Book review: The Dreams Of Bethany Mellmoth, by William Boyd

British author William Boyd PIC: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
British author William Boyd PIC: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
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This is a collection of interlinked stories, from a writer whose work I have often admired. William Boyd almost specialises in a kind of gilded failure sort of character, and these short stories, and a novella which is as exquisite as it is aggravating, capitalise on his strengths as they reveal his weaknesses. Film-makers, novelists, photographers and actors flit through the pages; anxious, aggrieved, angry and angst-ridden.

It is unsurprising that the author of The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach and Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, or even Sweet Cares: The Many Lives Of Amory Clay, with its history-intersecting heroine, would return to familiar ground. But these are short stories, not novels, and the precision of the short story is a dangerous lens. There is a sense in which Boyd is working in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant or Somerset Maugham. He shares their delicacy and their obliquity, the sense of tiny damages. These are stories where the major revelation is discreetly off-stage. Although there is a mention in one story of Chekhov, they are not Chekhovian. They are far more knowing: the difference between being whispered a rumour and being presented with a clockwork jeu d’esprit. I say this in the knowledge that one story rests on an angry novelist getting his double-revenge on a critic who had given him a trammelling.

Where he diverges from his forebears is quite precise. Names, for example. Over the course of the book the reader encounters Ludo Abernathy, Ruben Mavrocordato, Raleigh Maltravers, Brodie Laing, Fernando Benn, Geraldyne Vaux as well as the eponymous Bethany Mellmoth. If the intention is to be mildly Dickensian, it fails outright. It is difficult to engage with the emotional interiors of characters when their names are such preposterous inventions. I sense that Boyd himself knows this – in the novella about Bethany, she constantly tries on the surnames of potential partners. They seem – and this is a strange thing to write – just too fictional, given the ostensible realism of the stories. The mellifluous sentences do not compensate for the requirement to suspend disbelief that Carl Trueman or Araminta Trinder are actually real people.

The stories are cleverly woven together. Certain images criss-cross the books – a pierced lip or nose, a stolen kiss, the use of the word nul, pretentiously meaning a nothing, a book called Oblong that resurfaces as a film script called Oblong Or Triangle, even characters: Yves, the self-important novelist, appears in two pieces and almost as two different characters. This kind of collection was initiated by Felipe Alfau with Locos: A Comedy Of Gestures, and has yet, really, to be beaten. In Alfau, the connections add up to something. In The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth they seem ever so slightly sly.

All of this is worrisome, as the stories themselves are rather good. It is a book that entertains for an afternoon, and one has no desire whatsoever to re-read it. The novella is probably the most interesting. Poor Bethany is a VARP – Vaguely Art-Related Person – and cannot commit to a career. Her name is a little nod to Charles Maturin’s novel, Melmoth The Wanderer, as she vaguely zig-zags through art-forms, lovers and Christmas tantrums. It is a work of quite lovely ennui. Whether she is dealing with her academic father and his new Chinese wife – marginally younger than she is – or her well-connected mother and her more than inappropriate new partner – there is a sense of fragility and hopefulness combined.

The final story “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure…” is a change of tone. It is almost a simultaneous homage to and parody of John Buchan. A bit-part actor is given a secret assignation in Scotland, to deliver a jar of what he has been told is water from the River Jordan for a baptism. What is funny about the story is the way in which he constantly filters his experiences through the evidently awful films he has been in: imagine Richard Hannay played by Mike Myers.

The two more formally experimental stories misfire. “The Diarists” is amusing enough, but nobody writes diaries like the ones presented. It’s a strong story in some ways, in that multiple perspectives are interesting, but the nag and the niggle of just not being convinced persists. “Unsent Letters” has a similar problem. JG Ballard could have pulled off this trick – the gradual revelation of sadness and insanity – but here it is blazoned on the first page. The backwards narrative in “The Road Not Taken” has been done before and better by both Iain Banks and Harold Pinter.

All that said, this is the ideal Christmas book. It is elegantly written, and the stories have a gracefulness and ease, a gravity and a levity, that make them a brilliant plate of amuse-bouche. It is a book to curl up with, and feel a wintry little chill through its emotional warmth.

In some ways, Boyd most resembles F Scott Fitzgerald in terms of his chord of financial privilege and emotional poverty, social distinction and psychic dismay. As much though they are light, they delight. But please: no more characters called things like Montmorency Fitz-Mackenzie.

*The Dreams Of Bethany Mellmoth, by William Boyd, Penguin/Viking, £14.99