A por­trait of a pho­tog­ra­pher’s tu­mul­tuous ca­reer

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JON MICHAUD book­world@wash­post.com Jon Michaud is a nov­el­ist and the head li­brar­ian at the Cen­ter for Fic­tion.

If you pick up Wil­liam Boyd’s lat­est novel, “Sweet Ca­ress,” from the new fic­tion shelf and be­gin flip­ping though its pages, you might, at first, think the book has been shelved in the wrong place. Spread through­out the text are pho­to­graphs of by­gone times, as you would find in a hefty, ghost-writ­ten bi­og­ra­phy of a politi­cian or movie star. There are fam­ily snap shots (aman, next to his young daugh­ters, do­ing a hand stand); can­did pics of gar­den par­ties and other so­cial gath­er­ings; and pro­fes­sion­ally com­posed por­traits of the ap­par­ently rich and fa­mous. As a call­ing card for po­ten­tial read­ers, the pho­to­graphs are both nos­tal­gic and al­lur­ing, promis­ing an event­ful story tinged wit hg lam our.

“Sweet Ca­ress” is, in­deed, filled with in­ci­dent, but it is no bi­og­ra­phy. Rather, it is a novel mas­querad­ing as a mem­oir. The book’s nar­ra­tor and hero­ine, Amory Clay, is a pho­tog­ra­pher whose ca­reer spans the heart of the tu­mul­tuous 20th cen­tury, from the Roar­ing Twen­ties to the late ’70s. Born in England in 1908, her life is set on its course, when her Un­cle Gr evil le, a so­ci­ety pho­tog­ra­pher, gives Amory her first cam­era, a Ko­dak Brownie No. 2. While she is at board­ing school, Amory’s fa­ther, a writer and vet­eran of World War I, suf­fer­ing from what was then known as “shell­shock,” at­tempts to kill him­self and her by driv­ing into a lake. The quick-think­ing Amory saves them both from drown­ing. This is the first in­stance of a re­cur­ring nar­ra­tive pat­tern: The men she loves re­peat­edly put Amory — whose name con­jures both amor and ar­mor — in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions from which she is for­ever ex­tri­cat­ing her­self. The hero­ine spends 450 pages jump­ing from fire to fry­ing pan and back again. While her fa­ther is sent to an asy­lum for “somni-ther­apy” (ex­tended, in­duced sleep), Amory takes her first steps to­ward her vo­ca­tion by ap­pren­tic­ing with her un­cle. Af­ter caus­ing a mi­nor scan­dal with an in­ap­pro­pri­ate pho­to­graph of a no­ble­man’s wif e ,she moves to Ber­lin where she takes pic­tures of the city’s no­to­ri­ous night life, caus­ing a ma­jor scan­dal, which ul­ti­mately lands her in court in England. The Berl in pic­tures draw the at­ten­tion of an Amer­i­can mag­a­zine editor named Cleve­land Finzi. (No­body in this book has a pedes­trian name. Un­cle Gre­ville’s work­ing-class as­sis­tant is called Lock­wood Mower, which John Deere should have trade­marked lon­gago; later, Amory’s sec­re­tary, on loan from “The Pil­grim’s Progress,” goes by the moniker Faith Post­ings.) The mar­ried Finzi in­vites Amory to work for him in New York and within a mat­ter of weeks they arel overs.

Un­der Finzi’s aus­pices, Amory cov­ers the rise of fas­cism in Europe, does a stint as a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher and then goes off to shoot the lat­ter stages of World War II. A lit­tle later she winds up in Viet­nam. Th­ese ren­der­ings of her peri­patetic ad­ven­tures are pe­ri­od­i­cally in­ter­rupted by di­ary­like ac­counts of her rather mun­dane re­tired life on a Scot­tish is­land. There she com­poses her mem­oir, has lunch with friends and tries to avoid the at­ten­tions of the las­civ­i­ous lo­cal ho­tel owner.

Over the course of many nov­els, Boyd has shown him­self to be adept at both com­edy and ac­tion, but for all its sur­face drama and in­trigue, “Sweet Ca­ress” re­mains a res­o­lutely bland book, and Amory Clay’s life story never amounts to more than a string of di­vert­ing anec­dotes, like a se­ries of sto­ries pol­ished over count­less retellings at par­ties. Boyd’s de­ci­sion to go for panoramic sweep rather than de­tailed close-up of­ten re­sults in an un­sat­is­fy­ing cur­sori­ness. Any sin­gle chap­ter of this long novel — Lon­don high-life in the ’20s; Ber­lin in the ’30s; the de­feat of the Nazis in the ’40s — could eas­ily have been ex­panded into a rich, en­gag­ing novel, but to­gether they all seem un­der­nour­ished.

Partly be­cause of Boyd’s wide-an­gle ap­proach, Amory’s in­te­rior life re­mains lit­tle ex­am­ined. The author also does his hero­ine no fa­vors by re­peat­edly em­ploy­ing empty lan­guage to con­vey her emo­tions. Here is Amory de­scrib­ing a happy time in her ro­mance with a French nov­el­ist named Jean-Bap­tiste Char­bon­neau: “The key fac­tor in our mu­tual plea­sure was that we en­joyed each other’s com­pany, which, ba­nal though it may seem, is the fun­da­men­tal ex­pla­na­tion of any suc­cess­ful and en­dur­ing union. Charnon­neau was an in­ter­est­ing, amus­ing and provoca­tive man and I like to think he brought out the best in me.” This sort of pab­u­lum is the norm, alas, not the ex­cep­tion. “How can you de­scribe th­ese phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, th­ese in­stinc­tive body-wide man­i­fes­ta­tions of your men­tal state, with­out sound­ing like some sen­ti­men­tal fool?” Amory won­ders. That, of course, is what a good nov­el­ist is sup­posed to do and what Boyd ab­jectly fails to pull off in this book.

A run­ning gag be­tween Amory and her un­cle is that ev­ery­one can be summed up in four ad­jec­tives. Ap­ply­ing that no­tion to “Sweet Ca­ress,” I’d say, breezy, over­long, su­per­fi­cial and dis­ap­point­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.