Stylisation – the fatal awareness that one is writing just as one used to, only a touch more so – gets us all in the end. With Kingsley Amis it led to a series of late-period novels that threatened to snag their readers on clumps of syntactical barbed wire. With Anthony Powell it meant ellipsis and particularly thorny sentence constructions requiring referral to H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage. With William Boyd, whose best work (Any Human Heart, say, or The New Confessions) can stand some kind of comparison with these distinguished forebears, it seems to mean a minute and nigh rapturous absorption in detail.
What is Love is Blind, advertised as ‘a thrilling turn of the century novel about music and madness’, actually about? On one level it is a glorious piece of hokum in which a late-Victorian son of the manse with a talent for piano-tuning lights out for Paris, gets involved with an ageing virtuoso, falls for his mistress and has to spend the rest of his all-too-short life dealing with the phantoms of her past. But on another it is simply an accumulation of data, a kind of Rough Guide to how a certain section of fin-de-siècle bourgeois bohemia led its collective life in a world where no hot-handed dinner for two was complete without a menu card and a glance at the wine list.
Not, of course, that Boyd ever went wrong with a hot-handed dinner for two. Ever since 1981, when Morgan Leafy first fornicated his way into the pages of the English comic novel back in A Good Man in Africa, you knew where you were with Boyd-man. Sure enough, short-sighted Edinburgh-born