Requiem for an aborted grand European dream
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