In Spectres of History, Deborah Levy speaks about her recently published book, The Man Who Saw Everything. The event is mainly a question-and-answer session led by the chair about the book, focussing on analysing the protagonist, Saul Adler. Adler is a narcissistic bisexual historian who has a strained relationship with his late communist father. As a result, he ponders overnight about male tyrants like Stalin, likening them to his father. This leads to a fateful 1988 Abbey Road accident. He immediately lands in GDR (East Germany). The second half of the book is where Adler gets into another accident, after which he finds himself in post-Brexit London in 2016.
Throughout the event, Levy is her posh, poised self, taking difficult questions in her stride. While trying to be spoiler-free, the chair warns the audience that rather like the rest of Levy’s books, The Man Who Saw Everything doesn’t end happily. He has clearly analysed the book thoroughly before he came to the event, as his questions are mainly on his own interpretations of the book. There is such a lengthy discussion about Adler’s narcissism that even if the audience hasn’t read the book, it’s evident to everyone how much this character loves himself.
What is more fascinating to hear is Levy’s personal reasons for devising a character like Adler, and choosing GDR as the setting. Levy explains that Adler is a product of her growing up in the time of effeminate male celebrities, such as David Bowie, who has permanently changed her view on rigidity of masculinity. She chose GDR because the wall was built to keep people in, which she feels that some people do to themselves, ‘necessarily so,’ as a defence mechanism.
In the Q&A session at the end, questions stray away from the book and focus on Levy in general – for example, what allows her to write outside of most people’s comfort zones, or whether she has any advice for people who wanted to do social justice. This is an event where readers of the book can get an explanation about Levy’s choice of character and setting, without alienating those who haven’t read the book. However, questions from the floor do feel a bit too general, in the sense that they could have been asked in any event with Levy in it.
All in all, the event is enjoyable but also dragged on, which could be saved by focussing less on Adler and Levy, but rather on the themes of the book.
Spectres of History was on as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival
At Charlotte Square
Image: Shin Woo Kim