by William Boyd
William Boyd has a penchant for unusual names for the characters in his novels. Take Lorimar Black in Armadillo, Hope Clearwater in Brazzaville Beach, Henderson Dores in Stars and Bars, and now we are introduced to Lysander Rief, as well as other charcters named Crickmay Faulkner and Bonham Johnson.
Can we assume that the name came from the poetic and lovesick character in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and not the Greek general, as Boyd’s Lysander is an actor and poet, and literally love-sick, trying to cure a problem of a sexual nature through psychoanalysis, all the rage in pre-war Vienna?
Many men, and women, possibly, reading this may be unsympathethic to his condition of being unable to climax during sex and should not be classed as a problem at all, but Lysander thinks it is and seeks help from an English psychoanalysist Dr Bensimon who uses a technique called ‘parallelism’ to help cure him. This is, of course, complete hokum, and this invention is something at which William Boyd is getting quite adept; cf. Nat Tate, his fictional painter made real in a teasing biography.
While he was visiting the professor he meets another of his patients, a sexy, but clearly unstable, sculptor called Hettie Bull, with whom he starts a passionate affair, even though she already has a partner, an irascible and jealous painter. He is quickly cured of his ‘condition’ by the elfin Miss Bull. Magic. No need for psychobabble, just a straightforward bonk with the right girl. Unhappily for Lysander, Hettie turns out to be the wrong girl, for after an affair lasting four months, it all begins to unravel, when Miss Bull accuses him of rape, and the words of his Shakespearean namesake - “the course of true love never did run smooth” - must be echoing in his ears as he is arrested.
To the rescue come the British Embassy in the form of two shadowy ‘diplomats’, who persuade the court to allow him to remain in the embassy until his trial, and then orchestrate his escape to Trieste and then to London. Once there he is approached by the same two men, who present him with a bill of nearly nine hundred pounds to cover the forfeited bail of 10,000 crowns, legal fees, as well as food, drink and laundry while staying at the embassy. If he agrees to run a little ‘errand’ to Switzerland, they would waive the whole debt. Ah, blackmail - such a dirty word.
At this point, the genre of the book slips sideways into full-blown thriller mode, having been more concerned with Lysander’s character and love life up until then. After a spell in the trenches, our hapless hero is sent to Switzerland. Through his own ingenuity and using his acting skills, he is able to insinuate himself into any situation.
Back in Blighty once again, he is persuaded by the foreign office to try and unmask a traitor sending encoded messages to the Germans about the movement and control of war material and stores to France from the Directorate of Movements. Here, there are a couple of co-incidencies that stretch credulity to its limit, one involving his mother, and the other the Austrian libretto of the opera Andromeda und Perseus, to which we are first introduced back in Vienna, when Lysander first met Hettie.
Nagging flaws, not unlike the one in Boyd’s last book, Ordinary Thunderstorms, when this reader found it incredulous that, at the very start, Adam Kindred didn’t simply go to the police. Boyd writes with a fluidity about period and places, and the pictures he paints of pre-war Vienna and London are both absorbing and colourful, with more than enough literary and arty allusions to keep the more academic reader happy in this pacy novel.
Waiting for Sunrise
By William Boyd
RRP £18.99, ebook £11.11
ISBN 978 1 4088 1774 2