Take a walk on the seedy side
Sophie Ratcliffe spots some arch literary jokes in William Boyd’s caper about a fin-de-siècle piano tuner
WLOVE IS BLIND
384pp, Viking, £18.99, ebook £11
illiam Boyd admits to being taken by surprise by his latest novel. His writing, he says, took on a “slightly different tone”. He has always been fond of the backward glance in his novels – from Ice Cream War, his 1982 satire on the East African campaign, to the sweep of 20th-century history in Any Human Heart (2002) and Sweet Caress (2015) – but Love Is Blind, with all its frock-coats, wing collars, and trips on “the evening packet to Antwerp”, is his most immersively historical to date.
Our hero, Brodie Moncur, is a piano-tuner cum piano salesman who travels from the Edinburgh showroom of Channon & Co to rescue their failing Parisian branch. A “formal, silent” and “self-righteous” young man, Brodie packs his bags, adjusts his “new Franklin spectacles”, and dreams up a plan to revive sales by persuading a fading virtuoso to become Channon’s new poster boy, to great effect. But Brodie’s public relations exercise proves more complicated than expected. Soon, he is drawn into the seedier side of fin-de-siècle Europe, capering from Paris to St Petersburg via various concert halls, health spas and brothels, with a spot of duelling at dawn.
Boyd gives us a rich sense of the past. We have lunch at Laurent, near the Champs Élysées, ride in cabs smelling of “old leather and horse shit”, and spend a great deal of time drinking cheap claret in lodging houses. The period detail can, at times, overwhelm. A trip to the “Paris environs… dominated by massive low reinforced stone bastions with gun-emplacements” and “mighty fortresses… destroyed in the war of 1870-1, but since rebuilt”, is more Baedeker entry than walk in the country.
At heart, though, this is a universal love story, which centres on Brodie’s illicit affair with Lika Blum, a Russian opera singer, who is entangled with at least one other man. Our hero, we sense, is often being played – and he’s not the only one. Given Boyd’s fondness for trickery (his “biography” of the fictional American artist Nat Tate took in half of the art world), the historical dimension of this novel is anything but straightforward.
Those genned up on the classics might find some things that seem familiar. Brodie’s brief encounter with a Russian doctor on a French promenade is surely a Zelig-like brush with Anton Chekhov,