11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Ever since I stumbled across Boyd's novel The Blue Afternoon, he has been among my favorite writers. The mark of this is that I haven't actually read all of his books, but tend to "save" them as yearly treats for myself. I was delighted to see that this collection of his nonfiction work was finally available in the U.S., some two years after its British publication. However, I'm doubtful that it will find much of an audience, as American readers are unlikely to rush out to buy a 500+ page collection of essays and reviews mostly written for a British audience. That's a shame, because the book not only confirms Boyd's mastery of prose, but reveals him to be a thoughtful essayist of the highest order and an incredibly insightful critic. It should be noted that this book is not comprehensive, by Boyd's own estimation it only collects roughly 30% of his nonfiction output from the last 25 years. This is divided into six areas, of which, different readers will have their own favorites: 85 pages on his own life, 130 on literature, about 90 on art (primarily modern painters), 35 on Africa, 70 on film and television, and another 85 on "people and places."
I generally don't care for memoir or biography, but the essays on his childhood in Africa and subsequent years at Scottish boarding were completely compelling. Also notable in the opening section are pieces on World War I and an 11-year legal battle to get the royalties due him from an underhanded French publisher. I dipped in and out of the literature section and quite enjoyed pretty much every piece I read. Especially notable are: a piece on Raymond Carver in which he discusses the problem of a writer becoming wedded to a style, his introduction to a new edition of Frederic Manning's Her Privates We, his introduction to a new edition of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he does not hesitate to point out the novel's flaws and failures, an essay on journal-keeping, a taxonomy of short stories, a scathing review of the posthumous Hemmingway "novel" True At First Light, and a piece about the general deficiency of war in fiction.
I barely touched the art section, since the majority of it concerned modern painters (Boyd is an amateur painter himself), of which I knew nothing, and without supporting material such as color reproductions, would have little to connect with. However, there is a short gem in there about his creation of a fictional painter named Nat Tate at the request of the editor of Modern Painters. Also quite good is an essay titled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Photograph," which is his introduction to a book called Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers. Africa is the next section, and I wish it had been bigger -- although to be fair, Africa figures a good deal in the first section of the book. About half the section is devoted to Boyd's friend, the Nigerian writer, publisher, and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian military after a sham show trial in 1995. After reading this section, I immediately added his novel Sozaboy to my wishlist.
A great deal of the pieces in the "Film and Television" concern Boyd's own experiences as a screenwriter. Again, most of his work, while critically well-received, has never done much business in America. Some of it, I wasn't even aware of, and am grateful to be able to add The Trench and Sword of Honor to my Netflix queue (now if only someone would release Armadillo on DVD...). His best writing in this section concerns the process of filmaking, and he is especially cogent on the process of adaptation. The final section is a mish-mash of topics, ranging from particularly Londoncentric ones (minicabs, caffs, Newham), to profiles (Ian Fleming, Charlie Chaplin, The Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, the Duke & Duchess of Windsor), to places such as Montevideo. Most intriguing of all is an essay about the long-forgotten Galapagos Affair, which immediately had me seeking out further reading on the topic.
Overall, this is a fantastic collection with enough variety to meet all moods and for every reader to find something they can connect with. While it is helpful to be familiar with Boyd's fiction, since many of the essays touch upon aspects of its creation, it is not essential (although you're missing a treat if you haven't tried him). The only quibble I would have is that while each piece has the original publication date appended, I would have liked to know what publication each appeared in. It would have also been nice to have a complete bibliography of all his nonfiction as an appendix, so that those who wish to do so, could track down the 70% not represented here.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
David M. Giltinan
- Published on Amazon.com
When this arrived from Amazon, it managed to displace everything else in my reading queue. It felt like Christmas in March: 500 pages of essays and reviews by William Boyd, one of my favorite authors, ever since I stumbled across "An Ice-Cream War", way back when.
As the book contains close to 100 different essays, listing them by name isn't really practical. But to give an idea, sorted into categories, the frequencies are roughly as follows (counts are approximate):
LIFE (autobiographical pieces, mainly about his African childhood, schooldays in Scotland, and time at Oxford; 10 essays)
LITERATURE (book reviews, for the most part, with essays on the short story, keeping a diary, war in fiction, and an introduction to Dickens and Evelyn Waugh; 30 essays)
ART (15 essays on artists as diverse as George Grosz, Pierre Bonnard, Edward Hopper, and Graham Sutherland)
AFRICA (7 pieces, including 3 on Nigerian writer Ken saro-Wiwa, a personal friend of Boyd)
FILM AND TELEVISION (16 pieces, covering Boyd's experience in adapting works for television and film, and as a screenwriter)
PEOPLE AND PLACES (17 pieces, including essays on Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Ian Fleming, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, among other subjects)
Boyd is, I think, a more charitable critic than, say, Anthony Lane or Martin Amis, so there are fewer verbal pyrotechnics. But the book has considerable appeal - he writes fluidly, and with considerable insight on a huge variety of subjects. There are so many wonderful pieces in the collection that it's impossible to do it justice in a review, so I'll just mention three which I enjoyed particularly:
1. Boyd's essay on the short story, in which he provides a useful taxonomy of the form: the event-plot story (everything before Chekhov), the Chekhovian, the "modernist", the cryptic/ludic, the mini-novel, the biographical, and the poetic/mythic.
2. The essay "War in Fiction" in which he pinpoints the central flaw in almost all fictionalized treatment of war with remarkable astuteness:
"Any one man's experience of war or battle .... has to be an exclusively subjective, quirky and highly personal affair...... And yet one's reading of any account suggests that the experience is instead fundamentally a common one; a moderately varied but essentially repetitive parade of stock attitudes and conclusions. Furthermore, the basic judgement of nearly all war novels runs along these sort of lines: 'war is hell/shocking/depraved/inhuman but it provides intense and compensatory moments of comradeship/joy/vivacity/emotion or excitement.'
What appears most damaging is not so much the fatuity of the idea but that this formula represents an orthodoxy in the fictional treatment of war that - with few exceptions - is only paralleled in the pulpier forms of modern romance writing."
3. His thoughts on being translated. An excerpt:
"My Norwegian translator, for example, actually concluded one of his letters to me thus: 'Hey listen, man, if you're ever in Oslo and short of bread you can crash in my pad anytime'. aFter I stopped laughing I started frowning. ... I conjured up images of a superannuated hippie sitting cross-legged on a mattress in an Oslo squat blithely grabbing at the wrong end of every textual stick in my novel."
His bemusement that his three novels "A Good Man in Africa", "An Ice-Cream War", and "Stars and Bars" had titles translated respectively as "Gewoon een Beste Kerel", "Gewoon een Oorlogie", and "Sterren, Strepen en een Gewoon Englesman": 'What was this "Gewoon" business, for heaven's sake?'
Boyd is incredibly erudite, but never condescending, is a shrewd but generous critic, and has led a varied and interesting life. All of which combine to make this a terrific collection.
I highly recommend "Bamboo".