Literature can be hard work. Here are two writers, William Boyd and Andrés Neuman, at different stages of their careers, determined to offer complex literary novels together with the kind of high-tension plot that can attract a wider readership. Each sets his story in a tirelessly researched historical period and place; atmosphere is to be had in abundance, likewise comedy, eroticism, and violence. If toil were a guarantee of achievement in art, these novels would be among the finest.
Just turned sixty, the Scottish but African-born William Boyd is a known quantity. Contemporaries will recall with affection the comedy and drama of A Good Man in Africa (1981) and An Ice-Cream War (1982). Professional and productive, he has written some fifteen novels since, all seeking to combine the intelligently literary with the exciting and readable. One is struck by the many different settings of his tales: South West Africa in World War I, Manila in the early 1900s, Berlin and Los Angeles in the 1930s, Nigeria during the Biafran war, not to mention of course London and Edinburgh in various periods (the list could be much longer).
Many of the novels move back and forth from one country or continent to another and the reader is always carefully filled in on town or landscape, decor and customs. Clothes are important; Boyd goes to a great deal of trouble to dress his characters, particularly the women, describing style, colors, cloths, and textures. But all this meticulously portrayed reality only points up a deficit of deeper knowledge. Boyd’s central characters find the world enigmatic and dangerous. It’s no surprise that Waiting for Sunrise is prefaced with a line from Hemingway: “A thing is true at first light and a lie by noon.”
The most disturbing source of enigma, more often than not, is oneself. As this novel opens, Lysander Rief (Boyd rarely gives us an “ordinary” name), a young English actor, is in Vienna in the summer of 1913 to follow a course of psychoanalysis with the Freudian psychologist Doctor Bensimon. His problem, or problems, can be deduced from the following account:
The last time he had tried to have sexual congress with a woman had been with a young tart he’d picked up in Piccadilly. He counted back: three months, ten days ago. It was days after he had proposed to Blanche and was purely by way of necessary experiment…. The girl was pretty enough in a lurid way with her paint on but she had a black tooth that was visible when she smiled. He had started well but the inevitable result ensued. Nothing.
Not premature ejaculation, then, as Dr. Bensimon at first supposes, but anorgasmia: to put it brutally, Lysander can get it up and get it in but he can’t come …