Viennese whirls

By Eva Tucker, March 23, 2012
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The first 100 pages of William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise (Bloomsbury, £18.99)are set in the Vienna of 1913, its Jewish element quietly implicit. On a hot, August day, young English actor Lysander Rief is on his way to consult a psychiatrist called John Bensimon. In the consulting room, he meets feisty sculptress, Esther, better known as Hettie. It is she who does most to cure Lysander's psycho-sexual difficulties, though she is living with Udo Hoff who, we learn, is circumcised. Later, Lysander introduces himself to Freud in the Café Landtmann.

Briefly, antisemitism becomes explicit: Lysander's fellow lodger, the Slovene, Wolfram Rozman, tried and acquitted by his regiment for embezzlement, has pointed a finger at the arrogant Jew, Frankenthal, a Catholic convert who has not changed his name. "If they can't pin the crime on a Slovene, then a Jew is even better."

Rozman warns Lysander against the superficial pleasantness of Vienna: "nobody farting or picking their nose but below the surface the river is flowing." This is not a reference to the Danube but to the river of sex.

A pregnant Hettie accuses Lysander of rape. He is jailed, but friends at the British Embassy manage to engineer his escape. Back in First World War London he is recruited into Intelligence.Abruptly, the novel turns into a complicated, gripping spy thriller. Viennese characters reappear in London but the two sections of the novel never quite cohere. Above all, the writing lacks the warmth and conviction of Boyd's masterly Any Human Heart. Waiting for Sunrise never quite delivers the promise of the vibrant opening in Vienna.

    Last updated: 3:37pm, March 23 2012