As I sit with novelist David Szalay in a Budapest coffee house, we fall to chatting about the Man Booker prize, for which Szalay’s fourth novel, All That Man Is, was shortlisted in 2016. Specifically, we discuss the challenge that the prize ceremony presents for the six shortlisted authors. “It was a horrible experience,” he tells me. “The actual dinner is really very stressful indeed. I have memories of it which are so vivid; only trauma imprints memories that clearly.”
I mention to Szalay that I had glimpsed him on the night itself, after the American writer Paul Beatty had scooped the prize. As I waited for my coat, he marched past, unsmiling, mouth set straight, clearly on a mission to get the hell out of the Guildhall. But a couple of hours of conversation puts paid to my mild apprehension at meeting him. He’s not only very funny, but willing to poke fun at himself and others.
We’re here to talk about Turbulence, a collection of stories that unfurl in the manner of a relay race. Each is named after a pair of three-letter airport codes, and involves a character or characters linked by a flight: a woman who’s been caring for her sick son travels from London to Spain (“LGW-MAD”); the man she sits next to (“MAD-DSS”) is returning home to Dakar to an unimaginable personal tragedy; a witness to that tragedy (“DSS-GRU”) is a cargo pilot bound for the other side of the world, and so forth. Turbulence came about when Radio 4 commissioned a series of linked short stories; it’s unsurprising that they approached Szalay, given that All That Man Is employed a similar structure, a fact that provoked much debate during the run-up to the Booker, whose rules dictate that it is awarded to a work of unified fiction. What did Szalay himself make of that scrutiny?
“I was very committed to the idea that it was certainly not a collection of stories and that it was a single coherent, indivisible work,” he replies. Did the discussion irritate him? “No, it pleased me. The fact that it was a question seemed like a good thing. Because I understand the objection to calling it a novel specifically. That’s the point. I wouldn’t necessarily die in the last ditch to insist that it’s called a novel; what I would insist on is that it’s not a collection of stories, and to some extent, with Turbulence, I would also like it to be seen not as a collection of short stories, but as a continuous thing.”
What both books have in common is a preoccupation with movement and with their protagonists’ sense of rootlessness. All That Man Is, which took as its generative conceit the idea of charting a life through its different stages, melded ageing and mortality with a geographical restlessness, flitting from France to Cyprus to Denmark, among other places. That wanderlust — or perhaps, more accurately, that confused impulse to find a place of rest that feels, roughly, hospitable — makes a great deal of sense in the light of Szalay’s own biography.
He was born in Quebec in 1974; his mother, a Canadian national, and his father, a Hungarian, had met there, but left for Beirut when he was an infant. After less than a year, the Lebanese civil war started, and they were on their way again; Szalay’s father’s employer, a Canadian bank, directed them to London, where its nearest office was. “Then we were there. But it was random.” The family upped sticks continually while they were in the capital, for reasons that Szalay can’t quite fathom: “Looking back, I can’t believe how often we moved, we lived in eight or 10 different places while I was growing up. I don’t really know why my parents kept moving. They certainly moved more than was necessary.” They now live in Bahrain.
If it is a family trait, Szalay has certainly inherited it — not merely the fact of relocation, but the feeling of it all happening by accident. As an adult, he moved to Brussels and then — “I didn’t really plan. I mean this is also so typical of the way this works” — fetched up in Hungary, ostensibly taking a summer out to write in a family flat in Pecs, an old city in the south of the country. “I thought, why not just go to this empty flat in Hungary for a few months, do some writing and then come back to London and rent another place. But that just never happened. A few months became a few more months and then I’d been here for six months and then a year. And then before you know it you live here.”
I ask him what both his heritage and the peripatetic nature of his life mean for any idea of home. “Well, it completely fries it,” he answers. “I mean it’s a problem.” In terms of writing, he doesn’t feel part of the day-to-day British literary scene, but neither does he fit neatly into the equivalent in Budapest, mainly because he doesn’t speak Hungarian particularly well. What about Canada? “I don’t feel Canadian at all. I occasionally fantasise about solving the whole problem by going to live in Canada. But that wouldn’t work. Once there was an event at the Canadian embassy or high commission in London, which I went to, and when I said I was Canadian, that got a lot of laughs from the real Canadians. I think the ambassador said something like: ‘You’re going to have to work on your accent.’ They didn’t make me feel very welcome.” This seems unfair, I say, given how nice we were about Greg Rusedski. “Well, yes, but I’m not winning tennis matches. Although actually with the Booker shortlist, they were quite happy to call me Canadian then.”
