William Boyd has written a dozen novels and short stories in the past quarter-century. That makes him a fairly prolific author. Factor in a dozen screenplays realised (and another couple of dozen that were never made, for the usual inscrutable film-world reasons), and he seems properly Stakhanovite. But take a deep breath, because Boyd estimates that in his moments of leisure he has also written three-quarters of a million words or so of journalism.
Given this, it is rather startling to find, in the first 20 pages of this selection of essays and reviews, three references to his ‘laziness’ at school. Less surprising is to find that what it is he admires, as an adult, is doggedness (a favourite term), determination. In a review of Julian Schnabel’s film of the life of the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat he writes, ‘There is no medium or longterm substitute for talent, hard work, elaboration and exploration of technique, intelligence, hard work, empathy, thought, virtuosity, hard work, and so on. This is the serious artist’s lot.’ And this, too, is the core of Boyd’s value-system.
He is unimpressed with easy routes, with formulas or genres. Much (most, indeed) writing on war he dismisses out of hand, because it is written to a formula that runs, ‘War is hell/shocking/depraved/inhuman but it provides intense and compensatory moments of comradeship/joy/vivacity/emotion or excitement.’ Instead he wants to know how things are put together; and his ‘let’s-take-the-clock-apart-to-see-how-it-works’ mentality produces some of his best pieces. When he writes at length about authors he admires he made me want to read them again: his piece on William Golding’s Rites of Passage gave me new insight into a novelist I thought I knew; when looking at Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, he carefully anatomises the novel’s complex technical basis, examining what it is an author does, what are the choices he has made. This is a wonderful — and rarely seen — skill
It is to the fore when he writes about artists. His piece on Stanley Spencer is a model, looking closely at the conundrum he presents: how could an artist who was so wonderful produce so many pictures that are truly terrible? Boyd’s description of ‘Nude, Portrait of Patricia Preece’ is almost as good as seeing the painting, and it certainly helps the viewer to look more closely. Yet, interestingly, in his essay on Edward Hopper, there is a volte-face. He describes Hopper in exactly the same terms as Spencer, a painter who painted both wonderful and perfectly awful pictures. Yet he can’t bring himself to say they are awful. He uses the same words I would use for Hopper — ‘amateurish’, ‘lumpy’, ‘clumsy’, ‘heavy-handed’, ‘awkward’ — but instead of admitting, as with Spencer, that some of this artist’s work is embarrassingly bad, he protests that these clumsy daubs are intentional: the work of a genius who was ‘subduing his manifest skills’, rather than a wildly uneven painter who was not always in control.
But the fact that I can’t agree with him in this piece is exhilarating; I want to grab him by the arm and say, ‘No, look, you see …’ It is the same in his essay on Franz Kline, where I disagree vehemently with almost every word he writes, but the essay is so measured, so thoughtful that, while he hasn’t remotely persuaded me of his point of view, he has created a space for further thought on the subject. There are many pieces like these — on Evelyn Waugh, on Ryszard Kapuscinski, on Muriel Spark.
But there are also, unfortunately, many more pieces that should never have made the cut, journalism written at the moment, for the moment, and apparently on the fly. There are sentences that flick back and forth from present to past tense for no apparent reason; ones that shift from first person to impersonal third person and then to second, all within a couple of lines. There are clumsy formulations that Boyd simply could not have written in any of his novels (the American scenes in Martin Chuzzlewit ‘read desperately unfunnily’) and thoughtless repetitions (‘there were rocky stretches with rock pools’). Clichés abound: Chekhov’s mistress Lika Mizinova ‘was the one that got away’, the ‘cynosure of all male eyes’, ‘like no other woman he knew’, she ‘got under his skin’ (and that’s all within two pages). It is a shock therefore to come across the following disapproving sentence in his essay on Evelyn Waugh’s book Labels: ‘Clichés … and the use of the same adjective in the same line are sure signs of his lack of energy and interest, not even picked up at proof stage.’ Ahem.
If Boyd had produced this collection as ‘doggedly’ as his novels, it would be a 320- page book, and this would have been a rave review. As it is, there are enormous pleasures to be had from Bamboo — you just have to be willing to search them out.