Blog Tour Review – The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy is a writer unlike no other.

This strikes me, even as I write it, as a sentence that feels over used and some what stale. But that doesn’t stop it from being true.

There are so many authors out there that I admire but Levy’s work is always immediately identifiable as hers. Her work is consistently insightful, always complex and raw, and always magnificent.

I am thrilled to be part of the blog tour for her third Man Booker long listed novel, The Man Who Saw Everything.

The novel centres on Saul Alder, a young historian and opens in 1988. Saul is knocked over on the famous Abbey Road crossing, and despite a rather confusing encounter with the driver who hits him, seems physically unharmed. Immediately after the accident he visits his girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, a talented American art student and fiesty independent women, who has imposed clear rules on their relationship.

This evening is a crossroads in their relationship. Saul is about to embark on a research trip to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Jennifer is finishing her studies and moving on. Saul proposes marriage, Jennifer ends the relationship. The theme of misremembering, misinterpretation and conflict begins, and we get our first glimpse of the nature of Saul Alder.

For Levy has created a character that is intelligent, beautiful and articulate. Having lost his mother at an early age Saul seems emotionally tied to the past. At odds with his working class father and bully of a brother, refusing to remove his mothers pearls, Saul Alder is self absorbed, often selfish, but certainly not self aware. A man with an incredible eye for detail in the world around him, he is woefully lacking in his understanding of his own character and behaviour.

As his relationship with Jennifer ends Saul travels to the GDP. He is assigned a translator, Walter Muller, with whom he begins a relationship, one which comes to dominate his life despite it’s breivity. He also becomes involved with Walter’s sister Luna, a young woman looking for her key to the west.

The second half of the book takes place in 2016. Saul has again been struck by a car, again on the infamous Abbey Road crossing. This time he is seriously injured and the second half of the book is an account of his time in hospital. A time where the threads of his life come together and Saul begins to face the man he is.

Throughout the novel there runs an overwhelming sense of history; personal history and world history, particulary that of Europe. It is not a linear presentation, rather it is fragmented, appearing in snapshots, interpreted and misrembered by individual characters each adding their own version of events.

Levy continually plays with the concept of time. There is a fractured and fragmented feel to the novel as elements from each part of Saul’s life appear in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Personalities from the past appear in the future and vice versa, creating a running commentary on the complexity of what makes a person and what defines our experiences and choices. There is an inflated sense of deja vu as the echoes of the past affect the future and back again.

Saul feels like a conduit within the novel, a way of drawing together the past, the present and the future. A feeling embodied by Luna, when she says…

But you must.” she said, firmly. “You are history”

Pg 89

Continually the lines of time are blurred. Whilst in the GDP Saul is able to give Luna an accurate prediction about the fall of the Berlin Wall, bringing the future to the present. Equally we feel that the grief he holds, literally around his neck, for the loss of his mother, is what drives Saul to his study of German policital history. Again Levy is playing with and breaking through the barriers of time to create the sense of a novel seeped in history but unconstrained by it.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of haunting. The image of spectres appear again and again, particularly as Saul is hospitalised after his second accident. Levy points out that events in our lives continue to contribute to and define us as we move forwards. Similarly the motif of wolves, dogs and predators stalk the narrative, in the way that his grief for his mother and his guilt surrounding his relationship with Walter stalk Saul’s own life.

Yet Saul is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Taking into account the moving and fractured time frames, his own lack of self awareness and his two accidents, there is a continual sense of story and an author shaping and rediscovering themselves. At times this feels very insular and persoanl to Saul’s story, at other times this feels very much like a wider metaphor for the historial and polictical times we currently find ourselves in.

For this is a novel steeped in the history of Europe. There are continual references to various European countries and influences, woven skillfully into the narrative. The history of Europe and it’ s division and subsequent reunification through the fall of the GDR is central to the novel. It doesn’t feel coindicidental that Saul’s second accident is firmly in the time frame of the EU referendum result. There is a feeling that whatever our future relationship with Europe, we are still bound to it through the past and the present. Nothing is as linear as we would like to believe.

