Sunday, 6 January 2013

Review of William Boyds
Any Human Heart

 Never say you know the last word about any human heart”
- Henry James

First published in 2001, Any Human Heart by William Boyd is the intimate journal of fictitious character Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, the son of a corned-beef manufacturer from the midlands. Boyd employs Mountstuart’s romantic readiness, lapsed genius and artistic endeavour to make sense of the major events of the twentieth-century, he is the beating heart that is placed into a dead age and who not only brings it to life but lends to it a wonderful sense of human significance. Boyd, through Mountstuart’s journals matches a degree of feeling to historical fact and makes a century that is so dominated by wars, institutions and dates in time to something tangible, enjoyable, laughable and yet also tragic.

Logan Mountstuart is portrayed as a furious writer whose journals begin at school and finish in his senility in France, they account the stratospheric highs and dog-food-for-dinner lows of a man who has experienced both success and failure as an Oxford graduate, as a novelist, a journalist, naval officer, art-dealer and as a father and husband. The reader is invited to accompany him on a journey through a life dominated by two dis-proportionate measures of good and bad luck that seem to fluctuate throughout the narrative and dictate the protagonist’s life. The implication that neither man nor deity has control over life is an interesting and thoroughly pragmatic sentiment that resonates throughout, after all Logan says it’s really all just luck in the end.

Mountstuart’s life is not only characterised by luck but by a series personal encounters with figures both real and fictitious. Often these encounters render the narrative a little unbelievable, especially in a work of realism and certainly there are elements to the narrative plot that are alarmingly un-authentic.

Take for instance the protagonists knack for befriending iconic people, finding himself ingratiated with the Modernist literati in Paris as a young man; mixing with Hemingway, Stein and Woolf. We are led to believe that he has in someway managed to penetrate the academic elite without any effort at all, drinking and frolicking with literary idols to such an extent that one might be forgiven for thinking that the events had been plucked straight from the wet-dreams of the author, William Boyd.

Indeed the realism is placed into jeopardy on other occasions too; Mountstuart works with Ian Fleming, plays golf with King Edward VIII, is called Judas by Wallis Simpson and later on in life stumbles into a KGB bomb plot. Whilst all of these peculiar coincidences are explained reasonably well in the journals there seems to be something of a sycophantic hand behind it all, as though Boyd feels that Mountstuart’s journals would be uneventful without him bumping into somebody the reader might recognise from the history books.

Rather that all seems to me a bit pointless and kitsch. I am far more interested in Mountstuart’s character, his peculiarities, stubbornness, his ailing marriage and romances are more personally significant than the murder of Sir Harry Oakes or Mountstuart's lack of appreciation for Jackson Pollock. Whilst the inclusion of real-life characters does give the novel some identity and some place in real time it detracts from the narrative and distracts attention away from the one human heart that we are reading the novel for. One gains the impression that, for Boyd it is important to establish Mountstuart’s character by defining those who are around him but to me it feels so plain and unashamed in its sycophancy that it is jarring and difficult to comprehend.

Despite the fabricated authenticity of the journals and the often-unnecessary inclusion of historical figures, Any Human Heart redeems itself through its pseudo-philosophical vehicle that Logan Mountstuart embodies. When faced with religion the protagonist resolutely tells it to ‘fuck off’, this along with his devout belief that a man’s life is defined by luck says something more about the age than his involvement with famous figures.

Boyd, through Logan’s cynicism, suggests that the twentieth-century was an age of pessimism and non-belief, of atheism and thought. This idea is captured perfectly when Logan returns to his home in Battersea to learn his wife and child have been killed in a V2 bomb attack. Who could believe in any conscious Christian deity that would let something of that destructive nature happen? And who would ever respect the sacrament of marriage during the sexual revolution of the sixties?

Undeniably it is the documentation of Mountstuart’s everyday life that defines the time more so than simple world events; his alcoholism, debts and promiscuity, his failure to commit to a novel and his failure to raise his son whilst in conjunction with wider events is where the human heart is found and where the novel is at its best. That is where realism is achieved and no questions are asked about authenticity.

Indeed the novel is not a work of genius, it doesn’t leave one with the feeling that his life has been changed by reading it, but often we do not read things for our lives to be changed by them. We read because for perspective, for thought and for a fresh take on the things we thought we already knew; certainly if you are in this vein of thinking then you should read Any Human Heart.

It will have you hankering after every word Mountstuart says, will have you relating to his struggles as a young writer and father and most importantly will make you think about the futility of life - no matter where it was you started, you could be ending your days at any point and that if you do make it to the ripe old age of eighty-five with a bottle of chilled wine by your side and the collected plays of Chekov open on your chest then perhaps life could not have been all that bad.

Richard Cunningham

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