David Szalay

The Granta Best Young British Novelist talks about male crisis, the fluidity of Europe and why his latest book, All That Man Is, is most definitely a novel

David Szalay

All That Man Is takes a frank look at men at different stages of life. What do you make of the modern assertion that masculinity or men are in crisis?

I suppose the short answer is – compared to when? The historian Christopher Clark in his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 suggests, plausibly enough, that one of the deeper causes of the First World War was a crisis of masculinity afflicting the men of the European ruling classes around the turn of the twentieth century. Is the current crisis, if there is one, the same crisis that Clark points to – or have men emerged from that crisis, only to plunge into another at some later point?

Masculinity does seem to have a habit of finding itself in crisis: it could be argued that The Iliad depicts a crisis of masculinity perplexing the men of the Aegean three-thousand years ago. While nearer our own time, Shakespeare was clearly grappling with a cultural shift that entailed its own crisis of masculinity as the sword-swinging king of the middle ages gave way to the book-reading Renaissance prince: this shift crops up throughout his work, but probably most obviously in Hamlet, not least in the all-too-painful contrast between Hamlet Senior – who even as a ghost sports full armour, and while alive killed his Norwegian counterpart in single combat – and his bookish son, a student at Wittenberg who hates himself because ‘like a whore’ he ‘unpacks [his] heart with words’ – as, notably, did his creator. No doubt, in an age when to be ‘a man’ was still more or less synonymous with being a soldier – someone good with swords, not words – this caused Shakespeare some moments of unhappy self-contemplation. O what a rogue and peasant slave am I… In short, I don’t know whether or not masculinity is permanently, or just cyclically, in crisis – but I doubt that a sense of crisis is anything new.

Do you think there’s an inherent difference in the way men and women see the world?

I think that there are differences in the way men and women experience the world – that seems to me like a statement of the obvious. On the other hand, there are, equally obviously, any number of shared perspectives as well. I don’t think we ‘see the world’ in just one way – or one of two ways. There seems to be more going on than that.  

How do you think female readers might respond to your observations of the male perspective?

It goes without saying – I hope – that this is not a book aimed specifically at male readers, and I hope female readers will enjoy it, though perhaps at times in a slightly different way; as one female reviewer put it ‘For female readers, it is an insight into life on the other side of the fence.’

One of the issues here, maybe, one of the things that leads to a question like this being raised at all, is that the book consists of nine narratively separate segments – and they all have a male central character. This might make it seem gratuitously or aggressively male-centric, so I think it’s important to stress that, varied as they are, the nine central characters of the book form, as it were, a sort of single composite protagonist. (As one of them puts it, in his earthy way, ‘We all think we’re special – we’re all the fucking same.’) This is one of the main reasons why I regard the book as a novel and not as a collection of stories – and a novel with a male central character is obviously more commonplace, is less remarkable, than a collection of stories with exclusively male protagonists.

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