Christopher Jackson visits William Boyd and finds the great storyteller in convivial mood – but also eager to defend his popular writing style
To walk from Sloane Square westwards into Chelsea down the streets off the King’s Road is to experience a veritable fiesta of blue plaques. There’s Mark Twain and Hilaire Belloc; and on Cheyne Walk alone, Thomas Carlyle, Oscar Wilde and George Eliot. I’m going to an address which doesn’t have one yet but deserves to one day. William Boyd, 66, has a special place in the nation’s literature: without question a storyteller of the first rank, and 19with a global popularity, he’s also in his confident handling of subject matter and his lightly worn intelligence a serious novelist.
He greets me sympathetically (‘A bit parky out there, isn’t it?’), then leads me through a house of impeccable taste, one full of evidence of his interest in art (see his novel Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960) and photography (see Sweet Caress) towards a bright first-floor lounge.
Hardback books lie everywhere: given the rate at which Boyd produces journalism, these feel like piled-up assignments. ‘Coffee?’ he says in plummy tones reminiscent of his contemporary Martin Amis.
There’s also a subtle Scottishness in here: a bust of Walter Scott – a reminder of Boyd’s Scottish ancestry (though he was born in Ghana). There’s a row of Muriel Spark’s Collected Works, in the sumptuous new edition by Birlinn (Boyd wrote the introduction for A Far Cry from Kensington).
Another reminder of Boyd’s preoccupation with his parents’ land is his new novel Love is Blind. In fact the subtitle, ‘The Rapture of Brodie Moncur’ – a better title, perhaps – gives a truer indication of the quiddity of the book. We meet Brodie Moncur as a distinctly Edinburgh-bound piano-tuner, caught up in what is made to feel a provincial life, where a strong sexual drive is expended on prostitutes.
When Channon, the piano company he works for, opens up a Paris branch, Brodie – one of those competent types who make themselves useful wherever you put them – begins his picaresque adventures. ‘It’s difficult to write about music in fiction,’ Boyd explains. ‘In fact, it’s hard to write about any art form apart from being a writer. When I got this idea of a piano-tuner, I realised that was my portal into the world of classical music. I could take Brodie to the places that I’d visited and deal with that late-19th-century music world of Vienna which I love. It all began to accumulate.’
The great thing about Boyd’s books is their sprawl, and the way in which plots which have a sort of secreted tautness unroll with Victorian leisure: Dickens, you feel, is never too far from his elbow in that respect.
His sympathy goes to those who go at life fearlessly, even with a relish shading into recklessness. One thinks of Amory Clay in 2015’s underestimated Sweet Caress (this novel is a rebuttal to anyone who thinks Boyd insufficiently experimental), Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart (2002), or even James Bond in his 2013 outing Solo. Brodie is in this classic Boydian vein: full of life, he hurtles himself at the world – and the world greets him as always in Boyd’s novels with its only offer: chance, or as Boyd calls it ‘zemblanity’.
From Adam Kindred in Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009) to Lorimer Black in Armadillo (1998), Boyd’s people are unusually whipped about. In Brodie’s case, the zemblanity is linked to a central piece of music he plays when tuning a piano. It’s Brodie’s version of a Scottish folk song, and has a special property: it can make people immediately cry.
usicians,’ explains Boyd, who has numerous friends in all the arts. ‘I play music all the time and certain passages of music trigger emotion. I thought, “What if you wrote a piece of music like that and someone stole it?”’ The book is full of deeply researched descriptions of the mechanics of the piano-tuning profession.
‘I often give my central characters proper jobs, rather than idle artists,’ he says. ‘I’ve written a novel about a loss adjuster in the insurance world, primatologists, mathematicians, things like that. Once I started discovering the nuts and bolts of piano-tuning, that became grist to the mill. Very early on Brodie recognises when he’s about to leave Scotland that he has a passport to anywhere where there are pianos, and it’s liberating.’ What follows is therefore a very European novel as Brodie meets a virtuoso pianist, John Kilbarron (the ‘Irish Liszt’) – and, through him, a statuesque Russian singer, Lika Blum. The plot ranges from St Petersburg and Nice to Paris and Biarritz, so much so that it’s tempting to describe it as a Remainer’s plea.
Sadly, that’s too neat, and the chronology doesn’t quite work: ‘I started it before the vote, so it wasn’t conceived as that,’ Boyd says, before adding: ‘I am a passionate Remainer, and am constantly despairing and frustrated about what we’ve done.’ The famous crop up often in Boyd’s novels: in Love is Blind, there are walk-on parts for Anton Chekhov (Boyd’s all-time hero), the Joyce brothers and Gustav Mahler. These are subtle touches: it’s not uncommon for critics to bemoan Boyd’s popularity and easy style and yet in the same review give every indication of having missed some of the references.
