Re­quiem for an aborted grand Euro­pean dream

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

We live in the golden age of dystopias. On and off the page, we have never been fur­nished with so many ways to imag­ine a squan­dered, piti­less fu­ture. Into this lit­er­ary cli­mate of pes­simism and in­choate ter­ror ar­rives — in­con­gru­ently — Wil­liam Boyd’s new novel, a love story.

Love is Blind is a tale of belle epoque op­ti­mism, a grand his­tor­i­cal saga of mu­sic and melo­drama, of dou­ble-crossers and arch neme­ses. There’s a cun­ningly con­cealed muff-pis­tol, a se­cret mar­riage and a hill­top duel. There’s also some­thing qui­etly rad­i­cal about this seem­ingly old-fash­ioned novel.

Af­ter es­cap­ing the clutches of his ‘‘schem­ing, ma­nip­u­la­tive, self-fab­u­lat­ing mon­ster” of a fa­ther, Scots­man Brodie Mon­cur, a gifted pi­ano tuner, sets off to Paris armed with per­fect pitch, schoolboy French and fizzing with fin de siecle an­tic­i­pa­tion: “Trep­i­da­tion was the wrong word, he de­cided. It was a sense of some­thing im­pend­ing, un­sure if it was good or bad. Im­pend­ing­ment would do as a nonce word.”

Love is Blind is sub­ti­tled The Rap­ture of Bro- die Mon­cur, but which kind of rap­ture awaits: rhap­sody or re­quiem? In Paris, Brodie falls for Lika Blum, ‘‘a tall Rus­sian medi­ocre opera singer’’, but the ob­ject of his all-con­sum­ing af­fec­tions is al­ready en­tan­gled with the volatile, dip­so­ma­ni­a­cal pi­anist whose frag­ile tal­ent keeps Brodie pro­fes­sion­ally afloat. Be­hind the scenes, the pi­anist’s brother lurks, men­ac­ing and watch­ful.

Brodie and Lika’s af­fair will be com­pli­cated; it will drag Brodie’s boy­ish heart across the map, from Ed­in­burgh to the An­daman and Ni­co­bar Is­lands via St Peters­burg and much of western Europe. But as a pass­ing ac­quain­tance re­as­sures our heart­sick pro­tag­o­nist: “I al­ways think a life with­out com­pli­ca­tions isn’t re­ally a life, you know. In life things go wrong, noth­ing stays the same and there’s noth­ing you can do about it. Friends be­tray you, fam­i­lies are a night­mare, lovers are fickle.” A con­ve­nient plot sum­mary ten­dered in the guise of ad­vice.

This sage ac­quain­tance is a con­sump­tive Rus­sian, a writer to boot, and there’s more than a hint or two — a lady with a lit­tle dog, a fore­shad­ow­ing gun — that Boyd’s lit­er­ary hero Anton Chekhov has made an art­ful cameo, a meta-fic­tional twist that will de­light sharp-eyed read­ers with a taste for Tol­stoy and Pushkin.

“You could say,” ar­gues an­other be­mused friend, af­ter Brodie is chal­lenged to a duel, “that

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