I read Any Human Heart by William Boyd for the third time when it was chosen by my Book Club for our May read. I know I have reviewed it before on this blog, however, even reading it for the third time I found it engaging all over again. I greatly admire Boyd’s writing – he makes it seem so easy, this writing of a diary. I remember that the first time I read it I thought that Logan Mountstuart, the Journal writer, was a real person and of course, Boyd teases the reader by the way he skillfully weaves real historical characters and events into this story.
Boyd said once that he wanted to provide an account of the twentieth century through the eyes of a character living through it. When reading these Journals you therefore only get accounts of the events that affected Logan or that he thought were important enough to write about. For example, the crash of 1929 affects Logan’s mother quite badly but he only skims over this in his Journals as he is not that interested at the time and he doesn’t quite understand what has happened until much later when he sees the disastrous financial effect it has had on his mother’s way of life, and indirectly his own.
One of the devices Boyd uses to introduce us to real and imaginary people is Logan’s addiction to name dropping: at Oxford he describes a night at his drinking club where a small blond man who is very drunk asks him for a kiss. Much later he refers to this and he says that he think this man was Evelyn Waugh. Logan also meets Woolf, Picasso and Hemingway and the latter helps him smuggle some Miro paintings out of Spain.
All this name dropping and boasting helps to place Logan within historical and real events, so much so that at times you wonder if some of the encounters are real, in particular as Boyd puts real people next to invented people in the same room.
During our discussion of the book at our club meeting we enjoyed the references to places in Norfolk. When I read the book for the first time, I barely knew where Norfolk was on the map, but now I live here and so the fact that Logan and his mother supposedly spent the night before his first wedding in a hotel in Swaffham, and that he lives with his first wife on an estate in Norfolk not far from us, brought the book very close to home as well.
There are tragic events but also some very amusing ones. Logan’s meetings with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are funny and made me laugh out loud. He describes the Duchess as someone “impossible to get any idea of her figure under the haute couture. She’s very skinny but is she flat-chested? She called me Logan.”
When he starts is first journal, the School Journal, Logan is a 17-year-old living in Birmingham, having moved to England from Venezuela with his English father and Venezuelan mother just before the start of the First World War. His observations are typically those of a 17-year-old who leads a fairly protected and solid middle-class life; he is sent to a boarding school and tries to make the best of it. The other two characters who he befriends at school and who are important to Logan for the rest of his life are Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping and they will re-appear all though the diaries even if there are years that he has little contact with them.
Peter changes after he leaves university, from being quite unadventurous and wanting to be with the girl he falls in love with to becoming a philanderer who has one affair after the other. Ben appears to be the most steady of the three friends and plans his life carefully. He is also there for Logan whenever he needs him.
As it is written in diary format, Any Human Heart is clearly not plot driven but character driven. At the same time this is a story about the 20th century, and about Logan’s experiences within that era. So I think that both Logan and the 20th are ‘drivers’ in the way the book develops.
Nothing is predictable of course, as is the nature of a diary, and this is I think the point of the book and its title: Any Human Heart. It is about a person and how he develops within quite enormous historical events: moving as a teenager from south America to Britain, just before the first WW, the Crash of 29 when Logan’s mother loses everything including his inheritance, the pre-war thirties and the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and his personal tragedy, his move to America and then to Africa and back to London with his final settlement in France.
Although we know what happens in the course of the 20th century, we cannot predict what happens to Logan and in particular the bad hand fate deals him during and after the war. I think that this tragedy forms Logan’s character.
There is little structure to the book because of this diary format. It just moves forward without a plot. However, Boyd helps us to keep track of time and places by subdividing the diaries into the London Journals, the Oxford Journal, The Second World War Journal, etc. However, when writing a diary you don’t know what’s going to happen next and this seemingly shapeless story is constructed brilliantly.
In an interview Boyd said that he chose to write the story this way because he wanted to be able to cover the whole of the 20th century, without it becoming a boring sequence of main events. Through the diaries he is able to show how important events affect an ordinary man and the result is a mixture of fact and fiction. Nevertheless, Boyd has also said that a lot of Mountstuart’s views on people and artists are his own; for example the Duke of Windsor constantly takes things of other people and never says thank you.
The title ‘Any Human Heart’ indicates that this book relates the life of a person and it could have been any one person. People are formed by and respond to their environment and historical events can have a huge impact. At the same time there is a rather nice passage (P.480) when the French doctor who looks after Mountstuart when he lives in France towards the end of the century comments on his heart,
‘…look at your face in the mirror, he said, it’s not the same face you had at eighteen, or twenty-five, or thirty-two. Look at the lines and the creases. Look at the lack of elasticity. Your hair is falling out (‘And my teeth,’ I added). You still recognize that face – it’s still you – but it’s lived a long time and it’s showing the signs of that long life. Think of your old heart like your old face. Your heart doesn’t look the same organ as it did when it was eighteen. Imagine that everything that’s happened to your face over the years has happened to your heart. So go easy on it.’
I’m a great admirer of Boyd’s writing and other books that I have read and would recommend, include:
The New Confessions
Ordinary Thunderstorms – Winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award – 2009.
A good man in Africa
And once you’ve finished these, there are many more books by Boyd – I compare them to my camellia in spring, bountiful and wonderful.