A Very Modern Man

Edmund Gordon

  • Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
    Bloomsbury, 368 pp, £18.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 1774 2

Lysander Rief, the hero of Waiting for Sunrise, arrives in Vienna in 1913 to undergo psychoanalysis, and stays there for a few months; after his final session he goes to a café, where he notices ‘a man a few tables away, wearing a tweed suit and an old-fashioned cravat tie, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar … His beard was … trimmed with finical neatness.’ Lysander knows enough about psychoanalysis to recognise its founding father, but he can’t be expected to place the not yet famous people he encounters in Vienna. When a young man with unkempt dark hair approaches him at a rally and says of the politicians on stage: ‘They just don’t understand … Empty words, hot air,’ Lysander thinks him simply ‘a vagrant, a madman’ – but the reader will probably guess that he’s the 24-year-old Adolf Hitler. And, although Lysander has ‘a lot of native brainpower’, there are ‘huge gaps in his knowledge of general culture’, so when at an art gallery he spots a ‘bearded fellow in a paint-spattered smock as if he’d just come from his studio’, he doesn’t identify him as Gustav Klimt, as we’re supposed to, but only thinks that it’s ‘absurd to demarcate yourself [as an artist] so obviously’.

Peppering the story with celebrity faces and momentous events is a familiar move in Boyd’s fiction. In The New Confessions (1987), John James Todd, a Scottish filmmaker, fights in the trenches, is pauperised by the Wall Street crash, witnesses the rise of Nazism in Berlin (where he attends parties with Fritz Lang and Thomas Mann), and arrives in Hollywood just in time to fall foul of McCarthyism. Any Human Heart (2002) is narrated by Logan Mountstuart, an English author who knocks about Oxford and London with the likes of Cyril Connolly and Henry Green, reports on the Spanish Civil War from Barcelona (where he gets drunk with Hemingway), is recruited to Naval Intelligence by Ian Fleming and dispatched to Portugal to spy on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, becomes a prisoner of war in Switzerland, takes a job running an art gallery in New York (which brings him into contact with de Kooning and Pollock), gets caught up in the Biafran War, and has a run-in with the Baader-Meinhof gang.

But Waiting for Sunrise also continues the phase of Boyd’s career ushered in by Restless (2006) and Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009) – moody thrillers. After its leisurely start, Lysander’s story abruptly accelerates. In his analyst’s waiting room he meets Hettie Bull, a pushy, petulant sculptor with ‘big hazel eyes’; they soon begin an affair. Lysander – a character defined mainly by his profession (actor) and his reason for seeking analysis (difficulty in achieving orgasm) – is reduced to stating the obvious: ‘I think I am in serious trouble. I know I am.’ He’s right to worry. When she becomes pregnant, Hettie tells her common-law husband that Lysander raped her. He is locked up in the British Consulate, from which he makes a daring escape with the assistance of the consulate’s naval and military attachés, Jack Fyfe-Miller and Alwyn Munro.

The slow beginning can be put down to Boyd’s needing time to set up various devices that will go off on cue as the plot unfolds. He has a lot of work to do. Like most thriller writers, he wants to use the form to explore moral ugliness, just as he uses his historical epics as vehicles for exploring powerlessness and contingency. Since Waiting for Sunrise is something of a hybrid, the problems are doubled and the questions revolve around large and impenetrable subjects: the mystery of the self (‘Why am I troubled by this encounter with HB? Why am I also vaguely excited by it?’); the opacity of others (‘When had Hettie discovered she was pregnant? … But how could she be pregnant? … Had she been lying?’); and the uncertainty of most things (‘who could answer these questions anyway?’). The novel has some trouble accommodating all these puzzles, and the difficulty shows in its structure. Action sequences told in the third person alternate with Lysander’s ponderous ‘Autobiographical Investigations’ (their title presumably a nod to Wittgenstein, who by 1913 had left Vienna), but as the story goes on, the exciting bits take over. Back in England, after the outbreak of war, Fyfe-Miller and Munro track Lysander down and – using the bail money he owes them as leverage – persuade him to go to Zurich on His Majesty’s Service. His mission: to root out the mole who’s been passing British secrets to the enemy.

