Biarritz worked its charms on me, as it did on Amory and her lover, Charbonneau, even further back. My visitation was in the winter of 1981, hers in the immediate post-war. I have no recollection of the hotel where I stayed, but I remember theirs, the du Palais ‘…perched on its rocky promontory at the end of the gentle crescent sweep of the grande plaige.’ And I remember, as her lover stated, that Biarritz had ‘…surf, real ocean – not lapping Mediterranean wavelets (but)… spectacular foaming breakers in endless succession.’ It was here Charbonneau took Amory, away from a Paris, still in aftershock from its wartime privations, to tell her he was about to marry another – but, of course being French, that was certainly no reason to end their liaisons. Amory, though, had a secret all her own too. And what of Biarritz for your scribbler? I loved its winter coat; its wild weather, the Atlantic stretching away towards infinity. I made a metal note to go back some day to see it in its summer guise. Three decades and some on that hasn’t happened. I suspect, now, it never will.
William Boyd’s sixteenth novel is a ripper and he’s on song, delving into the life of one of the great photojournalists of last century. Amory Clay is up there with Dorothea Lang, Lee Miller and Martha Gellhorn in recording the momentous events of their times. Amory covered the exotic erotic cabarets of the Weimer Republic with her camera – and got herself into very hot water – as well as the rise of Mosley’s fascist thugs. This resulted in great personal injury, with serious repercussions for her future well-being. She was embedded in the US army as they pushed towards the Rhine after D-Day and was with the GIs as they fought off the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Here she fell in love with an Aussie war correspondent. She had her final fling with this larrikin.
In ‘Sweet Caress’ we have a goodly number of her photos reproduced, including ‘The Confrontation’ which garnered her the prestigious Matthew B Brady award for war photography.
Boyd’s imagining of her life is revelatory. We have her early years, dominated by a war-damaged father who tried to end it all by driving his jalopy into a lake, taking her along for the ride. He writes of her relationship with her other family members – the brother who did not survived WW2; her famous sister, Dido, a concert pianist. As well there were her own progeny – twins, who unexpectedly came along later in life. Boyd illuminates on the reasoning behind her self-imposed exile to a Hebridean island. He uncovers the men in her life and the wherefores of how she ended, by her own hand. her existence on this planet.
Although Clay had never really been on my radar as one of the greats, possibly because, unlike her more famous contemporaries, she never sought the limelight. So we have Boyd to thank for bringing her back into the light. And in doing so he is quite masterful in spinning a darn good yarn along the way so that perhaps one day her name will be as recognised on the same plane as those other female luminaries of the art of photography. But, at the end of the reading of ‘Sweet Caress’, there is still that one lingering question to set one googling.
The author’s website – http://www.williamboyd.co.uk/