Every year, The Paris Review honors one newcomer to our pages with the Plimpton Prize for Fiction. This year’s prize winner, David Szalay, contributed two stories to the Review, “Youth” and “Lascia Amor e siegui Marte.” Each is part of a longer work, All That Man Is, which will appear in the United States this fall and has already garnered ecstatic reviews in the British press (Michael Hofmann, in the London Review of Books: “I read All That Man Is . . . furiously, unappeasably, in two days”; Melissa Katsoulis, in the Times of London: “It’s hard to imagine reading a better book this year”). 

Szalay (pronounced SOL-loy) was born in Montreal in 1974 to a Hungarian father and a Canadian mother. He grew up in London, was educated at Oxford, and currently lives in Budapest. He is the author of three previous novels, London and the South-East, The Innocent, and Spring. In 2013, Granta named him one of its best young British novelists—an ­understandable misnomer, given his accent and his air of polite reserve. We met last March in Paris for a public conversation at the historic Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which over the years has served many Paris Review editors, interns, and readers as a home away from home.

 

STEIN

Let’s start by describing your new book. You call it a novel. 

 

SZALAY

The novel consists of nine separate segments. The basic structure is that the central character in each segment is five to ten years older than the central character in the previous one. They’re not the same character. They’re nine different characters. The first segment is about a seventeen-year-old guy, and the final one is about a guy in his seventies. And the novel moves through the calendar year, segment by segment, from April through December.

 

STEIN

In a letter to your American publisher, you explained that you began writing the book in a state of doubt—“I was wondering whether to continue writing novels at all. I was fairly disaffected with the form and was looking at other forms of writing. That disaffection with the novel form—What is it for? What is its purpose?—is still there, to some extent.” 

What did you mean, “disaffected with the form”?

 

SZALAY

That I sat down to think about writing a new book and just didn’t see the point of it. What’s a novel? You make up a story and then you tell that story. I didn’t understand why or how that could be meaningful. 

 

STEIN

But the novels you wrote before this one are all very good, and fairly conventional in form. They look as though they were fun to write.

SZALAY

They were, they were. I’m not sure where it came from, this feeling. Maybe it was just a kind of anxiety at having to do something good again. Maybe that was just manifesting itself as a sort of general disaffection. How I came through that was to start writing in a shorter form. When I wrote the first segment of All That Man Is, which is now part 3, I didn’t think it would be part of a larger book. It was only after I finished that I started to think of writing other stories that would somehow complement it. It occurred to me that a kind of meaning could be achieved by the relation of one story to ­another—by the structure in which they’re set, by echoes between them, by a dialogue they have amongst themselves. 

What does it mean to write a ­series like this? It means that each story isn’t expected to carry its own solitary burden of meaning. It means you get a richer texture. It also imposes a kind of economy. This is important. Each story is short, ten to fifteen thousand words approximately. I think part of the problem, when I contemplated writing a new novel, was that all the masses of incidental detail—which you need in a novel, if only to make it long enough—seemed pointless. None of the characters in this book have elaborate backstories. You don’t know much about their pasts. You don’t know much about their family backgrounds. They’re points on an arc, rather than being arcs in themselves. That let me focus on narrative. It’s not as if a huge amount happens in each story, but they’re not nothing-happens stories either. There’s a very clear—simple, I hope—­narrative progression. Working in that smaller form was a relief and a pleasure. I didn’t have to elaborate for the sake of elaboration, which is how it can sometimes feel to write a novel, or how it had come to feel.

 

STEIN

It should be said that in your earlier books, that’s often part of the pleasure—the way a minor character will take off and suddenly develop his or her own backstory.

 

SZALAY

I used to enjoy writing that way, in my first novel especially. I wasn’t troubled by these considerations. So there was definitely some kind of break, some kind of discontinuity, in my approach.

