sexta-feira, 18 de dezembro de 2015

‘Sweet Caress,’ by William Boyd - Book Review By ROXANA ROBINSON



‘Sweet Caress,’ by William Boyd


Sunday Book Review , SEPT. 18, 2015

It’s always interesting to see an author write against his or her own experience — an Asian writing as a European, a civilian woman writing as a male Marine or, really, any writer suddenly adopting a distinctly different voice. So it’s very interesting to read William Boyd’s “Sweet Caress,” written not only in the voice of a woman but of a woman born more than four decades before the author.
An Englishman best known for novels like “A Good Man in Africa” and “Any Human Heart,” Boyd has also had the nerve to write a James Bond novel, “Solo.” I’ve always admired that kind of dive-over-the-cliff braggadocio. Choosing a subject about which other people feel fiercely proprietary, and writing in a manner everyone knows is not yours, can leave you pretty wide open to criticism.
Boyd takes another big risk in “Sweet Caress.” When the novel’s heroine, Amory Clay, is born in England in 1908, things go awry at once — she is identified in the newspapers as a son. It’s the fault of her father, the similarly androgynously named Beverley Clay, who is, in a way, himself misidentified by the world: He’s a mostly unsuccessful writer suffering from trauma after the Great War. Early on, he rather spectacularly tries to kill both himself and his daughter, but thereafter fades from the narrative.
Amory recovers easily from her father’s action, and this resilience will play an important part in her life: Little seems to affect her. At her girls’ boarding school she practices kissing with her classmates in a brisk, businesslike way. When she’s encouraged to try for a university place, she refuses because she wants to become a professional photographer.
Photography and gender are the themes here, and Boyd takes yet another big risk by illustrating the book with photographs purporting to document his character’s life. The first is of a young woman, said to be Amory Clay, in a bathing suit, posing fetchingly near a pond; next comes a stucco cottage with a tile roof on a bleak northern island, identified as Amory’s Scottish cottage, circa 1960. Casual snapshots are interspersed among professional works as Amory’s career takes off.
It’s an odd notion: photographs of or by a fictional character. The pictures have no credits, though of course they were taken by real people. Boyd apparently collected them from random sources: tag sales and junk shops. Some are quite wonderful — Amory’s mother at the beach, with her heavy bosom, garden hat and sunglasses, her son laughing over her shoulder; a young woman on a sailboat; a soldier killed during World War II. These are evocative images, but they set up a sort of low-lying confusion. I kept wondering who these people really were — and who really took that picture of German P.O.W.s in March 1945? It’s a provocative tactic, but the images aren’t really persuasive as a record of a photographer’s life or career. They seem miscellaneous and arbitrary, technically and aesthetically inconsistent.
More troublingly, the novel seems equally unpersuasive as the narrative of a female photographer’s life. Twentieth-century female photographers had a difficult time of it. Those who succeeded were driven by the primal excitement of war or devotion to a new kind of aesthetic or by a determination to document certain lives. Yet Amory Clay seems, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, oddly unfocused. She knocks aimlessly about the photography world, starting with society portraits, drifting into fashion, then war journalism. She’s merely a good-looking woman who has a lot of sex and takes a lot of pictures.
Which brings us to the question of gender. I still commend Boyd for his nerve, but it’s hard to know what to say about his attempt to write in a woman’s voice. “I suppose we all — men and women — remember our first lover, like it or not,” declares Amory with fond self-regard. “However, I’ve a feeling that women remember more, remember better. I can still bring to mind that first night I spent with Lockwood.” Her description of the loss of her virginity can’t really be quoted here, but it manages to be both erotically dull and squirmingly distasteful, involving the use of lard and a part of the male anatomy her partner calls his “chum.” Amory is just as brisk and businesslike about losing her virginity as she was about kissing practice at school. That resilience again! In fact, nothing in Amory’s life seems to engage her emotions. When she gives birth to twins, she writes, “I had them in my arms and felt decidedly strange. . . . I began to sob — from joy, I suppose, but also timorous confusion, suddenly confronted with this dual responsibility and a sense that my life was irrevocably turned upside down. No route ahead clear — a topsy-turvy world, as my father would have described it.”
Granted, Boyd himself has never given birth, so he can’t actually know how it feels, but has he read what women writers have said on the subject? It’s pretty famously a time of emotional tsunami, but Amory’s chirpy, quotidian tone suggests a recent election to head up the PTA. In fact, all the descriptions of emotion are pretty unemotional. Boyd’s handling of Amory’s feelings seems technical and prosaic. “I was hugely, instantly attracted to this man — drawn to him in a way that alarmed me. I had noted this effect before . . . with any number of men I’d fleetingly encountered. It just arrives, this cognizance — though that word gives it too much logical weight. It’s uncalled-upon. Your body notes it first, as a pure instinct, then transmits the information to your brain where it’s acted upon with more reason, with a bit of luck.” These careful notes about cognizance and neural impulses may refer to wild passion, but they read like the technical section of an amateur psychology magazine.
To create period authenticity, Boyd uses brand names and famous people. In New York, Amory orders a Dr Pepper. And in Paris, at the Ritz, someone says, “ ‘They’re all here tonight. Look, there’s Irwin Shaw. George Stevens, John Steinbeck. . . . All we need now is Marlene Dietrich.’ And then Marlene Dietrich walked in.” These references do evoke the past, but in a glib and superficial way.
I still admire Boyd for this ambitious attempt, but I can’t figure out where in this book his passion lies. I bet he had fun collecting the photographs and fitting them neatly into the text, and I bet he admires 20th-century female photographers, but his engagement with this story seems mild and detached. Women can lead fascinating lives, adventurous and compelling, intellectually and emotionally rich. But Boyd’s attempts to render this seem no more authentic than the photographs. They lie fixed on the page in black and white, motionless.

SWEET CARESS
The Many Lives of Amory Clay
By William Boyd
Illustrated. 449 pp. Bloomsbury. $28.

Roxana Robinson is a novelist and the biographer of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her most recent book is a novel, “Sparta.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/books/review/sweet-caress-by-william-boyd.html
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