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Waiting for Sunrise: A Novel by William Boyd
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Waiting for Sunrise: A Novel (original 2012; edition 2012)

by William Boyd

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5823816,969 (3.56)44
Member:E.
Title:Waiting for Sunrise: A Novel
Authors:William Boyd
Info:Harper (2012), Hardcover, 368 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Rating:*****
Tags:Vienna/London before and during WWI, spies

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Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (2012)

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English (37)  French (1)  All languages (38)
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Luck is a recurring theme in Boyd’s work (if what I’ve read of his to date is any indication – viz., Any Human Heart; Nat Tate – An American Artist; Fascination; Ordinary Thunderstorms; and now, Waiting for Sunrise. As unadorned as that sentiment may be, I’m more and more inclined to agree with it. Good genes and a generous trust fund certainly help. But at the end of the day, luck seems to be what it’s all about.


Boyd, however, supplies a downside corollary to this suggestion on p. 285: “(b)ut all history is the history of unintended consequences, he said to himself – there’s nothing you can do about it.”


Even if Waiting for Sunrise is not quite the magnum opus Any Human Heart is, I find that what I most like about William Boyd is that I feel, at each and every instant, that I’m reading an adult writer – and not some over-aged kid failing miserably to sound like an adult either because the writing is so sophomoric, not to say moronic, or because the subject-matter is just plain silly.


Boyd can wax lyrical with the best of ‘em – don’t get me wrong – but there’s nothing artsy-fartsy in his prose. It’s simply mature, ripe, and polished to perfection. And while a given situation in his narrative might be downright dangerous, there’s also nothing overtly macho about his writing (pace Hemingway). At the same time, and although Lysander Rief (the protagonist of this novel) has an unusually close relationship with his mother, there’s nothing even remotely or uncomfortably oedipal about it (pace D. H. Lawrence).


A few examples of Boyd’s authorial skills? Take, already on p. 22, this description of a Viennese widow – and please also take my word, as someone who once spent a couple of years in that fair city, that he obviously knows what he’s talking about: “Frau K., as her three lodgers referred to her, was a woman of rigid piety and decorum. Widowed in her forties, she wore traditional Austrian clothes – moss-green dirndl dresses, in the main, with embroidered blouses and aprons, and broad buckled pumps – and projected a demeanour of excruciating politesse that was really only endurable for the length of a meal, Lysander had quickly realized. Her world admitted and contained only people, events and opinions that were either ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’ (net or angenehm). These were her favourite adjectives, deployed at every opportunity. The cheese was nice; the weather pleasant. The Crown Prince’s young wife seemed a nice person; the new post office had a pleasant aspect. And so on.”


On p. 48, we have a marvelous little exchange between Lysander and Dr. Bensimon, his therapist.

“‘Love at second sight, my father used to say.

‘Why second sight?’
‘Because he said that at first sight his thoughts were hardly “amorous.” If you see what I mean.’”


If Boyd invented this – and I suspect he did – I have to say (as Brits would) that it’s nothing short of BRILL!


Perhaps not since I last read P. G. Wodehouse have I read another writer – albeit in tidbit rather than compendium form – whose humor is quite so punctiliously apt. For evidence, I give you the following on p. 299: “(a)s I write this, a man sitting opposite me is reading a novel and, from time to time, picking his nose, examining what he has mined from his nasal cavities and popping the sweetmeat into his mouth. Amazing the secrets we reveal about ourselves when we think we’re not being observed. Amazing the secrets we can reveal when we know we are.”


I dare you, ever again, to pop a bonbon or other candied fruit into your mouth and not flash back to this paragraph! At the same time, kindly note how Boyd has singlehandedly resuscitated the word “amazing” from the mealy mouths of American Millennials. Would that he could as much with the word “awesome” (although he does a quite credible job with its lexical cousin, “awestruck,” on p. 309).


Can Boyd paint a picture? I’ll let you be the judge. “He remembered how, on very cold days in winter, when you lit a bonfire the smoke sometimes refused to rise. The slightest breeze would move it flatly across the land, a low enlarging horizontal plume of smoke that hugged the ground and never dispersed into the air as it did with a normal fire on a warmer day. He saw all the monstrous, gargantuan effort of the war as a winter bonfire – yes, but in reverse. As if the drifting, ground-hugging pall of smoke were converging – arrowing in – on one point, to feed the small, angry conflagration of the fire. All those miles of broad, dense, drifting smoke narrowing, focussing on the little crackling flickering flames burning vivid orange amongst the fallen leaves and the dead branches” (p. 256).


As always with a good work of fiction, one can also learn a bit of fact. In the case of Waiting for Sunrise, it’s the question of who first used gas in that most ghastly of all wars, WWI. Until now, I’d always been under the mistaken impression that it was the Germans. On p. 266, Boyd suggests otherwise: “…(o)ur cloud of poison gas…”. A quick investigation outside of this work suggests that the French were in fact the first to violate the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases – as well as the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. (Ironic – is it not? – that the Allied Powers should’ve been the first to violate a fundamental human rights declaration/convention, even if it’s somewhat less ironic that the Germans should’ve ultimately done it more thoroughly and more efficiently. Of course, the ultimate irony (history is such a bitch!) is that the Russians should’ve suffered the majority of casualties and fatalities resulting from the introduction of this nifty little war “accessory.”)


