William Boyd, “Any Human Heart”

Why would I want to read a novel that purports to be the informal diary kept by an upper-class Englishman born in 1906? It comes with footnotes and an index, the scholarly paraphernalia of the genuine journal. But Logan Gonzago Mountstuart is William Boyd’s invention. And Boyd has something more in mind than evoking youthful pre-war European adventures. Here’s his epigraph: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart,” supplied by no less than Henry James. (Not a great title: altogether too abstract.) I have to assume that Mountstuart is an English Zelig of sorts, an Everyman who lives, as he points out at the end, in every decade of the twentieth century. That makes for a rather programmatic approach to fiction: Mountstuart’s almost forced to participate in the historical high spots of the century. And he does: Paris in the twenties, Hemingway, the Depression, wartime service, New York in the sixties, etc. etc. With a scope like that, this novel could have been deadly. To tell the truth, I didn’t really like Logan Mountstuart much and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked me either. But Any Human Heart was completely absorbing because Boyd has the gift of readability. Again and again, with each diary entry (the enemy of immersive reading, in a way), you are plunged into Mountstuart’s world.

Talk about random: even the Biafran war is part of the story.

And I keep trying to figure out why. As a novelist, I’m always trying to locate the source of tension or drama in what I’m reading, but what could be less ostensibly dramatic than a series of journal entries? Boyd is clearly playing with this idea throughout the book, fooling around with the simulation of a journal’s randomness and the requirements of fiction. Shortly after World War II, he has Mountstuart write,

Isn’t this how life turns out, more often than not? It refuses to conform to your needs — the narrative needs that you feel are essential to give rough shape to your time on this earth… Feelings of depression; feelings of frustration; feelings of emptiness in the face of all this randomness — done down by the haphazard, yet again.”

In fact that may be the dramatic tension in Any Human Heart, far beyond Mountstuart’s trouble with women or his stop-and-start career or his repeated and ultimately rather funny stints as a spy. (Another theme: Mountstuart’s penchant for deception. What is fiction but a series of lies?) It’s the conflict between the ordered and the arbitrary, or, to put it another way, the degree to which luck dominates any human existence. In a creative work that owes nothing to chance, Boyd tries to emulate the haphazard quality that rules a life. Ultimately, the book’s structure leaves it to the reader to assign meaning to Mountstuart’s existence.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to William Boyd, “Any Human Heart”

  1. Barbara says:

    Yes. Trying to assign meaning to Mounstuart’s life is what made this book so touching to me ultimately. I enjoyed the journal structure particularly during the war years and the last years of Logan’s life in France. I sort of grew to love the old mess by the end of the book – an endearingly human character.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Oh, I’d forgotten that final part. Yes, it does give us a new and appealing side of our protagonist. And sheds new light on the rest of the book, if I remember correctly. Have you read Jane Gardam’s books? “Old Filth,” etc? Similar personnel, different effect. Awfully good.

    • Barbara says:

      Yes, Jane Gardam a particular favorite. Old Filth and Queen of the Tambourine are two of hers I’ve read. I know you recommend “….Wooden Hat” which is on my list. One of these days. And you’re right – Edward Feathers and Logan Mountstuart were very different young men yet sort of indistinguishable as old men, living alone, looking back on their lives and wondering what it was all about.

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