In treatment for a novel addiction
FREUD IS IN the air. Hard on the heels of A Dangerous Method, the big-screen version of the great psychiatrist’s ongoing altercation with his colleague Carl Jung, comes the publication of William Boyd’s new novel Waiting for Sunrise. The book opens with a young English actor walking through the streets of Vienna, on his way to his first session of psychoanalysis – and its storyline, like that of the film, is kick-started by a passionate love affair.There, however, the resemblance ends. From its Freudian beginning, Waiting for Sunrisedevelops into a full-blown espionage escapade which takes its central character, Lysander Rief, from the Hofgarten to the West End of London, from hotel rooms in Geneva to the battlefields of the first World War. The author of 10 previous novels, including A Good Man in Africa, Brazzaville Beachand the Impac-shortlisted Any Human Heart,Boyd is also an accomplished scriptwriter and screen adaptor of his own books. He is not in the least fazed by the prospect of competition from David Cronenberg and company: it’s all, he says with a casual shrug, “good zeitgeisty stuff”.
Boyd, who will be 60 this week, has a boyish appearance and a languid, yet precise manner which reminds me of somebody I can’t, at first, quite place. There’s not a trace of his Scottish ancestry – never mind his 20 years in Africa – in his perfectly-chiselled English vowels as he chats happily about his obsession with turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna.
In 1995 he wrote a short story, Transfigured Night, about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his brother Paul, a classical pianist who lost an arm in the first World War – just two of the city’s cast of larger-than-life characters in the arts, sciences and politics. More recently, he was commissioned to write a script for a TV mini-series about Hitler’s rise to power. The more he read about the ambience of Vienna in the early 1900s, the more convinced he became that the city has played a pivotal role in the creation of the world we now recognise as “modern”.
Researching Hitler’s life in Vienna was, Boyd recalls, a particular eye-opener. “In 1913 he was a down-and-out. A vagrant. Clearly unbalanced. It’s like seeing a beggar on the street and saying, ‘In 20 years you’ll be prime minister’.”
Which is not unlike the sort of thing that happens to characters in Boyd’s novels. Remember the chap from Ordinary Thunderstorms? One day lunching in a top-notch Chelsea restaurant, the next camping on a patch of no-man’s-land on the Thames Embankment, heating a tin of beans on a makeshift fire.
On a spring morning four years ago, Boyd stood at the door of the Freud Museum at No 19 Berggasse, once the great man’s consulting rooms. When he saw the doorbell, neatly labelled “Prof Dr Freud”, he realised that he was potentially standing on the first page of his next book. “A novel is the sum of all the things going on in the novelist’s head at the time of writing,” he explains with a dusty, roguish laugh. “I mean, all these things are fantastic grist to your mill.
“Psychoanalysis seems to me the perfect metaphor for the kind of change in human consciousness that took place between 1914 and 1918. We were different after the first World War than we were before it. And what is the thing you can point at, that best symbolises that difference? The recognition of the role of the unconscious.”
He decided to put his anti-hero, a young actor with a suitably sexual problem, on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Boyd being Boyd, however, he didn’t settle for a Freudian, or even a Jungian form of psychotherapy. Instead, he made up his own. “I came up with this idea of parallelism, which I pinched from the writing of the American poet Wallace Stevens – who pinched it from the French philosopher Henri Bergson. I just bent it into shape.”
The idea is that a patient haunted by some damagingly traumatic experience would repeatedly revisit that experience in therapy sessions, substituting a parallel set of more enjoyable – or, at least, endurable – memories instead. The dastardly plausibility of this will come as no surprise to readers familiar with Boyd’s back catalogue. He is, after all, the man who scandalised the art world by making up an artist – complete with real-world exhibition (and sale) of paintings – in his book Nat Tate: An American Artist.His stories are strewn with mischievously-named characters – an English diplomat called Leafy; the altruistic climate scientist Adam Kindred; a primatologist called Hope Clearwater – and word-games. He invented the word “zemblanity” in the novel Armadillo, as an antonym to serendipity; then he recycled it as Zembla-4, the name of the drug at the centre of his most recent book, Ordinary Thunderstorms. Having dreamed up a new and beguiling therapy, is there a danger of Boyd ending up as a psycho-guru? He chuckles. A recent conversation about parallelism with a literary editor in New York ended with her observing – a tad too fervently for comfort – that the treatment “could work for her”.
