David Szalay's 'All That Man Is' Charts Life Of Man In 9 Stories
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The new book "All That Man Is" is not exactly a collection of short stories, not exactly a novel. It tells nine stories of men in different European countries all at different points in their lives, progressing from youth to old age. They all struggle with what it means to be alive. This is from the first story about a 17-year-old.
DAVID SZALAY: (Reading) From somewhere, an image has entered Simon's head, an image of human life as bubbles rising through water. The bubbles rise in streams and clouds, touching and mingling and yet each remaining individually defined as they travel upwards from the depths towards the light until at the surface they cease to exist as individual entities.
In the water, they existed physically, individually. In the air, they are part of the air, part of an endless whole, inseparable from everything else. Yes, he thinks, squinting in the mist-softened sunlight, tears filling his eyes. That is how it is - life and death.
SHAPIRO: That's the author David Szalay reading from his new book. It was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Szalay told me you can read the title "All That Man Is" two ways.
SZALAY: It can be read either as a sort of slightly disparaging, sort of all that man is, and this is it. Or it can be read as a sort of almost celebratory - everything, all the kind of great variety of experience that life contains.
SHAPIRO: It's funny because reading the book, celebratory is not a word that would come to mind for me. It feels far more bleak than celebratory.
SZALAY: Well, I mean no - I know. I see what you're saying. And that is probably more to the forefront, the sort of way that mortality is sort of always breathing down the necks of these characters. And they are sort of helpless in the sort of jaws of time, if you like. I find my own work a kind of slightly less bleak than many readers do.
SHAPIRO: That's so interesting. Why do you think that is?
SZALAY: I'm not sure, really. Maybe I have a kind of lower expectation of life than the average. So sort of in relation to my expectations from life, everything is sort of - looks a bit better than it does from an average viewpoint. I don't know.
SHAPIRO: And was there ever a moment where you thought, oh, maybe one of these characters should be content, fulfilled, satisfied?
SZALAY: I think that the character in the central story, in the fifth story, the journalist...
SZALAY: ...Is contented and fulfilled. He's kind of at the peak of his powers, that guy. But I wanted to choose a character at the peak of his powers and who's kind of loving being the peak of his powers, someone who had unwholesome qualities to him as well. I mean I guess a story about a sort of really nice man doing well and being happy - it writes white, as they say. I mean...
SHAPIRO: Nobody wants to read that. That's boring.
SZALAY: No, no, I don't think so.
SHAPIRO: You have moved around Europe. You grew up in the U.K. You now live in Hungary. And the characters live in a Europe of blurred boundaries. Why was it important to you to create this sort of fluid space in the context of the novel - more than a dozen countries over the nine stories?
SZALAY: I have this personal experience of traveling around the continent. But I don't think I mean I'm far from unique or even unusual in that. I mean the nature of contemporary Europe is very much one in which people are making themselves new lives in other places or simply traveling on shorter trips but on a regular basis. So they're constantly decontextualizing themselves. Whether it's for work or holiday or retiring to another country - in Europe has become a big thing. I mean, it's a...
SHAPIRO: It's an interesting phrase to describe it - people decontextualizing themselves.
SZALAY: Yeah, yeah, but I mean that's - that is what they're doing. I mean in one way, it's that they - there is an opportunity for reinvention. There are also the possible downsides of that kind of movement. I mean it can be lonely. It can be isolating. You can feel deracinated and confused.
SHAPIRO: I would like to ask you about the maleness of this book. So many of the female characters feel not only minor but almost grotesque in a way. Just to quote from The Guardian newspaper, it lists your female characters as a seductress, a sex bout with a daughter then mother, an escort, an unwantedly pregnant lover, mistresses, a half-fancied flirtation, a sex object and her mother again, an estranged wife suing for millions. Why do you think your female characters are so problematic?
SZALAY: I don't think they are as problematic as that list or that review would have it. I mean I - that list is slightly unfair because it leaves out some important - I mean, for instance, that the prostitute in the third story - I regard her as the strongest character in the story for him. And you know, she's not - you know, I think they're - just to say she's a prostitute is actually to do a disservice to my character, who's far more interesting than that.
But it's undeniably true that the book focuses on male characters and on masculinity. And that was a conscious choice partly because I think that there is a genuine difference in the way that men and women experience time and aging. And I wanted to write about the male experience of time and aging.
SHAPIRO: One central lament of many of the men in your book is that they leave nothing behind. They have no lasting legacy. And you are an author whose previous books have won awards. This book is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the biggest literary prizes in the world. Do you feel that you've dodged that particular bullet?
SZALAY: No, no because I think there's more to it than - I think no matter how much success you pile up, I do feel that set against mortality, there will always be times when it looks pretty flimsy, pretty minor, pretty vanishing almost.
SZALAY: I guess to me, that's where the bleakness comes in - that ultimately even if you're an award-winning author, even if you've created, as Stephen Sondheim put it, "Children And Art," at the end, it's flimsy, as you say. There's nothing.
SZALAY: Children way more in that particular scale than the arts in my experience so far. I feel that...
SHAPIRO: Having created both.
SZALAY: (Laughter) Yeah. The feeling of having dodged bullets - I don't feel that I've dodged a bullet. But the children make me feel slightly more at peace with mortality, slightly than the creative achievements of artistic kinds. Obviously that just - you know, I have a great sense of achievement from the recognition that my books and this book in particular have received. But fundamentally, I don't feel it kind of alters the predicament that we all find ourselves in.
SHAPIRO: David Szalay, thank you so much.
SZALAY: Thank you, Ari. Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: David Szalay is the author of the new book "All That Man Is." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.