All That Man Is is not a novel. This does not make it unique: William Trevor’s novella, Reading Turgenev was nominated in 1991, and Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, The Beggar Maid, won the prize in 1980. But it does make it unusual since the rules for the prize clearly state that only novels are eligible to be nominated (seriously: the word “novel” appears 40 times in the rules. The rules are only two pages long).
The reason for Szalay’s book’s nomination is that it doesn’t read like a collection of short stories. Each story concentrates on one man and Szalay has united his stories around a loose theme of exploring men’s position in European society, making connections throughout in imagery, turns of phrase, events, and characters. The men in his stories age as the book unfolds, giving a sense of progression.
Szalay is strong stylistically. He evokes a sense of bleakness and fragility in most of his stories while managing to balance a subtle humour in some. His close observation is insightful and clever, and somehow Szalay manages to avoid the feeling of over-indulgence one can sometimes find in obsessively closely observed descriptive passages. I feared early on that he might have been overusing his similes, but once I had learned to appreciate his style, I came to enjoy rather them.
Will Szalay win? Possibly, and I wouldn’t say that of the first three books I read (I really want someone to explain why the bookmakers have Levy as most likely to win) but I think it highly unlikely. While his writing is excellent his range is limited and the tone of most of the stories remained the same. There are no moments of high emotion or tension and I was never truly invested in a character or outcome. This isn’t to disparage what Szalay has created here: I really enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it. But judging the prize is a comparative exercise, and since Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels more ambitious and more successful in its execution, Szalay’s shortcomings matter. In brief, I’d recommend, but would not champion, this work.