Sweet Caress (William Boyd, 2016)

Sweet Caress by William Boyd
Sweet Caress by William Boyd Hardcover, 464 pages Published September 15th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA (first published August 27th 2015)

British author William Boyd writes about the fictive photographer Amory Clay. She manages a photo agency in Paris during the Second World War and moves to Germany with the Allies. But what the heroine thinks about her profession does not go beyond truisms.

The British writer William Boyd is a prolific writer. His 15 novels have almost always made it to the bestseller lists, not just in the English-speaking market. One of Boyd’s trademarks is the invention of supposedly forgotten artists. So lifelike that the whole world of art has fallen for it as in the wonderful literary fun of Nat Tate, an American Expressionist who never existed.

In his new novel Boyd tells the story of the fictitious photographer Amory Clay. Born in 1908, the daughter of an English writer soon put on an amazing career, first as a society reporter in the high society of London, then she documents the Berlin sex and gay scene in a scandalous intention.

She goes to New York, where she meets the (married) man of her life; Back in London, she is brutally beaten up by English black shirts during secret shootings of street battles. During the Second World War, she runs a photo agency in Paris, moves to Germany as an “embedded journalist” with the Allies, marries a Scottish lord before finally working as a picture reporter in Vietnam in the 1960s.

An actual a century piece

This is a great stuff. Actually a century piece. You can see the real pioneers of photographic art back then. That’s what Boyd wanted, so he lets his heroine tell her. She looks back at her life on a Scottish island where the 70-year-old lives in seclusion with her dog, keeps a diary and drinks a bit too much whiskey. Unfortunately, and that’s the big disappointment, in a kess-superficial young girl tone, which covers the first half of the novel like frosting.

The real problem, however, is the theme of the book, photography. What the heroine thinks about her profession does not go beyond commonplaces. There “time is stopped”, the “moment is stopped”. What she wants to capture are “snapshots of light effects, abstract moments that a painter could never portray with his means”. Apart from a few sub-clauses on the technique of cross-fading, the medium does not matter. That Amory Clay had so much success – an empty assertion. You just do not think Boyd’s heroine is an equal contemporary of Margret Bourke-White, Marianne Breslauer, or Lee Miller, the Muse Man Rays, who was ambitiously battling from model to avant-garde photographer.

Illustrated is the novel with photos that Amory Clay allegedly shot himself. Boyd found them at flea markets or on the Internet, some even show the artist herself, out of focus enough to make her appear anonymous. But to put the illusion of a forgotten “photographers” in the world and to authenticate, the technically inefficient, aesthetically inadequate photos are not suitable. Just like the whole novel, of which nothing remains as a very attractive idea.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd Hardcover, 464 pages Published September 15th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA (first published August 27th 2015)

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