Spring by David Szalay

Think of the thousands of people you meet over the course of a lifetime. Then deduct the ones you can’t stand. Of those left, how many can you actually maintain a relationship with for, let’s say, an hour, a month, six months, a year? If you start looking at relationships in terms of reduction, it seems amazing that people ever live together let along manage sustained relationships that last decades. Then I begin to wonder if relationships are simpler when you’re younger. After all relationships in middle age tend to bring a lot of baggage to the table, and this is just one of the problems in David Szalay’s relationship novel Spring.

From the description of the book, it was difficult to gauge whether this tale, ostensibly about a relationship between a couple of Londoners, would be something I’d enjoy, and a surface glimpse of the description could lead to the conclusion that this is a ‘light’ romantic read. Instead Spring is a clever look at the difficulties in a burgeoning relationship between the main characters James and Katherine. It’s 2006, post-boom, and that in itself is a grabber for me.  James is on the downside on the economy and leading a severely diminished life: “For quite a few years the space in which he lives has been shrinking.”  But now he’s in the process of trying to edge his way back up, and middle-class life is beginning to look like an attractive prospect. James has a “checkered past” which includes being a film producer (0nce), a pizza shop owner, and the owner of a dodgy internet site which offered racing tips. At the top of his game, he owned an internet start-up worth millions, lived with a trophy girlfriend, and was the owner of a posh house on Victoria Road that “was never properly finished.”  

And then nothing, and the liquidators seized the house on Victoria Road while the Milanese artisans were still tiling the single-lane swimming pool…

 He stirs the razor in the scummy water. The next spring–après le deluge–found him washed up in Fulham. Then there were other places, each smaller than the last, and finally Mecklenburgh Street. The ex-local-authority flat is in an unfaced terrace of London brick. The front doors of the houses are painted black-dust-bleared fanlights, massed doorbells. The basement flats have their own entrances. Metal steps, textured like a fire escape, tack down via a square landing. The area is littered with dead brown leaves. The bedroom curtains are permanently closed.

He pulls the plug and the shaving-water noisily sinks away. No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay. He wants somewhere okay to live. An okay job. One or two holidays a year. Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman.

The woman James hopes to make a permanent fixture in his life is Katherine–a woman he met at a wedding. She works as a manager of a luxury hotel, but her life is complicated by the fact that she’s still married and separated from her photographer husband. This makes Katherine a woman in transition. Are people in transition more vulnerable? When the novel opens, James and Katherine have been seeing each other for a couple of months, and James is no nearer to gauging Katherine’s true feelings for him. A recent getaway to Marrakech didn’t seem to stir the romance James expected, and instead for part of the trip Katherine seemed oddly detached.

The novel goes back in time to their first sexual encounters–no overly detailed passages here, but the author does not spare his characters any humiliation in their initial awkward sex. There’s no real question of love between these two, or even of passion. It’s more about how two people got to this point in their lives, and how they deal with loneliness while trying to recoup their lives from disaster.

The author’s focus on the delicate and often desperate politics of James and Katherine’s relationship has both its funny and poignant moments, but one of the primary difficulties James faces is trying to understand just where he stands with Katherine. While neither character is particularly likeable, they are not unsympathetic. Author Szalay doesn’t put all of his character cards on the table immediately, so we discover things about James, for example, at the same moment as Katherine. While James has an edge of shadiness (just what is going on with his part ownership in a racehorse, for example?) Katherine is a cipher. She can’t seem to make up her mind about what she wants–sex or  no sex, time alone or time together. For his part, James isn’t able to read Katherine well. Should he push her? Is she too passive? Does she just need time or is this an excuse?

I just need some time on my own, she said. I need a weekend on my own. I need to get my head together. I haven’t stopped moving since we got back from Marrakech. I haven’t had any time to myself. I still haven’t finished unpacking  … I’m sorry.

Then she said, Thanks for understanding. Thanks for making it easy for me.

Later he wondered whether he had made it too easy for her. What should he have done though? Made a scene? Tried to force her to see him? Even if he had wanted to do that, he just didn’t seem to feel enough at the moments when it might have been a possibility. He only felt a kind of numbness, and the infantile frustration of not getting what he wanted.

