Catnip for culture lovers

Contrasting works from a veteran master of invention and two newer faces who blur fact and fiction

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It’s been noted that this year’s Booker Prize shortlist is mostly debut novels, but it’s not new for literary awards to abandon foalish newcomers as they learn to stand unaided. When Martin Amis’s first novel won the Somerset Maugham Award, “I told myself . . . get used to it. And that never happened again.” Or take William Boyd, plucky bestselling, critically acclaimed underdog, regularly garlanded in the 1980s and 90s but whose mantelpiece on the right-hand side is bare.

Boyd, like any four-decade author who hasn’t rationed the output, has had a bumpy old path, with lows including humdrum thrillers like Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009), or the authorised James Bond® novel Solo™ (2013), which can only have arisen because, as Adam Mars-Jones put it, “Boyd sees himself rather readily as a force of nature, a sort of one-man national park,” or alternatively, to paraphrase Alexei Sayle, because he had no idea what he was doing as they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes.

Boyd: Acclaimed underdog

The highs make up for it — the Greene-ish Brazzaville Beach (1990) or the inventive romance of The Blue Afternoon (1993) — but what Boyd does best is what might be called the whole-life novel. His best-loved book, Any Human Heart (2002), the fictional diaries of a writer through key events of the twentieth century, is a good one to be remembered for, though even better is The New Confessions (1987), presented as the colourful memoir of a filmmaker. (Boyd reprised this format to lesser but still enjoyable effect in 2015 with Sweet Caress, the fictional autobiography of a photographer.)

Trio, by William Boyd
Viking, £18.99

What these long-life novels show is the capacity of Boyd’s imagination, and it’s on full manspreading display in his new novel Trio, set in the film industry in 1968 (writers love to write about other artistic fields, because they can illustrate creativity but make it sexier than a fop hunched at a desk). The three characters not quite locked in alignment are Anny Viklund, an actress making a ridiculous movie in Brighton, who’s fallen in love with her co-star; Talbot Kydd, co-producer of the film and a closeted homosexual in a lavender marriage; and Elfrida Wing, wife of his fellow producer and an alcoholic writer whose inspiration has dried up to the point where all she’s written in a decade is “title after title of unwritten novels”.

Boyd’s an old-fashioned novelist, a playful god surveying his creations: he winds them up, watches them go, and is happy plastering over backstory with an explanatory dialogue, convenient memo or detective’s report. Elfrida finally comes up with an idea for a new book — the last day of Virginia Woolf’s life — and goes off to research it and, more importantly, extract another advance from her publisher.

Anny gets unwillingly caught up in a revolutionary bombing campaign waged by her ex-husband. And Talbot is the spider in the web, feeling increasingly like a fly as he struggles with primadonna actors, a dodgy business partner and his own ungovernable urges for a young scaffolder.

This is the opposite of autofiction: it’s invention upon invention and frosting on top, with a plot turn every chapter, new characters still being introduced 250 pages in, and fiction within fiction. Viewed at length, Boyd’s ability to keep turning out the details — the names just so, the characters strikingly but not deeply sketched — starts to look less like a skill than a pathology.

Each character’s strand addresses the same question: the conflict between the public and the private self, or as James Salter put it, the “two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.” That I drew on another writer to illustrate the point is instructive: there’s nothing in Trio that cries out to be quoted. That’s not unusual in Boyd’s fiction — he’s a character and story man, not a turner of sentences — but where the pleasures in Any Human Heart were cumulative, here the scattershot application of details makes the story less engaging as it goes on.

Boyd doesn’t ask much of the reader except to hold tight and enjoy the ride. And it is enjoyable, but the smoothness doesn’t give the brain much to hold onto, and if literary prizes go to books that withstand multiple readings during the judging process, it’s less surprising that Boyd isn’t much garlanded these days. Trio highlights the connection between facility and facile. Is it possible to read a book with a good deal of pleasure but end it feeling disappointed? Perhaps that’s just more evidence of Boyd’s multiple talents.

What Are You Going Through, by Sigrid Nunez
Virago, £16.99

Sigrid Nunez is perhaps — bear with me — the anti-Boyd. First, she enjoyed no early success, becoming an overnight sensation only in 2018 with her seventh novel The Friend, after more than 20 years of bashing away at the glass wall of fiction. Second, both The Friend and her new novel What Are You Going Through have a whiff of autobiography to them, of a sort that Boyd, I think, would consider beneath the notice of the self-respecting inventor of worlds.

Whether or not the fiction is auto- or not is irrelevant; it’s whether it works, and with Nunez it does. The air of author talking directly to reader gives a sense of intimacy and clarity, and this sense of truthiness is enhanced by Nunez’s bricolage approach both here and in The Friend: the story is assembled from overheard conversations, speeches, the recounted plot of a novel, quotes from other writers.

The title itself comes from Simone Weil — “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’ ” — with the question mark chopped off for an air of uncertainty and general, y’know, literariness. (I blame Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here.) And the book follows that suggestion, with a background storyline about the narrator being asked to provide company to her friend who has terminal cancer (“I prefer fatal”) and, in due course, to assist her suicide.

The whole thing is bracingly unsentimental — the narrator finds her dying friend’s daughter to be “extraordinarily unlikeable,” and recalls another friend who wanted to get cancer in order to lose weight — and approaches but then neatly sidesteps cliché and aphorism. “Attention must be paid,” Nunez writes, channelling Death of a Salesman, and putting it all down in words is how a writer pays attention, even if “whatever I might manage to describe would turn out to be, at best, somewhere to the side of the thing, while the thing itself slipped past me.”

What Are You Going Through will be catnip for anyone who processes their life through a cultural prism, even if yours — yeah, so? — are more likely to be British sitcoms than German films. And just as the writer, through drawing on other sources, becomes the reader, a book without consolation can, it turns out, still be life-enhancing.

When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West
Pushkin Press, £14.99

Blurring much further the line between fiction and non-fiction is Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, which comes breathlessly endorsed by several of the big bollocks of Eng Lit, including Philip Pullman, Geoff Dyer and, yes, William Boyd.

It reads like non-fiction themed around scientific discoveries, but only in the afterword do we learn that the accounts contain more and more invented material as the book proceeds. This is apt enough for a series of narratives that starts with the merely surprising (the discovery via Prussian Blue paint of cyanide, a poison so fast-acting that there is only one historical account of its flavour) and moves to the literally otherworldly (the mathematician who “created a complete universe, of which . . . he is the sole inhabitant”).

The longest section in the book describes the intellectual war between Erwin Schrödinger’s elegant equation to unify chemistry and physics, and Werner Heisenberg’s rejection of it (“I think it’s bullshit”), from which I learned that Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment about the cat which is both alive and dead was intended by him not to parade the thinking required for quantum mechanics, but to mock it as ridiculous. But like Cnut, he lost in more ways than one.

Perhaps the person most beset by handy ironies is the Nobel-winning chemist Fritz Haber, whose work on extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere enabled the large-scale development of fertiliser (“the man who pulled bread from air”) and massive population growth, but who later developed chlorine gas which was not only used in the first world war to devastating effect, but was later developed into Zyklon B, the gas that killed millions in concentration camps, including — as a German Jew — Haber’s own extended family. For Haber’s part, he died in 1934 terrified that his work on fertiliser would lead to the Earth being overrun by plants, with mankind smothered “beneath a terrible verdure”.

What is increasingly clear from When We Cease to Understand the World is that when inspiration pulls godlike thinking out of someone’s head, it pulls something else out alongside it, and I finished the book thanking the fates that I am not a genius: though that, of course, is a judgment for others to make.

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