Photograph: Martin Figura
David Szalay was born in Montreal in 1974, moved to the UK the following year and has lived here ever since. He went to Oxford University and has written a number of radio dramas for the BBC. He won the Betty Trask Prize for his first novel LONDON AND THE SOUTH-EAST (2008, Jonathan Cape), along with the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His second and third novels, THE INNOCENT (2009) and SPRING (2011) were also published by Jonathan Cape. He was recently named one of the Telegraph's 'Top 20 British Writers under 40', a Granta Best of Young British Novelist in 2013, and in early 2016 he won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, awarded by the Paris Review for an outstanding contribution to the magazine.
His most recent novel, ALL THAT MAN IS, was published by Jonathan Cape in April 2016. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and won the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize, and the novel was selected as a Book of the Year by the Guardian, Telegraph, New Statesman, TLS, Financial Times, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Harper's Bazaar, NPR and BBC Culture, among others. In late 2016, David was awarded a Travel Scholarship from the Society of Authors.
Praise for ALL THAT MAN IS (2016):
‘Szalay tells nine stories about nine different men of six different nationalities in settings that sweep across 13 different countries... As the stories accumulate, the larger structure emerges and you realise that this is a novel… and that Szalay might have found in All That Man Is the perfect vehicle for his particular talent. That talent is noticing. Like John Updike, he not only perceives the banal, everyday world in an acute and photographic way but he can also translate it into high-definition prose. Szalay is in pursuit of the feel of a specific moment, whether that feel is lyrical or mundane. It is one of the many ironies of his work that it brings a sensory richness to the bleak and the drab. All That Man Is is a showcase for Szalay’s virtuosic range… [It is] a book about ageing in which time, paradoxically, is static. The last story occurs just a couple of months after the end of the first story but we have, in a way, lived a lifetime… Every character is in crisis, in some crucial way out of sync, yet Szalay grants each a lyrical moment of sensory immersion in the world. It is the resonance of these moments of fleeting transcendence that form the submerged structure of this strange and lucid novel’ Telegraph *****
‘If you think your shelves don’t need another volume dealing with the tribulations of the white and mostly wealthy western European male, you probably haven’t read Szalay before. His thesis in All That Man Is is largely miserable, but the book is compelling, both for its fine-grained rendering of what one character calls “the texture of existence” and for its intricate patterning of events… his writing pulls you completely into [his characters’] world. This is a book that I was impatient to return to and regretted finishing’ Chris Power, New Statesman
‘A kaleidoscopic portrait of masculinity… this collection is of the highest standard among younger British authors that I’ve come across… [If] you are unfamiliar with [Szalay’s] work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires... [Szalay] renders the internal lives of his men very finely indeed – often second by second. The father-daughter encounter in the final story… is as textured and moving and as skilfully done as anything by Alice Munro… However, it is not solely by means of the short form’s quick exit that Szalay keeps the existential angst from bogging the book down; he also has a prose style that marries nuance and precision with a kinetic cadence; his language is energetically alive throughout… These are the best stories I’ve read for ages’ Edward Docx, Guardian
'[Szalay] brings a wide range of skills to bear on his unglamorously troubled blokes... He writes clean, unshowy sentences that move easily between the diction of casual speech and a more distanced tone. And he's able to hold a reader even when there isn't much going on, relying on assured storytelling rather than busy plotting. All this means that the new book goes down smoothly. It's also a bit of a tour de force when it comes to social and geographical reach... Happiness isn't much of a subject for a storyteller, and although the stories largely turn on depressing insights they aren't ponderous or gloomy in the execution. There are neat dabs of lifelikeness: you're persuaded that Szalay knows exactly how London looks to a first-time visitor from Hungary and what a rent-a-peer typically has for lunch. At the same time, there are more visionary moments, often involving sunlight, that concentrate the atmosphere of existential unease' Financial Times
'Szalay is known as an emptier of hidden pockets of English life... Like its predecessors, his new book is populated by small men with oversized ambitions... Far from celebrating man's infinite variety, the book reveals his endless repetitiveness. The characters we encounter, no matter how ostensibly different, are all caught up in the same narrow set of concerns, chief among which are love and money (or variations thereof). They're all fundamentally lonely, and have a tendency to drift, in mild befuddlement, through life... Yet downbeat though they mostly are, these portraits are by no means unsympathetic. One of Szalay's strengths is that he is able to reveal his character's limitations - and, quite often, their absurdities - without mocking them... [He] is capable of conjuring tenderness from any situation... [Readers] will find a great deal to enjoy in these pages, and further evidence that Szalay is one of the best fortysomething writers we have' William Skidelsky, Guardian
