Pitch Perfect

[This article appeared in Historical Novels Review, issue 86, November 2018, 8-9]

“The whole-life novel is a small genre with very eclectic exemplars.” William Boyd, a multi-genre, multi-award-winning author, has made it something of a trademark, having now written five. They include The New Confessions (Hamish Hamilton 1987), Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960 (Bloomsbury, 1998), Any Human Heart (Penguin Random House, 2002), Sweet Caress (Bloomsbury, 2015), and most recently Love is Blind: The Rapture of Brodie Moncur (Viking/UK, Alfred A. Knopf/US, 2018). “It’s the haphazard rollercoaster of a life that is key in the whole-life novel rather than a particular plot, theme or central relationship.”[1] Almost inevitably, though, the lives are also coloured and influenced by the historical events they witness. The events and the places are true, but clearly, the fact that the protagonists are purely imaginary sets them apart from another genre, much in vogue, the biographical novel.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Place is essential to all of his work. In Any Human Heart, Boyd uses Logan Mountstuart’s journals to trace the arc of his peripatetic life – from his youth in Montevideo, Uruguay, to Oxford, Paris, the Spanish Civil War, and finally New York, until he moves to West Africa, then London and finally to his old age in France. Exhausting you might think, but the pace of this fictional autobiography is so carefully gauged that the result is a page-turner, and its hero’s life intertwines with the heroics and follies of twentieth-century life – with appearances by Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ian Fleming, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to name just some of the book’s real-life characters. Boyd’s self-avowed ambition is “to make fiction seem so real you forget it’s fiction”. This is certainly the case of his 1998 novel, illustrated with purported photographs of an artist called Nat Tate and his works. On publication in New York, the novel caused consternation as the art establishment scrambled to identify the unknown artist, before it transpired that Boyd had invented a “forgotten” American artist, sourced the anonymous photographs from second-hand shops, and painted the “pictures” himself. He’s no mean artist, since one of “Nat’s” paintings actually sold at Sotheby’s in 2011, an event that Boyd describes as rather surreal.

Sweet Caress

Photographs from Boyd’s personal collection are also a key element of Sweet Caress. As the author comments, “the most banal photograph can be gravid with emotion and, similarly, something in a novel can reveal an aspect of our human lives that historians or journalists or reporters can’t.” Sweet Caress recounts the life of professional photographer Amory Clay, who moves from 1920s London to fashion shoots in New York, and then war reportage in Normandy and, later, Vietnam. When asked if he is a photographer, Boyd says: “I’m technically inept. That’s the novelist’s sleight of hand. If you acquire an issue of Amateur Photographer from 1925 you’ve got a mass of information.” Sleight of hand is one way of describing it, but Boyd’s skill lies in prolonged and detailed planning which allows him to weave the right details into his narrative and plan meticulous, usually working backwards from the end.

As well as introducing real people and real historical events to give the fictional life more authenticity – and interest – Boyd’s novels are also all love stories. In answer to my question regarding the patterns of his protagonists’ lives, Boyd continued: “I happen to think that every human being on the planet is searching for love. It gives our life-adventure a meaning, a significance – if we can find it. It’s a profound universal need. But life is all about good luck and bad luck, as well. The roll of the fatidic dice determines everything.” This chimes with Logan Mountstuart’s thoughts in Any Human Heart, where he contemplates his good luck in meeting Freya Deverell, whom he marries: “That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience… We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says” (p.458).


In Boyd’s latest novel, Love is Blind, it was Brodie Moncur’s good luck to meet the one woman he loves, the Russian singer Lika Blum – his bad luck to contract tuberculosis.  There are no doubt resonances between Brodie Moncur, Logan Mountstuart and – in female form – Amory Clay, protagonists whose lives are constantly being hijacked by chance encounters and events. Returning to the “whole-life” genre preferred by Boyd, it is, he told me, “particularly suited in trying to come to grips with the complexities of human condition. Everyone seems to be able to relate to it.”

