Deborah Levy: 'We live in history and we make history'

Deborah Levy: 'We live in history and we make history'

We chat to Deborah Levy about her Man Booker-nominated seventh novel, The Man Who Saw Everything

The Man Who Saw Everything opens with its protagonist Saul Adler nearly getting hit by a car while crossing Abbey Road. This event is at the centre of Deborah Levy's latest and Man Booker-nominated novel, around which the rest of the book spins. Sprawling across different time periods, countries and histories, it's a credit to Levy's skill as a novelist that The Man Who Saw Everything is so slight. We spoke to Levy about her novel's preoccupation with looking, history and how writing fiction compares to non-fiction.

How did the story of The Man Who Saw Everything come about?
My first thought was to write about male beauty. My second thought was to write about a woman who was both attracted to, and scared of his beauty because she knew everyone wanted a piece of it and he would never fully commit to her.

So, I wanted to flip the usual gender stereotypes on the subject of beauty and have Saul become his girlfriend, Jennifer's muse. There is a big theme of surveillance in my book, thus the title. I wanted to investigate the ways in which we stare at each other (Jennifer is a photographer) and the ways in which the state (in this case communist East Berlin) stares at us.

Why did you decide on Abbey Road and East Berlin as the book's settings? Do they hold a particular significance for you?
I have long been fascinated by the Abbey Road zebra crossing and all the tourists who imitate the various ways in which the Beatles walked in that photograph for the iconic album cover. I have friends who live near there and I found myself sitting on that wall outside the EMI studios just enjoying watching them fool around.

Similarly, I have long been intrigued by the Berlin wall. It was mostly built to keep East Germans citizens locked in, rather than everyone else out. Although it was so forbidding in its structure (concrete, barbed wire, heavily mined), it was also a symbol of how fragile the communist regime actually was at that time. To build walls of any kind signifies fear more than anything else, so in a way it was a very fragile wall. I wondered what would happen if my leading character, a freakishly beautiful man called Saul Adler, was to step across Abbey Road in 2016 and fall through the tarmac straight into East Germany in 1988.

In the book's opening there's a 'careful reconstruction of history.' Why were you interested in exploring different ideas of history in the book?
We all have to live with our various histories (personal psychological, political); we live in history and we make history – even if it's just to pass down a recipe for marmalade. The past is present in everyday and we tend to make wishes for our future. So, in this sense, we co-exist with many time zones.

Also, I wanted to get a grip on what it took to create a peaceful post-war Europe after the Second World War. This was partly because of Brexit. So, my novel is about a man trying to cross a road for 30 years and it's about an argument between a man and a woman that has been going on for 30 years. Obviously, they share a history.

You've become known for your non-fiction as much as your fiction. Do you get something different out of writing fiction that you don't with non-fiction and vice versa?
The characters in my fictions are avatars to carry my arguments and anxieties into the world. They can do things and say things and think things that might be bolder than myself. I become very involved with them. It's like a romance or a friendship or a deep understanding that has to end when the novel ends. I tend to miss them for a while after I have finally delivered the book. The act of writing is so weird!

The Man Who Saw Everything is out now via Hamish Hamilton.