Waiting For Home
May 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Week 21: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
It’s no secret that I love Europe. Don’t get me wrong; Canada is the best place in the world and yes, that means I’m talking smack to you, Norway. But that said, Europe has everything that I love that Canada doesn’t. It’s marvelous how the history is just layered on top of itself there in a way that it peeks through the cracks of even the most modern places. They seem far less afraid to try things there, and even though there’s the caked-on crust of the Old World still sticking to it in places, it’s also a dynamic place where different languages, peoples, and cultures swim around each other in a way that’s just slightly different from how it happens in North America.
This book is about Europe. Vienna and Switzerland, specifically, with a bit of London thrown in because it’s London. I miss the Roman days for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that Londinium didn’t always need to be the main city in any English-language book. I mean, Dublin was founded by Vikings but no. It only gets Dubliners and Ulysses, and while Dubliners is a marvellous, wondrous book, the less said about Ulysses the better.
Yes, I decided that it was time to read something “adult”. And yes, I shivered when I wrote that sentence. I am of the opinion that YA and SpecFic authors should be proud of what they write and not give a damn that they aren’t in the “fiction” section. That said, there does seem to be a bit of a snobbish (perhaps this is completely in my head, but whatever) attitude about the difference between “literary fiction” and the rest of the trash. I still remember back at the beginning of the year when The Sisters Brothers won so many awards. People were surprised at that because it was a Western, and how on earth could a Western be treated seriously?
In any case, I abhor snobbishness because it’s dumb. Comics can be good. Fantasy can be good. Literary fiction can be good. The only thing stopping someone from enjoying something that’s good are their own tastes, preferences, and yes, their prejudices. No matter how good, say, a romance is, that really isn’t something that attracts me to a book. I’m also going to judge a book more harshly if there isn’t a dragon in it, no matter what genre it is. But that said, I’m the only one who loses out by not reading a good book just because some editor thinks it belongs in the “romance” section.
Rant aside, I decided to expand my horizons and pick something from the Fiction section for this week’s book. I took a look at some of the more popular and well-received books, and one of my compatriots recommended this book as “not bad”. I stuck my nose into the dust jacket, saw that it was about a man and his relationships with women in 1913 Vienna, and figured it was worth a shot. Like I said, I like Europe, Vienna is one of my favorite cities in the world, and the period is one of my favorite historical periods (especially in Europe). I didn’t have high hopes, and expected little.
I was wrong.
That said, it took its damn time to take off. The first chapter almost made me throw the book away, and the next few chapters are about an Englishman, Lysander (?) Rief, who is in Vienna to take advantage of the current explosion of psychoanalysis in that city. There’s a cameo from Freud that is equal parts awkward hero scene and blatant insertion (because Freud), but it really wasn’t clicking with me. Sure, he has a lot of sex. A lot. And we all know it takes more than sex to make something interesting.
In any case, I was losing interest in the book until Lysander has to escape a Viennese prison and flee to Europe because of a trumped-up rape charge. It seemed like it was going to be a straight-forward book about human relationships until BAM! 1914! World War 1! SPYING!
The book, with no warning, turns from a “feelings” book to a World War 1/Belle Epoque spy thriller, and it’s amazing. My gasts were completely flabbered, because there had been nothing about that in the dust jacket. Sure, you could have guessed a book that takes place in 1913 Europe would feature something about the War, but the spy plot took up a huge portion of the book. This was not something incidental to the relationships, sexual or otherwise, of the main character. It was essential! It was Tinker Tailor Verdun Spy!
Which, for those of you who didn’t see or read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is agoodthing.
So I was pleasantly surprised, because that did make the book far more interesting to me. I make no bones about the fact that violence fascinates me, especially on the industrial scale of the First World War. There are two scenes in particular that stand out for me: one, where Lysander thinks about how the grenade he just threw had been created and transported from all around the world, and the incredible effort it took to put it there, in his hand, in France, in time for him to throw it at two German soldiers. It’s a powerful scene that captures how, even in what we might (incorrectly) consider the “pre-modern” age, the world really was that small, and how we are all a part of this gigantic web of relationships that goes from the macro to the incredibly micro. Boyd writes how the Germans desperately hoped that this grenade, this one of so many parts that came from all across the world, might just not work, and both it, and the scene, work so well its grisly.
The second scene happens when he is speaking with a fellow intelligence officer and refers to the gigantic armies as “cities” that require food, police, transport, leadership, and so on. He casually mentions that they need weapons, and the other officer replies in an “Oh yes, I forgot about that” manner. As though they could get so caught up in the running of a war that they could forget there actually was awargoing on, where men were choking in gas, being pounded into the dirt by artillery, and shooting each other with bullets. That in the core of it all, this gigantic industrial city was all about one thing: destruction. It’s chilling because it’s entirely plausible that one could forget that that is what armies are for.
But speaking of cities, one of the main characters that Boyd puts into the book is, well, a city. Vienna hangs over this book like the shadows that Lysander lives in, and this is my one problem with the book. Boyd adores careful detail and just lavished the book with descriptions of clothing, food, beer, and architecture. Whenever Lysander changed his clothes, you knew exactly what he was wearing. Unfortunately, while that works for clothing, it doesn’t work for how he portrayed Vienna.
I have a theory, and that theory is that cities are living organisms. You need to step back a bit in time and scale, but I think it works. Scientists usually use 6 characteristics to determine if a thing is “living”, and the theory holds up well enough:
- The being must be made of cells: buildings.
- Must require and use energy: electricity, food, fuel, light.
- Must grow, reproduce, develop, and repair themselves: that’s fairly self-evident if we allow that humans are a essential part of a city, like mitochondria in cells.
- Must produce waste: see above
- Must adapt and respond to their environment: Budapest is my favourite example. As it grew and as Hungary required a proper capital city, the two distinct cites merged into one.
- Must have a life span: Carthage shows us cities may die.
It’s not a perfect theory, obviously, but it’s how I like to think about cities. Each one is different, because each is a unique, thriving, living being. I think Boyd would agree with me, but I didn’t get that feeling. I certainly got the feeling that many things he mentioned were Viennese, and I certainly could see and taste what was going on, but it didn’t, well, feel like Vienna.
That said, I don’t judge him very harshly because the Vienna I saw and the Vienna of 1913 are very, very different places, but I think that’s why I felt so strongly about it. I had no opinion about the different Swiss places Lysander visits, but that’s only because I’ve never been. But Vienna? The One and Only? Not the city I saw in the book.
It’s interesting to think about how our different interactions with places can really have little or nothing to do with the people there. Dublin is far more than just a collection of buildings (the people occasionally matter), and yet, the last time I was there, it was the Telecom Eireannsewer plates that made me feel like home. I looked down and saw them beneath my feet, and though it had been 5 years since I’d last been there and 10 since I’d lived there, it felt right to see them there.
The people that had made Ireland home were mostly gone by the time I went back, but Dublin? That dirty auld town was still there. Changed, but still Dublin.
And in this uncertain world of change, that’s a bit of a comfort.
This was more of a review than I intended back in January, but I won’t apologize. I enjoyed the book, and think it’s worth a read. But only if you like sweaty, sweaty Georgian sex. I know James Joyce did (Note: that link is extremely NSFW, extremely dirty, and extremely hilarious. You have been warned).
– John likes to think that Toronto will one day get its act together. One day.