This is the story of Logan Mountstuart, told through his journals. His travels take the reader from Uruguay to Oxford, Paris, the Bahamas, New York and Africa. This is the story of a life lived to the full - and a journey deep into a very human heart.
The book consists of his personal journals, with some editorial commentary, and follows his life for almost the entirety of the 20th century. He has notable successes and embarrassing failures, both professionally and personally. He has unexpected adventures, particularly during WWII, when he works under future James Bond author Ian Fleming in defense of the realm. One 1933 entry gives an example of his peripatetic existence: "Movements. Monte Carlo - La Spezia (to see Shelley's last house at Lerici) - Pisa - Sienna - Rome. Rome - Paris (on an aeroplane - this is the only way to travel). Paris - London. London - Thorpe Gellingham." One of the pleasures of the book is his globetrotting and intimate descriptions of the locales where he stays.
He marries mistakenly, and subsequently meets the love of his life. Throughout his life, like a well-known U.S. president, he has trouble keeping his pants zipped. Surprisingly, perhaps because of his basic humility and decency, this often leads to lasting relationships, even when the sex stops.
He believably meets many luminaries of the century, and his connections with an art gallery bring him into contact with artists like Picasso and Klee. "Picasso seems to me one of those stupid geniuses - more Yeats, Strindberg, Rimbaud, Mozart, than Matisse, Brahms, Braque. It's quite tiring being with him.". But Picasso takes to Logan, and gives Logan and a paramour a precious drawing of the two of them. One story thread that reappears through the years is Logan's on-again off-again relationship with the odious Duke and Duchess of Windsor (were they as odious as portrayed, I wonder?)
He lives in the U.S. for a while, and prefers a city like Chicago to LA - "there has to be something brutal and careless about a true city - the denizen must feel vulnerable - and Los Angeles doesn't deliver that . . . I feel too damn comfortable here, too cocooned." Toward the end of his life he spends time at a beautifully described farmhouse near a small French village, where he is a mystery to the increasingly friendly locals. This is not a story of a steady climb to the top or a rocket trajectory followed by a plunge. Logan thinks of his life first as a roller coaster, then corrects himself to view it as a yo-yo, used by a "maladroit child". Looking back, he sees, "sporadic highs and appalling lows, . . . brief triumphs and terrible losses", but in the end it is a life well-lived, and well-told. In many ways he is like each of us, and much of the enjoyment of this book is his honest depiction of a full and eventful life. Many thanks to Mark for recommending this one.
Much of the technical brilliance of this book results from the shifts in Logan's style as he, and the times through which he lives, ever so subtly evolve. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to appreciate Boyd's art as one ought, for one finds oneself almost reading the journals as genuine. The most dazzling vignettes, perhaps, are those of the self-regarding diaries of the young writers and aesthetes of the Twenties and Thirties, where Cyril Connolly (who appears as a character) is a likely influence. But if the early sections are the closest to parody, they are never mere caricature.
Boyd manages a rather touching, as well as extremely funny, portrait of a pretentious, arrogant, clever 17-year-old ("wrote a Spenserian ode on loss of faith"), who writes with flourishes of self-conscious pomposity ("we regained the purlieus of school without further incident"), is striving for superiority ("the Xmas tree is surely the saddest and most vulgar object invented by mankind"), yet does not know how to go about kissing his cousin Lucy, or deal with the discovery that his father does not have long to live.
Almost every section of the journals is nearly as good: Logan's moment with his baby son: "Lionel has croup. He seems a sickly baby. I sat him on my knee the other day and he stared at me with a baleful, sullen, and unknowing eye." is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. But the novel is not a simple criticism of many diarists of the period. Logan is capable of real and generous feeling, as well as of self-regarding depression; though to reveal the circumstances in which he finds (and loses) his truest love, as he moves from early critical acclaim to poverty and obscurity, would spoil an immensely readable story.
One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, by the way it holds your interest - which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skillfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of the typical diary. As Logan remarks in his opening preamble, one should not expect coherence from journals: they merely "entrap that collection of selves that forms us"; unshaped by retrospection, their reality is "riotous and disorganized." Boyd's novel deliberately appears sprawling and inclusive; but it reads like a distillation of a real journal. He displays an unobtrusive artistry that transforms the potentially confusing "disorganized" diary-form into a novel which demonstrates the confusions and randomness of human life.
Another title for this book, may have been “The Mortal Life of Logan Mountstuart”. LMS, as he calls himself, was born in 1906 and starting in 1923, he tells his story through personal journal entries, taking us through the decades of the 20th century. It’s a Zelig-like journey, as LMS, a fledgling author and correspondent, tools across Europe, bumping into a vast array of cultural icons, like Hemingway, Picasso, Ian Fleming, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Virginia Woolf and many others. We also experience his many ups and downs, his affairs, (sex plays a large frolicking role), his marriages and his life-long friendships: “It's true: lives do drift apart for no obvious reason. We're all busy people, we can't spend our time simply trying to stay in touch. The test of a friendship is if it can weather these inevitable gaps.”
