Reflections on Boyd’s Any Human Heart: Elegant Solemnity

51PW49A1GYL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-66,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Have just finished William Boyd’s riveting novel, Any Human Heart, nearly 500 pages long.  You may remember it had appeared on PBS as an award-winning three part adaptation.  That’s what led me to the novel, the fictional playback of the posthumous journals of Logan Mountstuart, novelist and free lance journalist, whose life of eight and half decades virtually bookends the previous century.  Though a fictional work, Boyd ingeniously transmutes it into a rerun of much of that century’s principal happenings, replete with landmark political and cultural figures.  We almost believe Mountstuart is real.  Boyd even supplies copious endnotes!  Obviously, Boyd did his homework.

Most readers embrace this novel warmly, despite its weight of persistent melancholy.  Life for Mountstuart adds up to luck and unluck and, subtracting the difference, hoping your assets top your liabilities.  For Mountstuart, there’s an awful lot of bad luck, though you could argue much of it’s of his own doing rather than a conspiracy of fate.

There are readers who don’t like him.  I see things differently–Mountstuart an anti-hero in the sense we all are, living behind masks, or an assemblage of many selves, creatures often governed by inertia, self-absorption, insecurity, pettiness, obsessive evolutionary drives– and not infrequently, self-pity; in sum, a panoramic narrative of human finiteness foregrounded in the human condition that forestalls its amelioration.

I see a character refreshingly honest about his failings, indeed his saving grace, who by story end, arrives at a greater, more compassionate self, reaching beyond narcicissm to embracing others; distilling what good elements remain through sharpened awareness; at last accepting of mortality’s proximity in keeping with the tenor of his several journals underscoring the ephemerality of experience.

Any Human Heart just happens to be one of the wisest novels I’ve read in a long time with its plethora of acute observations, reminding me of Herzog’s insightful ruminations in Bellow’s eponymous work.  Accordingly, I’ve jotted some of them down, hoping you’ll like them as I do and perhaps want to try out this novel for yourself: 

On life:

Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary–it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum.

That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience.  Everything is explained by that simple formula. 

You can’t make these unilateral pacts with life:  you can’t say that’s it, my emotions are securely locked away away, now I’m impregnable, safe from the world’s cruelties and disappointments.

On religion:

It was all a bit obscure to me and now I understand why I don’t give religion much thought.  The awful boredom of uncritical faith.  All great artists are doubters.

I’ve never understood how a person of real intelligence can believe in a god. Or gods.

Shelley was so right:  Atheism is an absolute necessity in this world of ours.  If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by the human spirit–appeals to deity or deities are only a form of pretense.  We might as well howl at the moon.

On sexual initiation

I could only marvel at her nudity.  It seems to me that first time of mutual nakedness is almost a more lasting memory than the sex act.

On mortality:

We’re not ready for it–for people of our age to die.  We think we’re safe for a while, but it’s a dream.  No one’s safe.

That moment when you realize quite rationally, quite unemotionally–that the world in the-not-so-distant future will not contain you: that the trees you planted will continue growing but you will not be there to see them.

We all want a sudden death but we know we’re not all going to be provided with one.  So our end.  So our end will be our ultimate bit of good or bad luck–the final addition to the piles.


I miss New York more than I would have imagined.  I miss those perfect spring days.  Wraiths of steam rising from the manhole vents backlit by slanting early morning sun.  Cross streets thick with cherry trees in bloom.  The way time seems to slow to a crawl in diners and coffee shops.

On health:

Those of us who have the luck to enjoy good health forget about this vast parallel universe of the unwell–their daily miseries, their banal ordeals.  Only when you cross that frontier into the world of ill-health do you recognize its quiet, massive presence, its brooding permanence.

On pets:

He’s only an old dog, I tell myself, and he lived a full and happy dog’s life.  It may sound stupid, but I loved him and I know he loved me.  That meant there was an uncomplicated traffic of  mutual love in my life and I find it hard to admit it’s over.

On good writing:

The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing and one longs for a simple, elegant, discursive sentence.  This is the key difference:  in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.





Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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