A new collection of stories by the internationally acclaimed author of Any Human Heart ("the finest storyteller of his generation" -Chicago Tribune).
In "Notebook No. 9," a film director's journal becomes an unintentional record of his obsessive love for his leading lady and the slow destruction of their relationship.
In "Beulah Berlin, an A--Z," a performance artist, longing for stability and order, reveals the details of her chaotic life through her comments on such varied subjects as angst, hay fever, photography, baby names, sonnets, and tobacco.
In "Fantasia on a Favorite Waltz," a prostitute finds an unexpected friend in a young man who plays piano in a brothel.
In "Adult Video," we see a man's life in film format-rewinding to his years as a struggling student at Oxford, fast-forwarding to his dreams of success as a writer, and watching the present unfold as he proposes to his future wife for all the wrong reasons.
Exploring the ways a life can be dominated by a need for love and the torments that arise when love is misplaced or denied, these stories confirm William Boyd's reputation as a master of the art.
Boyd (Any Human Heart, etc.) is difficult to pigeonhole. The 14 stories in this book include the supernaturally inflected ("A Haunting," "Visions Fugitives"), the Chekhovian bittersweet ("The Woman on the Beach with a Dog"), the PoMo urban spiel ("Beulah Berlin, an A-Z") and the comedy of dogged lechery. The last is represented by "Adult Video," which, in journal form, records the infidelity of one Edward, a cynical graduate student, and "Fascination," in which the same Edward, married to the girlfriend he cheated on, bungles a brief foray as a freelance journalist by making a pass at a young interviewee. "A Haunting" uses an old horror motif (a man is possessed by the spirit of another man) to illuminate the character of architect Alex Rief. While the story begins well, it concludes rather flatly with a pseudoscientific explanation. Dispossession is the more everyday horror that animates "The Ghost of a Bird," in which a Doctor Moran observes the brief recovery and sudden death of a young brain-damaged soldier, Gerald Gault. Gault, who published a short story shortly before being injured in 1944, has, in his brief recovery, confused his life with that story: "what became real to Gerald Gault was a consoling phantom, a dream, an urgent wish." Boyd's characters are, as a general rule, seeking--and mostly failing--to attain the intensity of some similar imaginative act.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 13, 2006
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Excerpt from Fascination by William Boyd
Springtime in Oxford is vulgar, anyway, but something about this particular spring in Oxford is having me on. Really, these cherry trees are absurd. One wonders if just quite so many flowers are necessary. It is almost as if the cherry trees on the Woodstock Road are trying to prove something--some sort of floral brag, swanking to the other, less advanced vegetation. Very Oxford in a way. Could I work this observation into the novel? "Only in Oxford do the cherry trees try too hard." Good opening for the Oxford sequence?
My meeting with my new supervisor was not a success. Dr. Alexander Cardman. "Call me Alex," he invited almost immediately. He referred to me as Edward without permission.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Thirty-one. How old are you?"
"Thirty-three. And you've been writing this thesis for...?"
"For, oh, six years. Seven. Seven and a bit. I left Oxford for three to teach. Then came back."
"Teach? Where was that?"
"Abbey Meade. It's a prep school in Wiltshire."
"Ah." I could hear the sneer forming in his brain. "And you came back--"
"To finish my thesis."
"I see..." I was disliking him quite intensely by now. He looked as if he had gel in his hair. The small, trimmed goatee was rebarbative, and the faint west country burr in his voice struck me as an affectation.
Summertown. The Banbury Road. I push through the front gate of "See Breezes" [sic] to meet my new student, Gianluca di Something-or-other. He is blind, so the language school has told me, and he needs to be walked to my flat. Not every day, I hope.
A cheery plump woman opens the door and leads me through to a living room, where Gianluca sits. He is a tall boy--eighteen or nineteen, I would say--with thick blond hair and a weak-chinned, sad face. His eyes are open, and as I introduce myself and shake his hand they seem to stare directly at me, disconcertingly, with only a faint glaucous, bloodshot hue to them.
We walk back to my flat on the Woodstock Road. His right hand rests gently in the crook of my left elbow, his left carries a briefcase and a folded white cane. We don't speak, as he had said, in good English, that he needed to concentrate and count.
We stroll through Summertown's shops and halt the traffic at the beeping pedestrian crossing. Along Moreton Road to Woodstock Road and then a hundred yards or so to the house.
"Ring this doorbell," I say guiding his hand to the gleaming brass knob, "and I'll come down to get you."
In the hall Gianluca stops and sniffs the air.
"What is this place?" he says.
"A dentist's," I say, as breezily as I can muster. "I live on the top floor."
Felicia has gone to Malaysia for a week to try to sell Internet stocks in the Pacific Rim market, or something. Perhaps it's bonds, or fluctuations in other stock markets, that she's selling; or she might even be selling other people's hunches about fluctuations in stock markets in the next decade. I don't even try to understand. She has given me the key to her house so I can feed her tropical fish while she's away. When she left at dawn she kissed me good-bye, told me she loved me, and said, ominously, apropos of nothing, that she thought I would make a wonderful father. I suppose it's as close as she'll ever get to issuing an ultimatum.
"There is," I read, "as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds--"
"Please," says Gianluca, "there is a preface by Conrad, no?"
"Could you please begin with that." He taps something into his little portable Braille typewriter, and I go back to the beginning. You would think that to be paid fifteen pounds an hour to read Joseph Conrad's Victory to a blind Italian boy is, well, money for old rope, but I find my heart is curiously heavy with prospective fatigue.
In our first two-hour session we manage five pages. Gianluca listens with almost painful concentration and asks many, many questions, the answers to which he doggedly types into his Braille notebook. I walk him down to the front door, where he unfolds his white cane and sets off back to "See Breezes" with an amazingly unfaltering step. As I turn back into the hall, Krissi, the actually not unattractive, New Zealander dental nurse, leans out the door of the surgery and says, "Mr. Prentice would like a word at end of business today."
As I plod back upstairs to my little flat beneath the eaves, I think that "end of business" is a classic Prentissian trope and that I must add it to my collection.
I think, perhaps, that I was at my happiest in Nice. Nineteen years old. At the Centre Universitaire Mediterranean. No family. No friends. No money. Just freedom. My frowsty room in Madame D'Amico's apartment. The young whores in the Rue de France. The French girls. The Tunisian boys. Ulrike and Anneliese. All those years ago. Jesus Christ.
Dr. "Alex" Cardman handed me back my chapter "Social Consequences of the 1842 Mines Act in South Yorkshire, 1843-50."
"What do you think?" I asked. This guy did not frighten me, I had decided.
"There were fifteen errors of transcription in your first quoted passage," he said. "I didn't read on."
"It's only a draft, for Christ's sake."
"Even a second-rate examiner will refer you for that kind of carelessness," he said, reasonably. "You don't want to get into bad habits. Bring it back when you've checked everything." He smiled. "What made you so interested in mid-nineteenth-century mining legislation? Pretty arcane subject--even for an Oxford doctorate."
Its very arcanity, you fool, I wanted to reply, but instead I chose a lie, hoping it might cancel the Abbey Meade blunder. "My father was a miner," I said.
"Good God, so was mine," he said. "Tin. Cornwall."
interviewer: You don't seem embittered, even bothered, by the attack in the Times by Sir Alexander Cardman.
me: It's a matter of complete indifference. Wasn't it Nabokov who said the best response to hostile criticism is to yawn and forget? I yawned. I forgot.
interviewer: It seems unduly personal, especially when your book has been so widely acclaimed--
me: I think people on the outside never fully realize the role envy plays in literary and cultural debate in this country.
Prentice is wearing his tracksuit and trainers: he likes to go jogging at the end of a day's dentistry. I offer him a glass of wine, which he, surprisingly, accepts.
"South African chardonnay," I tell him. "Your neck of the woods." Prentice actually comes from Zimbabwe. He has had his gingery-blond hair closely cut, I notice, which makes him look burlier, even fitter, if that were possible. He is always very specific about not being identified as South African, is Mr. Prentist, the dentist.