Boyd, William: The Blue Afternoon

Introducing “The Blue Afternoon” (1993) the proposer said he had first read it on holiday in Tuscany in 1995. He had previously read and liked other books by Boyd, including “A Good Man in Africa”, “An Ice Cream War” and “Brazzaville Beach”. (Indeed a tower of such tomes tottered at his elbow).

He had thoroughly enjoyed the book, thought it well-written, and could barely put the book down.

Boyd was born in Ghana in 1952, and his father was a Scottish doctor. He was in Nigeria during the Biafran War, which had a profound effect on him. He was educated at Gordonstoun, Nice University, Glasgow University and then Jesus College Oxford, where he did a thesis on Shelley. He had a brief period at the New Statesman as a TV critic, and was then a lecturer on the contemporary novel at Oxford for several years. He made his first film there (an interest in film was an important feature of his career) and also published his first novel “A Good Man in Africa”. This, like all his books, was dedicated to his wife, whom he met at Glasgow University.

He owns a chateau in Bergerac where he lives for most of the year, and where he produces award-winning wines, as well as his novels, short stories and screenplays. His lively sense of humour was demonstrated by his hoax biography of “Nat Tate”, American abstract artist, whom a number of critics then claimed to have met.

Boyd has received many accolades for his work, but he receives (or perhaps seeks) less public attention than contemporaries such as Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Yet he is perhaps the better novelist.

There were several different stories within the novel, all of which the proposer had enjoyed:

• Kay and Carriscant’s relationship and search for Delphine;

• the story of Kay’s architectural business;

• Carriscant’s life in the Philippines;

• the passionate love story – Carriscant’s obsession with Delphine, his stalking of her and their subsequent covert, amoral and fervent love affair;

• Pantaleon’s story of his quest to fly.

As well as having several stories within the story, it was striking that Boyd brought no less than 50 named characters into the novel.

Other aspects that had appealed to him were Boyd’s attention to detail and well-researched information – such as the descriptions of architecture in L.A. in 1936, of life in Manila in 1902, and the war between the Philippines and the USA.

He also was personally interested by the medical content. This included the contrast between the old style surgeon with his outmoded theories and the more up-to-date Carriscant. He also liked the description of the operations – and of course by Carriscant’s Scottish connections.

There were also appealing aspects of intrigue – such as the plan for escape from Manila, the detective work involved in tracking down Delphine in London, and the speculation about who carried out the murders.

For him the only less appealing aspects were that Kate was a rather weak character; that the Aero-mobile story – while interesting and amusing – was not well integrated; and that the murder stories were somewhat confusing and could usefully have been expanded.

However, overall he found it a first-class read, and – a real test of quality – had enjoyed it equally well on two subsequent readings.

There followed a rare unanimity of praise for the book.

“Super, excellent, clever!” was the reaction of one. Such a fluent style – but not frenetic – then moments of high drama. The only problem was being unable to put the book down at bedtime – one got so involved in it. There was such a “comblé de biens”: and in addition to all the plot elements, the writing of the Delphine story was really quite erotic.

Another thought Boyd a superb writer, with a deceptively easy style, and flowing but muscular prose. He had an almost unparalleled skill for narrative, for sucking the reader in to any story he chose to tell. He had a striking lucidity of detail that animated his scenes. While he was perhaps not a “historical novelist” as such, he took a particular interest in bringing obscure episodes in history – such as the war between the Philippines and the USA – into vivid life. His experience of the Biafran War must have given him his sense for the arbitrariness and chaos of war. And in this book he was telling the history of several fields of human endeavour – medicine, aviation and even architecture. Such gifts as a writer found the perfect shape in his recent novel “Any Human Heart”, which told the story of the twentieth century through a character who lived throughout it and was on the edge of many historic events (an approach he had trialled in “The New Confessions”).

Yet in this book was he not striving a little too hard to suggest that there was more significance to his writing than simply narrative drive? In particular there were the stanzas quoted in the preface from a difficult modernist poet – Wallace Stevens – in his poem “Landscape with Boat”, which tied in with the “blue afternoon” theme:

“He brushes away…the colossal illusion of heaven…yet still the sky was blue…he wanted the eye to see and not be touched by blue…”

And then, in case you had missed it, picking up the detail of the second stanza – the Mediterranean, the yellow wine and the steamer’s track – in the last scene. There was also the issue of leaving the murders unresolved. All this came over as a little contrived, and a bit of a dig in the ribs for the reader to indicate that Boyd had some bigger themes in mind – along the lines of Stevens’ painter’s closing statement “The thing I hum appears to be/ The rhythm of this celestial pantomime”.

