‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’ ‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’
The Beatles album Abbey Road (the last time all four participated in recording sessions together) famously has on its cover no words but just a photograph, taken in August 1969, of the fab four crossing a zebra-crossing outside the EMI Studios in the road of that name.
I say “all four,” but of course the iconic photograph actually contained various clues confirming rumors that Paul McCartney had, in reality, died in a car accident in November 1966 and had been replaced by a look alike, William Shears Campbell: the funeral procession like setting, with Lennon dressed as an angel, Starr an undertaker, and Harrison the gravedigger; the corpse, McCartney, out of step with the others and barefooted, his cigarette held in his wrong hand; the numberplate of the strategically placed Beetle 28IF (Paul would have been 28 if he was still alive, and silly objections that he would actually have been 27 not 28 completely miss the symbolic way age is calculated in the eastern mystical cultures important to the late pop idol); and the mysterious lady with the blue dress on the reverse cover, among others. Further proof of McCartney’s death, if any was needed, was that while John Lennon was to produce arguably his finest work after the break-up of The Beatles, the supposed “McCartney” went on to front the band Wings and to compose “The Frog Song.”
The photograph is perhaps the most imitated in pop culture, and Deborah Levy’s new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, opens with her narrator Saul Adler (not Paul given he is from a Jewish family), a young historian specializing in Eastern Europe, attempting to do the same in 1988, the photo to be taken by his art photographer girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. Adler is about to embark on a trip to the GDR (the fall of the Berlin Wall one year later unforeseen), and the photo is a gift to the sister of his state-appointed interpreter, a Beatles fan, although she is rather keener that he brings a tin of hard-to-obtain pineapple chunks.
While traversing the zebra-crossing he is struck a glancing blow by a car, causing him minor injuries. But various clues alert us that all is not as it seems:
- the driver queries his age, see Paul’s age above:
When I told him I was twenty-eight, he didn’t believe me and asked for my age again.
- when he later returns to the scene, the mysterious woman with a blue dress appears:
While I was thinking about this, a woman came up to me waving an unlit cigarette in her hand. She was wearing a blue dress and asked if I had a light.
- and when the photo is taken — Saul, who had been trying to play the Lennon part, has mysteriously ended up shoeless and actually fulfilling the Paul/William role — a Damascene conversion perhaps:
There I was, walking barefoot on the zebra crossing in my white suit with the flared trousers, my hands in the pockets of the white jacket.
There was a note from Jennifer: By the way, it’s not John Lennon who walked barefoot. That was Paul. JL wore white shoes. Managed to get you in mid-stride like the original, thanks to my trusty stepladder.
But Levy’s story is more than just a retelling of the Paul Is Dead conspiracy.
Is Saul dead? Or is he reliving his mother’s death in a car-crash? And is it actually 1988 at all? Saul seems the one person who actually knows the Berlin Wall is about to fall in the next year. Or is it actually 2016 – 2017, and the aftermath of Brexit, another key moment in European history?
The novel poses many questions and provides few answers as Saul’s tale unravels rather confusingly, at times almost surreally, into shifting settings and times, and characters that morph into one another. But Levy’s focus seems to be surveillance, gender fluidity, betrayal and envy, cyclical time and political dislocation.
This strange novel is deservedly on this year’s Booker Prize longlist.