Dull. Dreary. Dry. These are not words I would ever have expected to use to describe a novel by William Boyd.
I used to love his work. Sadly the William Boyd who wrote the masterpiece Any Human Heart and the highly enjoyable Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa, seems to have disappeared. The new incarnation if Love is Blind is anything to go by, is but a pale imitation.
Love is Blind is fundamentally a historical romance featuring a Scottish piano tuner and his obsessive love for a Russian singer. In the late 1890s, Brodie Moncur works for Channon & Co, an Edinburgh-based piano manufacturer. He’s thought of so highly he gets sent to Paris to help establish a branch in the city and drum up new business.
He comes up with a clever marketing scheme to get leading pianists to always use Channon pianos for their performances. It’s through this project he encounters John Kilbarron – “The Irish Liszt” – once a brilliant pianist but now finding his powers at an ebb. It’s also how Moncur meets and falls for Kilbarron’s lover, the would-be opera singer Lika Brum.
Discovery of the lovers’ trysts triggers a breakdown in Moncur’s professional relationship with Kilbarron. The piano tuner ends up criss-crossing Europe finding work as best he can and trying to stay one step ahead of Kilbarron’s vengeful brother. Lika flits in and out but even when she is not physically with Moncur he can’t stop thinking about her. His love for her is indeed so blind he can’t see what is patently obvious to readers: this woman can’t be trusted.
Why Love Is Blind Is Boring
First of all, Love is Blind moves very slowly, particularly at the beginning. It takes 50 pages before Moncur is even in Paris and another 50 before the relationship with Kilbarron materialises. A fair chunk of the early pages are taken up by a trip to his home in Scotland and a hostile encounter with his father. It’s an odd episode. There’s a history between this pair that William Boyd hints at but never fully explains so the point of the episode was wholly lost on me.
Most of the novel takes place in Russia, Paris and the French Riviera but Boyd manages to rob these locations of any kind of atmosphere.
He brings Scotland to life well as on his first visit home after many years:.
“The dog cart clip-clopped through the village and led them past the church, St Mungo’s, still looking new – pure Gothic Revival with flying buttresses, finials wherever a finial could be placed and a tall bell tower with no steeple. Its rowan- and yew-dotted cemetery was crowded with ancient graves, former parishioners, the late, good folk of the Liethen Valley. Then they turned into the gravelled carriage drive of the manse, set in a wide dark garden filled with ornamental conifers – monkey puzzles, larches and cedars – and beech trees. Beeches grew well in the Liethen Valley soil.”
But when it gets to some of the greatest cities in Europe, we got what sounded more like bland travelogue. Here’s how in a letter to his brother in Scotland, Moncur describes one of the grandest streets in St Petersburg:
Think of Edinburgh’s Princes Street transported to Russia and double the width. Shops, apartments, grand hotels –and there are three of these great boulevards radiating out from the Admiralty complex of buildings on the southern bank of the Neva river. Perhaps Piter’s Champs-Elysees might give you a better sense of the huge scale of these streets.
Doesn’t give you much of sense of the place does it? Even so, its better than the picture we’re given of Graz in Austria:
… the provincial capital of Styria, a venerable small city situated 120 miles or so to the south of Vienna. Graz was divided by the river Mur, surrounded by the high mountains of the eastern Alps and dominated by its own castle on a hill, the Schlossburg.
If this had been written by a less well established author I’d be harbouring suspicions that they’d just copied text from the state’s travel brochure….
How Not To Show Historical Context
To add to my frustrations Boyd seemed to think it necessary to contextualise the story by stuffing his novel with lists of world events. And so in Biarritz, Moncur picks up a newspaper:
An anarchist had shot at – and missed – the Prince of Wales in Belgium, the Olympic Games were about to start in Paris, and the Automobile Club of Great Britain had completed a 1,000 mile trial run from London to Edinburgh They not only felt awkward they served no useful purpose. I used to love his work but will be very reluctant to pick up anything by him in the future.
Earlier, while in Paris recuperating from his first episode of tubercolosis, he occupies his days reading newspapers.
He read about the continuing animosities of the Dreyfus Affair, the celebrations being organized around Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the economic tribulations facing President McKinley , and a review of a shocking new novel called Dracula.
Every time I encountered one of these passages, it had the effect of deadening what was already unremarkable prose.
Love is Blind has sadly very few redeeming qualities. It was one of the dullest books I’ve read all year.
The plot was pedestrian; the obsession not obsessive enough, none of the main characters were well rounded. As for Moncur, well frankly I didn’t feel strongly enough to care whether he captured the girl of his dreams or remained blinded by love.
It wasn’t so bad that I felt compelled to abandon the book before the end (though I really kept going only because it was a book club choice). But it was poor enough to convince me that it will be a long time before I pick up another William Boyd novel. I shall just wallow in the pleasure of the past rather than have any expectations for future pleasure.