New Routes in Fiction: David Szalay with Alec Niedenthal
Before this interview I’d read two of David Szalay’s novels, All That Man Is and London and the Southeast (both from Graywolf). The former was nominated for last year’s Man Booker prize; the latter, David’s first novel—he has written a total of four—is being published on our side of the Atlantic for the first time this fall. The text below applies more to All That Man Is than to London, which is a more conventionally structured book.
But both books are about flawed men, some of whom want to become better, most of whom fail to. They aren’t books about masculinity—they’re not about the social problems posed by manhood’s aims and ideals. Novels like that, and there are many, can be stifling in their insistence on manhood, even when commenting negatively on it. All conflicts in these novels revolve around the position the Man, qua Man, is in.
The subjects in these books are men. In London, a middle-aged failure working in telesales named Paul. In All That Man Is, it’s a compendium of men, since the novel is told in distinct stories about men across Europe, from England to European Russia. Szalay confronts each of his protagonists with a moral, romantic, medical, etc., crisis. Szalay doesn't criticize or comment on his subjects, either directly or through narrative structure, so much as look at them very closely, so that, first, we can know what it’s like to be them, and so, second, Szalay can get across a certain idea about how life and time move. The fact they’re men is almost incidental. More important is the fact that they’re people who have experienced a grave disappointment. (The stories in All That Man Is are ordered by age. So in the first story, the male protagonist is around eighteen; in the last, he’s an old man. And they are different protagonists, obviously.)
Szalay’s subjects are all caught in crisis states to the very same extent that the writer's tone is calm, cruel, movingly neutral, as if an attempt at a lesson is hidden in the form of his storytelling: that conflict is an illusion, and all that exists (all that man is) is desire and its betrayal by reality, and then the painful accommodation to this betrayal and this reality that people must make. It’s work that tries to document very precisely how it feels to fail to get what you want, and the way this feeling can, if not make people better, at least, in small, ecstatic moments in which they’re stripped of all their defenses, free them of the burden of having fixed definition and thick borders. It’s in these crisis states that Szalay’s characters experience “all that they are”—what, in our interview below, he calls fluidity.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I wanted to start off by asking—I’ve read a Paris Review interview and I heard this said about All That Man Is, that it was this rejection or suspension of the novel form. You’re like, “What’s the big deal? Why do I need this conventional story? Why can’t I do something else, something more immediate?” Was that ever an impulse in your earlier work, in London and the Southeast for instance—a desire to break with conventional storytelling?
David Szalay: No, not in London and the Southeast. It’s pretty straightforward in that way. Maybe another book of mine, the one that was immediately before All That Man Is, a book called Spring—I don’t think it was entirely successful in that book, but the narrative slightly seemed to disintegrate in a way—there were lots of different stories going on, in that book, it’s quite digressive. But it’s sort of caught halfway between something conventionally structured and put together and the very deliberate separation of stories in All That Man Is. There was a desire to write stories, in Spring, that interacted with each other, and where the meaning of the book existed as much between the stories as within the stories. That was starting to happen in Spring, but it wasn’t fully realized at that point. After that, after Spring, I did definitely have a sense in which writing a unified story, or a book that consisted of a single narrative about a single set of characters—it didn’t really appeal to me. For whatever reason, it didn’t enthuse me. There was no one story that I could really find important enough. There was no one story that seemed important enough to me to carry the whole thing. The idea of having multiple stories that would collectively do something was an idea that was bubbling underneath. Then I wrote the first story for All That Man Is as a standalone thing—the third story in the book, about the Hungarians traveling to London—that was written for Granta, the English magazine. It was in Granta, and it worked, and I got lots of positive feedback—there was something I liked about the dimensions of that story. Fifteen thousand words, very self-contained. There’s not a great deal of backstory in terms of the characters’ lives outside the story. There’s something about that format I really liked. It was just a question of how I could write other similarly structured stories that would fit together in a larger whole in some kind of meaningful way. It would also be very definitely an organic whole taken collectively; I didn’t want to write a collection of stories.
Rail: What were the personal and artistic stakes in trying to make a book like that? I’d imagine there’s a part of you that was fatigued by—you’ve done this before. London and the Southeast is a conventionally structured novel, even if there’s stuff bubbling underneath that’s ‘different.’ Was there a part of you that felt, “I’ve done this before”?
Szalay: Yes, I think so. Yes, definitely.
Rail: Have you always been that kind of writer? I mean the kind of writer who always needs to push beyond his previous project.
