- The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd
Sinclair-Stevenson, 324 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85619 366 7
Love story and murder mystery, The Blue Afternoon is full of puzzles. First: why ‘blue’ afternoon? It’s not just the afternoon, there are so many spots of blue throughout the novel it becomes a cyan wash. In the first few pages we are told that the sign outside the house designed by K.L. Fisher, architect, is small and blue; in her room there is a ‘blue and yellow Gertrud Arndt rug’; she gets a powerful urge to swim in the ‘overchlorinated blue’ of her building’s pool, where a woman sunbathes ‘in a cobalt two-piece’; and, at the end of the book, we learn that Fischer ‘loved too, once; my blue baby, Coleman’. Blue is there in all its hues: sky blue, baby blue, washed-out blue, cobalt, violet ... we can hardly doubt that something meaningful is intended. But what?
William Boyd’s title is inspired by Wallace Stevens’s enigmatic ‘Landscape with Boat’ (quoted epigraphically):
He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see. He wanted the eye to see
And not be touched by blue ...
... Had he been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green cars in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer’s track
And say, ‘The thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestial pantomime.’
Boyd assembles the poem’s images in the novel’s final passage, and it is here we see most clearly the effect he is reaching for:
The purple livid mass of the thunderclouds seemed to dominate the overarching sky, but still the sun shone on our faces as the charged light thickened and changed colour around us. My finger traced a track through the cold beaded moisture on the sweating bottle; the little steamer had almost reached the quay at Alfama; the sound of traffic and voices rose faintly from the busy streets below us, and I smelt the musky bouquet of the wine as I brought the glass to my lips and drank deep.
So what makes the difference – here and now – on this terrace on this eloquent blue afternoon, as we sit caught between perpetuities of sun and rain, held in this particular moment? I look over at Salvador Carriscant, who is smiling at me, his old broad face radiant with his tremendous good fortune, and I know the answer.
Trapped in a loveless marriage, Salvador Carriscant had been on the brink of escaping with the woman of his dreams when tragedy intervened. He was arrested for a series of murders he (probably) didn’t commit and was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, losing both freedom and love in the process. Yet here he is in old age, sipping yellow wine and looking out at the sea and sky, enjoying an enviable and rare contentment. Though the symbolism is, in the nature of these things, ambiguous, Boyd’s blue seems to be intended to represent the life-force, the doggedness, the irrepressibility of the human spirit. It stands between ‘perpetuities of sun and rain’, and like the blue of the sky it always returns, serene and beautiful, after the storm’s hysteria is spent. Boyd, I would guess, wants to make blue suggestive not simply of its usual melancholy but of deep happiness and fulfilment (it was on ‘a blue afternoon’ that Carriscant and his true love consummated their passion). Happiness can’t exist without sadness, attainment without loss. It’s an interesting if slight conceit, but the question is whether this fairly conventional story can support such symbolic density.