Book Review: William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise

A talk with William Boyd about his new spy thriller, set in pre-World War I Vienna

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | April 2012

William Boyd was in Vienna on 20 Mar., reading from his new novel Waiting for Sunrise at the Wien Museum (Illustration: Katharina Klein)

On Duplicity and Betrayal

Vienna, Summer 1913: In the psychoanalyst’s tiny waiting room of uncomfortable leather chairs, young British actor Lysander Rief meets an impulsive, reckless, drug-addicted and utterly irresistible sculptress called Hettie and a mysterious diplomat with military bearing called Alwyn Munro. These two brief encounters that open William Boyd’s new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, will plunge the young man into a dangerous world of sexual obsession and military intrigue. One problem is cured and several others are unleashed, as the insecure fop we meet in the opening pages develops into a 20th-century Don Juan, escape artist and master of disguise, and a World War I spy, as he searches for clarity in a world of lies, half-truths.

This 11th novel by the Ghanaian-born British writer is a study of light and darkness. It begins with that sun-drenched opening in Vienna and ends on a gloomy, dark, rain-battered day in London in 1915. The title refers to Lysander’s fruitless quest for illumination in a world that offers up only more questions.

"The theory is that we became modern during the trauma of the First World War," Boyd told me when I met him in the plush surroundings of the Hotel Sacher. "But all the ingredients of our modern personalities and our modern sensibilities were there in Vienna in 1913."

Modernity comes as a jolt with the apocalyptical terror of newly mechanized war, which Lysander witnesses in detail at a foray in the trenches on the Western Front, and in all its horrifying logistical banality at the War Offices, where armies are like cities. But the jolt is also  felt in people’s consciousness, as a world of comfortable certainties is replaced by one of murky shadows.

"Time was on the move in this modern world, fast as a thoroughbred racehorse, galloping onwards," the third-person narrator notes late in the book, "… and everything was changing as a result, not just in the world around [Lysander] but in human consciousness also."

So there are interesting themes to explore, but also a rip-roaring yarn. A winner of multiple literary awards and a nominee for the prestigious Booker Prize, Boyd, who turned 60 in March, has no problems with framing his ideas in a page-turner.

"I have always done it," he said, reminding me that Dickens’ last publication was a detective novel. "I have always chosen a genre to provide an engine, a dynamo to drive the narrative on. I write strong, complicated narratives and if you write that sort of novel, things have to happen."  He cites Grahame Greene and Joseph Conrad, but it may be John Le Carré, who’s back in fashion after last year’s cinematic adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, who seems the best model for the use of espionage thrillers to explore character.

"The thing about the spy novel that appeals to me is that it deals with questions of identity and changes of identity," Boyd told me. The nature of espionage means that a spy has to become somebody else, reinventing his or her personality and hiding things away. "So you are dealing with questions of duplicity and betrayal, bad faith and disguise," Boyd continued. "These are very powerful human emotions. In a way, the spy novel gives you the opportunities to explore aspects of our own lives in a way that perhaps a more orthodox novel doesn’t. It’s an immensely attractive genre."

As a spy thriller, the novel is gripping enough, although perhaps a little too strewn with coincidences for my taste. Also, the study of war as a monstrous bureaucratic machine is a fresh take on the much-described World War I.  Yet, perhaps because I prefer sex to fighting, it’s the early scenes set in bohemian Vienna that left the greatest impression. Boyd announced himself as a talent back in 1981 with his first novel, the Somerset Maugham Award-winning A Good Man In Africa, in which he recreated the atmosphere of 1960’s West Africa with a few well-chosen details that let you see, smell and feel the setting. That was a world he knew.

Yet with the same technique and copious research he has managed the same effect with pre-WWI Vienna, the city of Freud, Oskar Kokokoschka and Egon Schiele, which Boyd described as was "probably the most interesting city on the planet at the time."

It’s a world of genteel conversation and dark sexual undertones. In the prim Pension Kriwanek where Lysander dwells, the landlady uses only two adjectives – "pleasant" and "nice" – but her clumsy, shy maid Traudl prostitutes herself to the residents, including a Slovenian Hussar called Wolfram Rozman who tells Lysander about the "river of sex" coursing strongly beneath the city.

"You think of the historical period and you think of the empire and this ancient emperor, but underneath it, all was a kind of boiling ferment of modernism," says Boyd, "and that modernism carried on to the way people related to each other. Their personal lives were as intense and unusual as the art they were producing."

Hettie dresses boyishly and has penchant for pantaloons and broaches. Her partner Udo Hoff, a broad-shouldered man who rails about the empty fakery of the Ringstraße, shaves his head like Kokoschka. Boyd goes into great detail in describing the sartorial eccentricities of his characters.

"You’d be surprised by how extravagant people were," he told me. "Hettie’s clothes are very typical of an artistic and bohemian type." She wears tight-fitting little jackets and hats, and -has little tinkling bells on her shoes. "That’s the sort of detail I seized upon when I was researching the clothes of the time, because it makes Hettie seem alive." As in previous Boyd novels, notably his 2002 Any Human Heart, historical characters make cameo appearances: We meet a distinguished but dismissive Freud in the Café Landtmann, and a man whom you assume to be a faintly ridiculous early Hitler, raising a rabble from a soap box.

Given the vivid details in the narrative, it is surprising to learn that the soft-spoken Boyd had only visited Vienna for three short trips while researching the novel, and had never been here before writing his 1995 short story The Transfigured Night. But the city had long haunted his imagination, he said, particularly the early years of the 20th century, "when the old world ended and the new world – our world – began".  While researching Waiting for Sunrise, he spent hours studying old street maps and guide-books, trying to imagine to feel of the pre-war city. A voracious reader, he devoured every book he could find, fact or fiction, about that episode of Viennese life. Boyd particularly highlights two works for insight into the atmosphere of the final months of the Hapsburg era:  Robert Musil’s 1,000-page novel The Man Without Qualities, which he describes as "Vienna’s Ulysses,"  and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which he describes as a "true European masterpiece," whose atmosphere is "so stifling, the thunder has to strike." It’s the perfect diagnosis of Vienna in 1913.

The catastrophe that lay ahead overshadows our appreciation of just how vibrantly multi-cultural Vienna of the fin de siècle was. But for a while, the city of the psychoanalysts and the figurative painters, writers like Stefan Zweig  and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, really was the cultural pulse of Europe. Boyd calls it an "accident of history" that brought all those forces together at the same.

But what does he think of Vienna now, the city we love, with its vibrant arts scene and bohemian night-haunts?

"It’s hard for me to judge. I have been

wandering the city with my 1913 goggles on," he admits. "But I think cities come alive for the most random reasons. A few years ago everyone was flocking to Barcelona, but now Berlin is the cool place to live. Maybe Vienna’s turn is next. These moments in a city’s life can flare up at any time.


Waiting for Sunrise

by William Boyd

Bloomsbury Publishing (Feb 2012), pp. 368

Available at Shakespeare & Company

1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053

Order this book online


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