WILLIAM Boyd’s First World War novel can’t decide whether to analyse an epoch or tell a ripping yarn, writes Hannah McGill
AS THE centenary of its commencement approaches, the First World War looms large in the cultural landscape, establishing itself ever more firmly as a repository for tales of military derring-do distant enough to be romanticised and revelled in, and as the late modern metaphorical equivalent of the expulsion from Eden.
Man was, of course, practised in the field of inhumanity to man before 1914; but the sheer scale of carnage in that conflict, and the use of technologies expressly configured for mass destruction, mean the war stands as a powerful emblem of the triumph of the military-industrial machine over petty individual interests such as the right not to kill or be killed.
Hard to pretend that every human life is sacrosanct, when 60,000 of them can be dispatched in a single day’s fighting at the Somme.
Recently the Great War has been seen as the crucible of the modern existential crisis. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example, sites personal betrayals and hypocrisies against the backdrop of a world too indiscriminately murderous to support moral structures.
Downton Abbey depicts – with equal measures of schadenfreude and regret – the fragmentation of the cosy old class system. Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – both recently adapted for to large and small screen respectively – wallow in the vicarious thrills of danger, deprivation and noble self-sacrifice.
William Boyd himself articulated the source of the fascination in a recent article for the New York Times: “There is a very real sense in which the modern world – our world – was born between 1914 and 1918… After the First World War, nothing in the world would ever be the same.”
Ironically, this impulse to trace all modern woes back to one fixed time period during which Everything Changed Forever implies the survival of the very instinct towards linearity, logic and cause and effect that the addled 20th century mind is supposed to have thrown to the winds. But it’s also indicative of a perverse sort of nostalgia: our wars are so distant, our lives so cushioned by luxury and our threats so enigmatic and changeable that the notion of being in straight-up, permanent physical peril holds a certain romantic appeal.
It’s this heady sense of pleasures heightened by social tumult and proximate destruction – rather than the misery of meaning lost and life devalued – that powers Boyd’s tenth novel. From its breathily cinematic title to its dramatis personae of double agents, demi-monde rakes and shady femmes fatales, Waiting For Sunrise is a romp, in which one man’s personal transformation reflects the general wartime upending of social mores.
Lysander Rief’s experience of war is inextricably enmeshed with his romantic and erotic life. Beset by a sexual problem – the classic concern of the inward-looking, pleasure-seeking modern man – Lysander seeks psychoanalytic help in pre-war Vienna. Just as mass, mad slaughter is about to put in jeopardy the very notion of the individual as significant, so Vienna’s head doctors are delving ever deeper into the utterly private, the utterly subjective; so, in Lysander’s life, minutely personal concerns interweave inextricably with global ones.
At his analyst’s, where he is successfully treated, he meets Hettie Bull, an irresistible bohemian coquette whose surname (Boyd loves charged character names) might just constitute a hint as to her level of sincerity.
Hettie and Lysander begin an affair which ends in a stunning act of betrayal, which in turn constitutes a neat karmic comeuppance for an earlier misdeed of Lysander’s own. The price of making his Hettie problem go away is – you guessed it – a hazardous spying mission.
Though pacy, involving and crisply written, Boyd’s novel loses something as its protagonist’s experiences slide further into Boy’s Own territory. What commences as a pensive study of a wide-eyed individual buffeted by social change becomes a gradually more fantastical affair. After Lysander gets shot at by beautiful Frenchwomen and tortures informants with kitchen hardware, you’re wondering just what happened to that nice realistic young man from the beginning of the book.
Boyd is skilled at creating page-turning plots, but there’s a sense that he’s thrown a little too much at this one; as the dramatic twists, dark deeds and daft names pile up, the psychological subtleties of the book’s early sequences fall away.
Waiting For Sunrise is a book poised rather awkwardly between the solemnly literary and the unashamedly generic: while it offers up copious pleasures from both stylistic sides, the two never quite coalesce.
• Waiting For Sunrise