originally published in the UK, Bloomsbury, 2012
"Everything is unbelievably complicated. Everything."
Lysander Rief arrives in Vienna in 1913 to receive psychological help for a sexual problem. His closest friend in England had convinced him to try psychoanalysis; taking his advice, Lysander took out all of his savings and moved to Austria. At his first session with Dr. Bensimon, he is advised to keep a journal, which Lysander calls his "Autobiographical Investigations," which Bensimon says will hopefully yield a direct insight into Lysander's unconscious mind during the course of his treatment. Lysander's first entry details the event at age 14 that led simultaneously to his burden of guilt and his sexual issue. Bensimon believes the answer is to be found in his theory of "parallelism," scoffed at by Freud, which is "basically about using your imagination." The idea is this:
"If the everyday world, everyday reality, is a fiction we create then the same can be said of our past -- the past is an aggregate of fictive realities we have already experienced -- our memories."Bensimon's job, as he sees it, is to try to change "those old fictions" Lysander's been living with. The doctor's brief use of hypnotic therapy plants an altogether-different version of that traumatic day in a "parallel world" within Lysander's subconscious that Lysander can develop in place of the real one. This technique aligns with Lysander's profession as an actor, where he is both himself and not himself, where he is always performing, and where it's "just an act, after all..., his métier, his talent, his calling." But as Lysander is about to discover, he's not the only one who is an actor. And so begins this tale of deceptions, of shifting identities in a world of duplicity and performance in some fashion or another. It's a book where efforts to discern what is real and not real and who to trust follow on the heels of the fictions created by Boyd's characters, and really, what better venue can there be for such ideas than a spy story?
The story moves from Lysander's psychological treatment to his infatuation with another one of Bensimon's patients, Hettie. She is a sculptor, living a rather bohemian life with her artist-significant other Udo. Hettie and Lysander enjoy a torrid affair, but out of nowhere, Hettie accuses him of rape; he is placed under arrest and "escapes" with help from fellow countrymen at the British Embassy, leaving him in a lot of debt. Leaving Vienna and returning to England, he joins the army as World War I erupts, but his days in Vienna come back to haunt him when he is called upon to perform some secret-agent type work that will take him across enemy lines into Switzerland. Once home in England again, he must penetrate the closed-ranks bureaucracy within the military war machine to root out who is leaking secrets to the enemy, but some bizarre and unforeseen complications arise along the way. Lysander notes in his journal at one point that his " life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with,” -- he feels like a "passenger on a train" with no idea of where he's going and the route he's taking. He makes several references to waiting for sunrise, when "he might know what to do next," or when he has hopes that its arrival will bring understanding and clarity or "at least clearer vision," but the actor who once loved the limelight learns that it may be safer to remain in the world of shadows.
Obviously there's much more to talking about this book than space will allow. I liked this novel immensely. This book has so many positives, including Boyd's awesome portrayal of a world in flux, a world that was "spinning, faster than ever ...," with time "on the move in this modern world" where the old was "going fast, disappearing and something different, something new, was inevitably taking its place." In 1913 Vienna Boyd's sense of place and time captures the atmosphere of this city on the cusp of an uneasy modernity, and reflect the same in wartime England and on the battlefields of France. There's a fair amount of wry humor that runs throughout, and the character of Lysander's gay uncle and his African lover brought out the occasional chuckle. On the down side, readers might be put off by the sometimes-meandering action or the pointless sidelines, for example, with Lysander's off-again, on-again relationship with his girlfriend Blanche. And if you're looking for a straight-up, full-on novel of high espionage, this really isn't it -- this is much more of a character-driven story than a tale of adventure.
So maybe this isn't the best book William Boyd's ever written, but it's still damn good, and it will capture your imagination for a few hours as you're transported back in time. I don't think you can ask for much more than that.