In Waiting For Sunrise William Boyd returns to his very best form. The novel’s central character is Lysander Rief, an individual every bit as intriguing as a Mountstuart or a Todd. Rief is an actor with an English father and an Austrian mother. He was brought up in England, but his German is passable and improves, and his French is not bad. He also possesses a few exclamations in Italian, we learn.
At the outset, we find him in Austria just before the outbreak of the First World War. Initially, the impending conflict does not seem to figure but, rest assured, no self-respecting novelist could let such momentous events pass without comment. The War does in fact become the principal theatre for the plot umzug wien. Initially, however, Lysander Rief is visiting Vienna for purposes of consultation. He has taken time out from his professional life to seek help with a slight problem. Like so many of William Boyd’s males, situations arose when one day Lysander was caught with his trousers down. Readers of William Boyd’s novels will appreciate that his male characters are rarely backward at coming forward when trouser dropping is on the agenda. Lysander’s particular circumstances, however, offer some surprising perspectives on the practice.
Early on he meets Hettie Bull, a petite English sculptor with a common law artist partner. She has a few problems of her own, it seems, though these seem hard to pin down. He also meets a couple of relative smoothies from the British Embassy who are destined to figure significantly in subsequent events. They offer what might be described as professional assistance when needs arise. Lysander finds himself in a few pickles whose solutions depend on external input, and eventually quite a number of other challenges that originate from that initial input of assistance. His unconventional departure from Vienna leaves him in debt.
The First World War breaks out and Lysander enlists. There soon proves to have been some spice in the Viennese pickle, spice that got Lysander noticed. Assignments materialise and offers are made that cannot be refused. There is a need for special training, but even these new skills might prove no match for the challenges posed by an attractive widow in Switzerland.
Lysander needs a while to overcome the after effects of his experience Geneva. At first it seems that the case is complete, but there are more questions to be raised, questions of contacts closer to home, questions that urgently need answers. These lead to another task, an assignment that generates even more complications. And who would have thought that the libretto of a risqué opera would have caused such a stir? Surely this was no more than an illustration of Vienna’s peculiar mix of decadence and eroticism at the turn of the twentieth century. Surely? This was a city, Lysander was told, beneath which ran an incessant, fast-flowing river of sex. And which city might not?
When William Boyd is in this superb form, the plot seems to race past with surprises at every turn. But what it never does is appear in episodic form, via scenes that apparently materialise merely to move the story along. Throughout, Waiting For Sunrise is beautifully constructed and integrated, with several aspects of the action experienced, interpreted and then retold to be reinterpreted, perhaps differently, before anything comes clear – if anything ever does. The reader feel that events are really developing through the characters eyes and experience, and never feels that these people are mere cut-outs being flashed across a miniature stage.
William Boyd’s speciality must be his treatment of people like Lysander Rief, talented men whose self-assurance is significant but internally denied, whose earthy frailties, given half a chance, usually get the better of their highly developed but easily suppressed powers of reflection. Lysander Rief, when such a trousers down moment is in prospect himself reflected on this, “and noted how the promise of unlimited sensual pleasure blotted out all rational, cautious advice that he might equally have given himself.” Rief surely has fellow travellers in Mountstuart or a Todd. For Lysander, there is a fiancé called Blanche, Hettie the sculptor, a comely wench in a guesthouse, a captivatingly unattainable widow in Geneva and several dancing girls along the way, not to mention an alluring mother. The here and now always demands the total attention of such characters.