‘All That Man Is is a triumph… The novel is an inspired, modern-day fleshing out of the Ecclesiastes text and Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”… The travelling is important. Szalay’s characters come from all over Europe, and in every story… a journey is made, a border crossed. This bit of symbolism is handled so skilfully you might not notice it at first. Like all the best symbols, it serves another function, lending real unity and momentum to these nine discrete chapters. The novel is full of patterning… it is hard to overstate the satisfaction to be had from the sheer beauty of its composition. The real binding agent is not distance but time: we are moving through the ages of man, and, more quietly, through the seasons of a single year, from spring to winter. Szalay’s genius here is to resist the lure of the everyman. By giving each of his characters their own brilliantly realised particularity, he throws into even sharper relief the main thing we all have in common. Patient focus on the details of these various lives… is what allows him to handle the heftiest themes – fate, eternity – without strain. The chapters are all satisfying, but by the fourth chapter the book as a whole has become gripping, despite the absence of plot. In its place, Szalay has harnessed the natural energy of time, and the result is a 100-megawatt novel: intelligent, intricate, so very well made, the form perfectly fitting the content. When I reached the end, I turned straight back to the start to begin again’ Claire Lowdon, Sunday Times
‘Each story is a beautifully crystallised vision of what it is for a man to be a particular age: insecurities about body and money; the wait for life to feel like it’s really got going; the sudden realisation that this is all there is… Each man travels far from home hoping to arrive at a place that feels OK, if not actually gloriously lifelike. But this being the human condition, it doesn’t work. Sex and holidays are not the answer. Yet Szalay’s forensic untangling of their psyches, and his talent for painting delicious destinations… make you want to journey with them to the bitter end… There is everything to relish about this intelligent, moving, thoroughly European search for the meaning of life, and nothing, really, to complain about. It’s hard to imagine reading a better book this year’ The Times
‘It’s possible that the expression ‘tearing through a book’ has something to answer for. I read All That Man Is at a not particularly expedient time, furiously, unappeasably, in two days. Then I bought and read in a similar manner – none took me any longer than two days – David Szalay’s three previous novels… I want to say that here is a newish, youngish – early forties – contemporary British novelist worth catching up on and following, in the wake of and on a level with the likes of James Buchan, Tessa Hadley and Edward St Aubyn… Pascal said that man’s misery stemmed from his not being able to stay in his room. We’ve come a long way since then. Now we don’t even stay in our countries. That – along with ageing and not improving – is the theme of Szalay’s new novel, All That Man Is. It’s a Euro-novel, cleverly conceived, authoritative, timely and (in a good way) crushing. Its Europe is a further reach of pain and folly: a bit of Hemingway, though rather curdled by now, a bit of Ballard, a bit of Houellebecq… There is a cheerful and ghastly sordidness to everything, and Szalay’s prose with its ruthlessly banal dialogue, arm-twisting present tense, shard-like fragments, and every other page or so an irresistibly brilliant epithet or startlingly quotable phrase, lets nothing go to waste. Even if it’s something as simple as a man putting up an umbrella, to go out into the rain and try to talk down his unhappy mistress, it’s unforgettable: “It bangs into place above him, and immediately fills with sound”’ Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books
'[Szalay is the] latest novelist to give voice to what he has called a “disaffection with the novel form”... All That Man Is takes the novel form and shakes out of it a few essential seeds... The entire book is narrated in an urgent, poking present tense, and the pithed characters, of different ages, are presented without complex histories—indeed, without much history at all... The effect is something like emergency writing for our times: intense, direct, daring... [Szalay] has an admirable fearlessness for swiftly entering invented fictional worlds—French real estate, escort services in London, a Danish newspaper, a Russian oligarch’s super-yacht... [He] practices a kind of startup mimesis: in canny, broad strokes, full of intelligently managed detail, each story funds its new fictional enterprise, as if he were calling out, each time, “Where do you want to go? Poland? Copenhagen? Málaga? Berlin? I can do them all. Let’s go.”