All That Modernism Is: Reading David Szalay

December 1, 2016   •   By John Dixon Mirisola

All That Man Is

David Szalay

IT’S A CLASSICALLY — even self-consciously — modernist setup for a book: nine sections, proceeding sequentially from April to December; nine protagonists, advancing in age from 17 to 73; all European men traveling within Europe. A book about youth and ambition and migration and aging and death and masculinity and time and the search for meaning in a post-meaning world, all themes reaching together toward some kind of universality by way of a measured schematic progression. Title: All That Man Is.

That David Szalay’s latest novel, which was shortlisted this year for the Booker Prize, manages to pull off even half of what it sets before the reader in a schema like this is remarkable. In fact, the Budapest-based British author manages much more, and with far greater feeling than such a taxonomical approach might threaten. Szalay charts modern man’s progress through the seasons of life in brief glimpses at nine richly flawed individuals, crafting moments that seem both intimate and archetypal. There are seductions and betrayals, secrets spilled and punches thrown, names disgraced and fortunes lost; there’s even a regaining-consciousness-in-a-hospital scene — all the sorts of events that might take place were they given a whole lifetime to unfold. Yet the actual unfolding of these events feels less significant than our fleeting immersion in the consciousness experiencing each of them. Blending the personal, often plainly repressed nature of these men’s experiences with Szalay’s minimalist, red-eyed observations of the textures of 21st-century Europe, the novel reads like what Hemingway might have called In Our Time had he written it 90 years later.

From the very first page, there’s a distinct possibility that the whole book might veer into that stuffy, painfully allusive, super-serious branch of modernism. There’s the epigraph from Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season…”), the T. S. Eliot quote — early pessimist Eliot, “April is the cruelest month” Eliot — plus nods to Joyce and Beckett and Camus, plus the use of poetic space (line breaks mid-paragraph; a whole page blank except for two words, “The music.”, when our first protagonist, Simon, hears a performance of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor). But what could read as heavy-handed in this section is redeemed by the way the aesthetic emerges quite naturally — and comically — from Simon’s own point of view. The teenager, a fledgling tortured poet soon to be an Oxford Man, idolizes the male modernists; Eliot’s pessimism somehow speaks to Simon’s hopeless infatuation with a girl back in England — Karen Fielding, whose name he cannot even bear to record in his journal, and whose persistent presence in his thoughts is wrecking his pre-University railway tour of Europe. Against the encouragements of his insufferably upbeat travel companion Ferdinand, all their touristic excursions feel empty and pointless to Simon; nowhere is of any value if the place cannot show him Karen Fielding.

It is by way of irony, then, not super-seriousness, that we find Simon “ploughing joylessly through” these lines from deep in Henry James’s late masterpiece, The Ambassadors:

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. If you haven’t had that what have you had? I’m too old — too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don’t make it. For it was a mistake. Live, live!

Young Simon, scanning for exam fodder and oblivious to the fact that he has just been handed a shining pearl of wisdom perfectly applicable to his own station in life, marks the passage with the note “MAIN THEME,” then returns to brooding over the modernists and Karen Fielding. Throughout the novel, such dramatic irony abounds; it makes light the heaviness of sections like Simon’s — makes light, even, of the book’s own MAIN THEMEs and key influences. (Toward the end of Simon’s chapter, he tries once more to pick up The Ambassadors, but it nearly puts him to sleep.) Irony does important work in this book: the reader senses repeatedly that there are important things these characters do not understand, cannot perceive, or choose not to notice. Youth is unprepared to accept the insights of an old 19th-century realist; age is too distracted with the demands of an overgrown ego to recapture any of the earnestness or possibility of youth. In this way every section comes to anticipate the next and look back on the former with insights that are lost within every other phase of life. It is a book of hindsight, foresight, and a blind stumbling through the present.


