William Boyd is not slowing down. “Here I am,” the 70-year-old novelist tells me over Zoom, “40 years on from my first novel, and I’m actually busier than ever. And I think my imagination is actually cranking up better than ever. I seem to be slightly speeding up as I get older!”
There’s certainly an abundance of imagination on show in Boyd’s new novel, The Romantic, which is the fourth of his “whole-life” novels, covering a colourful character from birth to grave.
But then Boyd has always been busy, as the author of 17 novels, five collections of stories and numerous screenplays. He is, by any measure, one of Britain’s most successful writers; he is speaking to me from his home in affluent Chelsea (“between the King’s Road and the river”).
I almost wrote “one of England’s most successful writers” but the blended nature of Boyd’s upbringing is a key element of his identity. He was born in Ghana, raised there and in Nigeria, then educated in Scotland, France and Oxford. Now he “divides his time”, as his book blurbs put it, between London and southwest France. He has a well-spoken accent with just a tincture of Scots remaining.
This mixed-up national identity is reflected in the hero of The Romantic. Cashel Greville Ross is raised initially in Ireland, and his lifespans the 19th century just as Boyd’s earlier whole-life novels The New Confessions (1987), Any Human Heart (2002) and Sweet Caress (2015) spanned the 20th.
“Most of the 19th century was a period of turbulent change,” says Boyd. “Almost like the 20th to 21st century in a way. I had to factor in the way technology began to influence people’s lives, from chamber pots to flushing toilets, or from coach and horses to speeding trains. So it’s a very rich world to explore.”
Cashel’s life moves from Ireland to Oxford, and from there the surprises never stop. The rambunctious romp of his story takes Cashel to India (fighting in the third Kandyan War), Italy (meeting Byron and Shelley), Africa (discovering Lake Victoria a year before Speke and Burton) and the United States. The book has been likened to a less politically incorrect version of the Flashman stories.
But it also deals in issues that have preoccupied Boyd throughout his career, specifically identity and the influence of chance on our lives. Cashel’s confusion about his identity — in one sense it is the story of a man who never knows quite who he is — runs deep. “I don’t know if you spotted this,” laughs Boyd, “but at different stages in the book he’s called an English c**t, a Scottish c**t and an Irish c**t!”
Boyd is also concerned with the sleight of hand involved in telling a fictional story as though it were fact. He opens the novel with a preface about its source material and adds little details of verisimilitude — footnotes, sketches — throughout. “I’m trying to show how powerful fiction is, and how it can deal with the human condition better than anything else can.”
That aspect of being impulsive, of being driven by your heart not your head, I think I’m a bit like that myself. I have a romantic nature— William Boyd
And even in Boyd’s shorter novels — take Armadillo (1998) or The Blue Afternoon (1993) — he’s always interested in the aspects of a life we don’t often see in fiction, like the workplace.
“I’m a realistic novelist, unapologetically, and so the world you’ve created, and the characters you’ve created, have to be three-dimensional, textured and real. For a long time I resisted writing about a writer, so lots of my protagonists have proper jobs: loss adjuster, primatologist. It’s an attempt to give a granular feel to the fiction.”
In The Romantic even the most minor of characters are rich in detail. “Bad writing or bad novels are easy to spot,” Boyd says, “because they only trade in stereotypes. And if you’re a serious novelist, you must always strive to avoid falling into that trap, of going to central casting with ‘the chatty barman’ or whatever. You’ve got to make the character step off the page in a distinctive way.
“Another trick of the trade is how you name your characters — don’t just call them John Smith or Sally Watts. Come up with something a little bit individual, and immediately the character starts to live.” Something like Cashel Greville Ross, or Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, or Salvador Carriscant.
The novel is called The Romantic because Cashel is a romantic not just in the obvious sense — though he is popular with women, and falls for one painfully for life — but also in his spirited interest in everything. To what extent, I ask Boyd — the least obviously autobiographical of novelists — when you write about this restless, ambitious character, are you writing about yourself?
In response he says he was partly inspired by reading Stendhal’s autobiography The Life of Henry Brulard. “In it, he identifies himself as a romantic — but he sees it as a kind of curse on his life. He kept falling in love with women, making a fool of himself and having to leave town. And that aspect of being impulsive, of being driven by your heart not your head, I think I’m a bit like that myself. I have a romantic nature. I recognise from Stendhal’s account of his life and his errors, things that chime with my own! And it’s from these sorts of collisions that your novels grow.”
Boyd referred to himself earlier as an “unapologetically realistic” novelist. But there is, surely, a lot of playfulness in his work, and particularly his short stories?
I see so many of my contemporaries not being published, or their books going out of print. I’m very conscious of how a reputation that seems to be thoroughly established can suddenly fizzle out— William Boyd
“I think that’s absolutely true. I use my short stories as a way of flexing muscles I wouldn’t flex in my novels. I use the alphabet, an A to Z, there’s one story which is an attempt to write a story in the form of a nouvelle vague film. And you wouldn’t want to spend two years writing a novel to see if that worked, but you can do it over a few days with a short story.
“[But in the novels] I do do that slightly meta literary stuff. Brazzaville Beach is written in the first person and third person. Any Human Heart is a 500-page novel written as a journal. People sometimes disparagingly describe me as a traditional novelist. But tell me other traditional novelists who’ve fractured their narrative in this way, and changed pronouns, or used 77 photographs, and so on.”
Boyd certainly doesn’t exhibit the lack of confidence that infects even many successful novelists. (Iris Murdoch said that every novel was the wreck of a perfect idea.) He says he spends “twice as long planning each book as I do writing it. I’ve never abandoned a novel, because I’ve done all this preliminary work. And each novel in a way has turned out as I hoped it would, there are no runts of the litter as far as I’m concerned.”
He is not, however, complacent. “For me the absolutely main ambition now is to keep the show on the road. All my books are in print in the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and of course the UK. How do you keep that going? Because I see so many of my contemporaries not being published, or their books going out of print. I’m very conscious of how a reputation that seems to be thoroughly established can suddenly fizzle out. And I’m aware of my good fortune in that sense.”