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. Readers may feel, however, that a man who can propose to his beloved one day and “purely” by way of experiment go to a prostitute the next may have, if we can risk the pun, other issues. One of these is his parents: slightingly, Bensimon only becomes truly interested in Lysander when he discovers that his long-dead father was the celebrated actor Halifax Rief, a dominant figure who still determines, if only in reaction, much of his son’s behavior. His mother, much younger than his father and for a while the infant Lysander’s sleeping companion after his father’s death, will also turn out to be at the heart of the younger man’s difficulties.
Encouraged to keep a diary of dreams and reflections, Lysander comes up with the classic repressed memory: one summer afternoon in early adolescence, having moved into the manor hall of his new stepfather, Lord Faulkner, Lysander had taken The Rape of the Lock into the gardens to read, proceeded to masturbate over thoughts of Belinda, fallen asleep with his trousers open, and, on being woken by his alarmed mother, protested in a daze of denial that Tommy Bledlow, the gardener’s son, “did this to me”; as a result, the gardener and his family were dismissed.
The anorgasmia would appear to be a symptom of Lysander’s inability to come to terms with his thoughtless, destructive behavior of years before. Bensimon has a solution: parallelism. Our past is an imaginative construct that can be altered, at least in our heads. He puts Lysander under hypnosis and reconstructs the afternoon in an innocuous way, creating a “parallel” memory. Despite the fact that the original memory remains in the pages of his diary, Lysander, as he soon has occasion to discover, is cured.
One of Boyd’s aims in this novel is to evoke that point in history when, partly thanks to Freud’s ideas, the world was becoming more intensely sexualized and society galvanized by anxious disagreements over the role of sex in our lives. Walking around Vienna, Lysander is attracted to a poster, or fragments of a poster, which he is never able to see whole. It shows a “scantily clad maiden…almost naked, cowering, hands pressed to her sizeable breasts, cupping them protectively, a semi-visible filmy swirl of self-supporting veil protecting her modesty at the plump juncture of her thighs.” Someone, in a fit of “prudish bourgeois outrage,” is mutilating the posters, preventing Lysander from viewing the whole picture and creating a sense of enigma.
No sooner has he seen the posters than Lysander meets, unaware, the model for the naked girl. On his first visit to Bensimon, as if the whole world were organizing itself around his personal problem, he encounters two people who will be central to his life and appear to represent opposing traits in his character. The petite, ebullient, and disquietingly erratic Hettie Bull bursts into the waiting room, cadges not one but two cigarettes from Lysander, and delays his appointment by demanding “in a kind of frenzy” to see the analyst first. Alwyn Munro, soberly dressed in banded tie and stiff collar, emerges from the doctor’s studio and opines that Hettie “looks a bit dangerous to me.” Munro turns out to be a military attaché at the British embassy and will step in to help Lysander when Hettie ruins his life in grand style.
A sculptress living with a famous painter, Hettie invites Lysander to a private viewing of her partner’s show. Dressing to go, Lysander combines “a stiff-collared white shirt” that reminds us of Munro with “a scarlet, polka-dotted, four-in-hand tie” that seems more in line with Hettie’s world. “A splash of bold colour,” Lysander reflects, “to show how artistic he was,” something his father would have found vulgar. With this uncertain identity he walks straight into an affair with Hettie, or Andromeda as she sometimes signs herself.
For Andromeda is the distressed maiden in the poster Hettie modeled for. At the show, Lysander discovers the original design for the image, which advertises the opera Andromeda und Perseus by Gottlieb Toller, drawn by Hettie’s partner, Udo Hoff. “One mystery solved,” Lysander congratulates himself. In fact the mystery of Andromeda has only just begun.
Reversing the stereotyped roles of male artist and female model, Hettie invites Lysander to model for her and seduces him. To his relief he discovers that he can now achieve orgasm, though he immediately accuses her of having “plotted and planned…this diabolical scheme” from the beginning. She confesses that she did. A disquieting aspect of Lysander’s character emerges: he is a man who reacts rather than acts. He is seduced rather than seducing. He constantly feels that he is the victim or puppet of some conspiracy. Yet he never says no. Apparently this has to do with his profession; as an actor he accepts roles and is obedient to a script.
