A prose poem, a lyrical appreciation of the shape-dissolving powers of darkness and London fog, begins the final chapter of William Boyd’s new novel, Waiting for Sunrise. If the title suggests that there is hope in the dawn to follow the book’s end, the conclusion assures us that such hope is false. Lysander Rief, the protagonist, is a creature of shadows, of confusing shapes, of dissolving characters; he leaves us and himself, it seems, without illumination.
Waiting for Sunrise is a thriller, a mystery, a war time spy drama, and an investigation of personality. William Boyd is a novelist whom I admire, almost unreservedly, but this work, despite its fluency and suspense, leaves a sense of incompletion – as if the writer abandoned a far deeper exploration of character and identity in the complexities of plot. The lyricism of the final chapter suggests thematic irresolution – the conclusion does not equal the sum of the novel’s parts.
The story takes us first to Vienna in 1913. Lysander, a professional actor and son of an even greater theatrical figure, seeks help from an English follower of Freud. The treatment dubbed “parallelism” offers a patient a way to rewrite his psychic history through the agency of the therapist and mild hypnosis. The raw data of experience can be recast through the imagination to displace the chain of events that underlie the neurosis. “Nothing is but thinking makes it so,” we might add with Hamlet.
Apparently cured of his sexual dysfunction (an enigmatic sculptor Hettie provides the proof), Lysander is caught suddenly in a criminal case involving rape (of Hettie) and with the help of British consular officials makes his escape from prison and returns to Britain. This begins Lysander’s induction into military life and Army intelligence: he is forced to pay his debt to his rescuers by service to his country at war. Actor, spy, investigator, suspect – Lysander leads a life that demands he interpret the data of his experience along parallel lines. There are multiple ways to project a person’s character and motives, especially when the focus is treason and a life of deception.
Boyd is so experienced and confident a novelist that he can use effectively the familiar ploy of the journal (“Autobiographical Investigations”) -Lysander’s diary written for his psychiatrist. The narration shifts between the first person in the journal and the third person. We have intimacy and distance: parallel versions from different perspectives of the same experience – a trope that becomes a predominant theme throughout the novel. Imaginative reworking of memory (rather like the act of writing novels) allows us to thrive psychologically. Plain fact in the lens of the imagination is the focus of consciousness, and that imaginative focus creates what we perceive or distrust as real. Lysander’s investigations allow him to pose variant readings of his colleagues (Who is the traitor?) and his family. All of this is set against his working-life interest in impersonation as a professional actor.
The convolutions of plot (some of the strands are never quite tucked into the narrative weave), the suspense of revelation, the mechanisms of resolution, are never wholly clear. We are kept at some remove from understanding Lysander’s analyses and conclusions. Even the means of his rescue comes apparently as unsuspected to him as it does to us.
In the conclusion Boyd seems to have both his confection and the satisfaction of eating it: in the third person voice he exiles Lysander (the name of the great Greek general and strategist) to a life of shadows devoid of human warmth, the very problem he had sought help to overcome at the novel’s inception.
The novel, as engrossing as it is, leaves me wondering if the dark conclusion is a theme inadequately developed: that at the end, Lysander’s account of his life is more displacement than a confrontation of the self. Parallelism becomes escape from the true responsibilities of action. Neurosis is the suspicion and pretense that the life of an actor, professional or spy, entails. Boyd is a master at providing “a calculated trap for meditation” and can use so common a vehicle as the spy thriller to provide the snare.