... His book is also bracingly unsentimental about male desire and male failure. Because he writes mostly from inside his characters’ heads, in jagged bursts of free indirect style, he can present his reduced and impaired men without judgment or commentary; like Michel Houellebecq, he seems both repelled by and drawn to a brutal erotic prosaicism... Only in the last story do we encounter a kind of subtlety that—so beguiling is Szalay’s directness—we had not quite realized we lacked... The writing draws much of its power, I think, from the space and amplitude offered to Tony’s reflections. Finally, thoughts are joined-up thoughts, not indented stutters. After several hundred pages of great brilliance and brutal simplicity, here at last is a deeper picture of all that man is, or all that he might be' James Wood, The New Yorker
'Transient things are the necessary purview of the novel as a genre—the very word “novel” demands it—and Szalay’s pages are full of markers of the current day: iPads, highspeed trains and GPS navigation devices. At the same time, the structure Szalay establishes for the book points to the cyclical, to the rhythmic working of time... [His prose] is frequently brilliant, remarkable for its grace and economy. He has a minimalist's gift for the quick sketch, whether of landscapes or human relationships. He studs his pages with sometimes startlingly lovely images... Szalay’s subject is the loss of prestige afforded a certain kind of European manhood, the spuriousness of its foundations and the ease with which it is threatened... The novel’s characteristic mood is a kind of lambent melancholy, shot through with dark, sometimes savage humor... All That Man Is was published in Britain in April, well before the Brexit referendum. But it has a new urgency now that the post-Cold War dream of a Europe of open borders and broad, shared identity has come under increasing question. The book’s penultimate narrative features a Russian industrialist, a longtime London resident whose business empire spans the continent. From the deck of an opulent yacht, he contemplates his stratospheric rise after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and, thanks to a series of legal and financial disasters, his impending ruin. In a final touch of allegory, the yacht he can no longer afford is called Europa' Garth Greenwell, The New York Times
‘[A] great novel driven by its overarching themes: what is my life, here and now all about? Each story grips the reader by the throat. We fully inhabit their progression of heroes and finally face the dreadful truth of the human condition: that nothing is eternal, not us, not our children, the human race, the Earth nor the stars. Rarely has it been so brilliantly and chillingly spelled out’ Daily Mail
‘Szalay’s writing is exact and true and always subtly intelligent; this book is bracing and thrilling and chilling’ Tessa Hadley
‘A terrific novel – original, piercingly acute and disturbingly, viscerally elegiac’ William Boyd
Praise for SPRING (2011):
'In parts, it's so fabulous that you want to pester your friends with quotes… Szalay is astonishingly astute… neurotic, hilarious, achingly intelligent and utterly hypnotic… devastatingly powerful… Spring is also extremely funny, in that understated, unexpected way that makes you burst into sudden noise in public places and alarm those around you. Szalay's dialogue is pithy and sharp; his peripheral characters lip-smackingly delicious… Szalay's gift for prose is everywhere' Independent
'Spring confirms that [Szalay] is a writer with the whole range of talents… Outstanding… Szalay is a writer who can take you anywhere… because the telling itself makes the journey worthwhile' Sunday Times
'A quiet triumph of understated realism … Like Laughable Loves-era Milan Kundera, Szalay at his best positions his characters somewhere along the endlessly contested lines that he draws between comedy and something subtler, less showy, and altogether sadder than tragedy… No reader who has lived even slightly will fail to relate to James… This is a brave and intelligent novel… This is one of those books that leaves you not only with admiration for the novelist, but also with a sense of wonder about the precision of the novel form itself' Chris Cleave, Guardian
'The Telegraph last year included Szalay in its list of the 20 best novelists under 40 – and his new book bears that out. It is the only novel I have read that brings to life… the reality of a sexual affair' Telegraph
'Highly unusual in its realism and astuteness about the way we live now… his narrative [has] a texture of truthfulness quite unlike that of any other fiction about London that I know… What a beautifully written novel... Absolutely superb' Evening Standard
'A mordant and strangely addictive symphony of banality… the facets of a dreary episode in the lives of two disconsolately unfulfilled people start to blaze, thanks to Szalay’s often brutal honesty, formidable ear for dialogue – which transforms the most mundane exchanges into comedy, à la Mike Leigh – and seductively sensuous descriptions' Metro ****
'A sharp, truthful, funny portrait of contemporary manners that is also unexpectedly moving' Kate Saunders, The Times