Szalay: Looking at the books that I’ve written, it seems that’s true. There are no two books I’ve written that have been very similar. My second book, The Innocent, is very different from all the others. It’s a historical novel set in the Soviet Union. It has a complicated structure too—part of it narrated by one of the characters. Part of it in the third-person. Fractured time. So there’s a non-conventional element to that as well. I think you’re right. There was a sense that London and the Southeast was a successfully achieved conventional novel-thing. And after that there was a sense of not wanting to repeat myself by doing something similar again.
Rail: You’re one writer, you’re one human being. I haven’t read Spring yet, but I do notice certain echoes between All That Man Is and London and the Southeast. Tonal similarities, of course. There’s the same distant urgency of the present tense across books. The same distance taken from the character, and the same intimacy. What’s interesting to me in London and the Southeast is how little Paul, the protagonist, seems to change as a man. That’s part of the comedy of the book, and it echoes All That Man Is in that you see these men trapped in these situations, but they don’t get out, in the end.
Szalay: Absolutely. In London and the Southeast Paul tries to change but fails. He fails. And so yes, that’s part of the point of the book. That he’s unable to break out of that. And yes, of course, in All That Man Is, because of the way that the stories are kind of snapshots, if you like, of these characters in individual moments of their lives—within each of the stories, the characters don’t really change. With the possible exception of Murray in the seventh story. If you take the book as a whole of course, there is a sense of change. Things changing, time passing. It’s not so much that a character positively develops.
Rail: But it’s something in the structure of the book that develops.
Szalay: Yes, and the developments of the characters’ changing—that’s one of the key aspects of novels going back to the late eighteenth century. And that’s not something that particularly interests me.
Rail: Do you think that’s because of the kind of men you tend to write about in these two books—that they might not have much of a capacity for change?
Szalay: It’s not a conscious artistic aim. There may be a sense in which I think that people’s actual capacity for change is slightly exaggerated, in traditional forms. I’m not sure that people actually do change that much necessarily. Obviously the older one gets, the better a perspective one has on that question. While I’m undoubtedly very different from the person I was twenty years ago, in many ways I’m also very similar. I think the idea that life is characterized by a process of positive change is not necessarily true. It’s not a straight line. The line of personal development wanders all over the place. People do change, but I think the idea of an upward line of change. Some people do acquire some sort of self-knowledge and some sort of knowledge of life, world, whatever. But that’s knowledge. People don’t necessarily change their behavior that much. But transformative change… It’s also difficult. These are difficult questions to judge. Everyone’s moving simultaneously. You look at people you’ve known for decades and try to compare them with how they were twenty, thirty years ago, it’s obviously quite difficult. Your memory will play tricks on you. It’s always interesting—sometimes when I read what I wrote a long time ago, I’m usually more struck by… these are things I wouldn’t write now, diary entries and such, not creative writing designed for an audience, but in a way it’s striking when I read this material and I think, “God. I was already me then.”
Rail: The continuity is what interests you, rather than the displacement.
Szalay: The idea of progress personal and societally, economically, etc., the idea of progress has been central for whatever, a hundred years, two hundred years, for a long, long time. It’s how we as a civilization see things. And so we apply that idea to our personal lives. And judge our personal lives against an idea like that.
Rail: It’s interesting that you say that because there is this analogy in All That Man Is between the stuckness of these men and the stuckness of the continent of Europe. You’re talking about how our ideas of social progress mirror our ideas of personal progress, and I wonder when you were writing All That Man is, did that come organically, that connection? Would you be writing about these men in a state of crisis and can’t act their way out of this crisis even if they know what their flaws are, they can’t change the states of their lives…
Szalay: The short answer is that I didn’t have an abstract idea of how to write about contemporary Europe. I was very keen to write about what it is like to live in contemporary Europe in terms of the fluidity, the way people move about, on such a larger scale than they ever have done in the past. That was at the front of my mind. The idea of writing about the various crises in Europe in the past decades—that was something I didn’t set out to do. I’m happy it came through, but I wasn’t setting out to write a book about the various crises in Europe for the past ten years. There’s a wider point as well—I think that the sense of progress is faltering, at least temporarily. The ideas of social, technological progress, which were so taken for granted only a few decades ago, not just in Europe. In North America, just as much. They’re coming under pressure. There’s a sense, a definite sense, the idea that every generation will be materially wealthier than the proceeding one—that’s not going to be true now for one or two generations. That comes back to the fact that technological progress, in terms of technologies that will be economically transformative, don’t seem to be coming through the way they did in the 90s—more than ten years ago at least. Socially of course there’s a sense of things going backward. There’s a more general crisis in the idea of progress. That I’m interested in, and I want to look at the impact it will have on the way people see the world. It’s bound to have massive ramifications in terms of how people see things, because the idea of progress has been so important, in a positive way, in so long. It wasn’t something I was consciously trying to put in any book, but it’s an underlying thing I’m very interested in and think about a lot.