Another, who had found the book equally difficult to put down, had rather lost interest in the character of Kay. How necessary was she to the story? Wasn’t the architectural interest laid on too thick at the beginning? And how odd that she made no comment on the architecture when she reached Lisbon!

And another – who had certainly enjoyed the book – had found the first and second sections disjointed. Would the book lose anything if the first section were dropped? Or indeed if you dropped the last section?

Others had found the architecture story engrossing– the searchlight intensity of Boyd’s imagination was such that it seemed impossible for him to sketch out any story without it being engrossing – even if it were frustrating that the writer never returned to it. It reminded one of the way the film “Psycho” led the viewer in to follow one plot, as a sort of feint, while the real plot then twisted away in a completely different and unexpected direction. And perhaps that was how life did unfold – the “rhythm of the celestial pantomime”.

And what about the sub-plot of the plane? Was it fully integrated? The sudden attempt at blackmail by Pantaleon – was that not out of character for somebody who had been subservient until then? Or was that the point – that Carriscant had taken his subservience for granted, even pressuring him into being the pander for his affair, without ever taking the trouble to understand him and his viewpoint? Then he was shocked when the real view of someone of “inferior” race abruptly emerged, although it was then quickly disguised again?

And the building of the plane was of a piece with the subject of obsession – of the human capacity to dream and to strive – which appeared in the other subplots of medicine, architecture, lust and love. The book talks of Pantaleon’s “idealistic dedication, this single-minded pursuit of a dream”. Pantaleon says that “We are men of the new century and it is our signal duty to look forward [in flight and in medicine]”.

For some there were too many loose ends; for others, loose ends reflected real life, and the story would have had less resonance if all the loose ends – of which the loosest were the murders – had been pinned down Agatha Christie fashion in the last chapter.

Nevertheless, we could not of course resist starting off down the road of who really did the murders, and of tugging at a few more loose ends – e.g. why did Carriscant become a cook, when he had an inheritance? But we pulled back from this prospect of infinite debate (and an infinite blog, your correspondent was groaning inwardly) by reminding ourselves that these were not real people and real events, and that there was no real solution to the murders (any more that there was an answer to Bradley’s famous question about how many children Lady Macbeth had). The novelist had chosen to leave us with several possible solutions, and there did not appear to be a “right” answer.

Similarly he chose at the end to have Kay remind us that Carriscant might be an unreliable narrator, and thus create another layer of uncertainty (and perhaps to give us another nudge in the ribs that Boyd is not just any old story-teller). As Kay says:

“What good would my deductions do, my reasoned deductions? What do we know of other people, anyway, of the human heart’s imaginings?”

And what did we make of Carriscant? Even on his own self-presentation, he had many flaws, and was reckless of his own and others interests in the way he pursued Delphine. But Boyd does not judge him in moral terms – he presents him.

The themes Boyd is pursuing emerge fairly clearly in the final pages. There is the impressively stoic acceptance of mortality displayed by Delphine and Carriscant at the end, but mortality that has been offset by the value of their human emotion:

“Carriscant’s faith was sure and constant. His belief in Delphine Sieverance and what she had done that night was no more absurd than any of the other notions we use to prop up our shaky lives. And he was happy too, that was important. He had achieved what he had set out to – no mean accomplishment – and he had seen the woman he had loved for all these years once more….

“I sat here on this sunny terrace looking out at …the steamer’s track, the glass of yellow wine in my hand and I found that I envied Salvador Carriscant…

“So what makes the difference …on this terrace in the blue afternoon? …I look over at Salvador Carriscant…and I know the answer.”

At the mention of the notions that prop up our shaky lives, I examined my empty glass with particular care, and our attentive host promptly filled it to the brim with a particularly fine New Zealand Pinot Noir (Peregrine 2006, from Central Otago, which apparently had just won an award at the Edinburgh Wine Club). What a splendid fellow! William Boyd would approve.

I felt obliged to put down my pen to do justice to the Pinot Noir. This was just as well, as the conversation took a decidedly risqué tack into erotic issues. The Blue Afternoon was turning into a blue evening. However, I focussed instead on signalling that my glass was again mysteriously empty …

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