The affair begins; the couple meet regularly in hotels. Vienna has been described as a polite and proper city beneath which flows a “river of sex.” Even the young maid at Lysander’s respectable boardinghouse sells her favors to guests for a reasonable price. Declaring his happiness while Hettie shoots up cocaine on the bed, Lysander is very much in the stream:
Hettie found a book of pornographic Japanese prints in Hoff’s library and brought them to the barn so they could experiment. She took his penis in her mouth. He tried and failed to sodomize her. They had a go at emulating the contorted positions illustrated, studying the pages as if they were architects inspecting a blueprint.
Later, Hettie gives Lysander a copy of the libretto for Andromeda und Perseus and signs her dedication Andromeda. Our hero is now inside the myth, though hardly a Perseus figure. All appears to be going swimmingly until the police arrive at his boardinghouse and arrest him. Pregnant and afraid her boyfriend will react violently, Hettie has accused Lysander of rape.
It is all very literary, playfully and pleasantly so. Every detail calls to another in an intensifying pattern. Lysander is now the victim of the same “crime” he once committed. To excuse himself for his sexual behavior he had shifted the blame elsewhere, altering a family’s destiny; to excuse herself, Hettie has accused him, with dire consequences. Fortunately, as Lysander languishes in his prison cell, Munro appears from the British embassy. His Majesty’s government has generously paid his bail and he is to be allowed to await his trial under house arrest at the embassy.
Nothing, it now seems, would be easier than to demonstrate that he and Hettie had been having an affair and that the rape charge is unfounded. But Hettie comes to the embassy and persuades Lysander that if he tells the truth, Udo will kill her and thus their child as well. Always accommodating, Lysander decides to escape and, despite having to forfeit the bail as a consequence, the British diplomats connive. Disguising himself as a loud-mouthed Italian musician with a stolen double bass and felt hat, Lysander walks through a police cordon at the railway station and boards a train to Venice.
All this and more occurs in the first third of this 350-page novel. One would have thought it was material enough to see Boyd through to the end. The reader wonders how Lysander will deal with his fiancée back in London, whether he will see his child in Vienna, how he will pick up his acting career, if he can solve the deeper psychological problems that have to do with his mother, whether it really is possible, over the long term, to substitute an inconvenient but accurate memory with an innocuous and false one. They are fascinating questions, but Boyd has a different plan. It is now 1914, the war is about to start, and our story is set to metamorphose into an extremely complex spy thriller.
The next two hundred pages are packed. As if they had planned everything from the start, the British intelligence services intend to make Lysander repay his bail by risking his life in a mission to Switzerland where he will use his language skills to force a German consular official to reveal the source of coded information he is receiving about British troop movements. Just as he succumbed to the plans of women, Lysander accepts and brings all his acting ability to the scheme. Doing so, he casually kills and tortures, discovers to his amazement that the code used by the German spies is based on the libretto of Andromeda und Perseus, is shot in the chest, and speedily recovers to be given the job of hunting down the London-based bureaucrat who is sending vital secrets to the enemy. Needless to say the elusive spy is given the codename Andromeda.
Meantime Boyd never fails to describe with the utmost care each new scene, be it a London theater, the trenches in France, a steamer on Lake Constance, a café in Geneva, or a Zeppelin bombing raid of London, and he works hard to bring together Lysander’s psychosexual problems and the literary atmosphere of the earlier pages with his wartime duties and the thriller plot. But it is indeed hard work and by the time he arrives at the crucial twist, which has everything fitting neatly together, the reader is weary of it, nostalgic for the sophistication and lightness of touch that made the first part of the novel such a pleasure. On three occasions, Lysander finds himself alone at night anxiously “waiting for sunrise.” On the last of these Boyd makes the meaning of the book’s title explicit: “Sunrise and clarity, he thought—at last, at last.” But it is not to be. Nothing will be explained. “Maybe this is what life is like,” Lysander reflects. “We try to see clearly, but…the more we strive the murkier it becomes.” This may be so, but the machinery Boyd deploys to bring his hero to this melancholy conclusion is all too clear and laborious.