'If you’ve ever wondered what two people were thinking when they became a couple, wonder no more. Award-winning British novelist Szalay... parses a romantic relationship with exquisite - and excruciating - attention to subterranean emotions… Szalay’s insights into the perspectives of both sexes illuminate the complexity and fragility of romantic coupling. His knowing eye and exacting prose (“Their weekend together had been pared down to the pathetic rind of Sunday evening”) bring perspicacity to the complications of love' Publishers Weekly
'A nuanced and bracingly intelligent dissection of contemporary London life… Szalay provides a sharp and occasionally humorous portrait not only of these two people but of the mores of 21st-century romance among those for whom romance has had its old glamour grubbed up a bit by age, world-weariness and the demands of everyday life. Subtle in its psychology, elegantly written, with lively and amusing minor characters—an impressive novel' Kirkus
'[A] startling attention to detail… often hilarious… Szalay aims an anthropologist’s gaze at the couple’s social habitat… he draws his main characters with subtly devastating insight… [Clear are] Szalay’s sensitive ear, sly wit, and the humanity he finds in even the most minor characters' Boston Globe
'An understated yet complex exploration of the mechanics of contemporary romantic relationships in London... In Szalay’s [hands], the novel is complex and exhaustive in its examination of the space between men and women. In 2010 the Telegraph named Szalay as one of the twenty best British novelists under forty. Spring, in its poetic prose and understanding of complicated emotions, serves to further Szalay’s already promising career' World Literature Today
'With his new book [Szalay has] marked himself out as a cert for Granta's next Best of Young British Novelists list… SPRING makes the reader think of how we value things and why: the permanent, the temporary, the sure and the uncertain… Szalay’s writing is admirably clean and unaffected, driving the reader on with indecent haste and with just the occasional pause to admire the phrasemaking' The Asylum (blog)
Praise for THE INNOCENT (2009):
‘Szalay's second novel, set in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1972 (the Stalin, Krushchev and Brezhnev eras), is an impressive successor to his first… This is a slim book, but Szalay packs it with skilfully condensed detail — the privileges of the nomenklatura, the dire existence of the unprivileged living in communes, background history and passing contemporary events such as the Fischer-Spassky chess match in 1972 and the Munich Olympic Games. Still in his mid-thirties, Szalay will surely soon be adding more prizes to his Betty Trask’ Sunday Times
‘With Aleksandr Szalay… has created an extraordinary character, a KGB man you can imagine knowing or even being… This is an exciting and memorable read. Expertly researched, it feels authentic, but wears its learning reassuringly lightly. Anyone who appreciated Martin Amis's Koba the Dread and Orlando Figes's The Whisperers will love it, as will fans of The Lives of Others or Burnt by the Sun. As with both films, the theme of silent, regret-filled horror is beautifully, chillingly captured’ Viv Groskop, Observer
‘Szalay's… knowledge of the period is formidable… he twists both the politics and the human drama into an intelligent, commanding shape that draws us irresistibly on’ Independent ****
‘The Innocent is muted and sparse in detail, written in trimmed prose, marked by private regret and a controlled laconicism that is shown to be in keeping with how personal emotion becomes a victim to self-censorship in states of repression… In his first novel, Szalay displayed a sharp eye for the cruel discrepancies between alpha-male aspiration and beta-minus performance, and here he shows the same instinct for the Soviet pecking order… [He creates] a believable mental landscape of the compromises necessary to live, and live with oneself, under political repression; not so different from anywhere else, as it turns out, given humanity's capacity for self-enslavement. Aleksander, like Szalay's first protagonist, adopts a plausible policy - as each of us tends to - of taking his lead from those around him, leading to an uncomfortable demonstration of how malleable we all are’ Guardian
‘[A] multilayered narrative ripe with period detail… The book is particularly strong on placing the reader in the heart of a paranoid, bureaucratic world. Interspersed with a skilfully constructed account of the central investigation, this is a challenging thriller that rewards the reader with a bleak yet gripping insight into the failure of communism’ Metro
Praise for LONDON AND THE SOUTH-EAST (2008):
Winner of the 2008 Betty Trask Award and the 2010 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
‘Startlingly good... this is a terrific debut, written in a present tense which flashes every so often into the past – a trick which Szalay pulls off with confidence. London and the South-East is billed as in the genre of The Office, but the satire here is not paramount in the way this might suggest. What grips is the rhythmic intensity with which Paul's consciousness is ravelled and unravelled, the energy with which his psychological state is explored. The tension is all in the central character, his highs and lows, his attempts to escape the numbness of indifference. He drowns; he surfaces; he gasps for air. It's a tense and compelling read’ Bill Greenwell, Independent
