The acclaimed British novelist is the next to bring James Bond to life, but in the meantime he has a spy novel of his own, Waiting for Sunrise, just out in the U.S. He talks with Lucy Scholes about espionage and his Viennese obsession.
Last week it was announced that James Bond was coming back to life under the pen of William Boyd. He’s setting the new novel in 1969, only five years after Ian Fleming’s death, so there’s a sense, Boyd tells me, that “it is still closely linked with the Bonds Fleming wrote, inhabiting the ‘classic’ milieu of the originals, still picking up on their reverberations as it were.” In returning to this period, Boyd’s also distancing the novel further from the cinematic counterpart—a franchise that has, he argues, “inevitably confused” the image of Bond in the world: “The literary Bond is a far more nuanced and intriguing character than the screen Bond,” he explains, something, he admits, that in itself was one of the attractions of writing a Bond novel as opposed to a Bond screenplay.
“I hoovered the Bond novels up in my early teens,” he continues, but interestingly, given his interest in espionage fiction, he explains that his fascination is more directed at the author than his now famous character (a factor that accounts for Fleming’s appearance in his novel Any Human Heart). “Fleming isn’t in the same league as an author like le Carré—as Fleming would be the first to recognize,” he tells me, “and Fleming wasn’t an intellectual, but he somehow managed to create an almost mythic, emblematic fictional figure that is as enduring as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe. Quite how such a man managed to do this is something of a mystery, but there’s no doubt that the (literary) Bond strikes a chord in readers that is profound. It’s a most enticing challenge to have a chance to add to the myth.”
Boyd’s latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, begins in Vienna in 1913. Lysander Rief, a young English actor who has traveled to the Austrian city in the hope that psychoanalytic treatment will cure his anorgasmia, is soon swept up in the currents of history as, with the advent of the First World War, he finds himself embroiled in the duplicitous realm of espionage, on the hunt for a spy that takes him from the trenches of the Western Front to Geneva and finally the corridors of Whitehall.
Although the novel spans Europe, with much of the action actually taking place in London, it is the Vienna Boyd conjures that remains with the reader throughout. “I have these obsessions with cities,” Boyd tells me by way of explanation, recalling the short stories he wrote in the ’70s about Los Angeles, through his interest in Berlin and then Lisbon. But right now he’s clearly fascinated with pre–World War I Vienna and talks enthusiastically of his “curiosity” about the city. “There was a great coming together of human endeavor there in the years between 1913 and 1919,” he explains, talking passionately about the era’s architecture, politics, design, satire, journalism, art, literature, and music. “The entire future history of Europe was bubbling up there,” he continues. “I’m not just thinking of Hitler, but Stalin was there in 1913, and Trotsky was living there; Tito too, working as a chauffeur. It’s a very strange congruence.”
Similarly in the novel, Lysander’s wartime adventures can all be traced back to his time in the city; indeed the entire espionage plot has a distinctly Viennese tinge to it, a fitting inflection given Boyd’s thoughts on the central role played by Vienna at this particular historical moment. “Here we are, virtually a hundred years after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, still living with the consequences of that random encounter in the streets of Sarajevo—the creation of Poland and the Balkan states, the dismantling of the [Austro-Hungarian] Empire, and the subsequent Paris Peace Treaty that itself contributed to the rise of the Nazis. It’s slightly stretching the facts to fit the thesis,” he acknowledges, “but somehow Vienna was the fulcrum of everything that has happened subsequently.”
As Boyd admits, this period is rich ground for a novelist, as the world was changing with such dramatic speed, but he didn’t set out to write a “historical” novel as such. Instead the initial inspiration hit him as he stood on the steps to Freud’s old apartments while visiting the city to research a piece about the artist Egon Schiele. “I was thinking about what it must have been like coming here 100 years ago. It must have been the riskiest thing to do. I mean, we’re all Freudians now; the science of the mind is taken for granted. But I wondered who would be the person standing on these steps then?” The subsequent plot was driven by this early conception of the main protagonist.
Boyd sees psychoanalysis as one of the key markers of what he calls the “shift in human sensibility” that took place during the period, as “we became modern people with all our neuroses and uncertainties,” and Lysander is an “exemplar of this change from innocence to caution, paranoia, and suspicion.”