 

STEIN

And yet there are continuities, too. In all of your books, you like to begin a scene in medias res, then go back and fill the reader in. For example, in part 6 of All That Man Is, a man and a woman have a boozy dinner, with a certain amount of sexual tension between them, and then, just as the tension reaches its crisis, the man asks the woman, “You’re not going to drive, are you?” and the chronology skips backward, very delicately, so that without the reader’s noticing, we end up hearing the same line again, two pages later, this time with more context. 

 

SZALAY

I recognize that it is something I do, perhaps too reflexively—starting with a dramatic moment and then going back to lead up to it. In a way, it’s a bit like something Hitchcock does. Hitchcock will, most famously perhaps in Vertigo, tell you a key piece of information, so that your question isn’t what’s going to happen but how will it happen and how will the characters react. That creates far more tension than the question of what’s going to happen. Because the question of what’s going to happen is often just too open-ended, you know? After all, anything could happen. I think that’s why I repeat a line the way you describe. I do it without thinking, and quite often I get mixed up in my tenses. I have to go back and sort that out later. 

Something similar happens with point of view. When I was editing this book with my publishers, there were points where they felt I’d jumped too randomly into some peripheral character’s head. I write without being ­entirely aware of those kinds of considerations—tense, point of view, and so on. 

 

STEIN

You’ve said that you wanted this book “to evoke the fluidity and complexity of contemporary Europe, its feel and texture.” Are there specific textures you had in mind?

 

SZALAY

The first story I wrote is about three Hungarians traveling to London—two guys and a girl. She’s going to work as a prostitute, and they’re, you might say, looking after her. That story, by its very nature, gives a sense of contemporary Europe, of the unprecedented movement of people between European countries and cultures—doing work, making money. When I had the idea of starting a book with that story, of writing other stories that would somehow engage with it, and of writing other stories that would enter into some sort of dialogue, if you like, amongst themselves, that was the aspect I fastened on. The book was going to be called Europa, actually, for most of the time I was writing it. Each story involves a European character, more specifically a European man, in a country other than his own. In some cases he’s on holiday, in others he has work to do, a couple of the older characters have retired to other countries. 

 

STEIN

You seem to know your various settings very well. The story about the prostitute and the two men, for example—did that require a lot of research?

 

SZALAY

I saw three people on a plane, and they were the two guys and the girl. It was a budget-airline flight from London to Budapest. I saw them and I thought I’d write a story about them. 

 

STEIN

Another story is set in the offices of a Danish tabloid. How much do you know about the tabloid business in Denmark?

 

SZALAY

Nothing. I assumed it was quite similar to the tabloid business everywhere, I guess. Maybe I’m wrong.

 

STEIN

Have you worked in the tabloid business?

 

SZALAY

I haven’t.

 

STEIN

Did you finish writing the book before the current refugee crisis?

 

SZALAY

Yes, I finished writing it more than a year ago. For what it’s worth, I doubt that this refugee crisis is going to significantly change the way Europe’s ­going. The movement of people in Europe has become too established a fact of life. Nobody wants to end it. The countries in Central and Eastern Europe that are regarded as being very obstreperous and putting up fences everywhere are also obsessed with maintaining free movement within the EU. No government in Central or Eastern Europe who presided over the loss of that could be reelected. For the populations of those countries—having lived in a prison, basically, for decades—it’s the most precious thing, being able to travel freely throughout Europe. And work—there’s that as well. Very many, perhaps most, of the Hungarians I know under the age of forty have, at some point, worked in England or Germany.

 

STEIN

None of your main characters is a refugee. Was that a conscious decision?

 

SZALAY

I’ve thought about this, obviously. If you’ve written a book and it’s going through the more-than-a-year-long process of editing, and if it’s strongly rooted in contemporary reality, in the detail and the specifics of it, and then something happens which seems to adjust reality, you take note. But if I had tried to introduce a Middle Eastern refugee character, to me that would feel a bit too much like some sort of dramatized, fictionalized journalism. You would feel the author trying to cram something in.

 

STEIN

Apart from describing contemporary Europe, you’ve said your main objective was to “evoke the passage of time.” In what way?

