All That Man Is by David Szalay review: breaking the serious news
A chronicle of the trials besetting men of different ages gradually begins to get tedious
David Szalay: talent for narrative weighed down by portentousness. Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty
All That Man Is
About halfway through this uneven and sometimes diverting book, David Szalay introduces us to a character who is travelling by air from London to Geneva. James – a middle-aged estate agent whose face is “getting craggy with the years” – is a reflective sort, and during the course of his journey he stares out of the window of the plane and unsettles himself with the following realisation: “This,” he thinks, “is all there is. It’s not a joke. Life is not a joke.” For James, this moment of recognition arrives with overwhelming suddenness and force: “the thought hits him like a missile. Wham.” For us, it is no more arresting than discovering that you have run out of milk. Existentially challenging, perhaps. But not shocking. And it is not shocking because, by this point, Szalay has been breaking the news about life’s seriousness for almost 250 pages. (He continues to break it for close to that number again.)
He begins in Berlin in summer, where we encounter two young men, Simon and Ferdinand, in the midst of their gap-year travels, searching for life, for girls, and (not much less assiduously) for various forms of cultural enrichment. Simon, whose “inexpressive face” somehow keeps expressing things (usually “solemnity”), is reading Henry James’s The Ambassadors and taking notes about life’s gravity and transience. He underlines James’s injunction to “Live all you can”, but when an opportunity to do so is presented to him (an older woman offers him sex), he lets it pass. Ferdinand gallantly obliges.
From this point Szalay chronicles the trials that an array of men face at different periods in their lives. He does so over a further eight more or less discrete sections (the book is more a collection of short stories than a novel), arranged chronologically so as to offer a picture of the inner lives of a collection of men as they experiencethe process of ageing. In most sections, the man in question is undertaking some form of journey.
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In the fifth story, first published in the Paris Review, a journalist who is working on a newspaper in Denmark is about to run a piece that will wreck the career of the country’s defence minister, who is holidaying in Spain. The journalist visits him, presses him into co-operating with the story, and returns to Denmark feeling exhilarated by his scoop. Yet despite (and perhaps because of) his professional success, he wrestles with a “feeling he sometimes has that he’s a long way from home. That nobody’s there for him if it all goes wrong.” His infidelity to his wife might not be incidental to this intimation.
Elsewhere, we find further examples of men whose emotional life is threatened or stultified by various forms of vanity and fear (pride, self-denial, avarice, an excessive capacity for self-interest, self-preservation, self-pity). Alexsandr is a phenomenally wealthy man in his 60s who likes to think of himself as a “historical figure”, once planned “to write a monumental multi-volume account of his own life and times”, and considers Rupert Murdoch his hero. Faced with the departure of his partner and his fortune, he is now contemplating suicide.
Tony, in the final story of the collection,, is a 73-year-old man who feels “his only purpose in life now . . . is to stave off physical decay and death as long as possible”, whose marriage has long been over, and who has never fully acknowledged his fascination with men. Both facing and not facing these things, he reflects on a line in a poem that describes “a moment’s immersion in the texture / Of existence, the eternal passing of time”. The poem was written by his grandson Simon (he of the inexpressively expressive face).
Szalay’s handling of this material is sensitive, generous and often accomplished. He is adept at evoking the metaphysical stirrings that accompany shifts in light, time, weather: his twilights and dawns, his sodden streetscapes and glinting cities, are full of memorable atmospheric power(“Down where he walked, dusk was deep in the small street, silvering the windscreens of the parked cars”). And he is capable of sharp, fresh and affecting perceptions: his is a world in which “moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”; in which silent streets are disturbed “by a taxi’s busy rattle”; and in which a young reveller is obliged to push “his way through a hedge of partying anonymity”.
More often, however, Szalay’s prose is careless, inert, repetitive, melodramatic, irritatingly portentous: “He feels numb. And also tired. Just so tired. So tired of everything”; “Alexsandr understood that this was actually happening, that it was not in fact a nightmare. That it was his life”; “Sunday. The last, dark Sunday of October. Even the rain has stopped. There is nowhere to hide on a day like this. Streets. Murray walks down them”; “Here, now, the moment. On this rainswept German motorway. Here and now.” Such constructions are presumably intended to generate weight and resonance (there is no trace of satire here). They feel tedious, pompous, impoverished – like stylistic incarnations of the worst of the men that populate Szalay’s stories.
These shortcomings diminish the force of Szalay’s evident talent for narrative, and exacerbate the feeling that, despite its length, All That Man Is is a fairly cursory and insubstantial assembly that might have been a work of lasting strength and moment. At its best, it offers enriching moments of immersion in the texture of existence. But too infrequently to distract you from the passing of time.
Matthew Adams is a writer and critic