Rail: What you were talking about earlier, the relative borderlessness of Europe—and the way that’s mirrored in a single individual, like these people are also plastic in a way, and these men all have the same anxieties, the same inabilities to treat women or themselves a certain way. Even the title, All That Man Is. It can be either an expansive title—oh, this is everything that man is—or a reductive title—man is just this.
Szalay: That’s what I intended.
Rail: I wonder what it was like for you to reach that final story in the book. The tone and the attentiveness and the internality and the willingness of the writer to address himself more fully to a character’s inner life—that story moves more slowly and more luxuriously almost than the others, and maybe that’s because Tony is more conscious of what’s wrong with him than the other men are. What was it like to make that tonal shift?
Szalay: The tonal shift is definitely there, but it was quite instinctive. I did it. I definitely wanted it to be a more reflective story. More introspective. It was going to have a more sedate pace. The character is forced by the proximity of death into a kind of questioning, which many of the other characters shy away from and won’t do… that they try to ignore. I knew almost in some detail at the beginning of the book what it was going to be, though. So it was a story that, for most of the time I was writing the book, I had a clear idea, an outline, of what that story was going to be. Yes, there are various effects it has in relation to the other stories. It’s more layered. The lack of that in the other stories—that was very deliberate. I wanted the other stories not to have that. I think they’re all very different, and they take different approaches. In the story about the Danish journalist, that was stylistically very deliberately pitched in a different way from the other stories. It was very unintrospective indeed. That was the idea there. There’s a great deal of variation within the others as well. But the last one does go further in the direction of introspection.
Rail: It’s such an interesting structure because of this backward growth. Where you reach the oldest man in the book, Tony, who’s one of the few men in the book who’s a ‘thinking man’—he’s reading The Sleepwalkers, he has the longest memory of Europe out of any of the protagonists; he’s the one who visits the ancient church in Ravenna.
Szalay: His interest in visiting churches is a deliberate way to echo his grandson’s interest in churches in the first story. I thought that connection, between grandfather and grandson—the very first story in the book is the story of Tony’s grandson—was very important to me in structuring the book.
Rail: What lingers with you as you read the book and gives you hope is that first story. As you read these stories of moral destitution, you have that in the back of your mind, thinking that there is this kid at the beginning of the book who is interested in ideas, who is still wide-eyed and awake, in this very young way.
Szalay: Also, it gives a sense of the distance traversed in the final story—the references to the first story’s character. It takes the reader’s mind back, especially at the very end, the last page, they’re talking about him, the character from the first story. My intention is that it emphasizes a sort of circular or cyclical aspect. I think that’s very important.
Rail: The kind of person you’re writing about in All That Man Is, and in London and the Southeast, is very often this specific type of man—slovenly, a failure, minor or serious alcoholic. I have these lines from London and the Southeast stuck in my head, which say that Paul “used to be something of a ladies’ man.” And then there’s a short history of him having sex with women. Reading that book, I was so struck by how funny it was, but there’s such urgency to the prose, and such seriousness, that you’re not laughing constantly. You don’t look down on Paul, even at the end. The climax of the book is someone selling contraband strawberries. Which is objectively funny and ridiculous, but it doesn’t feel that way in the book because of Paul’s swaggering failure. At what point in your “development” as a writer did you realize these were the kinds of people you wanted to write about?
Szalay: This probably won’t come as a huge surprise to you to learn that I worked in advertising and sales. That gave me a huge heap of material to turn into a novel. Obviously I didn’t really like doing it, but it was absolutely critical to my subsequent career, because it really did—I worked in the place for three-to-four years. I was twenty-three to twenty-seven, I think. After Oxford, it was basically what I did. I faffed around and did nothing for a year. I didn’t know at that point what I was doing with my life. So I encountered in this advertising/sales world—most of the people there I had no point of contact with at all. They weren’t people I could ever connect with. But there were one or two who I could connect with, because they weren’t stupid, they weren’t totally unreflective, weren’t just—beasts. They had some kind of vague flicker of something in them which might have allowed them to have a different kind of life. It was that which fascinated me, I think. Someone who’s not wholly of that world. Maybe 80% of that world. Has some sort of other aspect to him or her, and hasn’t been completed subsumed by that environment.
