[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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.”