In Deborah Levy’s Latest, a Student of History Learns to Confront His Own

In Deborah Levy’s Latest, a Student of History Learns to Confront His Own

Levy’s new novel, “The Man Who Knew Everything” is her third in a row to be nominated for the Booker Prize, following “Swimming Home” and “Hot Milk.” Saul Adler, its hero, is 28 years old in 1988, a young dandy, almost unnecessarily good-looking. “You are much prettier than I am,” his girlfriend, Jennifer, a photographer, tells him. He becomes her muse, until he makes the fatal error of proposing to her. She throws him out of her house without any explanation.

CreditSheila Burnett

It’s the first in a chain of strange, unsettling incidents. Saul is hit by a car while crossing the street. He travels to East Berlin, where he falls in love with the man assigned to spy on him and begins experiencing odd premonitions. He gets visions of photographs Jennifer has yet to take. He smells a breeze that has traveled to him from America, from some point in the future: “It brought with it the salt scent of seaweed and oysters. And wool. A child’s knitted blanket. Folded over the back of a chair. Time and place all mixed up. Now. Then. There. Here.” The Berlin Wall will fall, he tells his friends, giving them the exact date. He discovers a toy train in his lover’s pocket, which he has a hazy memory of burying long ago. When a black jaguar is spotted prowling the nearby forest, Saul is certain he has seen it, too, but he insists it was silver.

There will be another accident. Another car (a Jaguar, in fact) will careen into Saul, in 2016, at the same intersection, and we receive an explanation for his strange visions. But, as with another recent twisty novel about power and perception — Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” — it isn’t the grand reveal that feels like the novel’s achievement. It’s the evocation of a state of mind — of haziness and confusion that are, in fact, unwanted knowledge, what the characters have trained themselves not to notice let alone confront. Freud called this ability “motivated forgetting,” and it’s a powerful seam in all of Levy’s work. One of her books is even titled “Things I Don’t Want to Know.” “The things we don’t want to know,” she once wrote, “are the things that are known to us anyway, but we do not wish to look at them too closely.”

Her novels and memoirs are noirish, lean and intellectually chewy — good to glut on if only to marvel at her private mythography, how her obsessions crop up and combine in each book: swimming and swimming pools, jellyfish, women with “snarled teeth,” little coffins. There is dread of the color yellow and a fetishistic interest in black hair. Quite often the story will hinge on something, or someone, shattering: a laptop, a string of pearls, Saul’s hip.

The moment of fracture, and its implications, are perhaps the most consistent of Levy’s interests. Her memoirs dilate on moments when the author crossed a threshold of some kind — moving from South Africa to England as a child, divorcing her husband at midlife — as she passed into realms where old modes of being, old scripts, could no longer help her. In her novel “Swallowing Geography,” the heroine thinks: “It is possible that classic rules of form and structure do not fit this experience of existing and not existing at the same time.”

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