21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Post-National Authors, Post-National Literature? An Interview with David Szalay

By Christine Lehnen

In the previous issue of Alluvium, Christine Lehnen wrote about the possibilities and limitations of post-national literature in Europe in the 21st century. As part of an ongoing research project, she is conducting expert interviews with practitioners to explore their stance on nationality and how it shapes (or fails to shape) their writing. This is an excerpt from an interview with David Szalay, author of London and the South-East (2008), Man Booker shortlisted All That Man Is (2016) and, most recently, Turbulence (2018). All That Man Is and Turbulence both feature characters of a wide variety of nationalities.

Opening questions

What does nationality mean to you personally?

My answer to that question is quite complicated. I am in an unusual position, because I am the citizen of more than one country, and the British national identity is more complicated than most nationalities, because it is already a composite national identity, and one that is currently starting to disintegrate, as you will find when you are going to Scotland. Add to this the complication of me living in Budapest – I had a slightly disturbing episode when I was in London a couple of years ago, and someone asked me where I was from, just on the basis of my accent, and that has never happened before and has never happened since.

And what about post-nationality? Does that mean anything to you?

It does not mean anything specific to me, in the sense of a technical or exact term, but I understand what it is getting at, of course. Nationality is not something that is unimportant to me; as a subjective phenomenon, it is not nothing, it is as part of who we are, part of our self-definition. And it is not an insignificant part of that. The language that we speak, our mother tongue, where we grew up, where our parents come from – for most people, these are all the same, and they all come down to their nationality. Your parents were born in England, you were born in England, you live in England, you speak English. But it is true that for a growing minority of people in Europe this picture becomes more complicated. I don’t have statistics, but I assume that there are more people in Europe today with parents of different nationalities than at any time before. If that isn’t post-national, it is at least a new complication to the idea of nationality.

Does nationality play a role in how you perceive other people?

I guess it creates some expectations in the first moment of meeting somebody if you know what their nationality is. It creates expectations about what sort of perspective they might have on the world. But beyond that, no, I do not think so. I don’t regard people as being defined by national characteristics.

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On post-national writing

All That Man Is and Turbulence contain characters of varying nationalities. When you write a book, is your characters’ nationality something you take into consideration?

With All That Man Is, it was part of the concept of the book from the very beginning that there would be characters of many different nationalities, but they were not fixed. I switched the characters’ nationalities around during writing the book, which goes back to the point of the previous question: I regarded them as more or less interchangeable. There was a tendency to gravitate towards British and Hungarian characters, because most of the people I encounter in day-to-day life have one of those two nationalities. So I made an effort to try and push beyond that and include other nationalities, but at no point did I start with a nationality. Those kinds of distinctions don’t define either fictional or non-fictional people – the characters are not defined by their nationality in the book any more than people in the real world.

Why did you set out to purposefully write a book such as All That Man Is, with characters of varying nationalities?

I started writing that book a year or two after I had moved from London to Budapest. My own observation of the world at that time, when I began to write this book in about 2012, was that there was an extraordinary amount of human movement going on in contemporary Europe, and it was in Budapest that it struck me as a truly continent-wide phenomenon. When I had been living in London, it was possible to think: ‘This is just happening in London.’ But when I came to Budapest, I realised that it seems that a majority of young Hungarians, certainly with higher education, have gone to live at least for a time in England or Germany or Sweden or Poland or Austria … My own cousin, who is a Hungarian citizen, moved to London a few years before I came to Budapest. My sister moved to Italy. My mother’s father, a British citizen, moved to France for his retirement. So there was just this sense of churn in my own life and within my own family and circle of friends. I did not have any specific attitude or opinion to it, I had no feeling that it was a good thing or a bad thing, it was just a thing. And I thought that I had never seen this written about in fiction. I felt that it was a major phenomenon in the contemporary world that I was fascinated by, that I felt qualified to write about from my personal experience, and then it also fitted with this structure that I was feeling my way towards at the time, the structure of the book and this subject matter came together. They were both there, and they met. The one was not the product of the other, they came together; I wanted to write a book which consisted of a number of stories, and that seemed to fit very much with the subject.

Why do you think transnational or post-national phenomena have not been a major subject of fiction until recently?

It is partly because fiction does tend to be organised along national lines, which are inherently unconducive to this kind of transnational story. But I had the impression that I was in a position to write about it because of my own situation, where I personally felt –and this is a totally subjective feeling – disqualified from writing a very specifically national kind of literature. The first book I published, London and the South-East, is a fully English book, I think. I cannot imagine writing a book like that right now. It is actually quite interesting for me to look at that book and think: ‘I was able to write that’. Clearly when I wrote that book, these questions about nationality were not present in my mind, and they may be totally absent from that book. All That Man Is, on the other hand, originally had the early working title of Europa. And the European aspect still is a major part of the finished book.

