Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
William Boyd suggests his minor actor may be quintessential modern man
Literary authors who turn to genre fiction -- think of Graham Greene and his "entertainments" -- often end up writing spy thrillers, perhaps because amid all the forged passports and gunplay there's still plenty of scope for talking about identity and invention, deception and betrayal.
Scottish writer William Boyd is sometimes described as a literary storyteller. His novels (including A Good Man in Africa, Any Human Heart and Ordinary Thunderstorms) regularly win awards, but Boyd also has a flair for dense plotting and fast pacing.
Waiting for Sunrise, his latest foray into existential espionage, begins in Vienna in 1913. Lysander Rief, a minor actor in London's West End, has come to the city of Sigmund Freud looking for a cure. Dr. Bensimon, a fictional Freud disciple, eventually links Lysander's case of "anorgasmia" back to an Atonement-like episode in his adolescence, and possibly to his relationship with his glamorous mother, Anna. ("Is that your girl?" asks a soldier when he sees Lysander and Anna together.)
This psychosexual Austrian interlude might seem like an odd beginning for a spy novel, but it establishes the double layers that give the story its power. As a fellow lodger at Lysander's boarding-house suggests, under Vienna's staid bourgeois surfaces "the river is flowing, dark and strong. ... The river of sex."
After taking a dip in this river with an exciting, unstable artist, Lysander finds himself falsely accused of rape. He flees the country, assisted by some suspiciously helpful chaps at the British Embassy, and resumes his expected and very English life. When the First World War breaks out, however, the embassy friends expect to be repaid: Lysander is sent on a risky secret mission to Geneva.
As with many of Boyd's oddly appealing anti-heroes, Lysander appears "highly plausible" but is actually a bit of a fake. Certainly he's under-qualified for what will be soon be his debut on the historical stage, as he navigates mechanized slaughter on the Western Front and a Zeppelin raid on London.
With these very different settings and modes, Waiting for Sunrise might seem at first to be a fatally divided book. In fact, the atmospheric recreation of prewar Vienna makes a clear connection between psychoanalysis and spycraft. It's significant, too, that Dr. Bensimon advocates "Parallelism," in which the subject uses his imagination to subjectively transform objective reality. This method might throw some light on Lysander's later exploits -- not to mention Boyd's theory of the novel.
Unlike Boyd's 2006 novel, Restless, which succeeded as both a spy story and a psychological exploration, Waiting for Sunrise has gaps. We have the usual elegant plotting, the assured handling of a large cast of characters, and a few really spectacular set-pieces. But the action also feels unconvincing at a couple of key points, something very uncharacteristic for Boyd.
The novel works better as an investigation into the shift in human consciousness that came out of First World War. Boyd begins in the full light of an Edwardian afternoon but ends in anxiety and uncertainty, having wandered into "the dubious comfort of the shadows." Along the way he suggests that Lysander Rief might just be the quintessential modern man -- a minor actor with multiple identities and a malleable sense of truth.
Winnipeg journalist Alison Gillmor writes on pop culture for the Free Press.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J9
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