The novel’s most significant achievement is one of mimesis. Through these leaps into the minds of progressively older protagonists, Szalay succeeds not simply in describing but enacting the dreadful rubbernecking feeling of a life rushing past — a feeling of both immense loss (where is all of this time going?) and of terrible waste (what have I done with my life?). There’s a particular moment in the novel’s fourth chapter when the effect comes devastatingly into focus. Karel, a postdoctoral medievalist manboy whose most recent accomplishment was having an affair with an undergrad, is driving from England, through West Flanders where he grew up, into Germany to meet the woman he is currently sleeping with, Waleria. He is eminently satisfied with his own “solitude [and] freedom,” with his career’s potential, and with his fluid relationship with Waleria — altogether, “he is unable to imagine living more happily in the present.” Along the way, Karel begins to think in the abstract about his attraction to the medieval period:

The whole appeal of medieval studies — the languages, the literature, the history, the art and architecture — to immerse oneself in that world. That other world. Safely other. Other in almost every way except that it was here.

Then he stumbles onto a thought that should crush him, but somehow, safely academized, does not:

They were here, as we are here now. And this too shall pass. […] [O]ur own world will pass. […] It will turn into something else. Slowly — too slowly to be perceived by the people living in it. Which is already happening, is always happening.

Here dramatic irony once more serves its purpose: here we begin to spot the change already taking place, the mechanism by which, in the course of a hundred pages, we’ve passed through the minds of a lovesick British teenage poet, a French slacker, and a sensitive ex-military Hungarian flunky, and now we find ourselves here, with this man in his mid-30s driving through his own past, wishing “for everything to just stay the same.” But it will not. Karel will meet Waleria in Germany and she will tell him she is pregnant, and that she loves him; and regardless of whether Karel can successfully manipulate her into getting the abortion it is clear she does not want, his life will be changed, and will always be changing.

As soon as these men become aware of the distance they have put behind them, everything starts racing toward the end, toward the inevitable conclusion of this novel’s program. A little more than halfway through the novel, James, a luxury condo salesman (and a reprise of the protagonist from Szalay’s last novel, Spring), is struck, as the book’s protagonists frequently are, by a simple thought: “I am not young […] When did that happen?” The way we advance through personal epochs in these brief flashes leaves the reader similarly taken off-guard by such minor epiphanies. Just when did youth end? When does “the depressing feeling that he is able to see all the way to the end of his life” emerge? This is the novel’s arc, its progress as steady and awful as time itself.

But it is not just a sense of loss and waste, only and ever, that Szalay achieves through this unrelenting structure. Not simply April “breeding lilacs out of the dead land” only to die again — pace early Eliot. The novel may open with The Waste Land, but it winds up sounding more like late, mystical Eliot, who on the threshold of old age wrote in “Burnt Norton”:

[…] the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

Though each is older than the last, every one of these characters does, naturally, occupy the same nine-month period of time. As the novel draws to a close within the mind of a retired government employee, Tony, the narrative reaches for one last moment of keen perception. It’s a more complicated and — maybe artificially — comforting theory that he has been trying to articulate to himself: that youth and old age, in a real sense, inhabit the same temporal terrain; and more than this, that the old and young participate together in the same ultimate process, the motion of the seasons, the flow of time — “everything impermanent embodying, through the very fact of its impermanence, something endless and eternal.” In a neat nod to continuity, and to Tony’s central idea here, he has begun thinking about all this because of a poem published by his grandson, Simon (the angsty teen from the book’s first chapter). Simon’s poem wonders at the impulse to smell a flower, concluding that it represents “Just a moment’s immersion in the texture / Of existence, the eternal passing of time.” Here, in the exchange of a short verse, old meets young, end meets beginning, and time runs up against something that might endure past the limits of the self. That each of the novel’s stories are themselves bound together into one piece of literature is perhaps too formally neat a way to sum it up, but this is, in effect, the novel’s final mimetic gesture.


