William Boyd

Some books are meant to be re-read, simply because they not only entertain, but because they engender an influence, often enduringly subtle, on what we think and do.

Moments ago, I finished William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2001) for the second time, a melancholic exploration of a life’s passage by journal keeper Logan Mountstuart, who chronicles the perambulations of his career as a journalist, novelist, art connoisseur and private citizen.

I had been introduced to Any Human Heart previously, following its superb PBS adaptation in 2011. I refrain from calling it a novel, since it purports to being a series of journals. It isn’t my intent to summarize the plot, a non-starter really, since journals by their very nature cannot plot. My focus is primarily on Logan Mountstuart and how his journals define him.

Logan’s journals (there are several) are pensive in tone, which may deter some readers in giving thumbs-up to what they read. Tallying up life as its elderly witness, he resorts to math analogy: “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. 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.”

Luck, in fact, becomes a repeated motif in Any Human Heart from its outset, something very reminiscent of Hemingway perhaps, whose ironic intrusions frustrate human resolve in his narratives. Logan records meeting Hemingway in Paris and, as a mutual journalist in the Spanish civil war, enjoys a reciprocal friendship with him. His violent suicide shocks Logan.

Nor will every reader tolerate Logan Mountstuart’s licentiousness, if not sexual addiction, that compromises two of his three marriages and the boundaries of a key friendship. Incongruously, his psychiatrist recommends sleeping with two women simultaneously to dampen his sexual craving, counsel he carries out in recruiting two New York street prostitutes.

In defense of the protagonist, I offer Any Human Heart’s inveterate theme of the human condition, our limitations manifest in varied ways, the dichotomy of aspiring to our better selves, yet failure to do so, the assessing a life by its attempts, not its non-sequiturs. What I like is Logan’s honesty, no blemishes hidden, no journals burned. Logan is a man in search of himself.

The initial journal establishes the genesis of what will be lifelong friendships, beginning in boarding school, with Peter Scabius and and Ben Leeping. Both are successful, career-wise, more so than Logan, though differing in character make-up. A best selling novelist, Peter achieves knighthood, but behind his public persona relegates women, including multiple wives, to sexual subservience. Logan projects his own sexual infidelity on to Peter, finding it reprehensible.

On the other hand, Ben, a professional art dealer, proves consistently dependable for doing the right thing and a template for temperance and integrity.

So much of 20th century history is unfurled here, along with a pantheon of the century’s notable artists and writers, all of whom have crossed pathways with Logan, who vehemently disdains the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The only false notes in an otherwise attempt at plausibility is the allusion to a nonexistent painter, Nat Tate, an extension of a literary hoax Boyd had previously produced in a spoof biography (1998) in an otherwise meticulous attempt at realism to the point where Logan’s journals are replete with an editor’s introduction, efforts at authenticating probable dates and locales, explanatory footnotes, an index of people and fictional characters intrinsic to Mountstuart, and listing at end of works attributed to him

My crucial question in reading this sprawling 478 page narrative is Do we have a changed Logan Mountstuart at the last journal end? Certainly, that was author Boyd’s intended purpose at outset. The roman á clef here lies in recognizing we have several journals, not one. “For a start,” Boyd tells us, “it’s written without the benefit of hindsight, so there isn’t the same feeling you get when you look back and add shape to a life. There are huge chunks missing (The Telegraph, 16 April 2002). People aren’t one self. They’re an anthology of many selves (The book of life, The Guardian, 8 March 2003).

Logan’s tone mellows as he ages, transitioned subtly as we passage through time and place and from journal to journal. Boyd wanted the style to reflect the major theme that we change and grow throughout life: “I wanted the literary tone of each journal to reflect this and so the voice subtly changes as you read on: from pretentious school boy to modern young decadent, to bitter realist to drink soaked cynic, to sage and serene octogenarian, and so forth” (web.archive.org).

Life events and time’s forfeiture of youth, its infliction of inevitable loss, morbidity, the growing awareness of our imminent ending, can make us bitter and self pitying, but not surely so. Empathy is often time’s grace in lending cognizance of our universality and with it, our weaknesses committing the follies we wish could be undone.

We are individuals, yet in our collective experience across time, we are many evolving selves, linking us to a wider humanity, impacted by life events, with similar longings, disappointments and traumas that life brings. This is where Boyd’s introductory borrowing from Henry James accumulates its nuance: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Whatever his past shortcomings, the elderly Logan isn’t lacking in expansive empathy. There is his generosity to his step-daughter Gail, to whom he bequeaths his French homestead; his compassion for the sickly Gloria, Peter Scabius’ discarded wife, whom he takes in and nurses in her final weeks of cancer, despite his marginal financial resources; his intervention on behalf of Madame Gabrielle Dupetit, Sainte-Sabime neighbor, whose concern over the vandalization of her father’s memorial he takes on as his own.

He cries when his dog Bowser dies: “I experienced a form of grief so intense and pure I thought it would kill me. I howled like a baby with my dog in my arms. Then I put him in a wooden wine case and carried him into the garden and buried him under a cherry tree.”

We aren’t keeping company with the same man we met in the earlier journals. Logan acknowledges such in reviewing his journals from the retrospect of a man now in his eighties: “Rereading my old journals is both a source of revelation and shock. I can see no connection between that schoolboy and the man I am now. What a morose, melancholy, troubled soul I was. That wasn’t me, was it?”

I think of Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Time’s anvil has hammered a less selfish, more fulsome human being, well-liked by Sainte Subime’s citizenry. I don’t want to give the journals’ salient elements away, but Logan has endured “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” exceedingly beyond what most of us are heir to among life’s undulations: failed marriages, two years solitary confinement in war time, unanticipated deaths, and abject poverty that reduces him at one point to dining on dog food.

Much of the latter part of Any Human Heart deals with inevitable aging and its accompanying marginalization, demise, and hovering mortality. Its universality impels we live life meaningfully, experientially, mindful of our temporality.

On a beach crowded by young, handsomely tanned bodies, he reflects: “…highs and appalling lows, my brief triumphs and terrible losses and I say, no, no, I don’t envy you—you slim, brown, confident boys and girls and whatever futures await you….Over the beach and the ocean as the sun begins to drop down in the west, a strange sense of pride: pride in all I’ve done and lived through, proud to think of the thousands of people I’ve met and known and the few I’ve loved. Play on, boys and girls, I say, smoke and flirt, work on your tans, figure out your evening’s entertainment. I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done.”

Though some readers will never latch-on to Logan Mountstuart, I venture most readers will likely mourn his death at Any Human Heart’s end, and that says everything for exchange of a static character for one whose maturation hints his redemption.

–rj