Tuesday, January 21, 2014
the last book I read
It's 1913, and young actor Lysander Rief is, along with a whole host of other famous or soon-to-be-famous people, in Vienna. Lysander's presence is for perhaps less momentous reasons, in global terms anyway, though pretty momentous for him - he's consulting an English psychoanalyst, Dr. Bensimon, about an issue of a rather personal nature. Rather unusually for an otherwise healthy young man, Lysander has anorgasmia - so instead of finishing off in the prescribed manner, wiping the old chap on the curtains and bidding his lady friend good day with a jaunty tip of the hat he's hammering away joylessly for hours before eventually having to give up and go and have a cup of tea.
This unfortunate situation hasn't stopped him from still having something of an eye for the ladies, though, and he soon has a chance encounter in Dr. Bensimon's waiting room with Hettie Bull, artist's model and muse and fellow patient, though in exactly what capacity is never made clear. It's certainly not anything to do with a distaste for sex, because no sooner have she and Lysander struck up a conversation than she's inviting him over to her studio for a bit of nude modelling, a transparent ruse that pretty much inevitably ends up with the two of them going at it like knives.
Things take a downhill turn, though, when in quick succession Hettie announces that she is pregnant with Lysander's child and accuses him of rape. Lysander is thrown in prison, but manages to escape back to England with a bit of collusion from some slightly shady types at the British Embassy. Needless to say once Lysander is safely home and World War I has broken out, these shady types come calling on him to repay his debt by doing a favour for them.
This favour involves heading off to the shores of Lake Geneva to try to track down the recipient of some intercepted coded messages from England, and "persuade" this recipient to give up the code cipher that decodes them. Lysander turns out not only to be a master of disguise (putting his acting skills to good use) but also to have some aptitude for certain other espionage skills, like torture. He puts these to such good effect that he inadvertently kills the man he's interrogating, and in making good his escape is repeatedly shot by one of his Swiss contacts. So not a completely smooth operation, but Lysander does come away, in addition to being riddled with bullets, with the code cipher he was after.
Rather than gratefully allowing Lysander to retire from the spying business, though, his handlers want him to do another mission - this time to find the source of the now-decrypted messages in the War Office in London. The outcome of these investigations involves people rather closer to home - literally so in this case as the main suspect is an associate of Lysander's mother. This prompts some agonised weighing of family loyalty against patriotic duty, until, as usually happens in these circumstances, matters are taken out of the protagonist's hands and the stage is set for some climactic confrontations and revelations.
This is the fourth Boyd on this list and (leaving aside A Good Man In Africa which was an out-of-sequence dip into the back catalogue) follows on from Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms in being quite thriller-y and from Restless in particular in concerning itself with the details of wartime espionage (though that was World War II). The plot here meanders about quite a lot and you get the impression that the various parts (Vienna, London, a brief trip to the French trenches, Geneva, London again) are just separate episodes linked together solely by featuring the same protagonist rather than being linked by a strong narrative thread.
Some of the characters' motivations are a bit thin as well - it's never entirely clear why Lysander's mother kills herself towards the end of the book, since she seems to have been cleared of any suspicion of involvement in the spying plot, and Lysander's own motives towards the various women he's involved with throughout are never very clear either. He has dalliances with old flame Blanche, Hettie, his co-star in Strindberg's Miss Julie, and an unrequited thing for Mme. Duchesne, his Swiss contact, even after she puts half-a-dozen bullets in him, but just when you think he's decided that Hettie is the woman he can't live without he ups and proposes to Blanche after unexpectedly meeting her outside a London theatre during a Zeppelin raid.
Lysander's original reason for being in Vienna - his anorgasmia - seems to be a transparent MacGuffin that Boyd couldn't be bothered continuing with once it had put Lysander where he needed to be for the story to get going. Once he hooks up with Hettie he's soon firing the porridge gun into a succession of willing partners with no problems whatsoever, thus finding himself cured perhaps a little more readily than actually happens in real life.
Europe in 1913 is a pretty rich source of fictional jumping-off points - eve of disaster, early 20th century decadence about to be rudely interrupted by war, the old certainties swept away, disastrous but also cleansing in the dismantling of old class hierarchies, yadda yadda yadda. Of books in this list The Shooting Party is set at around the same time, of books not in this list there are probably hundreds. Vienna is also one of the recurring themes in John Irving's fiction, though not, as far as I recall, in the one Irving on this list, Until I Find You.
So, anyway, it's rollickingly readable, well-written and entertaining, as all Boyds are, and if that sounds like I'm building up to a "but" it's only that I still think Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon are the best things he's written. You can't really go far wrong with any of them, though.