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Dullest Book Of The Year: Love Is Blind

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 by William Boyd

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.

Bookends #8 Sept 2018

My Bookends post is where I share just three things that have sparked my interest from the multitude of news articles, blog posts and announcements that drop into my email box.

On a day when the incessant and torrential rain here in the UK reminds us that summer is no more, I hope that my three selections this week will lighten your mood a little,

This week brings an article about one author’s approach to the problem that besets many writers – the temptation to edit while still creating.

Book: Still waiting for inspiration…

love is blindI had chance for a good old mooch in a bookshop this week but wasn’t all that excited by what was on offer. The shop was pushing Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter (doesn’t interest me because I don’t much like her style) and of course the latest offering by Robert Galbraith.

Two authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past both have new novels hitting the shops this month. William Boyd’s Love is Blind came out this week. I used to be a big fan of his (Brazzaville Beach was my favourite) but haven’t been that excited by what he’s produced in the last few years.  i’m toying with getting this because it’s set partly in St Petersburg which is always a draw for me.  The publishers blurb describes it as a “sweeping, heart-stopping new novel. Set at the end of the 19th century, it follows the fortunes of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish musician, about to embark on the story of his life.”

I’m also mildly interested in Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks, again whose early work seems stronger than the more recent output. According to the blurb this novel  “brings together a city’s urgent present with its inescapable past. In this urgent and deeply moving novel, Faulks deals with questions of empire, grievance and identity, considering how, as individuals and societies – we learn to make peace with our history. With great originality and a dark humour, Paris Echo asks how much we really need to know if we are to live a valuable life.”

Blog Post: What is the most acclaimed yet unread novel?

When I saw this headline come through on my feed from the Paris Review blog feed. If the question had been phased a little differently and asked about acclaimed but unread books in general my answer would probably have been Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’d love to know how many people bought this and never got past page 10….  But the question was about novels so I guessed War and Peace.

I was wrong.

The answer is a book I have never heard of by an author who also is completely unknown to me.

Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a twelve hundred page novel published in 1965 which is set in the American mid west. Neither the plot nor the structure are straightforward it seems. The length alone would be off-putting (any book would have to be absolutely stunning to keep my attention over that length) but one extract shows that the narrative style would also be a challenge.

And his night was his day, and his day was his night, for his twilight was his dawn, and his dawn was his twilight, and his moon was his sun, and his sun was his moon, and his beginning was his end, and his end was his beginning.

Maybe that makes more sense if you’ve had a few glasses of wine first.

Here’s the Paris Review article

Any other contenders for acclaimed but little read novels?

Article: Slaying the dragon of fiddling with your text

I have a lot of sympathy with the author Daniel Torday who describes himself as a “a tinkerer by temperament.” By that he means he finds it hard to resist the temptation to rework material he has already rewritten instead of making progress with new content.

I do that all the time.

It means it takes me forever to finish a piece of text; whether that’s an essay or a blog article or a piece of creative writing. I know the advice is to crash out a firs draft no matter how bad it is, and only then think about revision. I have tried that more than once. It does not work for me.

Daniel has however found a solution that works for him. He calls it bizarre. Read about his approach in this lithub article 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

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