How Deborah Levy reinvents time in The Man Who Saw Everything

The Booker-longlisted author’s latest novel brought me to tears and helped me understand my own experience of PTSD, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett 

Deborah Levy's The Man Who Saw Everything

Setting down Deborah Levy’s new novel The Man Who Saw Everything recently while on holiday in France (after swimming in a very deep, antique 18-century pool of which I think Levy would approve), I wondered if another book had ever had such a profound effect on me. I was in tears, despite rarely crying when I read novels. But more strangely, I had an eerie feeling that I had understood something important about the human psyche, which in that moment was difficult to put into words. 

'I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress'

When I first read Deborah Levy, it was 2011 and I was very ill. The previous September, a man had tried to kill me, and after a few months, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I spent most of that year in therapeutic treatment, trying to unpick what had happened to me, why I was the way I was and how the events of the past, which seemed to be burning away my ability to live peacefully, were spreading into my present like a stain in the corner of an instant photograph. I was irrational, fragile, somewhat paranoid, oscillating between dissociative episodes and bouts of rage. Meeting Kitty Finch in Swimming Home and discovering how this 'mental' girl comes careening into a family’s buried trauma – they think she is merely gatecrashing their holiday, but her disruption has much greater implications – meant something to me, and continues to.

There is an obsession with relatability when it comes to modern fiction. And I suppose to an extent I did see myself in Kitty Finch (though I also saw myself in the poet Joe Jacobs, and in the teenage daughter Nina), but the impact of Levy’s fiction goes much deeper than that. When I read Hot Milk in 2016, this novel about hypochondria happened to coincide with another period of mental illness, which this time was manifesting partly in health anxiety. As in Swimming Home, what I loved about Hot Milk was its subtle and innovative examination of how the past intrudes on the present and shapes who we are. '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,' narrates Sofia Papastergiadis.

'I came to Levy when I was trying to understand the workings of the human mind - not least my own'

Levy’s latest novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, is published this week, when I am relieved to say that I am – if not cured – living peacefully. Not that this has rendered my reading of the novel any less meaningful. I came to Levy at a time when I was trying to understand the workings of the human mind, not least my own, and that fascination has endured. The story of Saul Adler, hit by a car in 1989 and seemingly hit by another in 2016, has Levy’s signature blending of modernist and realistic styles, which results in what the author herself has called an 'uncanny' effect – her choice of terminology, reflecting the influence of Sigmund Freud on her ideas (Freud’s describes unheimlich, or the uncanny, as 'something that has been repressed and now returns'). Levy continues to look to the unconcious mind as a subject, and seems to be engaging in a long-term experiment in how literature can convey the things that characters 'don’t want to know' in new and subtle ways.

The Man Who Saw Everything feels like the culmination of a psychoanalytic study that was present both in Swimming Home and Hot Milk. Eerie symbols echo like phantoms, stalking the narrative. Scenes and images are repeated but they jar, their details shifting. Lines of dialogue are echoed, intruding in the manner of unwanted memories, or compulsive thoughts. Levy’s approach to the coalescence of time is what feels most revolutionary – life-changing, even. There will always be novels about memory and the past, but there are few that will dispense with dealing with time in a linear fashion, not simply by using flashbacks but by treating time as a sprawling, shifting organism. Psychologically speaking, we do not exist entirely in the present. Our memories, including our traumas, float and swirl through our consciousness, mutating and shaping our day-to-day lives in ways in which we are largely unaware. As Nina says in the end 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.'

When you are suffering from severe trauma, time doesn't feel like a straight line painted on a canvas. It’s a maelstrom of intermingling blotches, spreading outwards until it covers every scrap of white space. I could be walking along the street and, with no warning, be transported back to another time and place through flashbacks to the attack. Other memories, seemingly unrelated, would rise to the surface. Nightmares are rife with strange symbols and scenes. Events repeat themselves. It is deeply strange. Uncanny. I don’t want to give too much away about Saul Adler’s fate, but suffice to say that the past returns to visit him in ways I felt I profoundly understood.

I was very ill for quite a long time. But mixed in with the fear I felt at the odd ways my mind was attacking me, there was a kind of awe at what it was capable of. I felt the same awe when reading The Man Who Saw Everything. Who knew that writing could do that quite so miraculously?

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