‘London and the South East puts work firmly where, in the majority of people's lives, it belongs – slap-bang in the middle… The novel is brilliant on the day-to-day texture of the workplace – the rhythms, routines and procedures, the spite, envy, resentment and camaraderie, the all-embracing familiarity of the environment, the lunch-hours in the pub, the chorus of "How was your weekend?" on Monday morning, the shadowy sense one has of the lives of one's co-workers outside the office… It brings out the pathos of the middle-aged male, with his paunch, barely controlled drinking habit and feeble sex drive. It's compulsively readable, with a strangely convincing sense that all the events, unpredictable though they are, are what really would have happened, rather than what suits the plot’ Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday
‘Grimly gripping… Like a character ripped from the pages of Patrick Hamilton, Rainey is a man battered by fate, swimming in booze, regrets and the misplaced notion that he somehow deserves better than this. In a narrative cluttered with scenes of heartbreak, there exists one of the most moving and deftly written scenes I've read in some years. In a bid to form some kind of bond with his stepson, Rainey has been taking him to play snooker. The kid's now obsessed and also talented. As he sips his Foster's, and the child begins to build a break, Rainey recalls how a missed blue in an amateur snooker competition changed the trajectory of his life. Soon a crowd draws around the table. Rainey finishes his pint and looks up to watch the black ball skid into the pocket. His stepson has just completed his first maximum break. It's done almost to spite him’ Stuart Evers, Guardian
‘Comedy has been the most common vehicle to explore the drudgery of work - from Scott Adams' comic strip, Dilbert, to the TV hit show The Office… Szalay's superb debut novel, London and the South-East, adds an edge of nastiness to the humour... [T]he competitiveness and false camaraderie among Paul’s sales colleagues... is riveting. In its lapidary view of the trade, Szalay’s novel pays homage to David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross’ Financial Times
‘[V]ery, very good… the characters are small-time schmucks but the author pinpoints them so perfectly as to make them seem huge. The anti-hero is Paul — a heavy smoker, a heavy drinker, a man who lives with a woman who reminds him of the only prostitute he's ever had sex with. Paul lives in Hove and commutes to Victoria with a sore head. He is the sort of man who nurtures his hopeless crush on the barmaid at his regular pub. As well as Paul, there is Murray, Paul's colleague and rival, a man so desperate and pathetic that even Paul can hardly bear to contemplate his situation. But these two men are locked in a mesmerising battle. Superb’ London Evening Standard
'London and the South-East is a stunningly accomplished debut novel. Szalay’s moods, tones and range of situations manage to be scabrously funny or desperately grim. Like Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton before him, his scenes play out in deliciously seedy locations — smoky pubs, dingy snooker halls, dirty streets and, for the climax, “Victorian villas honeycombed with loneliness.” […] All writers begin somewhere. It is here, in this brilliant bittersweet tragicomedy, Szalay first showcased his prodigious capabilities.’ Minneapolis Star Tribune
'[A] bleak, devastatingly observant novel... Written with intense psychological acuity and inventive detail, the author turns a humdrum account of male malaise into an experience far more affecting - and universal - than it has any right to be.' Publishers Weekly
‘[An] engaging saga of a 40-year-old alcoholic who sells advertising space in non-existent publications. However, when he himself is conned into quitting his job, he slowly turns the tables. The use of the present tense and authentic sense of boozy London conveys palpably that this is the state of Workland, right here, right now’ Arena
‘[W]onderfully dark’ The Times
‘[A] riveting read’ The London Paper
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.
As the men get older, the stakes become bewilderingly high in this piercing portrayal of 21st-century manhood.
James and Katherine meet at a wedding in London. It is January 2006, towards the end of the money-for-nothing years, and James is a man with a varied past – entrepreneur, estate agent, film producer, horse-racing tipster, former dot com millionaire – now living alone in a flat in Bloomsbury. Separated from her husband, a successful paparazzo, Katherine is working at an interim job in a luxury hotel. Taken with each other, they exchange phone numbers at the wedding, but from then on not much goes according to the script.
Aleksandr, a major in the MGB – forerunner of the KGB, is sent to an isolated psychiatric clinic in the Ural mountains to investigate a severely incapacitated veteran of the Second World War. THE INNOCENT takes us on a journey into Communist Russia, bringing alive the intensely personal consequences of a regime, and showing the power of institutions and ideologies to define a life.
This bleakly funny debut novel introduces us to Paul and his tragicomic commuter life between a dead-end telesales job and the grey monotony of suburbia.
Winner of the Betty Trask Prize (2008).