Bloomsbury, 2012, 429 p.
Actor Lysander Rief (whose mother is Austrian) travels in 1913 to Vienna (where else?) to seek a cure for his unusual sexual dysfunction from fellow Englishman Dr Bensimon. At his first consultation, Hettie Bull, a sculptor – she corrects him when he says sculptress – bursts into the waiting room, cadges two cigarettes from him and jumps the queue. Her later invitation for him to “sit” for her leads to an affair which is complicated by her relationship with artist Udo Hoff. Bensimon’s treatment according to his theories of parallelism, combined with Hettie’s attentions, cure Rief’s problem. (The setting being what it is it is no surprise that Lysander has a brief encounter with a Dr Freud in a café. This may be thought a gratuitous touch by the author though.) A fine start then but things take a strange turn when Lysander is falsely accused of rape and has to flee Vienna with the help of British embassy officials.
When the Great War starts he enlists as a private soldier. His past catches up with him when he is asked to repay his debt to the UK Government by travelling to Geneva – via an excursion to the Front – to help unravel a spying operation. The Germans have apparently been forewarned about British attacks on the Western Front. (I found myself beginning to question the narrative here. Troop and matériel build-ups for Great War offensives were difficult to disguise from the enemy. Lack of sufficient ammunition and also of knowledge of how to break down defensive positions – this latter applied to the Germans too – was sufficient to explain the failures of attacks.) For the purposes of story we must take the premise as read though.
What Rief finds in Geneva links back to his time in Vienna and entangles his mother in the plot. Of her and in a curious echo of Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel (which I read recently) we had, “Lysander supposed that if you were an attractive woman in your early fifties you don’t advertise the fact that you have a son who is almost thirty.”
The book is sprinkled with musings on the magnitude of the undertaking – for all the belligerent countries – that was the Great War and of its importance. “Something old was going…disappearing… and something new was inevitably taking its place.”
The phrase “waiting for sunrise” appears frequently through the book, but subtly, as if arising from the particular scene’s narrative.
Boyd certainly knows how to tell a story – and tell it well.
Elevator; Rief is (half) English, what’s wrong with “lift?” Gratz for Graz, “thistle down” for thistledown, kicked the mud of his boots, a “span” – though it was in dialogue.