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All That Man Is by David Szalay

Reviewed by Michael Magras

October 3, 2016

All That Man Is

All That Man Is

by David Szalay

Graywolf Press, 2016

Say what you will about Henry James, but whether you think he was an astute chronicler of human psychology or the creator of some of the most convoluted sentences ever written, you’ve got to admit the man understood the importance of joie de vivre. The Canadian-born English writer David Szalay, author of the novels Spring, The Innocent, and London and the South-East, acknowledges this, too. In the first of the nine stories that constitute his latest work, All That Man Is, two English teenagers, Simon and Ferdinand, have arrived in Kraków from Berlin and await the arrival of a man named Otto, whom Ferdinand met in London. While they wait, Simon reads the section of James’s The Ambassadors in which Lambert Strether, the book’s middle-aged protagonist, encourages Little Bilham, a younger acquaintance, not to waste his youth. “Live all you can,” Strether says. “It’s a mistake not to.” Simon highlights the passage.

But does he heed the advice? He agrees to spend an evening with Otto, Ferdinand, and Otto’s two sisters, yet he “seems determined not to enjoy himself” as he sits alone with a sad face and sips homemade wine while the others chatter on. Simon is so determined to ignore Strether’s counsel that even after he and Ferdinand enter “a spring-greeny suburb of disintegrating tarmac and faded dwellings” and meet the Serbian woman whose house they’re staying in, he ignores obvious clues: the woman wears nothing under her dressing gowns; places her hand on his knee as they drink glass after glass of slivovice; and, in case she was heretofore too subtle, regales him with the story of her first sexual experience at age 15. But Simon rejects her advances, preferring instead to attend a concert of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and, later, read a few lines of Yeats, whose poem “Byzantium” inspired the title of this book.

The present-day stories in All That Man Is are not linked in a traditional sense, in that almost no characters recur. But, from the first story, the theme that Szalay explores throughout the book emerges: melancholy is inevitable, and the seeds exist even when one is young. This collection focuses on nine different men at various stages of life and career, from 17-year-old Simon to 73-year-old Tony Parson, a former British government minister who visits his vacation home in Argenta, Italy, and is still brooding about mortality after a heart procedure two months earlier when a car accident puts him back in the hospital.

Szalay has arranged his stories linearly in two respects: from youngest protagonist to oldest, and from Simon and Ferdinand’s April tour to Tony’s December sojourn. Adherence to the calendar is an unnecessary touch, but Szalay’s point is that wistfulness is the through line of every adult’s life, a string of misplaced ambitions and opportunities not taken—assuming one accepts in Simon’s case the premise that sex with a frequently drunk stranger is a precious opportunity not to be squandered—and the cumulative effect of these disappointments.

Whether or not that analysis is sound is up to each reader to decide, but Szalay puts forth his thesis with great artistry. His style is poetic minimalism, with each present-tense chapter filled with clipped sentences and fragments that heighten the sense of uncertainty. The story in which a young man named Bernard drops out of university, gets fired from a job at his uncle Clovis’s window company, and vacations in a run-down hotel in a Cyprus tourist resort includes this passage the morning after he goes to a club with two Englishwomen, Sandra and her daughter Charmian, whom he has just met:

At some point he falls asleep again, and when he wakes up he feels okay.
He is able to move.
To sit.
To stand.
To peel back the edge of the curtain and squint at the white, fiery day—the glare of the vacant lot next door.
The sky’s merciless scream of blue.

“Merciless scream” is a good way to describe the inner feelings of many of Szalay’s male characters. Some are more outwardly successful and confident than others, but each harbors doubts about the choices he has made and the fate that awaits him. Like most good stories, Szalay’s pieces begin in one place and veer into unexpected directions. Bernard’s solitary trip to Cyprus takes dramatic turns that the opening scene of two college buddies sharing a spliff doesn’t telegraph. And when, in another story, Gábor and his tattooed personal trainer Balázs leave Budapest for London to protect Gábor’s prostitute girlfriend Emma while she conducts “business” in a Park Lane hotel, the complications and revelations, including Balázs’s feelings for Emma, are as bracing as they are unexpected.

Every story in this collection offers surprising revelations and contains insights that might apply to all the protagonists. Karel, who hopes to become a household name in the world of Germanic philology, leaves England after giving a talk at University College London and, on his way home to Belgium, stops in Germany to meet Waleria, his journalist girlfriend. Waleria could be speaking to several of the book’s men when she tells Karel that he might achieve his ambitions if he could stop thinking about sex so much.

