Sex and Genius By Conrad Williams, Bloomsbury, £ 6.99
There is a piquant Indian tale of an ascetic who went to a mountain to become enlightened. After several years of penance and renunciation, he finally reaches his goal and, overjoyed with his bounty, rushes down to share with the village his fortune. On the wayback, he runs into a crowd of drunken revellers. No matter how quietly he tries to thread his way through, waves of inebriated tipplers bump into him. Finally, exasperated, he cries, “Get out of my way.” At that instance, the ascetic stops and turns to the mountain.
There are echoes of this story in Michael Lear’s travails in the racy novel, Sex and Genius, by Conrad Williams. Michael is a media businessman down in the dumps with one failure after another in producing television documentaries. For him, James Hildyard is the ultimate muse, the greatest contemporary writer. Lear seeks an audience with Hildyard to make his documentary.
Hildyard, true to his artistic demeanour, wants Michael to stay with him as his confidant. Hildyard thinks Michael has the potential to be a writer. How ever, for the rest of the world, their relationship is merely a case of an eccentric dotard having an unusual attraction towards a younger man. The setting is the picturesque beaches of Italy, and Michael gets an insight into the mind of a true genius as well as a taste of the wild mood swings of an artist.
Hildyard has his own dark secret, as well as a pathological hatred of adaptations of his work for the screen. While he wants his dreams to remain in their own private idyllic fortress of the mind, dreams should be created from sordid private realities.
To complete the ensemble are a set of ambitious film agents and a seductive actress who want the rights of Hildyard’s latest novel to make a Hollywood blockbuster. Thus begins a rivalry between the forces of the aesthetic and the compulsions of Mammon. The fact that Michael falls in love with Adela, the actress, adds further grist to the mill. Williams’s portrayal of the sensuous here is at its very best as is his portrayal of the seamy side of negotiation techniques of the Hollywood agents.
But the real art of compromise is in the performance of Michael. The author brings out wonderfully the art of negotiation through Michael’s actions as he grapples with the half-truths of Hildyard’s values at one end of the spectrum and the cynical techniques of Hollywood producers at the other. Michael performs the weighing and bartering of values under extreme financial duress. The jousting that is conducted with a human face ends, as expected, in tragedy.
But does Michael salvage his situation' If not, which mountain does he turn back to'
The reader will find this novel to be a distinct change from the stereotyped ones. It has the speed of a thriller, the high brow of a classic and just about enough oomph to keep you interested in the romance. There is also an echo of Maugham in the description of the Italian countryside which serves as an effective backdrop to the waves and depths of the sea of emotions.