I love William Boyd’s novels, in particular, An Ice Cream War, Brazzaville Beach, and A Good Man In Africa. With Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, however, Boyd ventured – successfully, I might add – into the realm of the spy thriller. Spy thrillers have never been my cup of tea, so I was hoping Boyd would return to the well written literary novels of Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa. His latest effort, however, Waiting for Sunrise, continues covering the same type of genre territory he covered in his two previous books.
Waiting for Sunrise begins in Vienna in 1913, where we meet a young, newly-engaged actor named Lysander Rief, “a young, almost conventionally handsome man,” who knows “a lot about a few things and a very little about a great deal of things.” He was, for example, the “second leading man” in a very third rate play. Lysander, the son of a legend of the British stage and his Austrian wife, has traveled to courtly, pre-war Vienna to consult an analyst, Dr. Bensimon, regarding a psycho-sexual problem that began a la Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Lysander needs a cure before he goes home to England and marries Blanche.
The kind Dr. Bensimon, who really does take an interest in Lysander’s problems, instructs him to re-imagine a traumatic childhood scene, disclosed to her under hypnosis, and then replay that scene in his memory, rewriting it as he wants it to be, until the lie becomes the truth. Dr. Bensimon calls this “Parallelism,” though it’s clear it’s simply a reworking of Henri Bergson’s la fonction fabulatrice, that innate capacity for make believe that lends color and meaning to one’s otherwise dull and bland existence. In other words, Dr. Bensimon wants Lysander to lie to himself until he, himself, believes his lies. (Boyd, who is a comedic genius, gives us a brief but funny picture of Freud pooh-poohing Dr. Bensimon’s theories in a café.)
Lysander writes in a personal diary, ostensibly as part of his analysis. Those of us who’ve read a lot of Boyd’s books, however, know that a diary is a common Boydean device. Personally, I’m getting a little tapped out as a reader with diaries and letters. Surely, writers can come up with more original ways to get their stories across. Still, Boyd is a master – at least most of the time – and I could forgive him Lysander’s diary.
We’ll never really know if la fonction fabulatrice would have cleared up Lysander’s sexual problems or not, but we know they were dispatched in short order after he embarked upon a torrid four-month affair with the beautiful expatriate sculptor and cocaine addict, Hettie Bull, also a patient of Dr. Bensimon. Hettie, who attracts men with her hazel eyes and dark beauty, eventually accuses the witless Lysander of a crime he didn’t commit, and with the help of the British Embassy and some clever disguises, he manages to flee home to England, with plans to revive his career as an actor. But, oh, the best laid plans and all that. Of course, things do not go smoothly.
Lysander’s skill with disguise intrigues a few mysterious Englishmen, the very same mysterious Englishmen who helped Lysander escape Vienna intact. Although Lysander would have preferred to “not get involved,” when someone saves your life, you don’t just tell them to leave you alone. You know you have a debt to repay. A big debt. When war breaks out, as everyone knew it would, poor Lysander, who isn’t really very likable, is sent to the front line in France, then takes up residence in a dingy London office, where he’s set on tracking a mole who’s passing secrets to the enemy. And, what began as a psychological period piece in charming Vienna is now a spy thriller is war torn London, with trips to France and Geneva.
Some readers are going to love the way Boyd’s switched it up, of course, while others, like me, won’t be quite so pleased with things. I’d rather read a story about a young man fighting his sexual demons in Vienna than read a spy thriller set in London. But the author is William Boyd. I trust him to take me somewhere I want to go.
And, while I didn’t find this book perfect, and it certainly won’t make my top five of the year, I can’t say it’s not ambitious and intricate. Boyd takes us from psychoanalysis in Vienna, to Italy, to war in the trenches of France, to Geneva, to counter-espionage in London. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have turned into a much better written version of The Da Vinci Code. Thankfully, it doesn’t. And Boyd does vary the tone of each part of his novel, something readers will either appreciate or find disorienting. While I didn’t find any of the novel disorienting, I do wish Boyd had set the entire thing in Vienna, spy thriller or not.
There’s a lot of story tension in this book. As Lysander edges his way into France, his power of disguise becomes necessary once again. And, back in London, he really doesn’t know who to trust, and I’m not talking about the enemy here, I’m taking about the men with whom Lysander’s working, the ones that are supposed to be on the same side. Boyd has created a series of shadowy authority figures to make Lysander’s days as anxiety-ridden as possible. And believe it or not, this slightly effete, slightly bumbling charmer we met in Vienna, comes to show that he does, indeed, possess the iciness of heart needed to star in a real life spy thriller. It’s somewhat of a surprise.
And, as much as I would have liked the action of this book to remain in Vienna, the location changes from Vienna to France to London ratchets up the momentum, not a bad thing in a spy thriller. But I missed the machinations of the evil Hettie. She was an odd duck, to say the least. I think she could have been fascinating, in a perverted sort of way. Oh, Lysander does meet Hettie again. And he’s beguiled again, silly man. But we still learn far too little of Hettie.