This sense of how public events affect private lives is a theme he returns to over and over again in his work. His interest is in “how we brush up against history.” This is something he traces back to his own childhood experiences. “If I hadn’t been born and raised in Africa and seen at relatively close hand upheavals, military coups, mass demonstrations, and then a civil war,” he says, “I might not have the same sense of how one is buffeted or not by the forces of history. I remember tear gas drifting through our garden in Nigeria during a massive student riot as I stood there with my father. These experiences have given me a slightly different perspective—I was in the country for the Nigerian civil war of ’68–70, so I can look at other events I wasn’t at and imagine the same disconnect or connect.”
“But,” he’s quick to add, “as Logan Mountstuart [the protagonist of Any Human Heart, whose life spanned the 20th century] says, on Sept. 1, 1939, you shouldn’t write down that Hitler invades Poland. You should write down what you had for breakfast or whether you had a hangover. It’s the individual’s angle on it that is important.”
“The Logan Mountstuart and Lysander Rief connection with the force of history can apply to any of us,” he tells me, “it’s quite a thrill to imagine that kind of encounter. Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler were all in Vienna in 1913, so maybe they did pass within 10 feet of each other walking down Graben. It’s only high insight that makes it clear, but a novelist can play with that.” Perhaps a lazier writer would exploit this rich historical potential further, but Boyd is “judicious” in his choices, showing a restraint in his use of real figures—Lysander enjoys only a chance meeting with Freud and merely bumps into a young Hitler in passing.
Much of the popularity of Boyd’s writing seems to lie in this ability to humanize historical events, and with works like Any Human Heart and Waiting for Sunrise he seems to have tapped into the apparent resurgence in the market for historical novels in recent years.
His response surprises me though. “I don’t see the 20th century as being “historical,” he says. “I think of 1900 onwards as contemporary and thus fair game. It’s not in the dim and distant past to me.” In an explanation that reminds me of the way he personalizes history in his fiction, he’s talking here about one’s proximity to the events in question via first-hand witnesses. “My grandmother,” he tells me, “was born in the 1870s and I knew her very well as an old lady, so there’s a personal contact with the Victorian Age; my grandfather was wounded at the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917 so that doesn’t seem historical.”
But as much as Waiting for Sunrise can be classed as historical fiction, it’s also a spy thriller, a genre that Boyd’s been drawn to before in Restless, and will obviously revisit again with gusto in the new Bond novel. He describes espionage as the most “alluring” of all the genres for the literary novelist because “the big abstract nouns that lurk behind espionage; identity, duplicity, mendacity, corruption, and betrayal, are good grist to the novelist’s mill,” essential elements of the human experience, “but put them in the context of espionage and you’ve got something really rich and intriguing.”
Though he’s also quick to confess that he’s always “cherry-picked” genres as it’s suited his narrative purposes. “I cross boundaries unashamedly and with pleasure because I write complicated plots,” he says. “Things have to happen in my novels, you need some kind of motor to drive the narrative—a death, a fraud, a betrayal, a bribe —then around that you can construct your fabulous automobile.” But it is the spy novel, it seems, that gives him this potential “in spades”: “layer upon layer upon layer and it’s wonderful to exploit it.”
Talking of exploiting the powers of fiction brings Nat Tate to my mind—the fake biography of an artist he passed off as real at its launch on April 1st 1998. He explains that this, the novel as autobiography in New Confessions, and the novel as intimate journal in Any Human Heart, were all written with the same ambition: “to make a fiction so real that you’d forget it was fiction.”
There’s a trace of this preoccupation in Waiting for Sunrise in the form of the method he invents for the psychoanalyst treating Lysander. Rather than have his fictional analyst practice a traditional Freudian ‘talking cure,’ Boyd chose the more “fun and interesting” route of creating his own method, which he called parallelism, wherein the analyst encourages the patient to substitute new less-traumatic, false memories in the place of those that plague him. He describes his fictional hoaxes as attempts to “colonize the world of the real but as a writer of fiction,” but so too he takes parallelism as a “psychological possibility,” as he explains, “we all have false memories or misremember the past slightly, so to will yourself to reremember it differently doesn’t seem like too big a step.” This adds to the overall sense of uncertainty that pervades the novel and even as the spy is unmasked the reader is left in a state of doubt as not all of the loose ends are neatly tied up. This is, Boyd assures me, deliberate, but it’s something that some reviewers have taken umbrage with. Boyd, it appears, has a back-up plan though: “If the bottom falls out of novel writing,” he jokes, “I could set myself up as a parallelist.”