Rail: It’s that flicker that caught your attention.
Szalay: That’s what made the character interesting to me. For London and the Southeast, the character was the crucial “in.” I had a lot of knowledge about that world that I could deploy, but the character was the key way in, to hold it all together. So it had to be a character whom I found extremely interesting. There were a few people I encountered in sales who had this aspect to them. With that book, and with All That Man Is, I do quite enjoy writing about sort of seedy, slightly sordid environments. I’m not quite sure why. The comedy in London and the Southeast was always conceived as a dark comedy. There’s a definite fascination there.
Rail: And you do it without condescension. As opposed to someone like Martin Amis, for whom there is always that risk of writing a character like Keith Talent in London Fields—that risk of making the character too beastly.
Szalay: And the writer oozes a kind of contempt. As his career has gone on, this has become more and more of a problem. He seems to hold his characters in contempt. Then you wonder, “Why are you writing about them? Why write hundreds of pages about someone you hold in contempt?” In London and the Southeast, I was on Paul’s side. I came to the book and felt a clear empathy. I didn’t have anything like contempt for the people I knew who were the “models” of Paul. It was more complicated than that. But generally, writing about superficially, basically unsympathetic characters, trying to extend some sympathy to them—I don’t do that deliberately, I don’t want to go out and show everyone that these people aren’t that bad, not anything like that. It’s more just a fascination with trying to see the world as they see it. And then if you really make an effort to do that, some kind of sympathy is inevitable. It’s almost built into the process.
Rail: But you’re choosing characters who don’t have our enlightened, liberal values. But then again, look at Paul—the way he thinks about women isn’t “perfect,” but you aren’t reading the book and rolling your eyes.
Szalay: Paul is a totally average guy. That’s the reason I found him interesting, I think. He’s Mister Normal.
Rail: Giving those characters their full complicated due—letting them be complex people who don’t have our nice elegant liberal way of framing the world, but aren’t monstrous, and are able to sometimes think critically, and sometimes aren’t, about the way they talk and think. That seemed pretty crucial, letting this guy be complicated.
Szalay: Absolutely, of course. The way you describe it there, you think it has almost a social function. In a world that is becoming so polarized and tribal, it’s trying to see the world through other people’s eyes and to not demonize other people; I’m not suggesting that’s what I was trying to do, but it’s a byproduct.
Rail: There’s obviously a whole history of novels that deal with the ‘mediocre man.’ The average man. And it’s strange how that novel has changed since A Sentimental Education, in which Flaubert’s average, educated man, Frederic, is basically Flaubert as a young man; but that’s changed. If you want to write about mediocre people, you have to write about the “layman.” Not the middle-class intellectual. Of course you were doing sales, so Paul is you a little bit. How do deal with characters who know their problems but don’t know how to change their problems? Paul’s drinking is a great example. These people know these things aren’t good for them, but they can’t change them.
Szalay: Again, looking at myself and at the people I know—there’s extreme alcoholism and extreme self-destruction, but moderate self-destructive behavior is everywhere, and people really don’t seem to find it that easy to step away from that. I always wonder whether I’m creating too bleak a picture of reality. I definitely err on the side of being too bleak rather than too rosy. But sometimes I think maybe things aren’t quite as bad as they are in the things I’ve written. But generally, many of the representations of life we have in our times do overstate people’s ability to develop in positive ways, reinvent themselves, transform themselves.
Rail: And this is something we’re sold, too.
Szalay: Absolutely. It’s fundamental to consumerism. And even to democracy itself. The idea that there are things you can do to make things better. It’s in there. I’m not against democracy, or against consumerism, even. There are self-deluding urges in consumerism, in democracy. A certain amount of self-delusion is necessary to those systems.
Rail: And it’s the novelist’s job to show the process of that self-delusion?
Szalay: Yes, in a way. Because ‘mainstream’ culture will tend to flatter its audience. So I find myself unconsciously reacting against that as well.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.David Szalay
DAVID SZALAY is an English writer. His surname is pronounced SOL-loy. He was born in Canada, moved to the UK the following year and has lived there ever since. He studied at Oxford University and has written a number of radio dramas for the BBC. His novel All That Man Is, published in 2016, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.