Bamboo by William Boyd

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The Independent Culture

Much of it is good. The opening "Memories of the Sausage Fly" is the sort of affectionate upbringing vignette that Granta publishes in its less hard-nosed moments. For a writer who has tried to avoid the autobiographical creeping into his fiction, this first section quenches the thirst of the Boyd admirer with jocular details of his early years in Africa, schooling in Scotland, and the incipient tribulations of his writing career (including a wry account of his 11-year battle to recoup book royalties that had been sequestered by a French taxi firm).

The next two segments contain the meat of this collection. "Literature" offers 40 robust and intelligent assessments of writers or writing which, en masse, convey an infectious enthusiasm for the entertaining craft of narration. Specifically, favourites quickly emerge: Hemingway's taut, early short stories; anything by Chekhov, whom Boyd lauds as the greatest exponent of the short form; and Evelyn Waugh, whose "fundamental and unsparing honesty", trenchant snobbery and self-loathing earn him seven outings in Bamboo.

Joining the editorial board of Modern Painters gave Boyd an outlet for his schoolboy hankering to be an artist. The articles collected here under "Art" reinforce the demands in his literary critiques for a command of formal technique and a grasp of basic tools. Boyd's principle interest is in modern British painting and Sarah Raphael, covered here in three generous essays, gleans approval for her figurative skill. Yet Braque and Picasso are also admired - Boyd is no slave to pictorial representation, but simply a stickler for a basic ability to draw which I find very hard to disagree with. So Bonnard is respected for resolving his artistic crisis by re-applying himself to the fundamentals of drawing and composition. Aesthetically Boyd celebrates this as the same practice of unsentimental observation that underpins the Chekhovian pre-eminence in short fiction. One feels that Boyd's often gleeful dismissals of the "facile nonsense" of Jackson Pollock and the retinue of snake-oil salesmen that his school of Abstract Expressionism ushered into the art world are rooted in a similar embedded desire for form in writing.

Boyd's art criticism is lucid, well-constructed and refreshing, possessing the unusual quality of making painters legible and interesting on the page. His review of Basquiat stands out of the "Film" section precisely because of this mediating authority. Perhaps his professionalism as a writer combines with his abiding interest in art to give Boyd the rare skill of translating visual idiom into intelligent prose. Unfortunately, many pieces in the later sections of Bamboo fail to rise to this standard. "Africa", despite a moving testimony to Ken Saro-Wiwa, is disappointingly thin, especially given that it is home to a fair portion of his life and fictional output. His television journalism is patchy, and some of the lives in the catch-all "People and Places" section - such as his first appraisal of Charlie Chaplin - read with all the verve of encyclopedia entries.

In his vignette of Ian Fleming, Boyd reminisces that From Russia With Love was circulated at his public school "as if it were some sort of rare samizdat pornography" - and there's the rub; where Boyd puts his own experience into the piece, it comes alive, but too many articles at the back end of Bamboo fail that test. A truly poor, possibly tongue-in-cheek paean to the London borough of Newham, which also indulges Boyd's grim fondness for the "an A to Z of..." form, admits: "the real and enduring spice of Newham's life has always been its ineffable, unrivalled and bewildering variety." This serves better in praise of Boyd's own narrative prowess. He is a tremendous, exuberant master of the big, wide-ranging, baggy saga, as in the fictional autobiography of The New Confessions, or the rambling journal format of his satisfying Any Human Heart. This latter book boasts the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as minor characters. Two pieces in Bamboo describe researching their interlude in that book but, tellingly, neither enjoys the spritz of their fictional roles.

Bamboo is solid stuff, and occasionally inspiring, but too big. Aphorisms and metaphors (such as his touching use of "dogged" as a technical term of art criticism) recur too regularly when these decades of work are squashed between two covers. Boyd is undoubtedly a substantial writer but this block of journalism confirms the mighty labour of his workaday career, rather than the more memorable flights of fictional transcendence.