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
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.
Given the fairly merciless way in which you open up your protagonists I wondered if these were characters you felt any affection for? Do any of them, perhaps, have any basis in yourself?
I feel affection for most of them, sympathy for all of them. I tried to present them truthfully – their inner lives, as well as their external behaviour. Most people’s private thoughts, I suspect, often go beyond what would be thought acceptable to actually speak aloud. That’s one of the oddities of the novel as a form – the modern novel particularly – the way we are allowed to overhear the characters’ most private thoughts; this is not how we experience other people in our actual lives. It’s perhaps more like how we experience ourselves.
The book’s epigraph echoes the title of a novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard, another writer famed for his unflinching gaze at the male of the species. Do you see any connection between your work and his?
I have only read A Death in the Family but I enjoyed it and intend to read more. Having only read that one book, I’m not really in a position, of course, to make sweeping generalisations about his work in comparison to mine. One significant difference, I suppose, between My Struggle and All That Man Is is the way the former is, or seems to be, or is presented as, fictionalised autobiography, and apparently so lightly fictionalised that it retains everyone’s real names etc. Knausgaard has said (I think I read somewhere) that faced with writing a new book the only thing that did not seem arbitrary, pointless, or meaningless to him was to write directly about his own life. That’s a feeling I can definitely identify with. All That Man Is is not, however, in any significant sense autobiographical. What made it possible for me to engage with it as a writer – what dispelled that sense of pointlessness or meaninglessness – was the structure, the relationship between the nine segments, and the idea of the Three Ages of Man that emerged as the basis for that structure. In other words, an external principle of organisation.
In A Death in the Family Knausgaard dwells for a page or two on the Rembrandt self-portraits in the National Gallery in London – he obviously regards them as in some way an artistic model for what he is attempting. The equivalent for my book might be Titian’s Three Ages of Man in the National Gallery of Scotland – there is, clearly, a fundamental difference in the relationship of creator to material, and in the sort of truth that the work is trying to express.
Each of the men in this book inhabit different stages of life and different European locations. It’s almost like undergoing a familiar rite of passage for some students: interrailing. Is there some significance to the transitory nature of the book’s episodes?
I wanted each episode to be self-contained and to have its own strong internal narrative shape. I did not want to get heavily into the backstory or individual psychology of the characters – I wanted them to exemplify men of various ages – I wanted them to be defined primarily by their age. Maybe this leads to a sense of glimpsing them at a particular isolated moment – of a vivid but essentially decontextualised glimpse.
Then there’s the travelling aspect. I wanted to capture the extreme fluidity of contemporary Europe – the way people, for all sorts of reasons, move around the continent more, I imagine, than ever before in its history; certainly more easily and cheaply.
And of course the book’s main subject is the transitory nature of life as a whole – so, yes, a sense of transience – of trackside pylons flying past a train window, in a metaphor from one of the stories – was something I was constantly trying to evoke.
A Spectator / New Statesman / Daily Telegraph / Guardian / Times Literary Supplement / Observer Book of the Year
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2016 MAN BOOKER PRIZE
Winner of the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize
Nine men. Each of them at a different stage of life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving – in the suburbs of Prague, beside a Belgian motorway, in a cheap Cypriot hotel – to understand just what it means to be alive, here and now.
Tracing an arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, All That Man Is brings these separate lives together to show us men as they are – ludicrous and inarticulate, shocking and despicable; vital, pitiable, hilarious, and full of heartfelt longing. And as the years chase them down, the stakes become bewilderingly high in this piercing portrayal of 21st-century manhood.