Brodie Moncur, the protagonist of Love is Blind, is a son of the manse, and his first job is with a renowned piano manufacturer in Edinburgh. When I asked him whether the name was significant, Boyd replied: “I simply wanted a good Scottish-sounding name. The same applies to the family. I knew that Brodie would come from a big family and that his father would be a monster. It’s pure imagination at work.” And a monster he is, of the most bigoted type: a full-blown egotist whose weekly performances from the pulpit of his kirk draw visitors from far beyond this tiny village in the Scottish Borders.

Love is Blind-glasses

Brodie Moncur escapes his father’s tyranny because the gift of perfect pitch opens the doors to a highly specialized career as a piano tuner. I asked Boyd whether he played the piano himself: “I tried to learn to play the piano when I was at school – and failed miserably.  I knew I wanted to write about a piano virtuoso – the nineteenth century being the great century of these prodigies – but it’s very hard to write about music in a novel. I need a portal to that world and I was suddenly struck by the idea that my protagonist could be a piano tuner – someone who dealt with the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, of the art form. It was fascinating researching that world – a real education.”

Setting is again central to the novel, including the far-flung Andaman Islands – the only place that Brodie visits which Boyd did not personally know. Boyd was born in Ghana, and went to an English boarding school before attending university in Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. “Edinburgh, the Borders, Paris, Biarritz and Nice are very familiar. I knew the novel would take Brodie on a journey and so decided to journey to familiar cities. It was a challenge – but a good one – to time-travel and imagine these places a hundred years before I had visited them. It’s funny how certain places take root in your imagination. The Borders of Scotland was where I spent childhood summers home on leave from Africa. Nice was where I spent my gap-year. I’ve visited Biarritz a dozen times over the last 20 years. My novels are solidly realistic novels, therefore the places they deal with have to seem alive, vivid. As authentic as possible.” As for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, that choice was serendipitous, according to the author. “One of the literary ghosts haunting Love is Blind is Robert Louis Stevenson – another peripatetic Scot. RLS ended up living in Samoa. Brodie Moncur, it seems to me, is a very Stevensonian hero so I decided to take him as far away from Scotland as possible. It just so happened that I had in my library a very early work of anthropology (published in 1909) set in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. So I chose that remote archipelago as the place Brodie would end up.” In the same way that photography was a career open to Boyd’s earlier heroine Amory Clay, so the woman whom Brodie meets in this last exotic destination is loosely based on the famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead. “It was a very egalitarian profession that admitted women early in the twentieth century.” Page Arbogast’s words frame the novel and she remains with the reader as the book ends.

To date, Boyd has chosen late nineteenth- or twentieth-century settings for his historical novels – including Restless, a dual narrative told by Eva Delectorskaya, recruited as a spy before and during the second world war, and her daughter, Ruth, living in late 1970s Oxford. When I asked whether Boyd would ever write about an earlier period, he replied: “It’s possible. Never say never. I am pondering a novel set in the early nineteenth century. But I don’t see the last hundred or so years as ‘history’ per se.  My grandmother, whom I knew well, was born in the 1880s, my great uncle was wounded at the Battle of the Somme. My aunt was born ten years after the Wright Brothers first achieved powered flight at Kitty Hawk. When you’ve known people who lived in the nineteenth century, it doesn’t seem so far away or alien.  I feel that’s my natural range – say three generations back from my own life and time – it’s not ‘strange’”.

The fact that he feels at home in the past century or more clearly throws up questions regarding the definition of the “historical novel”, and Boyd has, in the past, distanced himself from the genre. I wanted to ask him to say more on this point. “I think if you write novels exclusively set in the past – like Patrick O’Brien, say, or Mary Renault – then you can be fairly described as a ‘historical’ novelist,” he replied. “Is Hilary Mantel a ‘historical novelist’? Not really. I’ve written novels that take place at the beginning of the twentieth century – and now have crept into the nineteenth. To me it’s simply another novel – its time and its setting is something I determine will work well for the story I want to tell. I think of myself simply as a novelist – all other adjectives are, in a way, redundant.”

