The Romantic: William Boyd

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The Romantic: William Boyd

The Romantic: William Boyd

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On the first of very many whims, he signs up to the army, and finds himself pitched into the Battle of Waterloo, his survival of which automatically makes him a war hero. Now that he has tasted adventure, he wants more. And, courtesy of the author, whose pen sometimes can’t quite keep up the pace, he gets it. More seriously, we never really get the sense that Cashel is a man of his time. He is an atheist and a non-racist: he risks court-martial at one point by trying to stop his commanding officer from murdering innocent villagers in Ceylon (oh yes, he spends some time in the East India Company Army too). But the novel moves at such a pace that there is no time to explore the thought processes by which he comes to see life so differently from his contemporaries. Millions die on the Western Front but in East Africa a quite different war is being waged – one with little point and which is so ignored that it will carry on after the Armistice because no one bothers to tell both sides to stop. When it comes to his description of love stories, and dalliances, Boyd is rather old fashioned. I did like Cashel’s definition of love “to care more about the person you loved than you did about yourself” (444).

The problem with The Romantic isn’t that it’s too emotional (read: sentimental). It’s that it gives you lots of second-hand spectacle and no fresh feeling If you do nothing, you will be auto-enrolled in our premium digital monthly subscription plan and retain complete access for 65 € per month. I felt that I knew what Boyd was going to describe, and how the life of the protagonist would turn out. I was also conscious that in a (literary) world that has changed enormously in the last twenty years, the characterisations were a bit dated and focused on too limiting a view of history. An early example when a young man is seduced by a randy housekeeper was flat. There’s schoolboy masturbation; there’s extraordinary fortune smiling on our main man in whatever predicament presents itself. Boys own stuff. This might sound like a bad thing but he always takes his beatings with grace and finds another scheme to make his name. He's extremely adaptable, personable, attractive and a gentleman to boot.


On the plot side The Romantic is smartly stylized to the Victorian novel but it is written the modern explicit manner. After that, Boyd chews up the decades with a speed that recalls Downton Abbey at its most delirious as he sends Cashel to Pisa to become an intimate of Byron and Shelley, before making him at various times a best-selling author, a prisoner in the Marshalsea, a farmer in New England, an opium addict and, in old age, a diplomat in Trieste, where he tangles with an antiquity-smuggling ring, before dying Tolstoyishly at a railway station in 1882. This has been a central question of many of the stronger novels by the contemporaries who joined Boyd on Granta’s famous 1983 Best of Young British Novelists list: Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot , Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy could all be said to be about the leftovers of a life – and what remains of history. In such company, Boyd is sometimes seen as a more “accessible” or “commercial” writer. But what is often lost behind the sheer pleasure brought by his books is their layered Chekhovian subtleties: Boyd is abundantly talented at capturing life’s disconnections, in prose that provides no easy consolations. This may be why the “whole life” novel, exemplified by Any Human Heart , occupies such a special place in his body of work, and why it is satisfying to see him return to this cradle-to-grave territory. A wonderful romp through the 19th century, mixing fact and fiction seamlessly. Our hero manages to, amongst other things, get involved in the Battle of Waterloo, mix with Byron and Shelley in Italy, help find the source of the River Nile, become the author of best selling books and have an 60 year love affair.

All biography is fiction, but fiction that has to fit the documented facts.’ - Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life. At the age of nine years he attended Gordonstoun school, in Moray, Scotland and then Nice University (Diploma of French Studies) and Glasgow University (MA Hons in English and Philosophy), where he edited the Glasgow University Guardian. He then moved to Jesus College, Oxford in 1975 and completed a PhD thesis on Shelley. For a brief period he worked at the New Statesman magazine as a TV critic, then he returned to Oxford as an English lecturer teaching the contemporary novel at St Hilda's College (1980-83). It was while he was here that his first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), was published. The Romantic by William Boyd was the novel I enjoyed most this year. It's incredibly ambitious, its hero moving from Co Cork to London, then from Waterloo to Zanzibar, and at one point even joining the East Indian Army, but it was such an easy, indulgent read Sathnam Sanghera, The Times, Best Books of the YearI’ve read a lot of William Boyd over the years (though not the complete seventeen novels that he’s now produced) and he’s the closest I’ve come to a comfort read. This latest work, for the first time, did feel a bit too much like a re-hash of earlier work. Boyd calls a number of his novels “whole life” stories, and Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart is possibly the one most lauded, and the one early reviewers have compared to The Romantic. Ross fights at the Battle of Waterloo and explores the world, meeting Byron and Shelley, brewing German beer in America and attempting to discover the source of the Nile. Do not expect deep introspection. The purpose is not to wonder what drives Cashel or what he is thinking. Instead, the goal is to surrender to a hugely satisfying good yarn that follows one colorful character through his multiple iterations – son and brother, lover, soldier, farmer, debtor, best-selling writer, husband and father, world traveler (and Ivan Turgenev look-alike). The real-life people he encounters along this journey only heightens the fun. The Telegraph values your comments but kindly requests all posts are on topic, constructive and respectful. Please review our Boyd is as magically readable as ever, and, as always with his whole life novels, there is an invigorating air of spontaneity ― Telegraph