While a leap from a discussion of poison gas to one of free verse might seem, to the casual reader, either to reek of non sequitur (at best) or to flout decency (at worst), I’ll risk it – as Boyd has done – by quoting him on p. 267: “(f)ree verse is both seductive and dangerous, I can see – it can be a licence to be pretentious and obscure.” I, personally, couldn’t agree more – and Boyd’s few demonstrations of his skilled use of metrical verse in this novel are testament not only to his belief, but also to his talent as a formalist.


And yet, mirabile dictum – even William Boyd can be guilty of an occasional Oops!,! however modest that Oops! might be. On p. 200, we find “…until he remembered that was exactly whom (sic!) he wasn’t meant to be.” One could possibly debate the who/whom question here for a good hour over tea and crumpets. But we’re talking about the object of the infinitive form of an intransitive verb, make no mistake about it.

This same confusion of case occurs on p. 353 in the very last sentence of the book with “…and who is whom…”. Why would a nominative (“who”) require an objective (“whom”) as compliment after a simple verb like “to be” (third-person singular, present tense)? Beats me!


Then, there’s that old problem of “in” versus “into,” which any copy editor worth his or her salt at either Bloomsbury or HarperCollins should be able and willing to correct. On p. 204, we find “(h)e folded them [the letters] up and slipped them in (sic!) his pocket...”. And again on p. 209, “Lysander slipped the box in (sic!) his jacket pocket…”. And yet again on p. 338, “…and tucked them in (sic!) his coat.” Tut, tut, Monsieur Boyd!


And what of this “then” on p. 345 in “…I felt that the more I seemed to know, then the more clarity and certainty dimmed and faded away.” Is it not superfluous – as the following identical construction in the same paragraph makes clear? – viz., “(t)he more we know(,) the less we know.”


And lastly, has God lost his upper-case status in Anglican Great Britain – (and no, not the Greek or Roman gods – who never had it – but the one true God of Moses and Abraham)? Chez the Venerable Boyd, at least, He apparently has.


I must confess that a Whodunit has never really been my literary cup of tea. And while I would never suggest that William Boyd’s novel is simply that, elements of both the “spy versus spy” and the cops ‘n’ robbers genres are a prevalent part of this story. I, personally, would be at a loss to categorize this novel, which is perhaps why I’ve never managed to find gainful employment in a bookstore. Maybe it’s time to invent a new category and call it “Boydeurism” – a marvelous and mysterious form of voyeurism for “a man happier with the dubious comfort of the shadows” (p. 353).


As Lysander Rief/William Boyd ruminates on p. 345, “…for all the privileged insight and precious knowledge (that) I gleaned, I felt that the more I seemed to know, (then) the more clarity and certainty dimmed and faded away. As we advance into the future(,) the paradox will become clearer – clear and black, blackly clear. The more we know(,) the less we know. Funnily enough, I can live with that idea quite happily. If this is our modern world(,) I feel a very modern man.”


RRB
10/21/14
Brooklyn, NY


( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
It didn't draw me in right away but eventually I got very taken in by it, There was much of the LeCarre theme of what happens to someone who starts to live life with constant secrets but also how much Reif's life ends up beyond his control. This was for bookclub so I will be curious to see what others think,
  amyem58 | Oct 13, 2014 |
This story gets off to a slow start and is hampered by an over use of language. The pace eventually picks up (or you get used to its plodding) and an inventive plot develops. The cast of characters in entertaining, the red herrings full of fun. All in all this was an enjoyable story. ( )
  nvellis01 | Aug 11, 2014 |
This story gets off to a slow start and is hampered by an over use of language. The pace eventually picks up (or you get used to its plodding) and an inventive plot develops. The cast of characters in entertaining, the red herrings full of fun. All in all this was an enjoyable story. ( )
  nvellis01 | Aug 11, 2014 |
Gripping espionage thriller. Boyd weaves a complex & engrossing narrative - great summer read. ( )
  sianpr | Aug 10, 2014 |
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A thing is true by first light and alive by noon. (Ernest Hemingway)
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It is a clear and dazzling summer's day in Vienna.
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Maybe this is what life is like -- we try to see clearly but what we see is never clear and is never going to be.  The more we strive the murkier it becomes.  All we are left with are approximations, nuances, multitudes of plausible explanations. Take your pick. (p. 345)
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Vienna, 1913. Lysander Rief, a young English actor in town seeking psychotherapy, is caught up in a feverish affair with a beautiful, enigmatic woman—until she goes to the police to press charges of rape. Only a frenzied getaway plotted by two mysterious British diplomats saves him from trial. But after Lysander returns to a London on the cusp of war, the traumatic ordeal haunts him at every turn. The men who coordinated his escape recruit him to carry out a brutal murder. His lover shows up at a party, ready to resume their liaison. Suddenly plunged into the dangerous theater of wartime intelligence—a murky world of sex, scandal, and spies—Lysander must unravel a secret that threatens Britain's safety.
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Wrongly accused of rape, Lysander Rief, a young English actor, finds his life taking a dangerous turn when the men who help him escape a conviction recruit him for a lethal mission that leads him to a traitor who is linked to his family.

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