Were you asked a lot about the European aspect of All That Man Is?

Actually, it came even more to the fore because the book was published about two or three months before the referendum [on Brexit] in Britain. When I’d been writing the book, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be a referendum, let alone that it would be won by Leave. So that suddenly meant that the book looked more political, although I didn’t see myself as writing a political book and I still don’t see it as a political book.

Exploring possible differences between ‘Global’ and ‘European’  

How did writing All That Man Is compare with writing Turbulence? The former is set in Europe, the latter all over the world, both feature characters of different nationalities.

The way All That Man Is came about was very different from the way Turbulence came about, because Turbulence was basically a commissioned work for the BBC. It almost felt like a kind of encore to All That Man Is. The BBC approached me because of All That Man Is and they wanted something that was fundamentally similar: A series of stories that were separate and yet connected. It was interesting to do something that similar and try and vary it and make it interestingly different. And there are obvious differences: Even more than All That Man Is, with Turbulence there is an almost self-conscious feeling of trying to play with certain stereotypes by deliberately messing with an audience’s or reader’s expectations. In some way, Turbulence is saying that the opposite of nationality matters. Inasmuch as it is saying anything.

Something that immediately struck me as a major difference was the ways in which characters are connected in each book. In All That Man Is, the book set in Europe, most of the characters have significant interactions with perfect strangers of other nationalities. In Turbulence, the book set all over the world, most of the characters are connected already, because they are friends, family, business associates of different nationalities. Language negotiation also plays a major part in the ‘European’ All That Man Is but not in ‘global’ Turbulence.

You are right, the way the characters are connected is the main difference. And in terms of the language, I once had an interesting conversation, it must have been at an event for All That Man Is, where someone asked: ‘Could you write that book in any language other than English?’ And it is quite an interesting question because English obviously is the language in which people of different nationalities predominantly communicate with one another, so it seems more natural perhaps to write a book like All That Man Is in that language. If you wanted to put out All That Man Is as a television series, you would quickly realise that most of the dialogue would be in English. When I realised this, it did come as a slight surprise. It was quite remarkable: Almost all of the conversations would take place in English in spite of having all of these characters of different nationalities.

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Post-national writing, post-national authors

If someone tried to categorise you as an author, what would you feel would be the most appropriate label?

It is interesting because this isn’t an abstract thing, it is a practical problem. I am going to Korea on Friday for ALL THAT MAN IS. They asked me that exact question: ‘Should we say you are British? Canadian? Hungarian? Anglo-Hungaro-Canadian-British?’ They wanted to know that exact thing. And ‘British’ is the only viable answer. Clearly, I cannot say that I am a Hungarian writer, because Hungarian writers write in Hungarian; it would almost be ridiculous for me to go around claiming to be a Hungarian writer, I would feel like an absurd fraud. Equally, a Canadian writer – there is no significant connection. So it would have to be a British writer, but that isn’t entirely unproblematic either. I don’t feel that nationality has to be the defining characteristic for an author.

Does the idea of ‘European’ identity mean anything to you?

This is something that really does interest me, actually, whether the European is beginning to acquire some of the characteristics of nationality. This is only indirectly connected to the European Union – the European Union enables certain phenomena, and it is the phenomena which may be creating this new identity. Clearly it has a long way to go before it is anything like its own nationality, if ever. For me personally it would be a convenient identity to assume. But I feel that it is not ready to be assumed as that kind of identity yet.

Citation: Christine Lehnen, ‘“European would be a convenient identity to assume, but it is not ready yet.” Post-National Authors, Post-National Literature? An Interview with David Szalay’, Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2020): n. pag. 5 May, Web. https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.1.04

About the authors:

Christine Lehnen is a novelist and academic. Her research has been published in The Journal of Literary Theory and her short stories have been awarded the prizes of the Young Academies of Europe and the Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen. Since 2014, she has been teaching the Novel Writing Workshop at the University of Bonn. She has just completed her postgraduate degree of English Literatures and Cultures at the Universities of Bonn and Paris (III), and is finishing up a Master’s degree in Political Sciences. As C. E. Bernard and C. K. Williams, she publishes fantasy and suspense novels. She has studied in Paris, lived in the United States, Canada, Australia, and is currently based in Bonn. Twitter: @chrisseleh

Photo credit © Eva-Lotte Hill

David Szalay is the author of several books including “London and the South-East”, “All That Man Is”, and “Turbulence”. His work has won and been short-listed for numerous prizes. Born in Canada, he grew up in London, and now lives in Budapest

Photo credit © Julia Papp

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