Amemus eterna

All That Man Is, the acclaimed novel by English writer David Szalay, is really a nine story collection; each of the pieces is thematically linked, the theme announced by the title. We are given a pan-European examination of the lives of men, seventeen to seventy-three years of age, only two of them, the first and the last, are related. One could be arch and simply negate the verb to be and claim that despair is the subject. The lives, dealt with an unforgiving realism, are deftly, accurately drawn. Contemporary Denmark, émigré Paris, student Berlin, a shabby Cypriot seaside resort, or a Croatian refuge for the down-and-out: in these places men work out or more commonly submit to their fates. Szalay is assured in navigating his geographical and cultural terrain – meticulously accurate accounts of motorway routes, urban landscapes, airports and train stations. His men are transients, uprooted, or propelled by the demands of profession, expediency, or ambition. The pressure of time, uncertainly of purpose, the demands of relationships bedevil them, and we watch their varied responses.

The conflicts of the stories suggest the stages of man, youth to old age, and resolutions are everywhere frustrated. This world admits pitiless longing and numbing denial. The acuteness of realization, worked out against backdrops of unusual clarity, points the contrast between desire and fulfilment. A young academic meets his lover as he drives her father’s new car to Poland from the UK. The journey is to be a holiday, but joy collapses into bewildered antagonism when she announces that she is pregnant. (Comparison with Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” which works the same plot suggest something of Szalay’s manner.) The man, frightened of the burden of another dependent life impeding his career, is pushed to crisis: “He feels as if his surface had been stripped, like a layer of paint, all the underlying terrors exposed.” Her consent to an abortion leaves him momentarily relieved, “like waking up from a nightmare, to find your life still there.” But his partner reverses her decision the next day, and in a narrative move that seems characteristic of the book, Szalay ends the story with an image – the couple descends into silence, leaves their hotel room, and walks without purpose into the distance. “They do not stop. It is high summer. The light will last for hours. They have time to walk it, if they want to.” As for the style, the simple declaratives say much.

In the course of reading the book, my feelings changed.  I could not but grant that Szalay is a sophisticated, well-travelled writer with a sharp eye for the self-deceived, the ambitious, and the maimed. His gift, as has been noted by many reviewers, is that he can dissect his characters but never lose respect for them. As blind or guilty, callow or brutal as they are, their creator finds their dignity.  The last piece pushed me beyond recognition of technical and stylistic strength – admittedly in an analysis of frustration - to wholesale admiration. He presents a seventy-three year old man, distant from his wife (who years before had decided that he was gay).  Tony, self-exiled from London to an Italian villa, is recovering from heart surgery; an auto accident makes his grasp on life even more precarious. His every third thought is of death and what might or might not lie beyond. This Prospero figure meets his Miranda, daughter suitably called Cordelia, across a table in a simple Italian restaurant; He tries to communicate his sense that the transcendent evades him,  that he sees no real significance in the life that he has lived. He quotes to himself the words of an inscription he has read on a monastery wall: Amemus eterna et non peritura – Let us love what is eternal not what will pass away. The pressure of his love, his literally inexpressible love for his daughter, offers a relational analogue to his quest for something more. In that yearning he finds all that he is, poignantly, in the subtle denial of meaning beyond that love. Again the sequence ends with a resolution offering simple gestures and natural imagery: “He puts on his new hat and looks at himself in the mirror: he is an old man. With a definite effort he pulls open the door. He lets Cordelia leave first, then follows her out. The air is frigid, stings the skin of his face. Via Maggiore is fading away in the dusk.” This was the glass held up to nature in so accurate a way that I wanted to avert my reading eyes. Certainly I finished the book in that half-euphoric mood that you feel after encountering something quite beautiful.

Szalay’s characters don’t expect transcendence in this world: rather they nose up against desires that work like distorting mirrors, ones that bend in reflection to questioning gazes. There are extraordinary moments, epiphanies, to use again an over-used term, that make real the condition that man is in. The quotidian is all we can love despite our longing for the eternal.

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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