It's as daunting as it is exciting to see a longlist announced and realise that…
Saul Adler is an unlikeable protagonist, which is a rarity in modern fiction. When I first read Wuthering Heights, upon my partner’s request, I complained about how everyone is unlikeable. She pointed out that it’s part of the fun, and I began enjoying the book from a different angle. The same cannot be said about Saul, though. In fact, The Man Who Saw Everything is savvier than that, and its protagonist is more considered, more layered. Saul Adler, the man who saw everything, is a frustrating, selfish, clueless, sad case of a man. You’ll not grow to love him, but rather pity and then hate him. And The Man Who Saw Everything is all the greater for it.
The Man Who Saw Everything
Raised by a communist father in England, by the rules and guidelines of socialism, Saul is now an academic in his late twenties, studying the history and politics of communist nations in Eastern Europe. It’s 1988, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Saul is crossing Abbey Road when he’s knocked down by a car. Saul Adler promptly gets up, makes little fuss, and carries on to the home of his student girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, where he makes a slap-dash marriage proposal and is met with a breakup instead. From there, he heads to communist East Berlin, carrying a matchbox-full of his father’s ashes, and forms a friendship with Walter Müller which blossoms into a sexual love affair.
“I wanted to tell Jennifer that I loved her, but I thought it might put her off me.”
The plot of The Man Who Saw Everything plays out beat for beat in a straightforward manner, with romantic drama making up the bulk of what reigns you in and holds your attention. That is, until the book’s half-way point where we are hit with a phenomenal twist that reshapes and elevates not only the entire plot but how we think of Saul. While I won’t spoil the twist here, it does work as a grand and effective metaphor for discussing the book’s primary focus: Saul’s absentmindedness.
Saul Adler is, as his girlfriend makes clear in the opening pages, a rather aloof and uncaring man. He is introverted, introspective, unaware of the people and events around him. When Jennifer challenges him to recall which model of camera she uses for her art, or the names of her pieces, he can only recall the photographs of him and doubles down on his defence by insisting that she only ever uses him as her subject. When he enters an affair with Walter Müller, he doesn’t stop to wonder if Walter might be cheating, might have a partner or even children.
“It’s like this, Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you.
It’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: you have made me the main subject.”
Saul Adler’s accidental uncaring selfishness (I say accidental here because it truly is – he is clueless to his own selfishness, and more absentminded than cruel) stem from some deep-seated father issues which are mulled over frequently over the beats of the book’s first half. And this is definitely one of the book’s most finely crafted elements, executed with care and precision. Saul’s father, a communist, places firm respect and belief in a man’s labour. He prides honest work over academia. And of his two sons, he holds Fat Matt, not Saul, in high regards. Fat Matt is a plumber, a working made with valuable skills who has made something of himself. Saul has become an academic specialising in communism in an obvious attempt to impress his father, and yet his true communist dad shows no passion for academia and is far more satisfied by his other son’s decision to become an honest working man. Saul, as a result, has become selfish, always searching inside for what will gain him his father’s respect, and this ironically proves to be the very thing that lost him that respect. And thus, Saul is a sad loop of a man, a self-perpetuating, self-destructive cycle.
Plot-wise, Saul’s father issues make for the most compelling core of The Man Who Saw Everything. On narrative structure, what lifts and sprinkles humour over this often bleak and frustrating tale is Deborah Levy’s skill at defining characters so immediately. She is a master of the craft who demonstrates here the importance of actions over exposition. Levy paints such charming and hilariously vivid images of her characters through a single choice action or observation: “Claudia was a vegan who was always soaking some sort of seaweed in a bowl of water in the kitchen.” Sentences like this lack venom and instead are simply humorous observations which so expertly form a clear personality for these secondary characters. Beyond that, they serve a higher purpose of more densely defining Saul himself (our first-person narrator) as someone who judges, rather than understands, the people around him. He lives in a singular, isolated space, and all others live on the outside of his glass house.
“Jennifer whispered in French to whoever else was by her side, ‘He is still with us, but was he ever with us?’”
Saul Adler is not a likeable protagonist, and even after the midpoint twist reveals a traumatic event and drastically, he remains so. However, through the deft hand of Deborah Levy and her playful yet fierce and sharp way with words, he remains engaging. We may be frustrated with him but this is entirely the point. This is a story about the dangers of being absent; the ways in which a lack of tangible, emotional, impassioned engagement with the here and now leads to a life unlived. As such, Saul may be frustrating, but he deserves our sympathy. His character flaws stem from childhood issues, anxiety and self-doubt, things which countless readers can sympathise with.
Saul Adler is a man of faults; he is a man of humanity. He is not present; he exists in the past, and the future cannot exist for him. The present carries him along, but he is staring out the back window. We have all been guilty of his same faults, and disliking him is admitting that we are him, because we are. And that’s tough. But this is what makes The Man Who Saw Everything a book that’s capable of great personal enlightenment. Enlightenment which might even bring about a flooding of colour into our lives that have the potential to bring change. That is, of course, if we have the strength to allow it.