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William Boyd Biography

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Nationality: British. Born: William Andrew Murray Boyd, Accra, Ghana, 1952. Education: Gordonstoun School, Elgin, Morayshire; University of Nice, France, diploma 1971; University of Glasgow, M.A. (honours) in English and philosophy 1975; Jesus College, Oxford, 1975-80. Family: Married Susan Anne Wilson in 1975. Career: Lecturer in English, St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1980-83. Television critic, New Statesman, London, 1981-83. Lives in Chelsea, London. Awards: Whitbread award, 1981; Maugham award, 1982; Rhys Memorial prize, 1982; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1990. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983; Sunday Express Book of the Year award, 1993. Agent: Lemon Unna and Durbridge Ltd., 24 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Good Man in Africa. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1981; New York, Morrow, 1982.

An Ice-Cream War. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1982; New York, Morrow, 1983.

Stars and Bars. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984; New York, Morrow, 1985.

The New Confessions. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987; New York, Morrow, 1988.

Brazzaville Beach. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1990; New York, Morrow, 1991.

The Blue Afternoon. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993; New York, Knopf, 1995.

Armadillo. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

On the Yankee Station and Other Stories. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1981; New York, Morrow, 1984; revised edition, London, Penguin, 1988.

The Destiny of Nathalie "X". London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1995; published as The Destiny of Nathalie X and Other Stories. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Plays

School Ties (includes the TV plays Good and Bad at Games andDutch Girls, and an essay). London, Hamish Hamilton, 1985; New York, Morrow, 1986.

Care and Attention of Swimming Pools, and Not Yet Jayette (produced London, 1985).

Screenplays:

Stars and Bars, 1988; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, 1990; Mr. Johnson, 1990; Chaplin, 1992; A Good Man in Africa, 1994.

Radio Plays:

On the Yankee Station, from his own story, 1985;Hommage to A.B., 1994.

Television Plays:

Good and Bad at Games, 1983; Dutch Girls, 1985;Scoop, from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, 1987.

Other

Introduction, Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. New York, Knopf, 1994.

* * *

But for An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd would be firmly labelled an exponent of that familiar comic genre, the accident-prone hero novel, as practised by, among others, Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Anthony Burgess (the Enderby series), and Tom Sharpe (the Wilt series). Both A Good Man in Africa and Stars and Bars feature protagonists—Morgan Leafy and Henderson Dores, respectively—entrusted with crucial assignments only to be hampered and finally thwarted by proliferating complications. Foreign locations enable Boyd to add occasional culture shock to their predicaments.

Morgan Leafy is a minor diplomat stationed in a provincial backwater in the "not-very-significant" West African nation of Kinjanja. For three years, his stupefying boredom has been palliated only by readily available alcohol and sex. Then, unexpectedly, his boss, Fanshawe, deputes him to cultivate, on behalf of H.M. Government, a local politician (Samuel Adekunle) who is a bigwig in the party set to win Kinjanja's forthcoming elections. At the same time, Morgan begins to court Priscilla, Fanshawe's attractive daughter. Initially, the outlook seems promising: both Adekunle and Priscilla respond to Morgan's overtures. Subsequently, things deteriorate inexorably. Distractions and indignities dog him. Through a misunderstanding, he loses Priscilla to a hated underling. Then he finds himself being blackmailed by Adekunle. To secure his silence, Morgan must suborn an expatriate Scot, Dr. Murray, who is obstructing a lucrative swindle the politician hopes to transact. Unfortunately, Murray is a model of rectitude: Morgan's proposition only worsens matters. In the final pages, though, providence apparently rescues him.

Henderson Dores is an art expert who has recently left England to join the fledgling New York branch of Mulholland, Melhuish, a London auction house. Already he has become simultaneously involved with two alluring, imperious women: his former wife, Melissa, with whom he is discussing remarriage, and his mistress, Irene. Henderson's assignment entails travelling to the Deep South to talk Loomis Gage, a reclusive millionaire, into letting Mulholland, Melhuish handle the sale of his paintings: a coup that would "signal their arrival." Inconveniently, Bryant, Henderson's teenage stepdaughterto-be, invites herself along, thereby jeopardising his plans to meet Irene while away. Then the Gage household proves to be chock-full of confusing and/or intimidating oddballs. Nevertheless, braving the violent opposition of Gage's elder son and assorted misadventures, Henderson brings matters to a successful conclusion. Gage, however, promptly suffers a fatal coronary, leaving him with only an unwitnessed oral agreement. Furthermore, Bryant announces her intention of eloping with Duane, the son of Gage's housekeeper. Abducting Bryant, Henderson decamps to New York. After further misadventures, the novel closes with him fleeing a vengeful Duane. By this time, Henderson has lost his job (perhaps temporarily) and both his women (probably permanently). The paintings, meanwhile, have been destroyed.