If the formal conceit modeling the passage and simultaneity of time were not enough to hold this book together as a novel, there would still be these nine stories, tight and thematically unified, tackling the preservation and destruction of the male ego. There are, of course, many things that this book isn’t, which it could have been, and it would be easy to fault Szalay for not truly attaining the universality toward which his book’s title strives. For all its interest in the “physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe” (per the jacket copy), little attention is paid throughout the novel to any people of non-European ancestry living in or moving through Europe. The book’s subjects also skew white collar, middle to upper class in background, and there is no real consideration of how the conditions of poverty or extreme hardship might alter Man’s archetypical narrative. That these characters are all cisgender and in heterosexual relationships (if they are in relationships) is also worth mentioning. The author limits the scope of his novel to a survey of traditional, individualistic masculine norms, and to examining the associated myths of sexual conquest, professional esteem, and personal legacy. The fact that none of the men in these stories seem in any way happy about their place along this trajectory, and that none of them are particularly admirable, suggests that the author’s circumscribed approach to these subjects does not constitute an endorsement of Eurocentric, cisgender, heteronormative masculinity — even though the characters’ lack of diversity ultimately comes across as overly narrow, compared to the novel’s ambitious formal scope.

Szalay writes with great empathy but little mercy for his damaged, morally complicated subjects, going underneath the social and sexual politics of repression and posturing by which they survive. In many instances, these brief glimpses reveal how little has changed since Hemingway’s portraits of emotionally hobbled men and the women they don’t know how to care about. The scene in which, on a remote hotel terrace, Karel tries to reconvince Waleria to get an abortion reads like an homage to “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Interpersonal relationships do not fare well in these pages. The protagonists move through their own lives like ghosts. There are sparks of true human connection — often romantic or potentially romantic, other times between friends, rarely among families — but such sparks never catch; they only reveal, by contrast, how fundamentally alone each man is in his experience. To the very end of life, their true selves seem to exist only in secret, protected by decades of defense mechanisms. The last protagonist, Tony, fiercely suppresses the “fascination” he has with some men, which his estranged wife and his daughter have long suspected. When his daughter, Cordelia, tries to draw him into a conversation about the handsome son of his cleaning lady, he immediately changes the subject, as if he doesn’t understand. He knows that this “makes him sound much less sensitive than he actually is, much less perceptive,” but “it’s the price he pays for steering things away from what he does not want to talk about.”

Several of these men are fathers, and some, like Tony, even interact with their kids for a few pages; but not one of the novel’s protagonists seems concerned in any major way with the responsibility of raising his children. Once they reach parenting age, their thoughts have already begun to revolve around their professional troubles and aspirations, or else, around extramarital romantic prospects and more general mid-life-wasting-my-breath crises. For the working men of this novel, kids represent inconveniences, obligations, distractions, or nothing whatsoever. This excerpt from the life of tabloid editor Kristian is typical:

Every morning he takes his daughters to school, or in the summer holidays to their tennis lesson. It is usually the only time he sees them during the day, since he arrives home late, long after they are asleep. […] It is a promise he has kept so far.

The sidelining of parenthood should not be seen as a flaw in the book’s construction; rather, it calls attention to the fact that, for whatever Western society’s egalitarian aspirations are, being an active and engaged parent to one’s own children is somehow not viewed as a fundamental component of the All that modern man Is.

By contrast, with Henry James’s exhortation to Live, live! echoing from the book’s first pages, it can be shocking to encounter the smallness of the thoughts and ambitions that do fill up these men’s lives. Most in the 30-and-over crowd are preoccupied with becoming accomplished within their esoteric fields, or, more nebulously, with gaining the respect that will somehow validate their way of living. James is hoping to leave his firm, which sells luxury alpine condos, so that he can strike out on his own … and sell luxury alpine condos; Karel’s looking for “the thing that makes him, in the world of Germanic philology, a household name.” By the time we get to Murray, the “semi-retired” (read: unemployable after burning every one of his professional bridges) Scotsman currently living a cursed life in inland Croatia, this pursuit of esteem has been reduced to a resentful need to hear the twin Albanian kebab vendors say a single cordial word to him.

He has been eating their kebabs for over a year, and he has always felt that he and they share something, something that sets them apart from the other people in this place, a superiority of some sort. And yet they never speak to him […] or acknowledge him in any way.