 

SZALAY

I’m in my early forties. That’s a time when you start to feel your own mortality in a way you hadn’t earlier. So I wanted to look at different stages of life, at the way men—and really, this is a book about men—change perspective on their own lives and on the passage of time. So in the first story we see seventeen-year-olds, who obviously are completely oblivious. Then the pressures of the world start to build in your twenties, and then by the time you’re in your forties those pressures are acute, and then you get overtaken and you’re going downhill. And the idea of taking that journey with ­different characters, rather than doing it with one character, seemed to offer far more dramatic possibilities. You could have totally different circumstances, from one story to the next, and not have to trudge through one guy’s life. I deliberately gave as little information as possible, in most cases, about the characters’ backgrounds—what their parents were like and what sort of experiences they’d had in school, stuff like that. By having nine main characters who are so different from one another, I hope to give a sense of the universality of this process. 

 

STEIN

Something about your book reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s novels. It asserts a shared reality—even when the characters seem wrapped up in themselves—and also, beyond that shared reality, a sort of possible transcendence that keeps twinkling at the edge of everyday experience. By the end of your novel, this possibility is in question—has in some ways become the question.

 

SZALAY

There are moments where the characters catch a glimpse of something else, something outside this inexorable process of aging and dying. The final story is really about confronting that question, whether there’s something outside of this process.

 

STEIN

As your characters age, their lives seem to be cluttered up by various things—short-term goals, I suppose—to the exclusion of all else. And yet somehow the book promises that they are part of something larger than they know. 

 

SZALAY

That’s very much the intention. They are all enacting something universal and, in a way, permanent. And that in itself, for me anyway, gives a kind of meaning and beauty to things. They are all part of this process of . . . just life, time, and aging, and all of that. Everyone is going through it, even though we all feel that we’re going through it alone. And in many, very important ways, we are. But somehow the fact that everyone is going through it, ­inescapably and simultaneously . . . well, I really don’t want to overstate this, but there is something positive about that. At least that’s what I felt. It was a feeling that I got by writing the book. Because when you write a book, you take feelings from that. 

 

STEIN

What do you mean?

 

SZALAY

Well, you sort of learn things . . . or, you don’t learn things, but you . . . you gain, emotionally—well no, not gain, gain’s too loaded a word, but you . . . develop is also a sort of ridiculous word. Enrich? No. But somehow you take something emotionally from writing the book, from the process of writing the book. It changes you. Writing the book changes you. At the end of the process, you’re not where you were at the beginning. I’m not being very ­articulate about this. I should really go home and work out how to say this properly . . .

 

 

STEIN

But you wrote the book.

 

SZALAY

Right. This is the answer. 

 

STEIN

Did you find it harder to write the parts about men who are older than you?

 

SZALAY

Funnily enough, no. In a way it’s easier to write about people whom you know less about. You’re looking at them completely from the outside and can’t draw on your own experience. You’re more detached, put it that way. Which means you see them more clearly as fictional characters.

 

STEIN

There’s a fair amount of plotting in these stories—I mean old-fashioned plot twists. I wonder if that’s just how you write or if you were deliberately trying to avoid a kind of sameness from one story to the next.

 

SZALAY

I have no problem at all with conventional plotting. I was very keen that each bit should have a story. Except for the sixth part. There I almost deliberately made an exception. I said to myself, In this one, not much is going to happen. This is just going to be a guy doing his work, going on a business trip, flirting with someone he meets through work, and then going back to his life in London. That is partly because of where it falls in the book. It is meant to be a sort of pause, at the end of maturity, on the edge of old age.

 

STEIN

Your other novels involve fully developed female characters. Was it strange writing a book in which all the main characters are men?

 

SZALAY

Well, there are women characters in the book, some of them reasonably ­developed, I hope. And quite often they are the strongest characters. But no, I made a decision quite early on that this would be a book specifically about men. When I’d written, say, three of four of the stories, my agent said, You should write at least one story about a woman. And I told her, The project of this book is not that. That will have to wait.