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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THE CRITICAL LIST -

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,

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