Psychiatry and espionage in Vienna

This is a work of genius. I cannot begin to review it without saying so.

A bold statement. A dangerous statement even, but, regardless of its potential risk, the Literary Review would bravely publish these sentences in their appraisal of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Over a decade on, I would sit at my laptop, fingertips hovering poised over the keys – and be unable to conjure up anything other than those same words.

This is a work of genius. And I cannot, and will not, begin to review it without saying so.

Yesterday, having just finished Waiting For Sunrise, the new William Boyd novel, I found I’d been so sucked into Boyd’s creation that I’d missed two meals, a lecture and seven calls from my mother, who has evidently done what every mother of a university student does in response to missed calls and assumed I’m dead.

My head is reeling.

Of course, it’s not hard to pinpoint what happened. It’s a classic example of Boyd Syndrome – the introduction into a world so brilliant, so magnetic, so glistening with tangible life that you completely lose sight of your own. A world bursting with artists and psychoanalysts, soldiers and spies, dazzling girls you immediately want to paint, or caress, or both. A world so full of unapologetic, sizzling brilliance that a chat between Sigmund Freud and the protagonist in a cafe on page 90 doesn’t register even the slightest flicker of surprise.

Set in Vienna in 1913, the world of Waiting For Sunrise is inevitably the world of movers and shakers we saw in Any Human Heart, but Boyd’s style has matured in the ten years since that novel’s publication. Here, encounters with cultural luminaries come to feel far less like name-dropping, and far more easy, natural, coincidental. Refined. The characters are still very much the pulsating lifeblood of the Boydian novel, but here, regardless of whether they are famed novelist Joseph Conrad or make-believe lover Hettie Bull, they are equally effervescent, and equally believable.

Another skill Boyd has honed to perfection for Waiting for Sunrise is the rare – and seemingly incurable – affliction of the Boyd Smile – an unconscious upturning of the corners of the mouth that say to the world ‘I have just read something so brilliantly expressed/achingly sincere/tinkling with humour that I don’t even realise I’m smiling’. It is one of the most enjoyable moments a reader can experience.

For Boyd virgins, I cannot recommend Waiting for Sunrise enough – although it may be downhill from here for your future Boyd reading.

For me, Waiting for Sunrise is Boyd’s epic. Epic literature incorporates every genre, every skill, every variant of literature in a grand showcasing of authorial talent. Poetry, autobiographical journals, historical documentation, psychoanalysis, conversation transcripts – Boyd proves his talent extends far beyond the writing of the standard novel.

For those of you who sleep with Brazzaville Beach under your pillow, and re-read An Ice-Cream War every eight weeks, I’m hesitant to rank his novels. However, you won’t be disappointed. Waiting for Sunrise falls somewhere between Any Human Heart and Restless – a gripping, unputdownable spy novel that also leaves you swearing that, if it’s not bestowed with the status of ‘modern classic’ by the time you’re forty you’ll eat your hat. And your copy of the book in question.

The ‘classic’ label is an extremely icky, tricky, sticky area. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting I only claim a book is a classic on two occasions: 1) if it is published by Penguin Classics or Penguin Modern Classics, or 2) if I’m really, really sure and would be willing to stake a meeting with Johnny Depp on the likelihood of me being right. And even then I claim it with about as much confidence and self-conviction as Ed Miliband.

Waiting for Sunrise has been a miraculous exception to my habitual hesitancy – and, while I’d like to think this is a permanent change, and that I will be roaming the streets of Britain shouting ‘This is a classic! Read this!’ and throwing books at people like a sort of crazed, literary town crier, I can safely say it’s only a temporary immunity.

There is something in the magnetism of Waiting for Sunrise that intensifies the reading experience. You’re in a kind of Narnia – you weren’t sat in your room reading for an hour, you were in Vienna! In 1913!

There is something about that Boyd Smile that flickers across your face when you spot a masterful choice of adjective, a moment of exceptional timing, a confession of raw emotion that tells you that you are reading a work somewhat resembling genius.

And, there is something about the concentrated dose of culture that Waiting for Sunrise offers its reader, the pure vividness of its depiction of the modern world, that makes you feel like you are being educated as well as entertained.

Towards the end of the novel, Lysander Rief tells us “I feel, after what I have gone through, that I understand a little of our modern world now, as it exists today… And yet, for all the privileged insight and precious knowledge that I gleaned, I felt that the more I seemed to know, then the more clarity and certainty dimmed and faded away.” Short of reading enough non-fiction history books to sink a small cruise ship, how do we, today glean this privileged insight and precious knowledge?

I implore you to read Waiting for Sunrise and allow this great man’s greater imagination, Lysander’s remarkable tales and encounters, and your own curious mind to beaver away together, evoking a 20th century as vivid as if it were now.

And, perhaps, gain a greater understanding of the late, great, astonishing 20th century, and its place in creating the modern world.

I would love to say that the novel has a fault. A major, striking, impossible-to-ignore flaw that I would simply have to mention in order to warn you in advance, and would undoubtedly drag this review down from 5 stars to 4, or perhaps 3. It would make me, the reviewer, look better. It would say “look, I know what I’m talking about so much that I’ve found a flaw in this otherwise brilliant book!”

Alas, I can’t give you such a paragraph. I’ve tried, I have. But I can’t find any such fault worthy of my word-count.

This whole experience has simply been a desperate attempt on my part to avoid giving into my instincts – relentless gushing. Because, in all honesty, when was the last time you read a book review that said: “THIS IS THE BEST BOOK I HAVE EVER READ. IN MY LIFE. LITERALLY, MY WHOLE LIFE. I MEAN, JUST READ IT, OK?”

I have a feeling it was this one.


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