It feels so trite and unimaginative to call this novel complex and orginal. But it truly is. Every review I have read has come up with a different perspective and focus. For it is a novel that lends it’s self to interpretation and discussion. There is so much more to this work than I could ever hope to include in these short paragraphs. It is a work to be read debated and then reread. And I guarantee that much like the narrative structure adopted by Levy your perception will shift and you will find new angles, new motifs and new meanings upon each reading. I have read this book twice in 5 days and each time I have taken something different away from it.

The Man Who Saw Everything is an incredible book. There is no doubt it is a novel for our time; it is a novel for all time. And I am predicting a third Man Booker short listed book for Deborah Levy.

Man Booker Review #Two : Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.

If I could write for just 5 minutes like Jeanette Winterson I would die a happy woman.

Over the years I have continually been amazed by her intelligence, insight and biting wit. Since reading Oranges are not the only fruit in my mid teens, a complete revelation to a young some what sheltered girl (!), I have been completely hooked. No two Winterson books are the same, such is her rare versatility and style, both setting her apart from the crowd.

In that respect Frankissstein is no different.

But it all other respects Frankissstein is completely different.

It is unlike anything I have read before.

To the point where I am actually not sure where to even start with this book.

It is such a feat of fact, beautifully woven with fiction, that encompasses so many relevant and current themes. Winterson’s discussion and consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) takes the reader both into the past, the present and the future.

Here is a dual narrative so cleverly employed. Finding ourselves in the company of Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, we see Shelley’s influences and hear her stories. As an observer of ongoing discussions between Mary, Percy Shelley and Byron the reader witnesses the new and emerging thinking of great these minds , debating what is the nature of a human. There is a tangible feeling of excitement and hope as they stand on the edge of advancement, but also a fear and apprehension about what the future holds.

We are then thrown into the present with the transgender protagonist, Dr Ry Shelley, and his lover Victor Stein pioneer of AI. Ry has changed his body, making it a place his mind feels at home. This character introduces and embeds the idea that as a race we are constantly redefining our understanding of what makes us who we are. It is a debate that has raged throughout history and is explored throughout the novel, in both narratives.

This is an treaty on, amongst other things, what it means to be human and how this debate should be guiding some of our thinking as we progress ever further in our quest for advancement and knowledge.

Winterson opens the discussion, raising question after question. Are we more than a sum of our parts? What is the essence of ourselves, and does this lie in our minds or is it part of our bodies too? And if our sense of self lies within our mind, then is the way to eternal life to download our minds and live within an alternative body? Or maybe not even a body? And would we be happy with this, or is our body important after all?

Winterson draws no conclusions but skilfully uses a cast of characters, both past and present, to shape both the potential and the pitfalls of Al and all that goes with it.

Stein is the champion of the technology, pushing it’s boundaries, seeing it’s potential. He is focused on it’s possibilities and is willing to accept any disadvantages for the greater good.

Ry is a moderating presence, open to ideas and possibilities but questioning how far we as a race should go.

Ron Lord, millionaire sex bot creator, sees the commercial advantages of AI, extols the virtues of commitment free sex but also asks the layman’s questions, questions that have a crucial validity in their simple insightful nature.

Enter Claire, American and far right religious, trying to make the moral case for AI, sometimes with twisted logic, making what she sees fit into ‘God’s’ plan. Here we see shades of Darwin and the up roar his theories caused, similarly AI takes us further from long held and traditional views, views which have underpinned belief systems and societies.

Winterson has opened the debate on AI, showing us just how far we have come, where we currently are and questioning how far we can and crucially should go. We are challenged to discuss how AI will benefit the human race, but also what it may cost us. We should question who benefits from these potential advances. Is the progress universally enhancing or does it have the potential to compromise or even destroy that which we hold dear?

The dual narrative shows us that as a race we have always been on a continual journey. Questions that we are asking in this era of advanced technology, Brexit and Trump are questions that were debated by the Romantics in the Villa’s of Florence and Geneva and others throughout time. You can’t stop humans discussing, progressing and push boundaries; there is an inevitability here.

