The beauty of a good piece of literature is that – if it is read and reflected upon carefully – it can cause us to ponder and reflect on our own actions and existence. Through the consideration of a protagonist in a story we open ourselves up to consider our own lifestyle and maybe even improve ourselves just a bit. And such considerations can clearly happen to someone when they have carefully pondered the book All That Man Is by David Szalay.
He has no idea, throwing the name out like some mundane object that his friend frequently dreams about Karen Fielding – dreams in which they might speak, or exchange looks, or in which their hands might momentarily touch, and from which he wakes, still seeming to feel the touch of her hand, to a single moment of overwhelming joy. He transcribes these dreams to his diary, very earnestly, along with pages and pages on what they might mean, and on the nature of the dreaming process itself.
In the waking world, he and Karen Fielding have hardly spoken to each other, and she is unaware of how he feels – unless she has noticed the way his eyes follow her as she moves with her tray around the dining hall, or tramps back from lacrosse in her muddy kit. Practically the only thing he knows about her is that her family live in Didcot – he overheard her telling someone else – and from that moment the word ‘Didcot’ started to live in his mind with a special, mysterious promise. Like her name, it seems almost too potent to put down in writing in a youth hostel in Warsaw, one evening, while Ferdinand was showering, he wrote, and it made his heart quicken: It seems pointless to travel Europe when the only where I want to be is humble, suburban English
His pen hovered.
Then he did it, he wrote the word.
Her name, more potent still, he has never summoned the nerve to form.
The books deals with nine different stories, nine different men at different stages of their lives and with nine different social standings. Szalay has each of the men set in various locations in Europe. Each story is ripe with vivid introspection that breeds a type of sense of empathy with the character and a certain level of understanding of the psyche of men – be they good or bad people – if the book is savored while read.
They swim together, later. The ladies, still in their billowing dresses, letting the water lift them, and Bérnard moving more vigorously, doing little displays of front crawl, and then lolling on his back in the water, letting the sun dazzle his chlorine-stung eyes. Sandra encourages him to do a handstand in the shallow end. Not totally sober, he obliges her. He surfaces to ask how it was, and she shouts at him to keep his legs straight next time, while Charmian, still bobbing about nearby, staying where she can find the cool blue tiles with her toes looks on. He does another handstand, unsteady in his long wet trunks. The ladies applaud. Triumphant, he dives again, into watery silence, blue world, losing all vertical aplomb as his big hand strive for the tiles. His legs thrash to drive him down. His lungs keep lifting his splayed hands from the tiles. His face feels full of blood. Streams of bubbles pass over him, upwards from his nostrils. And then he is in air again, squatting shoulder deep in the tepid water, the water sharp and bright with chemicals streaming from orange slicks of hair that hang over his eyes. He feels queasy for a moment. All those Keo lagers . . . He fears, just for a moment, that he is going to throw up.
Then he notices a lifeguard looming over them, his shadow on the water. He is talking to Sandra. He has just finished up saying something and he moves away, and takes his seat again, up a sloping ladder, like a tennis umpire.
‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says, hanging languidly in the water only her sunburnt head, with its mannish jawline and feathery blonde pudding-bowl, above the surface.
Bérnard isn’t sure what’s going on. He still feels light-headed, vaguely unwell. ‘What?’
‘We’ve been told off,’ Sandra says again.
Bérnard, from his crouch in the water, which feels chilly now that he has stopped moving, just stares at her. His body is bony. Individual vertebrae show on his white back. Sandra is still saying something to him. Her voice sounds muffled. ‘… told to stop being so immature …’ he hears it say.
She has started to swim away from him – her head moving away on a very slow, lazy breaststroke.
The surface of the pool, which had been all discomposed by his antics, is smoothing itself out again, is slapping the sides with diminishing vigour.
There is also wit in this book. Not so much a outside laugh wit but more of a quiet realization ‘I-have-done-that’ or ‘have-almost-done-that’ humour followed by a moment of pondering. Again more self-reflection of one’s own soul or a contemplation of someone we know, which is that hallmark of a good piece of literature.
He thinks about death quite a lot now. It is hard not to think about it. Obviously, he doesn’t have that much time left. Ten years? In ten years he will be eighty-three. More than that? Well, probably not. So about ten years. Seen in one way, that is frightening little. It is terrible, how little it seems, sometimes. Waking at five a.m. on a December morning, for instance, in the large damp bedroom of the house near Argenta, the turquoise walls still hidden in darkness. The quiet ticking of the clock on the table next to the bed. It is terrible how little it seems. And since the operation two months ago he has understood that even ten years might be optimistic. He has had, since the operation, this strange permanent awareness of his heart and what it is doing, and this fear that it will suddenly stop doing it. He lies there, unpleasantly aware of its working, and of the fact that one day it will stop. He feels no more prepared to face death, though, than he ever has.
It is starting to get light in the large turquoise bedroom.
He has been lying there, awake for two hours, thinking.
All That Man Is by David Szalay is a deep and thought-provoking piece of literature that enlightens readers about the male psyche. It should be savoured and pondered by any reader who seeks enlightenment either about themselves or their friends.