The protagonist of William Boyd’s new novel claims he is “not a gregarious traveller”. But like his creator – the author of 16 previous novels, five short-story collections, some nonfiction and several stage plays – Cashel Greville Ross covers great distances. His inclinations towards aloneness mingle with his restless, romantic nature to send him from his birth in County Cork, Ireland, in 1799 to Oxford, London, Brussels and Zanzibar. As part of the East Indian Army in Sri Lanka, Cashel finds himself questioning his own ethics. As a guest of the Romantic poets in Pisa, he finds himself adrift in his own libido. Along the way, trapped by “the vocabulary of sightseeing”, Cashel sometimes succumbs to every travel writer’s worst fear: “He was finding it hard to be original.” But as with Logan Mountstuart, the hero of Boyd’s masterwork, Any Human Heart, Cashel ultimately emerges as a one-off – an inimitable character, whether he knows it or not. What other hero in literature could have suffered the nicknames “the Cashelmite”, “Cash-Cash-Coo” and “Cashelnius the Great”? And who else could have been present for so many of history’s key moments?
The Romantic starts with a playful “author’s note” by “W.B.” that invites us to suspend our disbelief. Like the note that opens Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another novel of outlandish adventure (and one that beat Any Human Heart to win the Booker prize in 2002), it suggests we are about to read a story based on one the author encountered in “real” life: the “unfinished, disordered, somewhat baffling autobiography of Cashel Greville Ross (1799-1882)”. The discovery of this manuscript supposedly led “W.B.” to wonder: “What do we leave behind us when we die?”
It is hard to think of another contemporary author who quietly marches his readers so relentlessly towards death
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.
For all the hijinks that keep us turning his pages, Boyd is ultimately an artist of diminishment – one who tracks, in The Romantic, the ways in which a seemingly “great” life, lived over an entire century, can still dwindle, inexorably, into almost nothing: “tied bundles of letters received, drafts of letters sent, some little sketches, maps and plans, some photographs ... and a few objects – a tinder box, a musket ball, a belt buckle”. It is hard to think of another contemporary author who quietly marches his readers so relentlessly towards death; and Death, appropriately enough, is the opening image of this book. As a boy in Ireland, Cashel encounters a “tall man” in black clothing, “leading a horse”. He assumes he has met his own ending. But on closer inspection, this is not the grim reaper. It is just a man, leading an exhausted horse through a wood, trying to find a way forward.
One of the many pleasures of Boyd’s fiction is that history doesn’t just happen around his characters – it happens to them. In the soldiering phase of his life, after being rendered “unconscious through loss of blood” on a battlefield, Cashel wakes in a strange bed with his head full of a storyteller’s concerns: posterity, naming and narrative. He asks if the fight he has just endured will be called “The Battle of Nivelles”. His interlocutor shakes his head: it will be the Battle of Waterloo. (“I must say I prefer ‘Nivelles’… has more of a ring to it.”) Boyd has a brilliant comic ear for posterity’s most absurd possibilities. Where another novelist might settle for a quick encounter with Shelley in Italy, Boyd has his protagonist also play billiards with a sunburned Byron – the heavily bandaged poet’s exposure to the elements has, Boyd writes, stripped “pages of skin” from his body, “whole manuscripts of integument”. It is intoxicating to be in the company of a writer who seems to be having such fun peeling away the skin of history and inserting his characters underneath. Like a fine taxidermist, Boyd’s craft creates such amusingly hyperreal results that you can sometimes forget what a grim business it is.
Virginia Woolf once wrote in her diaries that she meant to write about death, but “life came breaking in as usual”. In The Romantic, as in all of Boyd’s best books, life is always breaking in. The sentences – even the death sentences – thrum with life: its seemingly irreversible errors, decisions and indignities. There is a moment in this novel where the protagonist reads his own obituary – then cheerfully moves on. Later in the book, a “simple” headstone will be etched with the wrong name. Life stumbles onward. The mistakes are many. But the reading, and the writing, never stop.
• The Romantic by William Boyd is published by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.