It’s absurd, this feeling of superiority Murray harbors, and the belief that it deserves to be affirmed by the kebab guys — and also achingly sad. Here is that sense of wasted time again, of a life of bitter self-importance come to naught. The point is hammered home in the next section as Aleksandr, a disgraced, soon-to-be bankrupt Russian billionaire, contemplates suicide. He stands on one of the upper decks of his massive luxury yacht called Europa — the symbol of a lifetime of personal attainment, prowess, and power, all those things that have composed his sense of self — and he wonders, “how does one jump from a vessel this size?”


Immersed in each character’s point of view, we are spared none of their misogyny, nor their prejudice, selfishness, or pettiness. Typically, Szalay does well to tie these moments of wretchedness into a deeper sense of insecurity within the character — Murray thinks of the waitress who won’t date him as a “fat tart” and a “floozy”; Aleksandr calls the judge who handed down his damning court decision a “whore.” There are, however, a handful of instances in the text in which such characterizations seem to proceed from the dramatic action itself, from something more objective than simply one character’s point of view. In section two, for example, Bernard, a college dropout on a budget holiday in Cyprus, finds himself strangely captivated by a “fascinatingly huge” young woman named Charmain, who is staying with her mother at the same resort. His perceptions of Charmain’s body oscillate between the grotesque and the sensual, until at last Bernard is alone in his room with her, overcome with intense desire. It is, on one level, a complex body-positive depiction of erotic interest — yes, Bernard has to do some swimming upstream to get past his unflattering first impressions, but this is where he ends up. Yet it can be difficult to overlook the ways in which Charmain and her mother are portrayed on a dramatic level throughout this section. When mother and daughter talk to one another, all we know is that they are “talking about food.” When they eat, they order “enough food […] for eight or ten people” and “obliterate the spread in under half an hour.” Charmain herself seems to have little in the way of character depth or personality — she seldom speaks until they are in Bernard’s room, at which point she says, “Do you want to see my tits?” Out of the many iterations of believable reality the novel could have shown us, we are, in such occasional missteps, offered instead clichéd caricatures. It is not an issue of the protagonists processing the world in flawed and reprehensible terms (which they do, which is fine); rather, it is a matter of what, ultimately, they — and readers — are given to look at.

At its best, there’s something poignant in the way the novel juxtaposes these protagonists’ baseness with moments of profound, almost transcendent insight. Every one of these men, at some point within his narrative, experiences some ego-effacing encounter with the substance of the world — a “moment’s immersion in the texture of existence.” It’s affecting that each character, however flawed and unpalatable his perspective, has access to these sorts of perceptions. Still, most are unable to extrapolate the thing of greatest importance from the experience. Karel perceives the world in a state of constant change, but he tries to force his own life into stillness. The tabloid editor Kristian, in another nod to Hemingway, contemplates the sad brutality of bullfighting — “the bull’s failure to understand, even at the very end, that his death is inevitable […] is just part of a show” — but Kristian himself is in the spectacle business, the business of ruining lives, if not as violently as the bull’s, certainly as publicly. That these insights might speak to a better way of being in the world, that these perceptions could change them, doesn’t cross their minds.


At the book’s close, Tony’s daughter, Cordelia, is expressing some concern about her son Simon, his intelligence and oddness:

‘I wouldn’t worry,’ he tells her, putting his hand over hers.
She nods.
It’s what she wants to hear. Whether it is true or not, who knows.
Only time will tell.

Simon is, after all, still young. He’s oblivious, and a bit arrogant, and he could stand to read some Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith, or Ali Smith, alongside his Eliot and Joyce; but part of the hope of this novel — a hope implicit in the way it circles back to Simon at the end — is that he hasn’t yet been subject to most of the formative archetypal experiences of the men throughout the rest of this book. Maybe he will make the same mistakes, become the same guarded, fragile, self-absorbed man the last 50 years of masculine formation have brought to these pages. But it’s possible Szalay’s novel is actually an elegy for something at the end of its days, a way of being that is now drifting naturally into the past. It’s possible there is more to man than all of this. Only time will tell.


John Dixon Mirisola is a Boston-based writer and a graduate student in fiction at the University of California, Riverside.