The two main characters engage in a somewhat tepid relationship that ostensibly is supposed to allow them to get to know each other better, and while James and Katherine eat together and sleep together, they seem to be worlds apart. Spring explores the painful difficulties that encompass that well-worn phrase ‘getting to know’ someone, and Szalay reveals what a hopelessly bogus statement that is even as James and Katherine negotiate their pasts, morality, personal space and parties attended by a few truly desperate souls.

Spring is not a perfect novel. At a couple of points the narrative shifts to a different point-of-view and this proves to be distracting and jarring–especially since the author has spent such effort on the intense relationship focus between the two main characters. That complaint aside, Szalay writes marvellously. Here’s Freddie, long-term acquaintance of James:

On Monday they meet in Earls Court–one of those streets of trucks stampeding past exhaust-fouled terraces, of youth hostels, and veiled slummy houses full of subletting Australians, and other houses with tarnished nameplates in Arabic on the doors and the paint falling off in stiff pieces. There, under a two-star package-tour hotel, they meet. Freddie is piquey and jaundiced. In one of his down moods. His hair looks like it has slipped off his head–there is none on top, where the skin has the look of a low-quality waxwork, or the prosthetic scalp of a stage Fagin, but plenty further down, where it trails like the fringe of a filthy rug over his collar–the old collar, white-edged with age, of an otherwise blue Jermyn Street shirt stolen from his landlord.

One last point, the back cover states that Szalay was born in Canada and that he’s named as “one of the twenty best British novelists under forty.” Does Canada claim him too? How does that nation-claiming thing work?

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szalay David

9 responses to “Spring by David Szalay

  1. As far as I can tell, this is Szalay’s third novel but the first to actually have Canadian publication. I can’t recall reading anything anywhere that says we claim him.

    • I’m curious why he’s considered a British novelist. Is it citizenship, length of residency?

      • My guess would be that his family moved there when he was a child (probably “returned” there might be more accurate) and that he has spent virtually all of his life in Britain. I suspect the only reason the publisher is referencing the Canadian birth in this work is to give a little bump to interest in North America since it is his first book to appear here.
        The broader point you raise is interesting. I read a number of novels last year by authors who are truly “global” citizens — born in one country, raised in a few others, resident while writing in even more. We have always had global writers but the general idea was that they were “from” somewhere (e.g. Greene, Conrad) or “immigrant” writers (Mistry, Diaz) — we seem to be entering an age where they are from “everywhere”, if you can tolerate my exaggeration.

        • Good points Kevin–esp the N. American debut.

          I always think that the issue of nationality/citizenship hurt James. He was mentioned in school as an American writer (we didn’t cover them), but then when I took American Lit courses in N. America, he was neglected too.

  2. Guy, I wonder about tha claiming thing too. Even in my own case. I’m not sure what I am anymore. Of course in a daily context I see people attribute “belonging” also based on looks and language. Maybe that makes it even more complicated.
    There is the case of Hermann Hesse for example, for me decidedly a German author but he lived inSswitzerland and got the passport, so he is also a Swiss writer?
    What does the title mean? As in “second spring”- middle age love or something. It sounds interesting.

    • It’s spring in the novel, so there are lots of references to rain and light, but that’s on the physical level. There’s also the idea of new beginnings and romance, of course, which goes along with that although ultimately I see this an an anti-romantic novel.

  3. The nationality question is interesting. (We keep on borrowing artists to Belgium) I think the most important is the language and the place where the person grew up. It sets you in a certain way.

    I don’t think that all the artists who chose to live in Switzerland for political or income tax reasons should be considered as Swiss, even if they have the passport.

    That aside, the novel seemed enjoyable although I missed the allusions regarding the London addresses. I guess what it means but it’s not clear as I’ve only been to London once.

  4. The London references seem pretty well judged. Earl’s Court isn’t quite as described now, but the essentials remain true (it’s still a mix of Australian, youth hostels, immgirants moving through who’ll likely settle elsewhere, cheap hotels, all with a down-at-heel atmosphere and a bit of sleaze). Jermyn Street, where I used to work funnily enough, is where the best shirts in Britain are to be found. The downward social track sounds right too. Whether he’s British or not he does seem to have captured the place.

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