Posted in book reviews, Cultural history, historical fiction, reading | 1 Comment

A SUPREME MASTER: Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Warlight

Michael Ondaatje needs little introduction. Born in Sri Lanka and partly educated in London before emigrating as a teenager in the early 1960s to Canada, where he still lives, he is a writer of international calibre whose works are widely read and praised. In 2007, when Divisadero (McClelland & Stewart, Canada / Knopf, US / Bloomsbury, UK, 2007) won him the eminent Governor-General’s Literary Award for the fifth time, Ondaatje said he did not have any great expectations of the book, which took him a “quicker than normal” five years to write and is set in California and France.1 Normal for Ondaatje is around seven years, and indeed Warlight (Knopf, US / Jonathan Cape, UK, 2018) appears about seven years after The Cat’s Table (Knopf, US / Jonathan Cape, UK, 2011).

Last year Ondaatje’s notebooks were acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In an interview with the Center’s director, Stephen Enniss, Ondaatje elaborated on his writing process. Each novel is the product of four handwritten drafts, followed by more versions rewritten on a typewriter or computer. After that, he says, he focuses on “reworking it, printing it out, rewriting it by hand.”2 The craft of editing, the shaping of the book, is an essential part of the writing process.

Hints of the writer’s craft appear in the storylines, too. This is the case of his 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient (Knopf, US / Bloomsbury, UK), which was later adapted into an award-winning film by Anthony Minghella. Hana thinks that “[I]f she were a writer she would collect her pencils and notebooks and favourite cat and write in bed.” Lying in the former convent of Villa San Girolamo, outside Florence, the English patient himself has such a notebook beside his bed, also filled with cuttings, maps and drawings. Ondaatje may have been thinking of his own notebooks – and possibly those of other authors, too – Muriel Spark, for one. Ondaatje’s include photos and other images, which intersperse the draft of the novel with what he describes as “a few visual breaks along the way.” Occasionally, these might exert some “subliminal influence” on a particular scene: the covers of his notebooks for The English Patient reveal hints of these associations.

The title of his latest novel refers to a specific quality of muted light produced by blackouts and curfews during the War: especially that half-light in the last months of the war when the full blackout was replaced by a “dim-out” and man-made light was permitted so long as it did not exceed the level of moonlight. In London, full lighting was restored in April 1945. In Ondaatje’s title, warlight also has moral and intrinsic qualities: it is that half-light into which figures vanish or re-emerge, morals are cloaked – maybe absent – a son discovers his mother’s code name, and all actions work to hidden agendas.

In 1945 the parents of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his sister Rachel ostensibly leave London to travel to Singapore for work. The children feel that they have been abandoned to the care of two men “who may have been criminals.” One of them, their guardian, is an enigmatic figure they call The Moth; the other is an ex-boxer, The Pimlico Darter. Their home is gradually peopled by a “table full of strangers” and they start to lead a double life, skipping school and eating takeaways from the nearby street market. The story is a cross between a coming-of-age tale, a spy story, and love stories, not least the love between mother and son. Ondaatje peoples the novel with an extraordinary cast, most of whom have nicknames – the Beekeeper, Agnes Street, as well as the children themselves, Stitch and Wren. No one is quite whom they seem.

When talking about his books, Ondaatje says: “There’s no subject when I begin. I really begin with a fragment. It’s often an image. Gradually as I stay with that image, that situation, a story will gradually emerge.” It’s not just place that engenders plot, but also historical time. Ondaatje was unable to respond to an interview for this article, citing a reluctance to focus on the historical aspects, but they clearly matter to him. In the interview with Stephen Ennis, Ondaatje said: “I need to ground myself in a precise location or time period — a farm in California, Louisiana in 1912 — in order to let the book evolve without drifting off into something surreal or unstructured … the story takes place then, there… it could be a convent where strangers meet and are altered.”3

In Warlight the detail is punctilious: Nathaniel works as the Darter’s accomplice, nosing their way on a barge through London’s web of canals and along stretches of the Thames; now, with Nathaniel, the Darter is smuggling racing greyhounds, but a few years earlier, during the War, he had piloted munition barges. Those activities were part of a massive underground operation, also involving secret lorries that hurtled across London with the nitroglycerin manufactured at Waltham Abbey. Many of the characters in the novel have links to Marsh Felon, a naturalist with a deep knowledge of art and maps. Nathaniel hears him talk on the radio as a boy, but at the time he is unaware of the significance of this figure in his mother’s life. Such fragments of childhood memory haunt him as an adult.

