“Yes,” older Jennifer said, “I knew I had to get away from your love as fast as possible.”
It is 1988, Saul Adler is a beautiful, young Historian thinking only about his glamorous girlfriend Jennifer, a photographer who is planning to take a picture of him crossing Abbey Road just like the Beatles album cover for his host’s sister Luna, who adores the Beatles. In three days he is meant to leave for East Germany (GDR) to research “cultural opposition to the rise of facism in the 1930s at Humboldt University”. Granted permission into the archives for promising to ‘engage sensitively’ and ‘focus on education, healthcare and housing for all it’s citizens’, subjects of which he had discussed with his own father before he died. Here Walter Müller will be his translator but right now his mind is stuck on Jennifer when he is nearly run over in a zebra crossing (pedestrian crosswalk) falling back instead on the curb. The car that comes seemingly out of nowhere and nearly hits him is driven by a man in his sixties named Wolfgang, and so follows a peculiar interaction, the novel itself is a peculiar interaction with the reader and yet compelling for this very reason. Looking back on his notes from the night before, his hip sore from the fall, he thinks about his dead father who was a tyrant much like Joseph Stalin. He remembers how his brother doled out the punishment for their father, for Saul being so fragile, so much like his dead mother, for not being the right sort of son, his father offended always by his ‘sublime beauty’. Beauty that can seem to the reader like a blessing and curse. His relationship with Jennifer is crumbling and he isn’t really sure why. Jennifer feels she isn’t really seen by Saul, does she wish to be seen beyond her beauty, is that why describing her with words is verboten? But does she see him beyond his ‘sublime beauty’ or care about his mind? He is confused by her adamant complaints that he doesn’t see her, doesn’t know anything about her art of which, by the way, he is the subject, but she is all he sees! He would marry her! She wants to end things, ‘you will always be my muse‘ and so with the death of his father and relationship ending he is ready for great change. It is in GDR that his life splits and forks when he meets his translator Walter Müller and Walter’s sister Luna. Told not to say ‘everything was grey and crumbling’ in his report, the truth is Walter is a relief, spending time laughing in his company, finding pleasure in someone who isn’t about ‘material gain’ frees Saul. Censorship here, he knows, isn’t any different than Jennifer’s censorship of his thoughts and feelings for her.
Something strange is happening, objects look familiar like the tiny carved wooden train Walter is holding. There are new desires too, who knew mushroom hunting could be such a pleasurable experience. With his father’s ashes in tow, the haunting memories of his past too have hitched a ride. People he meets become consumed by him, Saul always the center of others. Luna is no exception. “Your hair is so black. Like the birds in the fields.” There is a lot he doesn’t see in GDR too, truths about Walter, Luna, and Walter’s colleague Rainier. Just who is Rainier really, with his acoustic guitar and interested questioning? It’s not just about communism, country, family, sex or love. It’s all those things. It’s about time and memories, about how our version of reality can be a fiction we tell ourselves. We are all haunted houses, in a sense, age at times bringing more questions, regrets like phantoms.
The past, present and future come at us fast and we are all splintered beings. Saul’s love is fluid, and not any easier for it. We are really not the stars in anyone’s lives, not even our own. When told to ‘go back to your world’, which world is that? People are suddenly older, and Saul knows everything but not how or why. His story is shattered, time is slippery and faces, people are blurring and blending. It’s how we fail to be there, how we destroy others being entrenched so deeply in ourselves. Everything is a weight, even the things we think we shucked off.
This is like a drunken read I don’t believe I would have understood were I younger, fresher and less jaded. It’s horrible and beautiful because it reveals cracks in human beings, I think. You get lost in the tangle, the shame, joy, pain, love and confusion of Saul’s life. Missing so much like you will in your own, if you live long enough for regrets, for a long hard look in a fractured mirror reflecting the many versions of you. I like that the Abbey Road photograph is the beginning of this story, we have these photographic memories of ours that never tell the whole tale, only hint at what is happening. These flashes of ours, wondering what’s outside the photo, who is the eye, what are the subjects thinking and feeling behind what we can behold. This novel put me in a weird frame of mind.
This is certainly an engaging read, but it is dizzying. In the beginning you are like a newborn baby trying to make sense of weird occurrences, not understanding up from down.
Deborah Levy’s writing can unsettle you, but I enjoy her work for that reason.
Publication Date: October 15, 2019