Published November 2018 by Hogarth Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for success. The one thing he doesn't have is talent - but he's not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, a would-be writer can find stories anywhere. They don't need to be his own. Working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988, Maurice engineers the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann. He quickly ingratiates himself with the powerful - but desperately lonely - older man, teasing out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. Perfect material for Maurice's first novel.
Once Maurice has had a taste of literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in pursuit of that high. Moving from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vidal, to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top. But the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall...
As I was scanning through upcoming books some weeks ago, I saw that John Boyne had a new book coming out this fall. That's as far as I read before I requested this book. I went into the book having absolutely no idea what this collection of closely connected short stories was about.
Because of that, as I was reading the first story, I almost set the book aside. I thought this was going to be about Erich Ackermann, an aging author who had only ever had mediocre success and then won a prize. It was too close to Andrew Sean Greer's Less, which was still fairly fresh in my mind. I'd enjoyed that book quite a bit but I wasn't ready to read another one so similar.
Fortunately, Boyne's writing is so wonderful that I wasn't ready to give up on the book after the first story. This is a long quote, but well worth the time it will take you to read it:
"I found myself drinking a glass of rose outside a bar in Montmartre, a chestnut tree shading me from the late summer sunlight, while I observed the closing moments of a marriage. A woman in her late forties, very beautiful, with short black hair and expensive sunglasses, had been sitting alone since my arrival with a large glass of white wine and an envelope on the table before her. She had already smoked three cigarettes and was lighting a fourth when a man appeared, perhaps a little older thinner but dressed just as smartly, holding his hands in the air in apology for his tardiness, and she stood to allow him to kiss her on both cheeks. The waitress brought a second glass and she poured some wine for him as he reached into his bag and removed a similar envelope to hers. They spoke for some time and at one point he laughed and put an arm around her shoulders before they picked up the envelopes and took out two lengthy documents. Turning to the last page of each they allowed their pens to hover over the paper for only a moment before signing simultaneously, then passed each one to the other, whereupon they signed again. Finally, the man returned both forms to his bag and the couple removed their wedding rings, dropping each one into their glasses before standing up, kissing on the kips and walking off in opposite directions, their hands drifting out behind them, their fingers touching momentarily before they disappeared from my sight an, presumably, from each other's lives."I just love the way Boyne has told an entire story in one paragraph and the way I am able to so clearly see this scene playing out before me.
As you'll have noticed in the summary, this isn't, after all, Erich Ackermann's story. It's Maurice's story but told through the eyes of several different people as Maurice's life progresses, including one story written in first person by Maurice's wife with a twist I definitely didn't see coming.
Maurice is not without talent; he can write well. But he has no creativity and is incapable of coming up with fresh new ideas for books. And therein lies his moral dilemma. From the minute he takes Erich's life story and turns it into a best-selling novel, the line between right and wrong blurs for Maurice.
"You've written a novel that features Erich Ackermann as a character?" asked Howard.Dash goes on here to point out that many authors write about the lives of other people, tell their stories, and no one questions their right to do so. The historical fiction genre is loaded with books that rely on the stories of real people to create their story around. When have you crossed the line? When you take other people's story ideas when their lack of skill will never allow that story to see the light of day? Or must you steal an entire book and pass it off as your own?
"I suppose that's a reasonable way of putting it, yes."
"And does he mind?"
"He hasn't said one way or the other."
"Did you have to ask his permission?"
"Isn't there some sort of moral conflict there then?" asked Howard.
"None whatsoever,"said Dash. "There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art. A writer must tell the story that captures his soul."
"And you've heard the old proverb about ambition, haven't you?"He shook his head."That it's like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy."Maurice is so driving to succeed as a writer that he never entertains the possibility that he won't succeed, never sees it as a pointless waste of energy. Even when he is caught out, he has so convinced himself that he has done nothing wrong, that he is almost able to justify to the reader as well.
I haven't read a book with this unlikable a character in a long while but Boyne just proves that point that characters need not be likable to make you appreciate them as a character, to make their story worth reading. And Maurice's story is definitely one worth reading.