Among the literary big beasts who emerged in the 1980s – you know who I mean – William Boyd remains perhaps the most difficult to categorise. The early novels A Good Man in Africa (1981) and An Ice Cream War (1982) are distinctly Graham Greeneish. Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 (1998) was, famously, a novel masquerading as a biography, and in 2013 Boyd published Solo, a James Bond novel that out-Fleminged Ian Fleming. There have been plenty of other novels, collections of short stories, film scripts, essays, reviews and an autobiography that is hard to come by but well worth seeking out, Protobiography (1998).
The essential shape and nature of Boydism, if it might described as such, is fluid – the actual artefacts, as it were, are unimportant. His career consists of an endless flow of stories in the great realist tradition, with strong plots, well-rounded characters, and written in a language that anyone can understand.
He’s one of those rare writers that you might read, your mum might read, your nan might read, and your brother – with whom you have nothing else in common, because he spends most of his time on his games console, trading in Bitcoin or watching the History Channel – might read, and you can all share your enthusiasm. Boyd’s work is proof of that hoary old Jane Austen definition of the novel in Northanger Abbey as a “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world”.
As with much of his work, Boyd’s new novel Love is Blind tells the story of an energetic and sweet-natured outsider attempting to make his way in life: the obvious comparison is with Dickens, but Boyd’s tenor and tone is all Chekhov (he’s adapted Chekhov for the stage and written brilliantly about the Russian’s art of the short story).
In 1894, Brodie Moncur, a talented musician and piano tuner, leaves Scotland to work in Paris, where he becomes drawn into the circle of a famous Irish pianist, John Kilbarron, a vile, bullying egotist who, when he’s not wowing the crowds with his Liszt, is self-medicating with drink and drugs. When Brodie begins a secret affair with Kilbarron’s lover, the Russian soprano Lika Blum, melodrama inevitably ensues, with Brodie and Lika eventually finding themselves travelling across Europe, pursued by Malachi Kilbarron, John’s vengeful brother.
The book begins and continues at a cracking pace – or perhaps a cinematic stride – with scenes, scenarios, set-pieces and minor characters aplenty, all of which and all of whom might easily detain another writer for an entire book.
There is Senga, for example, the squinty-eyed Scottish prostitute (“She was called Agnes McCloud but she didn’t like the name Agnes and so had simply reversed it”). There is Brodie’s father, the diabolical Reverend Malcolm “Malky” Moncur, a violent alcoholic who typically greets his son, “How’s my wee mulatto?” And there’s the mysterious Lady Dalcastle, a kind of Miss Havisham in waiting. James – Shem – and Stanislaus Joyce even make a late, decisive appearance when Brodie finds himself washed up in Trieste, lost, alone and tuning pianos for small change. “The world’s your lobster,” Joyce encourages Brodie, “spread your wings […] take a leap.”
Brodie’s improbable final leap takes him to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where he ends up working for an eccentric Margaret Mead-like anthropologist who is studying the sexual lives of the locals (Boyd has always been interested in writing about sex and its peculiar mechanics).
Paris, Edinburgh, Nice, Biarritz, St Petersburg, Trieste – the places and the details are all tourist-brochure magnificent and lush, so much so that one occasionally wonders why there is so much effort being expended on, say, the description of some hotel in Dubechnia (it is in fact a little nod to Chekhov).
By the end of the book, one feels rather that one might almost become a piano tuner, having read so much about piano tuning. “The piano was perfectly tuned – he had tuned it himself when it had emerged pristine, from the factory two weeks ago. He tuned F a modicum on the sharp side then knocked it in – back into tune – with a few brisk taps on the key. He supported a hammer-head and needled-up the felt a little with his three-pronged voicing tool and returned it to its position.”
But every detail counts, with Boyd brilliantly exploiting and adhering to the relentless logic of the Chekhovian rifle on the wall: all of the objects, all of the places, all of the people ultimately serve the story. He makes it look easy: he’s a pro.
Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library Mystery Series, published by 4th Estate
Love Is Blind
Viking, 384pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain