swimming Home, the teenage Nina is disconcerted when she sees her parents behaving in ways which seem to contradict the story of their lives of which she has convinced herself, and in which her own position is assured; in The Unloved, Nancy shies away from asking any questions of Yasmina, who knew Nancy’s mother before she committed suicide, because she “secretly knows and dreads that Yasmina will ruin her version of history for ever.” Both characters know that they need to look to the past in order to understand who they are, but are simultaneously terrified to address that “pain inheritance,” for fear of what further anguish it may unleash. But the past affects everything about how we live in the present: in many of Levy’s books, trauma reverberates through the generations, leaving chronology as unreliable as memory. “I have never got a grip on when the past begins or where it ends,” says Nina at the close of Swimming Home. “As much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through every day.” Sofia in Hot Milk expresses a similar thought: “I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.”
Freud suggested that the self splits as a response to trauma, and if Saul Adler is lost in the dimensions of time, it’s the result of scars dating back far beyond his accident on Abbey Road. Saul is a perpetual outsider who embodies the dislocation—temporal, psychological and physical—at the centre of Levy’s work. With shards of the erratic Jaguar’s wing-mirror now lodged permanently in his head, he’s left perpetually watching himself from the perspective of that moment of shattering. The novel is full of ghosts and doubles who haunt and subvert the narrative, as Saul’s private traumas merge with those of 20th-century Europe.
His own accident blends with the car crash that killed his mother when he was 12 years old; the cruelty he suffered at the hands of his authoritarian father, who beat him up for wearing eyeliner, connects him with the East German state which would censure the translator Walter for his sexuality. But Saul’s willingness to see himself in others leads him into dangerous territory. During his research, he comes uncomfortably close to identifying with Stalin, who also suffered from a cruel father. And he fails to see the significant risks Walter, Luna and Jennifer all, in different ways, take in their relationships with him: preoccupied with the past, he refuses to recognise the power he holds over their futures.
Finding a language in which to write about women, Levy has argued, involves “learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion.” Jennifer Moreau is one of Levy’s most intriguing female characters: like many others, she is seeking a fulfilled and expansive life, but she is more alert than most to the dangers that a conventional relationship might pose to her creative ambitions. Taking her cue from Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” (which provided the epigraph to Hot Milk), or perhaps from Levy’s own memoir The Cost of Living, Jennifer is looking for a new language, new scripts, in which she can live as an artist untrammelled by social expectations of what it is to be female: she has forbidden Saul to describe her beauty, to her or to anyone else, “because you only have old words to describe me.” She and Saul remain locked in a complex power play, constantly reassessing the other’s view of events (“It’s like this, Saul Adler… No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau”). “You were scared of my love,” he tells her, accusingly. No, she replies, “I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love.” Saul assumes that she photographs him so often because he’s an object of profound fascination to her. But when he proposes marriage, she breaks up with him at once though is unable to forget him entirely. When, decades later, he attends an exhibition of her work, he realises that her portrait of him has fragmented his body, divided his limbs and obliterated his face: its title, fittingly, is “A Man in Pieces.” At last he sees that her work was not about him at all—but about her.
Towards the end of this intensely affecting, rich and complex novel, Jennifer asks Saul if he has any questions for her. Once again, true communication eludes him, the man who sees everything, but who doesn’t yet see enough. “I did not want to know, as well as wanting to. I could not break into her thoughts and feelings. Or my own. I could not break in.”
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)