“Anyone can write lightly about sunshine or darkly about the night, but it takes a novelist of Szalay’s skill and ambition to write with brilliance about twilight,” observed the novelist Chris Cleave in a Guardian review of David Szalay’s 2011 novel Spring.
Born in Montréal, raised in London, educated at Oxford and now based in Hungary, David Szalay (his last name is pronounced “Sol-LOY”), made his fiction debut in 2008 with London and the South-East. In 2013, he was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. He is most famous now, of course, for his pan-European Booker-shortlisted novel All That Man Is – a set of linked stories about nine men at different stages of life.
I haven’t as yet read that one. I thought it might be good to start with a slightly less ambitious work of Szalay’s. Spring – the “twilight” novel of a hundred ambiguities – is simple in its structure and situation, but complex and layered in its emotional and physical tension. It is the story of Londoners James and Katherine, who meet at a wedding in January 2006 and exchange phone numbers. A risk-taker, James is a former dot com millionaire who has gambled on the racetrack and also worked as a film producer and estate agent. He lives alone in a tiny flat. Katherine, separated from her successful paparazzo husband Fraser King, is an underachiever working in the lobby of a luxury hotel.
James and Katherine remain simultaneously aloof but involved with each other. He is “pained” by her resistance to his advances. She is “hurt” by his nondemonstrativeness. This is not a book about certainty and closure. As for the end, it hangs as well – albeit in a mature, sophisticated way.
Not every page of the novel is engrossing but Szalay’s genius breaks through regularly in sharp moments of introspection. This will be a gorgeous read for those interested in present-day English manners and living – actually, for anybody who wants to pay attention to and consider the state of romantic relationships within the general modern condition.
Here are two sections that I liked:
Once he wanted more than he does now. Once, his idea of his own life, of what it was meant to be, was something magnificent. It seems a sort of insanity now. A sort of megalomania. An impediment to a proper view of the world. That idea of himself was formed when he still knew nothing about life, when he was still at school – and it has taken life twenty years, to purge him of it. Probably that is an unusually long time.
He is shaving. The mirror is haloed with feeble steam. He isn’t the same as he was even a few years ago. Even a year ago. Is it just tiredness? Is he just tireder than he was?
From the start, it seemed to him now, he had not felt enough. When she told him that Fraser had been in touch with her. When she told him, two weeks later, that she wanted to see Fraser. And when she said to him, in the half-light the next morning, ‘What do you think I should do?’ It was not that he thought he had failed, on those occasions and others, to express what he felt. He had just not seemed to feel enough when feeling was most needed. It troubled him, this sense that it was a failure of feeling, and not a failure of expression. A man unable to express his feelings. That was magazine normality, nothing to worry about. A man unable to feel his feelings. Well, that did sound worse.
Learn more about David Szalay in this interview from 2013 that he gave in Mumbai: