Brodie looked around. It had been years since he had last stood here and the place looked the same–only the season and the weather were different. The same couldn’t be said for him, he realized, thinking about all that had occurred in his life since his last poisonous exchange with Malkey, here on this driveway. Perhaps the garden was more unkempt; the lawn was tufty and weedy under the conifers and the monkey-puzzle trees. yet, now he was here, memories crowded in–it seemed as if he’d been here last week, not over six years ago. You may leave home, but home never leaves you, he thought darkly.
By the end, William Boyd’s Love Is Blind turns out to be more like Any Human Heart than I thought at first. Any Human Heart (which I found plodding at first but, eventually, deeply moving) takes us through the whole course of its protagonist Logan Montstuart’s life, never ascribing greater meaning to it or making it representative of anything besides his own unsteady march from beginning to end:
He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures.
In a general way, Logan’s story is all of our stories, of course, but Boyd resists the literary lure of the Bildungsroman or any other form that would make it more philosophically meaningful.
Love Is Blind is also strangely plodding for a novel full of incident, both historical and personal. Boyd’s approach is structurally very literal: one thing after another, lots of exposition, few stylistic flourishes–though there are some really nice descriptive passages and plenty of piano-tuning neepery. It doesn’t follow its hero, Brodie Moncur, for very long–less than a decade–both because it starts in his adult life and because that life is cut short by the tuberculosis that plagues him for most of the years it covers. For momentum, it relies on two interconnected stories: Brodie’s love for the Russian singer Lika Blum and his enmity with her jealous husband, Malachi Kilbarron. The love story unfolds as Brodie makes his way to Paris and then to St. Petersburg doing his work as a piano tuner; after a climactic turning point, it unravels as the lovers try and fail to elude Malachi’s relentless pursuit. Like Logan’s, Brodie’s death is his novel’s finale, and the feeling it gave me was a similar sense of poignancy that it should all (that it always does) come to exactly this, an ending, a negation.
One distinctive aspect of Love Is Blind is its preoccupation with music. I expected this to bring a more transcendent dimension to the novel–life may be flat, but melody elevates it, or something. Brodie’s own relationship to music is mostly mechanical, though: while he works for a piano virtuoso, his job is weighting the keys and perfecting the piano’s pitch, not rhapsodizing over the results, and the pianist himself is elated at his own skill but conveys no spiritual and hardly any emotional connection to the music he produces. I found this disappointing; it made me think again about other novels about music that made me more excited about it, such as Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul or (my frequent touchstone for this) Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. If I had believed in the love story more, that would have made up for the relatively emotional flatness of this aspect, but Brodie’s passion for Lika never felt vibrant or meaningful to me–I never felt for them or yearned for them.
Love Is Blind kept me interested, but I was never enraptured with it, or gripped the way I was with, say, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, to pick another historical novel for comparison. Miller uses historical detail differently, more delicately. I don’t mind exposition, even in really large doses, and I quite enjoyed the fin-de-siecle voyage Boyd took me on, from Edinburgh to Paris to Nice to St. Petersburg to Biarritz to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands–this last location seeming to me quite arbitrary, thematically (though maybe I’m missing something, since Boyd frames the rest of the novel with it) but interesting nonetheless. Overall, I thought the novel was fine: well conceived, competently executed, solid. Unlike Any Human Heart, though, I don’t expect it will stay with me long after reading.
It has been a while since I’ve read Boyd. I’ve enjoyed everything of his I think I’d say I often find his novels lack that emotional engagement for me. The ideas are more interesting. Maybe what I mean is that “well conceived” is in the forefront of my experience, for good or ill. I am aware of the conceiving mind as I read. Any Human Heart was an exception, maybe because I listened to it rather than reading, and/or maybe because of the sheer weight of Logan Montstuart’s experiences over time, which made him seem so real.
I think you’re exactly right about “the sheer weight” of Logan’s story. It was a slow burn for me but once I was in, I was all the way in with the steady march towards his (inevitable) deeath. “Well conceived” goes a long way, and I would say that this one is well executed too, but perhaps it is possible for a novelist to be too competent, or to rely too much on competence? I often think nowadays about the endless emphasis on craft and then about the way Victorian novelists had no idea that you might need an MFA to do a good job. Sure, the results can be wildly uneven, but the sense of spontaneous fun and vigorous imagination often makes up for (some of) that.