Ross, the illegitimate son of the big house, a drummer boy at Waterloo, an officer in the Indian Army refusing to carry out an atrocity, by his late twenties he has partied with Byron and the Shelleys in Italy, had a frenzied affair with an Italian noblewoman, published his first novel, been defrauded, imprisoned for debt and emigrated to the United States to build an ideal community. With his loyal servant Ignatz, he starts the first Lager brewery in America, marries, fathers two daughters, attempts to find the source of the Nile, begins a feud with Burton and Speke, becomes a Consul in Trieste, meets again the love of his youth, Countess Raphaella, but perhaps, all too late. It’s a great achievement by Boyd to produce this book and it’s thoroughly enjoyable with flashes of humour, warmth and fascinating insights into some interesting real- life characters like Byron and Richard Burton from the Nineteenth century. Boyd is brilliant at evoking historical settings and this picaresque novel is similar to some of his other books in some ways such as the main character’s romantic entanglements and European settings. A romantic, properly speaking, is someone who believes that emotion should prevail over reason. But the problem with The Romantic isn’t that it’s too emotional (read: sentimental). It’s that it gives you lots of second-hand spectacle and no fresh feeling. Rather than a voyage of discovery, it’s a tour of familiar landmarks. Cue Waterloo; demobilisation with honours; a brief spell as an officer in the massacre-prone East India Company army in Ceylon; then on to Italy, where Cashel arrives in Pisa just in time to become pals with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron. “Byron in Pisa,” Cashel exclaims. “Who’d have thought?”Los Angeles 1936. Kay Fischer, a young, ambitious architect, is shadowed by Salvador Carriscant, an enigmatic stranger claiming to be her father. Within weeks of their first meeting, Kay will join him for an extraordinary journey into the old man’s past, initially in search of a murderer, but finally in celebration of a glorious, undying love. (Opens in new window) • Top 1000 • The Gloss (Opens in new window) • Recruit Ireland (Opens in new window) • Irish Times Training (Opens in new window) Now a major two-part BBC One series starring Hayley Atwell and Charlotte Rampling, directed by Edward Hall ( Spooks). The 1980s was a kind of boom period but the challenge for a literary novelist now is to just keep the show on the road. It used to be you could write a novel every couple of years or so and have a perfectly nice bourgeois life. Now the mid-list has gone. The brutal fact is you either sell or you don’t. Friends of mine who’ve written 12 novels can’t get published or their advances have dropped by 80%. It’s a much tougher world. You may also opt to downgrade to Standard Digital, a robust journalistic offering that fulfils many user’s needs. Compare Standard and Premium Digital here.

The life of Cashel Greville Ross encompasses taking part in the battle of Waterloo, hanging out with Shelley and Byron in Italy, prison in London, running a brewery in New England, exploring Africa and being a consul in Trieste. His life begins in 1799 and stretches to the advent of the modern age in the late Nineteenth century. He is not a 19th-century person but a 21st-century person, affably and occasionally judgmentally consorting with some 19th-century cosplayers. Beyond this he is a cipher Who indeed? A character who finds himself travelling through many different worlds can’t, of necessity, exhibit too much in the way of individuality. (This was the joke in Woody Allen’s Zelig; is it okay to cite a joke from a Woody Allen movie these days? Let’s just say: a joke is a joke, no matter who made it.) Cashel Greville Ross is less a character than a vehicle, from whose windows we can see, as we travel, some of the main attractions of 19th-century history. Napoleon! British Imperialism! The Romantic poets! The slave trade! Modern views Wandering through Africa wasn’t that much different, in a sense, from wandering through London, or Paris, or Boston. You thought the road ahead was obvious and well marked but more often than not the destination you had so clearly in mind would never be reached. Never. Things got in the way. There were diversions, problems, changes of mind, changes of heart…A fantastical, fabulous journey that sees Ross present at the battle of Waterloo, befriend Shelley and Byron in Italy, become a farmer in America and an explorer in Africa. Along the way he finds love several times but most significantly with Raphaella who he can never truly forget. In The Romantic we follow the life of Cashel Greville Ross who, you might be forgiven for thinking, was a real person, such is the mastery of Boyd's work. Ross begins life ignominiously enough but he makes the most of the opportunities that come his way. Although I can't help thinking that things happen to Mr Ross rather than him making them occur. In fact when he does have an idea of how to proceed in life it invariably means disaster to some extent. But one thing that does stand out is that he never gives up. He doesn’t dwell on his misfortune but simple strides boldly on to the next adventure. He is a glass half full guy, a romantic. Is he ‘the worlds biggest preposterous romantic fool, or a man who knows what true love is.’

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