The fourth book by David Szalay, who was named one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” in 2013, compresses a lifetime into a year. Each of its nine sections features a different male protagonist, every one older than the last, travelling to or through various parts of Europe as the seasons advance from spring to winter.
These sections interconnect in a variety of ways – through theme, events or recurring characters – and in several instances cross over with Szalay’s previous novels, making his work to date a fledgling version of Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy. The sections can stand alone but only when they are read collectively as a story cycle, or, at a push, a novel, do they exert their full and considerable power.
Nearly every character here is dissatisfied. Simon and Ferdinand, gap-year travellers getting stoned and ineptly chasing girls, are discovering their incompatibility, particularly when Simon makes Ferdinand forgo hedonism in Berlin in favour of Bach’s tomb in Leipzig. In the second section, Bérnard, a young Frenchman on a cheap holiday in Cyprus, is disappointed by his remote, ramshackle accommodation (the very un-littoral Hotel Poseidon) and his inability to attract the women who attract him.
Such immediate concerns cede to longer-term anxieties in subsequent sections. Balázs, a Hungarian fitness instructor moonlighting as security for a sex worker in London, worries about where his life is heading, while an unplanned pregnancy threatens a Belgian academic’s ambition to become “a household name” in “the world of Germanic philology”. The bleakly comic tone of these early sections will be familiar to readers of Szalay’s first novel, London and the South-East, and to a lesser extent his third, Spring. (His second book, the historical thriller The Innocent, is quite different in feel from his other work.)
The middle part of the book is more claustrophobic and its closing sections more sombre. If the younger characters are preoccupied with what will happen next, the ones past middle age regret where they have ended up and plot last-ditch efforts to get out from under their lives. Their conception of the world is no longer that of a system to master but of a rigged game. Only Kristian, the 39-year-old deputy editor of “Scandinavia’s bestselling tabloid”, the subject of the book’s central section, believes that he has control over his destiny.
Szalay’s work has always displayed an interest in the workings of memory. By writing in the present tense, he accentuates the stark division that exists between present and past and skilfully captures the tendency to identify, sometimes long after the event, the moment when a mistake was made. Early in London and the South-East, the ad salesman Paul Rainey reflects that if he hadn’t lost a snooker competition at the age of 15, he might have gone pro, and in All That Man Is, Balázs experiences an epiphany after explaining why he abandoned a career in water polo:
He had thought it was something he had entirely come to terms with. Just for a moment, though, he feels the pain of it again – feels it, in fact, more nearly, more immediately than he ever has before. It’s as though he understands, for the first time, exactly what was at stake – his whole life, everything.
In the world Szalay describes, the older one gets, the more memory becomes a process of regret and self-criticism.
In the sixth section, we rejoin James, one of the main characters from Spring, who is now 44 and marketing chalets in the French Alps. He is well beyond Balázs’s stage of identifying single moments at which things went wrong. For him, life “has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it.” Married with kids, James been pushed, for financial reasons, out to Earlsfield. In Spring, he lived in Bloomsbury, albeit in a dingy flat, and this move away from the centre is significant. Throughout All That Man Is, Szalay’s subjects feel as though they are on the periphery of things, whether that is a nondescript town on an “arid plain” in Croatia, or a holiday home in Emilia-Romagna, purchased because Tuscany was too expensive. “No oligarchs venture up this sleepy valley,” James thinks, as he stands in a sloping field, working out how many chalets could fit there, feverishly anticipating yield: “Méribel it ain’t.”
If you think your shelves don’t need another volume dealing with the tribulations of the white and mostly wealthy western European male, you probably haven’t read Szalay before. His thesis in All That Man Is is largely miserable, but the book is compelling, both for its fine-grained rendering of what one character calls “the texture of existence” and for its intricate patterning of events. Szalay doesn’t elicit sympathy and he doesn’t do sentimentality; some of his characters are odious and their situations are mostly banal (“We all think we’re special – we’re all the fucking same,” as one puts it). Yet that is immaterial: his writing pulls you completely into their world. This is a book that I was impatient to return to and regretted finishing.
At the outset, Simon reads a passage from the preface to The Ambassadors by Henry James, in which James encapsulates his character Strether’s speech about appreciating life: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life.” In the margin, Simon writes: “MAIN THEME”. So, playfully, Szalay announces his own theme, which repeatedly illustrates the difficulty – perhaps the impossibility – of heeding Strether’s words. But then Strether is speaking from a position of failure. In the full version of his speech, he describes how the train of life “had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line.” For Strether, as for Szalay’s characters, real life is elsewhere.
This metaphor surely finds its echo in the final section of the book when Simon’s grandfather sits in his fogbound Italian holiday home – very far from Whitehall and the power he once exercised – and wonders at how fast his 73 years have elapsed. “How little we understand,” he thinks, “about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window.”
All That Man Is by David Szalay is published by Jonathan Cape (448pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster