Saturday, May 26, 2012

William Boyd takes on war and espionage in 1913-1915.

I read a review of this latest novel by William Boyd, and it sounded great.  It turns out he’s written many more, and I may just have to read them all!

Waiting for Sunrise

Waiting for Sunrise (368 pages, Harper, $26.99) tells the story of the young and handsome Lysander Rief, who is making his way, in the footsteps of his illustrious father, as an actor in the West End in London in the early years of the twentieth century.  Lysander is a bit of a poet as well.  With a deep acquaintance with British Theater—he acts in Shakespeare and Strindberg in the course of the novel—and a literary bent, we are treated to delightful prose, snippets of Shakespeare and other playwrights, as well as a thoughtful narrative that sets a high standard for sophistication.

The novel opens, however, with Lysander in Vienna in order to consult with a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s about a sexual problem he has been unable to overcome.  His psychiatrist tries to get him to try various methods of overcoming what causes his dysfunction, but when he meets a British woman who is seeing the same doctor, he is immediately attracted to her, and before long they are having wild sex that more than proves that he has been cured.

Because this woman, Hettie, is involved with a Viennese man, Lysander is playing a dangerous game, and when the affair blows up in his face, he has a hard time even escaping from Vienna in one piece.

The British diplomats who help him escape, well-spoken and ironic in their ways, turn up again in London, just as the First World War is starting.  And they engage Lysander, who is a private in the Army, to take on a project that invovles traveling to Geneva and acting, or so it seems to Lysander, like a spy. 

He does this successfully, and then he is dragged into even more difficult challenges closer to home.  When Hettie pops up again, and he finds himself having to deal with his loving, but twice widowed mother, he has more than he can stand.

All along we hear about the theater and the people he knows there, and that theatrical background creates a welcome counterpoint to the war wounds and the espionage.

William Boyd has written an elegant thriller that does far more than other recent examples of this genre can do.  He paints a rich set of characters and puts them in complex relation to one another, and he informs us about the cultural context in which they were functioning in the nineteen-teens.  This is a wonderful accomplishment, and I look forward to reading Boyd’s other novels soon.

William Boyd  

Waiting for Sunrise is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Edward St. Aubyn writes an epilogue to his Patrick Melrose trilogy.

I think of Edward St. Aubyn as a guilty pleasure, but they are wonderful novels, and I feel guilty only because they make me laugh so much.

At Last

Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last (272 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $25) follows up with characters from his Patrick Melrose trilogy. I imagine that if you haven’t read those novels, some of the details of this one might confuse you. At the same time, though, you can catch on fairly quickly to the identities and relationships being described. This novel is such a delight that you might find your way into the trilogy by starting with this epilogue.

Patrick’s mother has died, and the action of this novel takes place during the one day of the funeral. To be even more precise: at least half the novel takes place at the funeral itself. Of course, characters flash back into their lurid pasts, and long held animosities are given the space to emerge naturally. Wicked characters we may remember form earlier novels are even more wicked, and perhaps a little demented, here; but old friends are still friendly; and family represents everything that is best and worst about the ways in which people can be loving and/or tormenting to each other.

For Patrick, a bundle of self-defeating neurosis, this is a chance to assess his relations with each of his parents. His Dad has been dead for some time, but the occasion of his mother’s funeral is the chance for him to delve into his past. And he does that with a vengeance, remembering horrifying scenes from his earliest childhood, some of which, like his at-home circumcision, may have been related to him by the mother he is mourning.

Patrick’s ex-wife and his ex-mistress are both there, exuding long-standing and perhaps understandable hatred for each other. His wife’s ex-lover, a loopy philosopher is there too, as are various friends and hangers-on, aunts, and even some old, old friends of his mother's.

In the last novel of the trilogy, a much loved French Riviera home had been left by his mother to a new age religious group, and when this novel opens Patrick is still brooding over this loss and blaming his mother’s dementia. The woman from this group has been asked to speak at the funeral—Patrick’s ex-wife Mary had to make the arrangements when Patrick couldn’t cope—and her much-interrupted funeral oration is a masterpiece of comically ironic prose. This character does not mean to be funny, but I defy you to read her touching account of a well-lived life without laughing.

You will have to laugh too at other characters and at the amazing descriptive pirouettes that St. Aubyn pulls off here. The novelist has been widely praised as a stylist, and the style is just about everything here. It’s the kind of prose you can sink into and marvel at from paragraph to paragraph. It’s almost addictive to read, and I imagine that it is addictive to write too. That gives me hope that there might be even more volumes of Patrick Melrose to follow. After all, two of the most amazingly charming and astonishing characters in this novel were Patrick’s two little boys.


Edward St. Aubyn  

At Last is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hilma Wolitzer writes about romance in retirement.

When I read that this was a story about a widower who is dating in his sixties, I thought it sounded interesting.

An Available Man

In An Available Man (304 pages, Ballantine Books, $25), Hilma Wolitzer tells the tale of Edward Schuyler, a young sixty-something who lost his loving wife to cancer. After seeing her through the illness, he is exhausted when she dies, and his grief takes the form, as it often does, of his pulling back from the world and brooding over the past in utter privacy.

Edward has friends and family who won’t put up with this, however, and no sooner is he dragging himself unwillingly to a grief counseling group, than he finds they are trying to fix him up with friends and encouraging him to pull himself together.

One singularly unsuccessful venture in this regard is when his best friends, or rather when the wife of this couple tries to fix him up with a cousin of hers, both Edward and the woman, who’s called Olga, withdraw and resent the exercise. This is funny to read, perhaps because it will be familiar to anyone who has been on a “blind date.”

And as if this is not enough, his children—they are really his stepchildren from his wife’s first marriage—take out a personals ad in the New York Review of Books and delight in watching him sort through the responses, which are many, even if the dates that result are as unsuccessful as that first blind date.

While all this is going on, Edward thinks back to his first love, the woman who captured his heart and then left him standing at the altar. When she turns up in his dating pool, he is at first angry, but then they start to rekindle the love of their youth.

This is not the end of the story, though, and Wolitzer is not the novelist to end things this way, and she doesn’t.

What does happen is too wonderful to relate here—it would spoil the ending—but I can say that Wolitzer finds a way to give Edward a new life without his having to relinquish his memories. This is beautifully done.

What is also beautiful is the way in which Wolitzer creates the feeling of loss and emptiness that a man in his sixties might feel. Still alive and wanting to feel intimacy, Edward is unable to respond even when he wants to. All this is evocatively told, and I found this touching and memorable on the topics of love and loss.

Hilma Wolitzer

An Available Man can be purchased at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.