He laughs at this philosophically: ‘I think you’ve got to write for yourself.’ The impression is of a man sufficiently confident that ‘sniffy reviews’, as he calls them – like those received, rather ludicrously, for that splendid opus Any Human Heart – tend to slough off him. He’s also relaxed about accusations that his style is too straightforward: ‘You do want to write well – and there are passages in this novel which are lyrical and transporting. It’s difficult to sustain a complex narrative with catharsis and resolution. People dismiss it. I say, “Have a go yourself and let’s see what you come up with.” It’s damned hard to do.’
Ernest Hemingway said only the tip of the iceberg should show in fiction; Boyd is a master of this discreet complexity. The themes work beneath the surface. In Love is Blind, there is a cunning juxtaposition of Chekhov and Robert Louis Stevenson.
‘There’s a theme in the novel about how similar Scotland and Russia are,’ he explains, and recalls Richard Eyre’s 1981 film of The Cherry Orchard with Judi Dench. ‘Eyre had this idea that everyone should speak with a Scottish accent. It started my Chekhov obsession. I was thinking of Scotland with its decaying aristocrats, crumbling piles, thrusting mercantile middle class and its impoverished underclass. I saw how one little country resembles a vast country.’
The heroine’s name, Lika, comes from Chekhov’s own love for Lika Mizinova, and she is shown with a little dog at the end – a reference to Chekhov’s greatest short story. So while Julian Barnes has Flaubert and Amis has Nabokov and Bellow, Boyd has Chekhov. Today’s great novelists tend to fetishise one or other great patriarchal figure (‘Pale, stale, and male,’ Boyd jokes).
Brodie must therefore toil within a Chekhovian universe where there is no hope of salvation. These are people without props: the only brake on their vulnerability is whatever energy and ingenuity they can throw at their situations. I ask whether this is a limiting factor. Would he ever give his sympathy to a character – as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky did – of a religious disposition?
Boyd is clear: ‘I’m an utterly faithless, devout atheist. I actually respect people who have faith. I don’t have a mocking disdain – whatever gets you through the night. But I agree with Chekhov: I can’t understand how an intelligent person can believe in God. In the modern world, faith is irrational belief in a supernatural being.’
Instead, Boyd writes about people’s flaws: ‘Life compels them to step outside themselves and do and experience things they haven’t chosen to do necessarily.’
In this book, this view of religion is embodied in one of Boyd’s supreme monsters, Brodie’s father Malkie. It’s Malkie, you feel, that Brodie is really seeking to escape throughout the novel while having no particular plan as to where he’s going.
‘Malkie’s loosely based on John Joyce,’ says Boyd. ‘He and James had this respect for each other, but John was a kind of domestic monster.’ Sermonising one moment, and womanising the next – and abusing those around him – Malkie has an independent life which calls to mind Dickens’s best creations.
I ask him about his books’ reception. ‘I’m very proud of Solo,’ he admits. ‘It took me ages to get it absolutely right. It’s a wonderful gift – to be able to work with this mythic character, this enduring personage.’
He cites 1990’s Brazzaville Beach as another book which has had particular resonance: ‘I met an actress at the National Theatre who reads it on January 1st every year, and then reads it again. You think, “What’s she getting out of that novel?”’
No doubt she is enthralled by the beneath-the-surface richness of the books – their stately restraint so different from Amis’s linguistic cartwheels, or Barnes’s dry, angular prose. The welcome he gives the reader feels perhaps more grown-up, more linked to the novel’s true purpose than his contemporaries, who seem to confuse their craft with poetry or philosophy and forget to tell a good story.
He recalls the dynamic between Kingsley and Martin Amis: ‘Martin had a few poems published in the New Statesman. But [once Martin became a novelist] Kingsley used to say to him, “I don’t seem to have seen your latest slim volume?” Kingsley could always get one up on Martin.’
The Nobel Prize is unlikely to come his way and he doesn’t mind (‘A few years pass and you can’t remember who’s won’). He seems instead content to do what he’s doing: writing for a large and varied audience. He’s aware of how lucky is: ‘What’s changed with discounting is that the comfortable bourgeois life where people wrote a serious novel every couple of years – that’s gone. There are winners and losers and no also-rans. But technology hasn’t destroyed the book in the way it did the music industry.’
This brings us back to that other figure in the music industry: Brodie Moncur. In Brodie’s story, Boyd reminds us again how absolutely we should lament the pompousness of academia. And while he has fun with Joyce in this novel, his work is also a rebuke to the digressions and difficulty of modernism.
His novels reliably bequeath their pleasures. As I leave, I ask about his reputation going forwards. ‘The only critic that matters is time,’ he says, before quoting the Stoics: ‘Posterity is not our business.’ Perhaps it isn’t, but as I walk back out into the street, I pass the chimera of a blue plaque to be.
Love is Blind is published by Penguin under the Viking imprint
Christopher Jackson is the deputy editor of Spear’s
All images credit David Harrison
Follow Spear’s @SpearsMagazine