Boyd has always been especially good at giving his readers a sense of place, and so it is in Waiting for Sunrise. Vienna dripped, not only sexual neuroses and prewar decadence, but opera and Sachertorte as well (and who doesn’t like Sachertorte?). And the city was appropriately cluttered with period detail: clothes, meals, houses, street scenes. Vienna is a very old fashioned city, a city of tiny alleyways, alleyways that are always crowded. Boyd evoked the claustrophobia of Vienna as well as its charm. London under the shadow of war was equally evoked. Lacking all charm in the early days of WWI, Boyd’s London was a somber, gray place, filled with chilly rain, low flying Zeppelins, and fearful people who laugh a little too often and a little too nervously. The trenches of France reminded me a little Pat Barker’s Regeneration, i.e., they were horrific.
I was expecting spectacular set pieces in this book. The Zeppelin attack of London is particularly flat, especially for someone of Boyd’s powers: “[He] looked up just in time to see a window embrasure topple outwards and drag down the half wall beneath it.” It’s serviceable; it gets the job done, but I expected something lean ‘n’ mean or filled with sensuous detail, and I know Boyd is capable of writing both. And, in this book, too much is told rather than dramatized in scenes. I found that ironic, given that this book’s epigraph was from Hemingway, while Ordinary Thunderstorms, a far more energetic book, carried an epigraph from Proust.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Waiting for Sunrise isn’t better written than ninety-five percent of the books being published today. It is. I loved the Geneva interlude, and I thought it contained the book’s finest scene, a scene in which Lysander learns some surprising things about himself and just what he’s capable of. I won’t say any more about that scene here other than it involves a gold-toothed go-between and live current. And Lysander, of course. And Lysander’s gay uncle Hamo, a former major and a “not particularly famous explorer,” who happens to be a splendid creation. This elderly man scandalizes his little Kentish village when he brings his Nigerian lover home with him. I only wish Boyd had spent more time with Hamo and not hustled him offstage in favor of Lysander’s far less interesting, and twice widowed, mother.
William Boyd is an exceptional writer. He can, I know, write perfect prose. So, the less-than-perfect sentences in this book were, for me, glaring. Far too many of Lysander’s encounters were haphazard. His eye would be “caught” by someone or something, as in “Lysander turned to see Miss Bull standing there.” She – and others – appear at just the right moment “as if she had suddenly materialised.”
Boyd could have done better than this: “Once again I wonder what machinations have been going on behind the scenes.” One professional reviewer said it sounded like we were supposed to read the book as a spoof of Sherlock Holmes. And then, early in the book, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary.” Well, no wonder he was staring! Who in the heck plants flowerbeds in “fearful quandaries?” It’s not a good place for them.
I don’t forgive things like the above in new, debut writers, so there’s no way I’m going to forgive them in someone as good at his craft as William Boyd.
Boyd did give the different parts of his book differences in tone and narrative voice, and I did appreciate this, but even though there’s an overlap of characters in the different sections, i.e., countries, I didn’t feel Boyd was entirely successful in tying together the disparate parts of his novel into an organic whole. The parts don’t feel interdependent enough, yet none of them can stand on their own.
I loved the frame. The first and last pages of the book are written in the second person, as if addressing the reader directly, asking us what we’ve noticed about Lysander as he goes about his day-to-day business, first in Vienna, then in London, first in the sunlight, then in the shadow. I found this highly effective, especially given the fact that Lysander was no doubt seeing a Jungian psychoanalyst, and given the fact that the events in the book led him to his Shadow.
The main narrative itself switches between the “Autobiographical Investigations” of Lysander’s diary and the third person.
I didn’t think this book was so much spy novel as it was historical thriller, and I greatly preferred it as the latter. There are some plot lines left dangling, and there are some – major ones, at that – that the reader will probably never figure out. This isn’t as meticulous a book as Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. The answers Lysander was seeking may never be found. I think it’s best to simply read Waiting for Sunrise and enjoy it and not try to figure it all out. It’s Lysander, himself, who tells us this:
We try to see clearly but what we see is never clear and is never going to be. The more we strive, the murkier it becomes. All we are left with are approximations, nuances, multitudes of plausible explanations.
In the end, Boyd comes through with a complex and intricately plotted novel, and Lysander, confronted by both his own personal truth and by the limits of his own mortality, is a very different man than he was at the book’s beginning. That’s not bad.
Recommended: To William Boyd fans, to lovers of historical thrillers, and to lovers of literary novels. I didn’t like this book as much as I liked Brazzaville Beach or A Good Man In Africa, though I liked it more than The Blue Afternoon. It is interesting, and it held my attention. I love the cover art, and I think it’s very evocative of the novel, itself. I would definitely pick this book up in a bookstore, even without seeing William Boyd’s name on the cover.