William Boyd is one of my favourite authors and recently I got around to reading Any human Heart. Here is my review.
Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make life appear interesting or humdrum.
Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, writer, was born in 1906 and died of a heart attack on October 5, 1991, aged 85. Any Human Heart is his journal – a disjointed record of a life that spans the 20th century. The first entries in the book give us a glimpse into his early life in Monetevideo, Uruguay and over 500 pages take us through his years at a Norfolk public school, then Oxford University, where he first develops as a writer and his subsequent adventures in London, Paris, Barcelona, New York, Nigeria and Southern France.
His early successes, with a book on Shelley and a novel about a French prostitute are succeeded by a long half-century of mediocrity, disappointments and setbacks, both personal and professional, leading him to 2 failed marriages, the death of his wife during the blitz of London, his internment as a spy in Switzerland, his alcoholism and subsequent abject poverty (he ends up on a diet of dogfood)
Like all human journeys Logans life is made up of innumerable ups and downs, accidents and coincidences, tragedies and triumphs and – through the use of journal as a structural device – Boyd is able to create a level of realism that tricks us, the reader, into believing that Logan really existed, that everything is true, that his is the journal of a dead man. Fiction becomes truth as we gradually develop a close and intimate relationship with a man whose life came into contact with all the great moments of the 20th century.
“We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being,” Mountstuart informs us. “A true journal presents us with…riotous and disorganized reality. The various stages of development are there, but they are jumbled up, counterposed and repeated randomly.”
Boyd has a lot of fun with Logan and gives our anti – hero the opportunity to meet, argue and comment on many of the cultural icons of the 20th century such as; Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Ian Fleming, Picasso, James Joyce, Jackson Pollock, and so on. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor play an important part in this book and even the Baader – Meinhof gang get a look in towards the end of this journal of restlessness.
Ultimately Logans life is marred by his own failings and towards the end of his life he comes to the conclusion that “life ultimately is a yo-yo, “a jerking spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child.” It is a salutary comment and left me thinking about my own life for quite a bit afterwards. Perhaps he is right, perhaps, “[What] your life amounts to in the end [is] the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up-look at the respective piles. There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says.”
Any Human Heart is a testament to life itself. And although Mountstuarts personal life is tumultuous, with marriages, children, affairs and deaths he has nonetheless LIVED it, despite the accidents of history and the bad luck which has changed it.
I am a big fan of William Boyd and if you enjoy this novel I suggest you read ‘The New Confessions’ a similar book in that it also recounts the story of a mans life through the 20th Century although in this case it is in a novel format. A wonderful read.
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