Monday, October 31, 2016

"All That Man Is", an unusual novel from David Szalay

This book has received significant attention in the U.K., and is building a following in this country. While called a novel, it is not one story in a traditional sense.  It is a series of nine vignettes of 35 pages or so, stories about different men at various stages of their life.  It is sequential, starting with two 17 year olds on a trip around Europe before beginning college and finishing with a man in his mid-70's who feels young in his mind but whose abilities and health are in a pronounced decline.  The only link among the nine tales is that the man in story nine is the grandfather of a youth in story one.

This is not an upbeat book.  There are good times and sad times throughout, but the tone is one of inevitability at all ages .  It is written with a stylish noir quality that makes one wonder if this is an almost impossibly hip book for now, or one with the longevity of a classic about this particular point in time, not such bad choices. Toward the end of the book there is a Latin phrase that is used to pull together some aspects of the novel.  It translates into "Let us love that which is eternal and not that which is transient".   That could be applied to an effort to understand and appraise "All That Man Is".

There is no question that the book is well written. It is.  That it is more thoughtful brooding than uplifting travel thoughts is not an obstacle, it is more the price of admission to Szalay's exploration of today's Europe.  Settings include Croatia, Berlin, Italy, the French Alps, Cyprus, and Prague.  Each of the stories stands on its own.

What is the attraction here?  Is it entertainment, enlightenment, or informed apprehension?  Each reader will determine that.  That many of the reviews in the U.K., --- in The Guardian, The Financial Times, and the London Review of Books among others --- are so positive must mean that Szalay is on to something that resonates now, at a minimum.

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