It might seem paradoxical, but for Ondaatje, whose work has been described as the epitome of a nomadic and cosmopolitan existence, a sense of place is essential. His most lyrical descriptions are of landscape or cityscapes. In Warlight, Nathaniel discovers the hidden landscape of the Saints, a secretive group of villages where his mother grew up in deepest Suffolk. This coastal area became sign-less overnight in the War in order to confuse potential invaders. When Nathaniel returns to the Saints as an adult, there is a sense that the scale of his life diminishes. At work he moves among the cabinets of the secret archives, while at home he delves into the secret walled garden of the house he has bought and penetrates the dark workings of the beehives there. Nathaniel’s search to make sense of his childhood is a key theme of Warlight: the ghosts of childhood return, singing out warnings like the “nightingale” floor in the hall of his mother’s old home.

Facets of Warlight draw on the same rich vein that inspired his earlier masterpiece, The English Patient. Both novels are set in the damaged post-war years, where many individuals struggle to realign their damaged lives and threats persist long after the actual enemy has withdrawn. In The English Patient one of the physical threats is the mines that Kip, the Sikh sapper, identifies and defuses around the villa. In Warlight, the damage is to the two children’s lives and to those who protect them. Revenge can be set in motion across borders and across generations. In his late twenties Nathaniel works on the fringes of the “Service” and finds himself searching for clues in the warren- like basement of the archives that might help him to trace his mother’s wartime activities. Technically, Nathaniel’s job is to destroy evidence that somehow escaped the initial wave of censorship in the closing stages of the War. Ondaatje cites the factual event of February 1946 when the Baker Street offices of the Special Operations Executive were damaged by fire, resulting in the large-scale destruction of their archives.

It seems fitting that maps play an important role, echoing the book’s epigraph: “Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.” We have to be most alert when the lines don’t match up, when gaps mask reality. Nathaniel recalls a map that he saw as a boy which showed his father’s company offices spread across the globe; as an adult, he wonders whether the map didn’t show something quite different. Recall plays a key part in Nathaniel’s patient reconstruction of his mother’s activities, too, using fragments of memory, maps and records. In Divisadero, Ondaatje wrote that “we live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever stories we tell.”

Olive Lawrence is one of the few “un-nicknamed” strangers whom Nathaniel and Rachel meet during the years they are living with The Moth. An expert on winds and weather, she thrills them with her knowledge of night-time walks through the woods, lenticular clouds and Saussure’s cyanometer, which is used to classify the various blues in the sky. In Warlight, Ondaatje applies a similar spectrometer to the shades of human identity and loss – like warlight, the boundaries are indistinct, blurred, but the importance for the planning of wartime flights is clear. This spectrum of blue also charts another evolution: time. Ondaatje began his writing career as a poet and won the Governor-General’s Literary Award twice for poetry before turning to fiction. Although completely different in form, the poet’s finely tuned ear has influenced his prose. In the poem “Untitled,” Ondaatje writes about a poet who has passed through “wars and eras of love,” but the “precise pitch” of his poems are “unaffected by time.” “What,” he concludes, “could we learn by leaving the color blue for another?”4 Ondaatje’s mastery of style and language will earn him further prizes, but it is his storytelling and his portrayal of character and human nature that profoundly touch and enrich his readers.


1. Michael Posner. “Ondaatje ties MacLennan for most G-Gs.” The Globe and Mail, 28 November 2007. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/ ondaatje-ties-maclennan-for-most-g-gs/article1090486/

2. Stephen Enniss. “A nomad’s writing finds a home.” Ransom Center Magazine, 25 September 2017. http://sites.utexas.edu/ransomcentermagazine/2017/09/25/a- nomads-writing-finds-a-home/

3. Ibid.

4. Michael Ondaatje. “Untitled.” The Threepenny Review, No. 138 (Summer 2014), p. 18.


Posted in book reviews, historical fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment