Saturday, February 01, 2020

The outer edges of life

Where have you gone, Saul? All that beauty blown to bits. Who were you? What languages do you speak? Are you a son and a brother and a father? Are you an acquisition? How do you get along with your female colleagues? What is the point of them, in your view? What is the point of yourself, in their view? Are you there to do something for them? Or are they there to do something for you? Are they a foil for your ambitions or are you a foil for theirs? In what ways do you thwart, oppose, derail or support each other? Which way do you vote? Are you a good historian? Did you ever play football? Cricket? Ping-pong? Are you curious about other people? Or do you walk on the outer edges of life, indifferent, remote, tormented by the affection human beings seem to feel for each other? Are other men envious of you? Are you loving? Have you ever been loved? Yes, I have been loved and I am loving, I said to the man in the mirror, I am all those things I am I am and I need to know what happened to Walter Müller.
I find this book challenging, and I can't decide if I like it. I definitely don't love it — it doesn't resonate with me emotionally. But intellectually, there are so many interesting things to pick away at.

The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, came on my radar a few months ago. I was feeling arty, sculpting and writing, and questioning my muse about the state of musedom: how does one find a muse, how active is the role of the muse, etc. I asked my women friends if they have or know of any male muses. "Why would anyone want a male muse?" In my research, Levy's novel came up as a counterexample that proves the rule — that musehood is a female domain, a state of grace bestowed by male artists.

In The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul is Jennifer's muse. She's a photographer, and her exhibit, "A Man in Pieces," features Saul's disembodies body parts.
"It's like this, Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you."

It's like this, Jennifer Moreau: you have made me the main subject.
Saul is unsettled when he appears at the gallery, grappling with his (in)significance. But Jennifer explains it to him clearly: "It's not about you. It's about me." Art is never about the muse.
I have never had a free conversation with my body. I have silenced my lovers with my body and controlled the kind of conversation they wished to have with their own body. I have never been free.
Then there's this element of fractured time, reminding me of books like Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Philip K Dick's Martian Time-Slip, something by Ursula K LeGuin. But it is very much set in our world.

In 1988, Saul was hit by a car at the crosswalk on Abbey Road. Jennifer breaks up with him, and he travels to East Germany for his research as a historian. In 2016, Saul is in a hospital bed, having been hit by a car at the crosswalk on Abbey Road.
I realized there was glass everywhere and that some of it was inside my head. I had gazed at my reflection in the wing mirror of his car and my reflection had fallen into me.
It's not clear if both realities can be true. How is it that in 1988 Saul can whisper to the East Germans reassurances about the future? Saul in 2016 cannot recall anything of the last 28 years, and he does not grasp the severity of his condition.
Luna's green eyes were like mirrors. I could see myself smiling in both her eyes, as if I had become a double self, which in a sense was right. I was learning to not be myself in the GDR.
There's a lot going on here, about Europe, history, male tyranny, Brexit. About dismantling states, relationships, selves.
Yet the fact that I was searching for someone who might be there, as if their absence were more threatening than their presence, as if lack of surveillance were more peculiar than constant surveillance, reminded me of how I felt after my father died. It was hard to believe he was no longer here to find fault with all I said and did and to punish me for my flaws. I think I was paranoid way before I arrived in East Berlin.

I began to regard my own eyes and ears as advanced surveillance technologies.
Atlantic: Deborah Levy's Disorienting, Captivating Fiction
New Republic: Deborah Levy's Time Warp

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