Any Human Heart – William Boyd
How well do we really know someone? Henry James opined “never say you know the last word about any human heart” and as well as giving Boyd the title for this 2002 novel, he may well be right. The construct of Boyd’s novel is that it is a compilation of diaries or, as the French more elegantly put it, journaux intimes, detailing the life and times of the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, with short bridging sections as we move from one phase to another. As a result we are intended to get a deeper insight into what made the character tick. But do we and do we really care?
It was an easy read written in an engaging style and offers some interesting perspectives on human existence that resonate more with me as I move inexorably towards that point when I shuffle off this mortal coil. “Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportion of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”, Boyd writes and “life does this to you sometimes – leads you up a path and then drops you in the shit, to mix a metaphor.” Mountstuart’s life is certainly an extraordinary aggregation of good and bad luck, triumphs interspersed with moments of disaster and tragedy.
I enjoyed the early parts of the book, where Mountstuart starts out on his journey through the 20th century as a rather precocious, priggish and, doubtless, very annoying public schoolboy, picking up two life-long friends, Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping, along the way. It is then on to Oxford (natch), and afterwards to London where he establishes himself as a writer.
After war service as a naval intelligence officer and a return to a much-changed post-war London and then to New York as an art dealer courtesy of Leeping, his career becomes more preposterous, teaching in Nigeria just in time to witness the Biafran war, and then back to London where he falls on bad times and gets mixed up with a Bader Meinhoff cell, and then skips to France to enjoy a modest retirement.
I may have lived a sheltered life but this seems much too much excitement to pack into a life. During this odyssey, we are asked to believe that Mountstuart rubbed shoulders and spent time with many of the literary and artistic celebs of the 20th century. The pages are littered with scenes involving the likes of James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, not forgetting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It all gets a bit wearing at times. At least, Anthony Powell, who appears in the book as an affable chap, had the grace to hide Nick Jenkins’ celeb mates under the cloak of pseudonymity.
Ironically, it is the fictional characters who seem to come to life for me, not least Mountstuart’s grand and haughty mother who slowly and inexorably falls into what were termed reduced circumstances, thanks to unwise investments ahead of the Wall Street crash (natch) – it is that sort of book – even having to resort to taking in lodgers.
I found Mountstuart hard to warm to and even when he hits his lowest point, subsisting on dog food at a time when Scabius, whose literary merits he had derided, was riding the crest of a wave, it is hard to have too much sympathy for him.
Boyd’s book is ambitious book, bestriding the 20th century and some of its significant literary and historical events, but for me it falls a little short.