Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Hapless hero on rollercoaster ride through Great War

At first sight, Lysander Rief, standing on Augustiner Strasse in 1913 Vienna, looks like a hero. He's young, "almost conventionally handsome", clean-shaven, well-tailored, and broad of shoulder.

"He presented," we're later told, "a highly plausible rendition of a worldly, informed, educated man - but he knew how flimsy the disguise was whenever he encountered people with real brains."

He is, according to the narrator of Waiting for Sunrise, a bit of a fake. Nonetheless, in the course of the novel, he is embroiled in sexual scandals, daring escapes, a stolen libretto, international espionage, the trenches of the Western Front and a mission to unmask a traitor code-named Andromeda.

Lysander is not a spy, a soldier or a professional adventurer. He's just a not-very-good actor, recently seen on the London stage as "second leading man" in The Amorous Ultimatum. The reason he's in Vienna in 1913 is to ask a psychiatrist to cure his chronic inability to climax during sex. He's a poet, a dreamer, a bit of a drip.

At the clinic, he meets Hettie Bull. Meeting him again in the street, Hettie reveals that she's a sculptor and asks him to model for her. With a certain inevitability they start a passionate affair. One morning, he is arrested by police, and charged with rape.

With the help of a diplomat called Munro, he escapes from the British Embassy, heads for Trieste and home. Hardly has he time to catch breath, and bed his co-star in Strindberg's Miss Julie, than war is declared.

Munro reappears to explain he's being sent on a special mission. There's a traitor in British high command. Coded messages have been intercepted; he must find the key. Boyd toys with the reader by having Lysander confide to his diary, "My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with - I'm a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it's taking or its final destination."

Join the club, pal. Nor do we. But we know we're in Boyd territory. Waiting for Sunrise may offer occasional high profundities but it's as a simple literary conjuring of atmosphere and character that it should - and will - be most enjoyed.

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