This is my first Boyd novel and his clear prose and sure-fire storytelling sold me immediately. I’m an instant fan.
I would recommend this novel to the patient reader who would be pleased with a gentle, slow, complete life of a (maybe not so) ordinary man.
Didn't finish it. Enjoyed his first two books some years back, so disappointed in this.
The reminiscences are liberally peppered with pen portraits of the people whom Mountstuart met, including Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and, in more sinister circumstances, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Boyd is, as ever, master of his material and the pace never lags, and the reader is wholly immersed in the world of Mountstuart. Probably his finest novel to date, which is saying a great deal.
LMS certainly lived an exciting life, but this book having been highly recommended to me by various people, and having read two of Boyd's books before, I had high expectations, and while I thought the story was very good for the most part, I wasn't so impressed with all the cameos and appearances of famous people in his life and kept wanting more, which is why the novel suddenly became absolutely fascinating to me when, as an old man, LMS hit hard times and had to go to extreme measures to eke out a living and fight to hang on to his dignity and sense of self, even as he found himself unable to write the novel that might have put him back on the map. By then end I was completely won over and quite fascinated by this monumental construction, which is one I'll have to find time to read again in future, as I'm sure I'll enjoy it very differently now that the whole picture has been revealed. Strongly recommended.
In a way, I suppose writing a fictional diary must be more difficult that a fictional biography. In a journal the internal psychology, the psychology of the main character are essential to the credibility of the journals, a credibility which is important to maintain suspense, and prevent the reader from abandoning the book altogether. Still, as a consequence of the genre, any fictional diary or biography is in essence less interesting than a real journal or biography, because nothing really matters.
The first hurdle for the author is, therefore, to make a convincing case for the diarist to keep a journal which would be interesting enough for a modern readership. This problem is conspicuously solved by making Logan a minor author, who lived throughout the whole of the 20th century, being born in 1916, whose background, course of life through modern history we are all familiar with, and interests are generally appealing to the average reader. However, there is some strain as Mountstuart's life story does take some unexpected turns, possibly to keep the story going.
There are a few hidden strings in the story, which add to the authenticity of the character of Mountstuart while winking an eye to the reader. One of these lines is Mountstuart's flawed assessment of celebrities he encounters during his life, dismissing Hemingway as a minor author. Another would be his "daring" bravado of publishing an "indecent" novel, although Mountstuart is a follower here, rather than a trendsetter, as D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover would already have come out and paved the way for this type of literature.
Any human heart did not convince me as a journal. The unity of style, the lack of spontaneity and the general feel were more of a novel than an autograph. Nonetheless, the formidable book, more than 500 pages, was a very enjoyable read.
I don’t think there are any real spoilers here, but I have to mention some of the broad plot points to give my reasons for my rating. I picked this up at random thinking it was some obscure, unread book and not realizing it was fairly popular, or that there was a BBC production of it.
This is the (fictional) story of a man’s life, from beginning to end, told through his journal entries. He’s a fairly ordinary man, a moderately successful writer, who finds himself in some of the big historical events of the last century. Unlike similar books I’ve read (one just recently, which put me off this at first) he is not a hero or the secret brain behind events; he’s not the guy that told Edison the secret of the light bulb, or told the Allies how to win the war. This book is almost the opposite of that.
He’s the guy who’s standing in the background in the famous picture. When you read an account of a famous gathering of writers and artists, a dinner or a party, he’s the name you don’t recognize. I’ve always been very curious about those people, I’m always asking "what’s their story?" and apparently Mr. Boyd was too and wrote one. I think Mr. Boyd did a great job capturing that story, and the book is well written, the problems come from the same source as the strengths; the whole point is that the main character is not the most interesting man in the world. He leads a very interesting life compared to most, but not interesting enough to tell stories about. He occupies that middle ground. If you’re like me and always wonder who that actress is that made a bunch of movies but no one remembers her name, or read an obituary buried somewhere and thought the person had lived an interesting life, this will probably interest you.
The other side of this book is a look at what it is to be a man and get through life. Again, something that’s been covered many times, in some ways reminds me of what I thought the "The Sportswriter" could’ve been (which I didn’t care for). The subject is a good guy, and tries to be, but does things that are not always admirable, if never outright evil or bad.
My criticisms are tempered by the feeling that the book does exactly what it attempts to do. I had the strange feeling after reading the journals of a man’s entire life that I still didn’t know him that well, but I think in some ways he didn’t know himself that well, and that’s what you get from only reading his journals. There is no narrator to add extra depth and description. I like the fact that Mr. Boyd resisted the temptation to make the characters and events larger than life, they are exactly life size. You could almost forget you’re reading a fictional account.
If you’re looking for a hero story or a great adventure you will be disappointed. If you want a quiet story of a man trying to figure out his life and living through the big events of recent history then I think it was well done.
