William Boyd, Any Human Heart

From the Novel Readings Archive

I haven’t watched the first instalment of the new BBC adaptation of Any Human Heart yet, but it’s waiting for me on my DVR. In the meantime, it seems like a good time to recall what I thought about the book. As you’ll see, things started out a bit rocky–but I ended up liking it a lot. I’m curious to see how (or if) the adaptation deals with the formal features of the novel, particularly the first-person narration through the diaries. I’m expecting that it doesn’t try to capture Logan’s voice but simply dramatizes his life story. That’s usually the great loss in the shift from written to visual form, no matter how good the adaptation otherwise. The BBC Middlemarch, for instance, though intelligent in many ways, is an incredibly thinned-out experience compared to the novel because (except for a brief voice-over at the end) there’s no narrator.


I almost didn’t finish reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. By about 200 pages in, I was tired of Logan Mountstuart, his personality, and his life. He seemed archly insouciant, pretentious, insubstantial–as did the novel’s conceit of following this unappealing person through the 20th century, punctuating his episodic memoir (the novel consists of his journals, ‘edited,’ complete with footnotes, editorial commentary, and an index) with encounters with Woolf and Joyce, Hemingway and the Duke of Windsor and Picasso. Here’s a typical diary entry:

Tuesday, 4 March We dined at Luigi’s and went on to the Cafe Royal. It was busy, full of unfamiliar faces. Spotted and spoke with Cyril [Connolly] and Jean who were with Lyman? Leland? [unidentifed]. They left shorty after. Then Adrian Daintrey[22] came in with a party in evening dress–which included Virginia Woolf[23], smoking a cigar. I let them have our table and during the general milling around that took place I introduced Freya to Woolf. ‘Are you two here alone?’ she said to Freya. ‘What a ghastly crowd. How it’s changed.’

‘We were here with Cyril Connolly, a moment ago,’ Freya said.

‘Was his black baboon with him?’ VW asked.

Freya didn’t know what she was talking about.

‘His little gollywog wife.’

I turned to Freya. ‘Now you understand Mrs Woolf’s reputation for charm.’ Back to VW. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’

We strode out and when we reached home had our first serious row. Freya was a little shocked at VW’s spite. I said you would never imagine the person who wrote all that lyrical breathy prose was steeped in such venom. ‘At least she writes,’ Freya said, without thinking. But it cut and so we looked around for something to fight about and duly found it. Now I’m writing this, about to go to sleep on the sofa, and I can hear Freya sobbing next door in the bedroom.

And so it goes, documenting Logan’s haphazard journey across the century. He’s a novelist, a journalist, a sort-of spy, an art dealer, a husband, a philanderer, a father. He meets Joyce in Paris, Hemingway in Spain, Frank O’Hara in New York. He is a kind of picaresque Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern, take your pick), always present, always involved, never really very important or impressive. He spends two years as a prisoner of war–in Switzerland! Somehow, that detail of his WWII escapades seems to me to capture something fundamental about how his life is conceived and presented in this novel, that he should parachute into Europe on a secret mission but to a neutral country, and end up so unheroically, and so diverted from the course of history that he doesn’t even know when the war has ended. It would be a comic incident (even Logan, mystified as he is by his internment, never seems to fear he will meet a terrible fate at the hands of the Swiss), if his return to action weren’t marked by a family tragedy. His story oscillates between such turns of good and bad fortune…and that uneven, unpredictable alternation of good and bad, happiness and grief, begins after a while to reveal itself as the underlying logic of the novel. As Logan reflects, near the end of his life,

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.

As I realized Any Human Heart was not going to shape its protagonist’s life into something more definite, but would just keep on going with it, right to the end, I began to fall under its spell. I didn’t like Logan much more later in the novel than I had at first, and certainly he never achieved the level of moral self-reflection you might hope for if the novel were of a different kind (a Bildungsroman, for instance). The novel is a bit like David Copperfield, but without the benefit of hindsight in its narration, or of real personal growth in its action. But at the same time, the relentless forward movement of time itself has a kind of narrative to it. At one point Logan heads “to the passport office to collect [his] new passport, valid for another ten years”:

In 1965 I’ll be fifty-nine and the thought makes me feel faint. What’s happened to my life? These ten-year chunks that are doled out to you in passports are a cruel form of memento mori. How many more new passports will I have? One (1965)? Two (1975)? Such a long way off, 1975, yet your passport life seems all too brief. How long did he live? He managed to renew six passports.

I thought that was a beautiful moment; it was certainly the moment at which I began to read without impatience, with a quickened interest in following Logan’s life the rest of the way. He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures. His most lasting relationship is with himself (he dies alone), but he has the great gift of “genuine love” for three other people, a love that brings him to another brief but beautiful insight:

As I write this I feel that draining, hollowing helplessness that genuine love for another person produces in you. It’s at these moments that we know we are going to die. Only with Freya, Stella, and Gail. Only three. Better than none.

I finished the final journal entry, which is touching but unsentimental, very happy to have persisted with the novel. I was with Logan emotionally in a way I never would have predicted from my initial response. I’m not convinced, though, that the set-up, the elaborate pretense of authenticity, was necessary. The apparatus (explanatory prefaces, footnotes, index) seems gratuitously metafictional. We can suspend our disbelief readily enough when reading a novel cast as a diary (or as letters, for that matter); we don’t need to pretend we can read it because it was prepared for publication. I suppose this framing material does enhance the novel’s emphasis on Logan as a witness to history, something he himself becomes more self-conscious about, naturally enough, later in his life when having known Hemingway, or met Woolf, or been sketched by Picasso, confers on him a kind of status, as if he’s a walking relic. But it still felt artificial to me and even, at times, detracted from my unfolding sense of commitment to the individual voice speaking through the journals.

(originally posted October 10, 2009)

2 Comments to William Boyd, Any Human Heart

  1. February 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I watched the first episode of Any Human Heart last night on PBS and they did include the first-person narration at some points. They have three different actors playing him, Jim Broadbent as an old man looking through all his journals and mementos alone, who frames the story. It also shows him writing his diary as a young man and doing a voice-over sometimes, speaking what he writes about. I’ve been interested in the book, but as you say, the footnotes put me off a bit. He does seem a bit self-absorbed at first, but I was drawn into the story. Virginia Woolf hasn’t shown up yet, but that’s a rather spiteful story about her (if it’s true?) to include in the book! Hemingway is shown in a very positive light by contrast.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    February 16, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Carolyn–I’ve watched the first bit now and I basically like the framing stuff, though the focus on old (dying) Logan gives it all something of a nostalgic, sepia-tinged atmosphere that is more sentimental than the novel. I like the emphasis on the journals, though. I think I saw that William Boyd was involved in the adaptation, which may account for the effort to somehow indicate the self-consciousness of the book.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
In progress: Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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