Frankissstein is a book that challenges, that encourages questions, discussion and debate. It’s not a cosy, ‘keep it to yourself’ read. It’s one to push the boundaries, be argued over at dinner parties. It is a book bursting to get off the shelves and out into the big wide world.

A book with a voice that needs to be heard.

I, for one, can’t get this book out of my head. It’s ‘food for thought’ is still being digested and I can’t wait to feast again when I see Winterson at the Manchester Literature Festival on 5th October. (Link for tickets right here !)

I am left with a feeling that this is a book with a very important message in our rapidly changing world.

Rachel

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape.

My ManBooker Prize Reaction

Good Morning!

This is a bit of surprise blog post! I wasn’t planning to blog again until the weekend and hadn’t particularly expected to blog about the Booker Prize Long List.

However, due to a number of factors, mainly extreme heat, the mother of all thunderstorms and a flatulent dog(!) the Long List hit my radar a lot quicker than I expected.

I was scrolling through Twitter in an insomnia induced rage and, ‘PING!’, it popped up before my very eyes.

And I have to admit I was excited.

I might have wept inwardly for my proposed Summer Reads. (See Sunday’s blog post!)

And then I went straight back to being excited again.

So I have given my head a little wobble, reminded my inner goblin of self doubt, that my opinions are as valid as the next book geek and decided to crack on.

It’s not a long post, but very much my initial raw reaction to the list.

And so…

…books I have read…

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite– I read this one earlier in the year. Review if you are interested can be found here. I loved the author’s economic but precise use of language, the dark humour and perfect plotting. I think that as debut novel it is impressive.

 Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli – This one was another Women’s Prize read. Very well researched, very well written and so relevant with its focus on America and Mexico’s lost children. Multi layered and complex, there is so much to discuss and motifs of childhood run throughout.

It certainly wasn’t the easiest book I have read this year, either in subject matter or style. I also found the protagonist and some-time narrator quite hard to connect with. So I guess the jury is still out on this one.

Moving on…

…books I am definitely going to read…

Let’s begin with…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood – It was never, not even for one single second, in doubt that this book was going on to my TBR pile. It is the LONG awaited sequel to the 1985 cult novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the anticipation of it’s September release has been bouncing around my bookish brain all year.

This book and I have history! I have stubbornly refused to watch anything beyond Series 1 of the recent TV adaption, as I believe the power of the first book is rooted firmly in it’s unresolved ending.

And the only person I want to hear what happens next from is Atwood!

Night Boat to Tangier- Kevin Barry – Another one that was already on my radar. It’s been getting a lot of interest in the last week or so in the blogs I follow. Two Irish gangsters, sex, death and narcotics seem to be to make a pretty interesting combination.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann This novel is everywhere!! So I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find it nestling on the Long List. 1,000 pages, and a single sentence? Unique certainly! Winking at me on the desk as I type.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo Hands up this one had completely past me by. And I am not really sure why because it sounds like some I would really engage with. The story of 12 characters, mainly Black British women and their experiences through several decades. Really hoping to read this one

LannyMax Porter. – Heard this one mentioned on the Backlisted Podcast a couple of months ago and if my memory serves me rightly then there were comparisons made to the style of Lincoln in the Bardo. Add in a recommendation from @BookishChat and I am sold. This one was a ‘2am- post-announcement-order‘. Arrives tomorrow...

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson – Already earmarked for my summer holidays! Have loved everything I have ever read by Winterson and I was captivated when I heard her talking about this one earlier this year. A look at the future of our planet in the grip of AI, with more than a nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If anyone can pull it off it’s Winterson.

and the rest?

So those are my initial thoughts. Not especially deep or erudite but just my initial gut reaction to what is an exciting list.

The remaining 5 books listed below haven’t quite spoken to me yet, but give them time!

  •  The Wall – John Lanchester
  • The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy
  • An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma
  •  Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

Thanks for indulging my ramblings. Following this with interest and looking forward to hearing others thoughts! Especially the ones you think I have missed from my list!

Happy LongList Reading !

Rachel x