Logan is a journalist, a writer of biographies and novels, an art dealer, a frequenter of prostitutes, a spy and a prisoner of war. He meets Cyril Connolly, adventures with Ernest Hemingway, visits the studio of Pablo Picasso, plays golf with the Duke of Windsor, works for Ian Fleming during World War II and has a nodding acquaintance with James Joyce. All of which might be unbelievable if it weren’t for the deft credibility, the charm and authenticity of Boyd’s creation. The reader is more than happy to suspend disbelief because this is no crude wade through the shallows of celebrity, this is a very clever book. It works because of the richness and variety of its creativity, with minor and major characters given depth and density. When, towards the end of the book, Logan is rescued from poverty in late-70s London, where he is reduced to making stews from dog food, the reader is more than happy to go with him to his unexpected inheritance in France.
The device of using journals or diaries to describe a life is often considered to be artificial and distancing, but here it is used skilfully, allowing us into Logan Mountstuart’s mind at one remove, making the reader both a voyeur and a confidante.
William Boyd’s last book was a biography of American painter Nat Tate, which had art dealers anxiously searching the back-catalogues for work which didn’t exist, because Tate didn’t either. With Any Human Heart Boyd has gone one better. This time we know from the start that this is fiction, but so solidly and joyously placed in the world that it might as well be fact.
What was most poignant for me in the book was the relationship with Freya & Stella, and how there can be this moment / time of happiness in someone's life, only for it sometimes to end ever so soon. It was absolutely devastating when Freya & Stella died, & it wasn't made easier by the fact that so many people died in the 2nd world war. It still seemed tragic to me. I have to say, after that the book depicted Logan's life as going from disaster to disaster, just going downhill really. Especially the bit where he was living in London & was completely broke & living on dogfood... oh my god, that was so so sad especially after he had lived those happy years with Freya. I did think at that point in the book that this was quite disappointing; Logan went from an initially promising life, to a peak when he met Freya, to everything going downhill after that. And yet at the end Boyle actually 'saved' the whole thing, with Logan's last few years in France, which actually felt like a very good ending to a long & turbulent life.
The one thing that left me a bit puzzled- I didn't know what do with it!- was the fact that Logan kept bumping into famous people: Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, the prince of England & many others. That particular strategy felt a bit 'gimmicky' and Forest-Gumpy to me... but I guess the book was (among other things) trying to document what happened during the 20th century & not just Logan's life, so in that sense it made sense as a strategy.
Anyway, in general- very well written, very enjoyable.
Yet another intriguing, intelligently written book by board favourite William Boyd.
The protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, is a writer whose life spans every decade of the C20th. By turns heroic/anti-heroic and, at times, somewhat quixotic, his life has highs, lows and even boring bits when he's stuck in a rut. Boyd cleverly reduces these latter to a minimum by compiling the novel from a series of journals written by LMS during his life. When LMS was in a rut, there was no journal. Hey presto - all the editing is done. The advantage of this is that the reader is not bored with the minutiae of life. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to keep track of time.
There's a good mix of mood here: humour in the jolly boarding school escapades of LMS as a teen; bitchiness in the successful years as a young author and journalist (dishing the dirt on Hemingway, Woolf, Waugh, etc); adventure during the Second World War (seasoned with the intrigues of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor!).
The real accomplishment in Boyd's format is that LMS goes into a slow inreversible decline after WWII and yet the journals remain interesting, for by turns he lives in New York, Nigeria, London and France. We don't really notice his downhill slide until we meet him as a pensioner trying to eek out an existence in 1980's London. I found these pages terribly, terribly poignant (and a little terrifying to be honest). I was very pleased when LMS escaped to live out his days in relative comfort in a delapidated French cottage.
I did think "Any Human Heart" a little patchy. I found the New York section a little vacuous - but, then, maybe that's how life was in the 1960's arty circle. But I am nit-picking. On the whole this is another triumphant novel from the pen of an author who, in my eyes, is now an unsung national treasure.
P.S Boyd's fictional artist Nat Tate features as a subsidiary character in the New York section. Seems Boyd just couldn't resist rubbing the art world's nose in it just one more time!
I was impressed by the way the narrator's voice changed as he aged - from slightly bumptious public schoolboy to cantankerous old codger, and the way - at the end - the reader could look back on pretty much an entire life, and have a sense of time having elapsed, acquaintances come and gone etc.
Names are dropped at an astonishing rate in the early stages, 'LMS' counting among his personal acquaintances such luminaries as James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway and Picasso, as well as Edward and Mrs Simpson. Brave, the way these characters are portrayed warts-and-all (Hemingway drops the 'F' word, the Duke of Windsor gets involved with some dodgy dealings, and 'LMS' pokes fun at Joyce's Irish accent). Presumably okay as the people concerned are dead enough not to sue.
It's not full of the sort of belly laughs found in Boyd's other novels, Armadillo and A Good Man in Africa, though the humour is there. There is a great 'three in a bed' episode late on (students of Literary Vice could Compare and Contrast the 'Girls' chapter in 'American Psycho'!). My favourite, though was where the narrator jotted down all the subjects he felt qualified to write about, the list including English Romantic Poets, South America, Modern Art and Corned Beef. !!