Stars and Bars contains various inventive comic flights, but several others seem decidedly routine, poking fun at soft targets like American speech, American cuisine (especially the downhome kind), radio "sermonettes," country and western music. Elsewhere, bedroom farce ensues when Henderson and Irene rendezvous at Atlanta's swishest hotel. A Good Man in Africa generally avoids such lapses into the familiar. In addition, the world created in Stars and Bars is distinctly cartoon-like: Henderson is a two-dimensional character whose pratfalls provide entertainment alone. Morgan's mishaps also arouse some sympathy: the reader discerns his real desperation as Adekunle turns the screw, his pricks of conscience at engaging, albeit unavailingly, in corruption.

At one stage in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot the narrator proposes that certain types of fiction be no longer written, including "… novels about small hitherto forgotten wars in distant parts of the British Empire, in the painstaking course of which we learn … that war is very nasty indeed." An Ice-Cream War is clearly one of the novels that has prompted this injunction: it is set mainly in East Africa during World War I, when the adjacent British and German colonies became a secondary battlefield. The description, though, is unjust: Boyd's point about the nature of war is a deeper one—he believes that literature has not only glossed over the bloodiness of war, but also its contingency.

Boyd's humour is altogether more grim here than in his other novels. Destiny is again antipathetic towards his characters, but the tricks of fate are now brutal rather than mischievous. An incongruous episode in Stars and Bars concerns Henderson's discovery that his father's death during World War II occurred when he was struck by a tin of pineapple chunks dropped from a supply plane. In An Ice-Cream War, death and injury from comparably absurd causes are commonplace; accident rather than design is throughout the motive force behind events. One of the principal characters, Captain Gabriel Cobb, takes part in the sea-borne invasion of German East Africa, during which military order and discipline degenerate into chaos. Later, as an escaping POW, he is killed by German askaris who have misunderstood their commander's orders. In the novel's penultimate section, Gabriel's revenge-bent younger brother, Felix, tracks down the commander only to find that he has just died from influenza. Elsewhere, Felix and his brother-in-law are severely wounded in training botch-ups.

The action of the novel is witnessed through several centres of consciousness. The main ones—in addition to Gabriel and Felix—are (in Britain) Gabriel's wife, Charis, and (in Africa) an American planter, Temple Smith, whose martial activities are simply a means of continuing his quest to recover a prized farm machine confiscated by the Germans. An Ice-Cream War is easily Boyd's most substantial work, even if he rather overdoes the ironies and also perpetrates some false notes, notably the employment—decidedly old-hat—of a Scottish sergeant with an impenetrable accent.

The stories in On the Yankee Station do not represent Boyd at his best. Several might have been written for the glossy magazine market. The remainder feature some fine ideas, but they are developed perfunctorily and without the stylistic verve of the novels. "Next Boat from Douala" and "The Coup," however, are noteworthy for the presence of Morgan Leafy, while "Hardly Ever" deals with the public school world also explored in the screenplay of School Ties.

The New Confessions might be regarded as a forerunner of a type of self-examination, to be intensified in Brazzaville Beach. A fictitious, rumbustious "autobiography" of an outrageous Scotsman, John James Todd, presents a man, both "vile and contemptible" and "generous and selfless," with a self-deprecatory humour. Boyd's skill in sweeping rapidly through years and across continents matches a range of challenging situations that confront Todd, who eventually comes to terms with his life at age seventy.

Without any escape route of humour, Brazzaville Beach is the self-probing of Hope Clearwater, a woman trying to understand her life in England and Africa, burdened by incomprehensible tragic events. How much is she to blame, she asks? Firmly believing that "the unexamined life is not worth living," hers is one she insists has to be told honestly. The review is relayed in non-chronological episodes, between England, with the remembered life of her husband, his madness and suicide, and Africa, where she discovers that the chimpanzees she is to study are involved in a murderous war with each other. The novel operates as an allegory, for it is set within the Biafran war of 1963. Neither the death of her husband, the killings of the chimpanzees (some she was forced to shoot herself), or the human civil war could be avoided. Hope Clearwater's husband died because of a compulsive need to prove life by rigid mathematical formula, and his parallel figure in Africa nearly destroys Hope Clearwater because of his blindness to facts, which threaten to wreck a theory and his lifework. Simply being, Boyd argues, has rules, but they are not inflexible in a system that selects survivors. Hope's questioning, her "selections, willed and unwilled … of infinite alternatives and choices," resolve through flexible mathematics, as defined by Pascal. It does not matter if theories could be fully proved as long as they worked. "Intuition," Hope finally learns, rates "higher than vigorous proof."

The stories in The Destiny of Nathalie X are populated by an array of international characters, from the African filmmaker of the title piece to the Vietnamese writer in another story, to a variety of others, all united in their sense of exile—whether literal or internal. A sense of exile likewise pervades the world of Lorimer Black, protagonist of Armadillo. Despite his Anglicized name and his innocuous job as an insurance adjuster, Black is the descendant of gypsies, and as the tale unfolds he finds his exile deepening: first he loses his job, then other events assail him. Throughout the book is an abiding sense of London, a city Boyd observes so carefully one would think that he, too, came from somewhere else.

—David Montrose

, updated by

Geoffrey Elborn

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