The scenario is not unlike that of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, just as the machinery of Boyd’s two previous thrillers (the relationship between a Soviet defector and her daughter in Restless; the cynical vision of the pharmaceutical industry in Ordinary Thunderstorms) has harked back to other le Carré novels. Waiting for Sunrise competently performs a thriller’s main duty – that of providing thrills – although sometimes the twists and cliffhangers feel as if they’ve been crowbarred in simply because the action is flagging. When, en route to Zurich, Lysander visits the trenches, he goes under cover of darkness to an abandoned tomb:

He slithered down the reverse side of the slope towards the ruined tomb. It must have been quite an edifice, he thought, as he drew nearer, some local dignitary who wanted his family name to last. Well, he hadn’t reckoned for –

Lysander froze. He heard a squeaking noise. Rats? … But it was too sustained. Dripping water? Then it stopped. He slipped his torch out of his kitbag and the two Mills bombs …

The squeaking noise started again. It was very faint. He was up against the first blocks of stone from the crumbled wall. He aimed his torch in the direction he thought the noise was coming from and switched it on for a second. In the brief flare of light he saw two white faces turn and look up from a trench-sap dug deep under the base of the tomb. He saw a man with a black moustache and a very fair young boy’s face and the turning spindle of a roll of telephone wire being unwound – squeaking quietly.

There’s a sure understanding of how to do suspense here – the unfinished sentence alerting us to the change of narrative pace; the transition to swift, single-clause sentences as the drama unfolds; the short paragraph as Lysander works out what we’ve already guessed – but it’s not exactly new.

Boyd wants to give his spy stories an atmosphere of moral ambiguity and intellectual slipperiness. Here is Lysander discussing his escape from Vienna with Fyfe-Miller and Munro:

‘If you left,’ Fyfe-Miller said, speculatively, ‘you’d have the maximum of an hour’s start, I’d say. If no one else had reported you then we would have to – after an hour.’

‘Better to assume a fifteen-minute start,’ Munro said. ‘They’re not fools.’

‘Where would you head for, Alwyn?’ Fyfe-Miller asked, disingenuously.

‘Trieste. It’s practically Italian anyway – they hate the Austro-Hungarians. Head for Trieste, take a steamer to Italy. That’s what I’d do.’

Lysander picked up the subtextual message. He was by now aware of what was taking place here; Munro and Fyfe-Miller were laying out a course of action, almost a set of instructions for him to follow.

There’s nothing ‘subtextual’ about Munro and Fyfe-Miller’s message to Lysander: it’s all there on the surface and it isn’t ‘almost a set of instructions’, it’s an actual set of instructions, quite clearly expressed (‘Head for Trieste, take a steamer to Italy’). The authorial voice is attempting to cure an entirely phantom bout of subtlety in the dialogue. A few lines on we’re again told that Lysander is ‘aware of what was going on’, and a few lines after that we hear that he ‘knew exactly what was expected of him, now’. Boyd is trying to do two antithetical things here: suggest that his characters are engaging with each other at a ferocious level of complexity, while ensuring that the telling is so straightforward that nobody will be left behind.

Boyd has a habit of cosseting the reader. It’s there in the way that period details are tricks of retrospective irony; the way familiar faces and events are constantly in sight, as if to keep us from getting lost in the strangeness of another time. And it’s there in his soothing way with ideas. Waiting for Sunrise deals in passing with several potentially unsettling themes, but there’s a direct conflict between the themes and their packaging. Near the end of the novel, Lysander reflects on his recent experiences in a journal entry:

I feel, after what I have gone through, that I understand a little of our modern world now, as it exists today. And perhaps I’ve been offered a glimpse into its future. I was provided with a chance to see the mighty industrial technologies of the 20th-century war machine both at its massive, bureaucratic source and at its narrow, vulnerable human target. And yet, for all the privileged insight and precious knowledge that I gleaned, I felt that the more I seemed to know, then the more clarity and certainty dimmed and faded away. As we advance into the future the paradox will become clearer – clear and black, blackly clear. The more we know the less we know … If this is our modern world I feel a very modern man.

To have a character speak confidently about uncertainty – to have him do it, moreover, at the end of a story stripped of uncertainties – is to offer way too much text with the subtext.