He’s not the only one who has allowed sex to complicate his life. So has Edvard Dahlin, the divorced Danish defense minister whom Kristian, the deputy editor of a tabloid newspaper, has discovered is having an affair with a married woman. Kristian’s trip to Córdoba to present the allegations to the vacationing Dahlin reinforces not only that Kristian is equally susceptible to the allure of sex and ambition but also that, like the other older protagonists, his time is running out, and he has yet to make his mark. A similar fear plagues James, a married marketing specialist who flies to the French Alps to help a property developer sell luxury apartments. When he and a young company contact named Paulette go out for pizza, she says, “I don’t think it’s ever too late to change things.” James thinks, “That’s the thing about fate, the way you only understand what your fate is when it’s too late to do anything about it.”

It’s even later for two of the book’s other characters: Murray, a fiftyish Englishman living in Croatia who feels “that he had wasted his entire life, and now it was over,” which may explain why he allows his friend Hans-Pieter to set him up with the mother of Maria, a drinks server at a youth hostel, and why he invests in an airport transfer business with a shady character named Blago; and Aleksandr Shurik, a wealthy 65-year-old who was once the “world’s number-one iron-ore magnate”—his nickname was the “Emperor of Iron”—but is now considering suicide after losing a court case and after his girlfriend of 15 years announces she’s leaving him. A startling decline for a man who, in his Who’s Who entry, listed his interests as “wealth” and “power.”

Despite the occasional odd turn of phrase, Szalay’s writing is elegant throughout. He is expert at encapsulating character and place in quick strokes. In Bernard’s story, Szalay creates vivid portraits of not one but two characters when he writes, “Clovis thinks his nephew is a bit thick. Slow, like his father, the train driver. Easily pleased. Able to stare for hours at something like rain running down a window.” When James gets his first look at the French Alps apartments he expected to be the epitome of luxury, he’s surprised by their relative tattiness. “The laminate flooring, the sub-IKEA furniture…Expense has been spared.” Szalay describes Vletka, a healer Murray reluctantly visits after Hans-Pieter convinces him that he’s cursed, as “someone who sells you a train ticket to Zagreb, frowning at you through the perforated glass as you try to explain what it is you want.”

Szalay may have intended All That Man Is as a portrait of the modern male, but it’s a narrow portrait. Every male protagonist is European. And the women are either peripheral figures, maternal, prone to infidelity, or objects whom the men view as little more than potential bedmates. There’s an unsettling strain of misogyny that runs through these stories. Many of the portraits of women are cruel, from Bernard’s description of Sandra as “quite short and very fat…the sort of fat person it is hard to miss,” and Charmian as “fascinatingly huge” with a “lardy pallor” and “pillow-sized folds of fat,” to lovelorn Murray’s lament that Hans-Pieter is having a physical relationship with “overweight and unattractive” Maria. Joanna, Tony’s wife of 45 years, flies to Italy after the accident to be by his bedside, but she isn’t exactly thrilled to be with him. Aleksandr privately calls the woman judge who ruled against him a whore. Gábor says he’s worried “about my attitude to women,” but not enough to stop Emma from sleeping with strangers for money. The men in this book rarely think of women in terms that aren’t sexual. Some readers may see that as an accurate definition of masculinity, but, for others, it’s a troubling viewpoint.

And that, of course, is the challenge: No single definition can encapsulate the male (or, for that matter, female) experience. On a visit to Pomposa Abbey before his accident, Tony sees Latin phrases carved onto marble tablets that are “memorials for the important dead.” One phrase stays with him: Amemus eterna et non peritura. Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient. He thinks of the phrase often for the remainder of his stay in Italy. It’s a difficult maxim to follow, given that life itself is the very definition of impermanence. So what is one to love? Is each person capable of preferring the eternal to the transitory? Probably not, as the meaning of joie de vivre varies depending on whom you ask. What’s important, and what Szalay seems to suggest, is that, in an attempt to avoid the ills that have befallen the somnambulists in this collection, each person must define for himself the things he loves and figure out his fate as best he can before the meter expires. The search may be difficult, but perhaps Paulette is correct when she says it’s never too late to try. As Strether would argue, it’s a mistake not to.

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Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His reviews have appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Review of Books, BookPage, and the Iowa Review.