But there was a time when Szalay was very rooted in English culture — an experience that inspired his debut novel, London and the South-East, which won the Betty Trask and the Geoffrey Faber memorial prizes. Published in 2009, it drew on Szalay’s unlikely first career in business-to-business telesales, telling the story of Paul Rainey, a man constantly chasing the next lead, whose creator characterises him as “a painful knot of self-hatred”. Rainey isn’t, Szalay quickly points out, based on him, but on a former colleague. Did he read it? “I hope not!” He didn’t send him a copy, then? “I completely lost touch with him. The way he drank, he’s probably dead by now.”
Szalay had bounced out of the University of Oxford with notions of writing, before coming to the conclusion that “this was a bit ridiculous”. In hindsight, he says, “it’s very difficult to say whether I genuinely let go of the idea of being a writer or whether I just pretended to myself to let go of the idea of being a writer, but never really did. But anyway for some years I didn’t write anything.”
Instead, he found himself making a hash of his first job at “a sales factory” in Holborn, before moving to “a little office in the City, where they were selling these things to the banks, and as soon as I started there, for some reason I just sold loads of stuff in the first few weeks. And that was very much suits and whiteboards and targets and, you know, totally alcoholic. Totally pissed every day at lunchtime.” All men? “No, but mostly. Like 80 per cent, and it was very small; in fact the office was kind of five men and one woman so it was a very small operation. But yeah, the atmosphere was very much how you’d imagine, macho and boozy and foul-mouthed.” For reasons unknown — “a sort of corporate ruction higher up” — that job fell apart, but he joined a couple of other castoffs to work in a scruffier outfit in Whitechapel, selling advertising space in glossy industry magazines.
“It was more of a kind of [expletive] job than a high-pressure sales job; high-end [expletive]. So you phone them up, you talk to some guy at Goldman Sachs. You basically pretend to be his peer practically, chatting about the markets; and then casually mention that you’re working on a money magazine.” Then you go out for a long lunch? “You never really met these people. I mean, sometimes they’d ask you to come out for lunch, and you’d have to say no because the [expletive] wouldn’t extend that far. If you went to have lunch it’d be obvious that you were just some kid in some room in Brick Lane with a directory of banks.”
Obviously, he continues, after a few years he was going mad (much like Paul Rainey, who ends up working in a cemetery in Hove), and sacked off the City for a life of artistic austerity in Belgium: “I was poor but I was free. So then that’s when I started writing.”
London and the South-East and Szalay’s subsequent novels, The Innocent, set during the Cold War, and Spring, which centres on a failing romantic relationship, attracted quite striking praise, and he was on Granta’s 2013 list of best young British novelists. But it was All That Man Is, with its unflinching willingness to document human frailty and desire, no matter how gross, that really showcased what Szalay was about; even though it also attracted criticism that his depiction of female characters, particularly, was overtly sexualised (there is an encounter between a young man and a grotesque mother-and-daughter pair that is tough reading). I ask him whether he thinks his work is bleak — he admits he had to tone some of the sadnesses in Turbulence down a touch — and whether, at the same time, he thinks of himself as a comic writer?
“I guess I find some aspects of human weaknesses funny,” he replies. “Vanity, pride; I mean, I suffer greatly from these things myself. Maybe that’s why I find them funny, it’s a comedy of release; in a way I feel like I’m always laughing at myself when I write about characters’ vanities and self-absorption.” Does he, then, feel more like a satirist? “I hope it never feels like I’m mocking the characters, and I don’t think it does. And that’s quite important. So if I’m laughing at the characters, if I’m writing commentary about the characters, if it’s making me laugh, if it’s amusing me, that’s because I feel that I share the things that I’m laughing at in them. There’s definitely no sense of me being better than them. In that way it’s not really satire either because satire almost necessitates taking a kind of moral high ground.”
A final question. I’ve never heard another writer say a bad word about Szalay’s work; in fact, he seems to inspire a kind of reverence. If I described him as a writer’s writer, how would he react? He pauses. “I mean, I’d rather not. I’d rather be a reader’s writer.” Another pause. “I guess if writer’s writer is the best thing on offer, that would be OK. I mean, it has a kind of niche glamour. It sounds quite good in a way. It’s not a bad thing. But it’s a kind of backhanded compliment.” As if nobody actually reads his books? “Except a few other writers. Or they pretend to.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd