Zagreb, Larcana, Argenta, Katowice

David Szalay’s All That Man Is and the European Cultural Project

Over the past twenty years, European art has received a significant amount of funding from the European Union, state governments, and city councils. Creative Europe, the umbrella organisation for EU cultural funding, has €1.46 billion available for the funding of cultural projects between 2014–2020.

Looking through the output of MEDIA, Creative Europe’s programme to support the European film industry through promotion, distribution and development, the results are mixed. The programme has supported work from Lars von Trier, Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Roman Polański, Shane Meadows, Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen and Thomas Vinterberg. It’s been prescient and important in the development of new film-makers’ careers, and continued to contribute to the funding of some daring and radical work.

But it’s also been guilty of funding work that supports its manifest aim of ‘promoting European culture’ a little too brazenly. Woody Allen’s career now primarily consists of making inflated tourism reels about any European city that will pay him enough to do so. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie portrayed Paris as a twee, pastel-tone idyll caked in over-French whimsy, almost wholly comprised of white people. An Education, directed by Lone Scherfigand and written by novelist Nick Hornby, is a saccharine bildungsroman set in 1960s London about a middle-class girl about to go up to Oxford before being led astray by a dashing conman. There are plenty more examples of films such as these, which make Europe appear to be a series of nation stereotypes and combined into one harmonious patchwork.

These films comply impeccably with the stated aims of Creative Europe, which are to ‘safeguard, develop and promote European cultural and linguistic diversity and to promote Europe’s cultural heritage’; and ‘to strengthen the competitiveness of the European cultural and creative sectors, in particular of the audiovisual sector, with a view to promoting smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.’ The second aim implies packaging European culture as a saleable whole, and this leads to the idea of European culture as a singular, amorphous mass, as if the continent has a single identity rather than being comprised of a multitude of different countries, each with their own cultural heritage.

This homogenisation is a wider point of contention in EU politics — it was unquestionable a factor in the Brexit decision — and it extends into the cultural sphere, where it leads to the question: does a single European culture exist? What would it even consist of?

In the version of European culture propagated by the European Union, individual countries are portrayed as caricatured versions of themselves, exaggerating their positive national stereotypes, and the positive mechanisms of a connected continent. The negative aspects of Europe as a continent — such as internal conflict and racism, and more recently a refugee crisis — are, for the most part, censored, though there are a couple of exceptions. References to the Second World War, an event which is vital to the creation mythos of a unified European state, are frequent and encouraged; and stories of struggles against the bureaucracies and state apparatus of individual countries are celebrated as steps in the European journey to a singular social democracy.

Depending on your political bent, this is either for the good of the continent or a restriction on sovereign democracy. I lean towards the former. But it’s beyond argument that what has been absent in the official rendering of singular ‘European culture’ is the dirt, boredom, inefficiency, corruption, waste and baseness that are an intrinsic part of its identity and the lived experience of its constituents. The official and heavily funded version of the idea of singular cultural identity for the continent runs counter to the lived experiences of the majority of European citizens. Recently there have been some attempts at more accurately representing this identity.

David Szalay’s novel All That Man Is tells the stories of a series of European men. It begins with a pretentious Oxford undergraduate on an Interrail trip and moves progressively by age to a retired British diplomat holed up in his Italian holiday home after a heart operation.

The stories take place in a second-tier Europe that runs as an anathema to the high aspirations of the promoted version. The locations would never appear in the tourist-board renderings of the European elite: Zagreb, Larcana, Argenta, Katowice all feature rather than Paris or Rome. The characters all fail in one way or another, some in particularly crushing fashion.

Murray, a middle-aged Scot who used to work in telesales and own a Mercedes S-Class, returns from his mother’s funeral to the small, inland Croatian town he’s moved to and fails to impress a series of locals (a girl who works in a bar, her mother, a Dutchman who stays in the local youth hostel, the men who run the town’s kebab shop). He gets drunk and accidentally solicits a sex-worker, and is beaten up when he tries to back out of the transaction. He spends three days feeling sorry for himself in his apartment, which is full of the moth-eaten clothing of the previous tenant. He takes out a loan against the one asset he owns, a house in Cheam (a London suburb between Croydon and Kingston), and gives the money to a local as an investment into his new minibus taxi company. The local flees with is money.

Bernàrd, a Belgian adolescent, holidays alone in Cyprus in a run-down hotel a long walk from the beach, where he meets an obese English widow and her obese daughter. His sexual encounter with the daughter is described thus:

She needs to open her legs as wide as they will go or the flesh, pouring in from every direction, will obstruct him.

He overcomes this problem by moving his mattress to the floor, where there is more room. He later has sex with the widow, the girl’s mother.

Aleksandr, a Boris Berezovsky figure, comes to terms with losing his fortune and his wife aboard his super-yacht, and considers killing himself. His plans for this are put on hold after he asks his butler, Mark, who is from Sunderland, some elaborate questions concerning the volume and weight of the sea. Mark Googles the answers, and soon Aleksandr has lost interest in his own suicide.

These stories, and other chapters from the novel, present a version of Europe marred in failure, ugliness and dirt. There is a proliferation of the fake and the fraudulent. The men are all complicit in their own failures, which are intrinsically linked to the state of their continent. The final story follows a British diplomat to his holiday home in the Italian town of Argenta where he recoups from heart surgery. He considers his greatest professional achievement to be ‘negotiating, over many years, the expansion of the European Union in 2004’. A few pages later, he drives past a group of sex workers, many of them Bosnians whose presence is a consequence of his negotiations; even actions with the best intentions are flawed. A Danish journalist flies out to inform a respected politician and potential future Prime Minister that his newspaper has learned of an affair the politician has been undertaking with a married woman. The politician begs him not to go to press — this will ruin his career, and he’s a good, honest politician who has helped the country — but the journalist denies him, betraying his morals on a personal and a national level.

Szalay is a master of a colloquial and abrupt prose that reflects the seediness of contemporary Europe. It’s the prose of hollow brand names (BMW, Mercedes, Park Lane cigarettes) that in some contexts would signify glamour, but are now empty symbols associated with a corrupt elite. Dialogue, though infrequent, is one-sided and cold:

‘No, I don’t live in the UK now,’ he says.
‘Croatia,’ he says, in answer to another question from the old man.
‘Yugoslavia, it used to be part of,’ he says, in answer to another.

This dialogue is notable both for the single voice, which puts the speaker in a lonely monologue, and the flippant, matter-of-fact remark on a traumatic geographical realignment. Borders are written and rewritten and can be crossed or rubbed out, but loneliness is a constant wherever one chooses to live.

The characters’ shared redeeming feature is their emotional depth, but even this is undermined by their public utterances. In a particularly bleak story, a former diplomat is never able to externalise his existential agony and the love he feels for his estranged wife and his distant daughter. He has a short argument with his estranged wife before profusely apologising, and they both sit down to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; he suspects his daughter knows that he has had feelings towards members of his own sex and feels uncomfortable in her presence as a result, despite the evident love he feels for her.

Szalay has acknowledged the European theme of his novel (the working title was Europa), stating his aim as ‘to evoke the fluidity and complexity of contemporary Europe, its feel and texture.’ He succeeds in sketching the contours of a continent that’s a lot less happy and glamorous than the officially sanctioned version, and the Europe he portrays feels like a hangover on a budget short-haul flight.

The novel was complete before Europe entered its real period of crisis. In an interview with The Paris Review, Szalay notes that adding a character in to give a voice to the refugee crisis ‘would feel a bit too much like some sort of dramatized, fictionalized journalism. You would feel the author trying to cram something in.’ He’s right, and yet his profession earlier in the interview that ‘this refugee crisis isn’t going to significantly change the way Europe’s ­going’ is premature. It’s impossible to know exactly how the refugee crisis coupled with an increase in terror attacks, the exit of the UK from the EU, and the rise of the far-right might alter the course of Europe. These issues might potentially restricting free movement within the continent over the longer term. What is almost for certain is that there will be significant change.

Whatever happens, his novel is an effective rendering of what our social and political union looks like going into these era-defining challenges. And it’s a welcome counter to the too often sickly prescriptions of the official cultural funding bodies.