Suddenly, I realise who he reminds me of. The twinkle in the eye, the impeccable diction, the ironic distance: it’s the actor Bill Nighy. Boyd doesn’t look like him in the slightest, which is what threw me off – but if you can conjure up Nighy’s voice in your head, you know what William Boyd sounds like.
Years of boarding-school – from the age of nine he attended the same Scottish pile, Gordonstoun, as Prince Charles – account for the articulation. Boyd’s colonial childhood, however, also played its part.
It’s the kind of childhood, he says, which is no longer possible. “Me and my sister were born in Africa and went to school there. Of course you can replicate that lifestyle nowadays with a nice house and servants and so on – but it was not done because of money. My parents weren’t rich. It was a life of colonial service. It was very normal for working middle-class Scotsmen like my father to go and spend their working life in Africa, or India, or the Caribbean, or wherever the map was painted red. I was born in a British colony, the Gold Coast. It was my home – unreflectingly. The life we led is part of history now. Somebody said to me, ‘You’re the last of those colonial generations’. And of course nobody wants to be the last of anything.”
Boyd also belongs to a certain generation of novelists and, beyond that again, to a rare breed of consummate storyteller. So easily do his books slip down – so well, indeed, do they sell – that he is in danger of being underestimated. Thirty years ago, however, the huge critical and popular success of A Good Man in Africaled to his inclusion on Granta’s 1983 “Best Of” list of Young British Novelists, in the extremely salubrious literary company of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan.
Has Boyd’s approach to writing changed a great deal, over 30 years and 11 novels? “No,” he says. “Well, all my novels are very different from each other. But the way I write them has been remarkably consistent in that I spend a long time thinking, researching, filling notebooks and drawing diagrams. And then, when I know how it’s going to end, I can start.
“It’s very important for a novelist to retain a level of ignorance about what he or she does. You have to keep that in order to take risks, or make a fool of yourself, or shock people, or fall flat on your face, you know? Too much self-knowledge gets in the way. I taught English for years, so I know how to do it: but I don’t analyse myself in the way I would analyse, say, Emily Brontë.” He shakes his head in mock horror at the very idea. “Better that I don’t analyse it too thoroughly. If I’m too aware it might inhibit me in my next novel.”
Can he give any clues as to what that next novel might be about? “No. I probably shouldn’t. It’s still stirring. It will be” – he does the calculations: he’ll start writing in the summer of next year; then it has to be handed in – “2015.”
There is, though, some good news in the form of an adaptation of his second World War spy thriller Restlessfor BBC1. He has finished the script, shooting starts at the end of June, casting is being finalised as we speak, and it will be shown either before Christmas or early next year. A treat for Boydians, for sure. Bill Nighy might even be in it. Or is that too Freudian for words?
William Boyd on . . .
“No writer should worry at all about winning or not winning. It’s not part of the business of writing novels; it’s part of the sideshow, like having a film or television adaptation made of your books. It’s really nice to win. And prizes are a good thing because they excite conversations and speculation. But they’re all awarded by committees, and anyone who has ever sat on a committee knows that arriving at a decision is the hardest thing of all. So nobody should feel they’re measured by winning one, or by not being on the shortlist. The accumulated agendas of any prize-awarding committee are not to be imagined.”
“I started reading very young, and still have a terrible compulsion to acquire books – which I have not managed to cure myself of at all. I see a book, I’m interested in it and I want to have it. That’s my disease. Sometimes, I never get round to reading it: but the very act of acquiring it is sufficient. Adding it to the teetering piles that are already crowding out my living space. It has always been like that.”
WHAT MAKES A BOYD NOVEL
“They’ve got strong and complicated narratives, usually. They’re very realistic, in the sense that the world of the novel is highly textured and the people in the novel are, I hope, as complicated as the individuals we all are. And – is it a kind of black humour, or a sense of the world’s fundamental unfairness, or chance-iness? Now this is exactly where I start to draw back, because I don’t want to say, ah yes, those are my themes: luck, and identity.”
Waiting for Sunriseis published by Bloomsbury