Twentieth Century Man

any-human-heartA sort of half-title page reads: Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart.  This is part of the subterfuge.

The title page, in contrast, reads: Any Human Heart: a novel by William Boyd (Knopf, 2003).  This is part of the fun.

For this is indeed a work of fiction by Boyd, an award-winning British novelist, although no such disclaimer exists elsewhere in its pages.  Indeed, there is a wealth of textual apparatus designed to make you believe that what you are holding in your hands is instead a lightly edited reproduction of a set of journals.  Logan Mountstuart, according to this supplementary material, lived from 1906 to 1991, variously in Uruguay, where he was born, in England, the Bahamas, Switzerland, New York, Nigeria, and France.  An afterword supplies details of his death and is followed by a list of the books that he published during his lifetime; there is even a collection of essays promised to be “in preparation.”

An extensive index follows the afterword, in which you can locate the appearance of all the major characters who appear in the novel: Logan’s schoolboy friends Peter and Ben, his wives, children, and step-children, neighbors and mere acquaintances.  There is a host of characters drawn from history, most of whom are also glossed in footnotes scattered through the text.  There is Evelyn Waugh, seen as a drunken young man at a party in Oxford pushing his tongue into Logan’s mouth; Virginia Woolf, dour and cruel; Picasso, randy and generous; Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, friends and perhaps enemies; Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond; Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman drinking alongside Logan in New York’s Cedar Tavern; various members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

A brief prelude, penned by Logan perhaps in preparation for the publication of these journals, explains how his family left Montevideo to return to England in the week before the start of the First World War.  The earliest of the nine journals that comprise the story, from Logan’s youthful days at the Abbey School, begins five years after the signing of the Armistice.  After Oxford, working as a journalist, he is sent off to Spain and the Civil War there, where he reports from the front, encounters Hemingway, and plays golf with the Duke of Windsor.

That encounter proves fateful: it leads ultimately to Logan’s being recruited by Ian Fleming to work for Naval Intelligence during the Second World War.  He is first sent to the Bahamas to watch over the Duke, who has been appointed Governor there for his own safety, and well as that of the House of Windsor.  After a scandal involving the murder of the Canadian entrepreneur and tax exile Harry Oakes, Logan returns to England before being parachuted into Switzerland to spy on German preparations to send high-ranking Nazi officials to South America—Uruguay in particular—after the anticipated defeat of Germany.

After the war, thanks to his childhood friend Ben, and his long acquaintance with European modernists, now themselves living as émigrés in America, he establishes himself as an art dealer in New York City as Abstract Expressionism begins to claim the world’s attention.  Another scandal forces his return to London where, seeking refuge, he accepts a post in Nigeria.  There he once again witnesses the ravages of civil war when Biafra secedes from the larger state, taking most of the oil reserves with it.

Returning to London and reduced to penury, his literary, journalistic, and artistic careers extinguished, he supplements his meagre income selling radical socialist newspapers until he is once more offered a chance to return to the Continent on a mysterious political errand.  Things go horribly wrong again, as they did on his expedition into wartime Switzerland.  But the ever-resourceful Logan manages a retreat to the south of France where he retires, quietly for the most part.  The war returns in one of the last dramatic episodes of the novel as tensions between the descendants of the village’s “collaborators” and “liberators” surface decades after the fact.

All of this is “almost history”: Logan is at the periphery of many of the major events in the twentieth century’s long catalog of barbarism, and much of what is recounted alongside those events is likewise “almost history.”  Indeed, part of the fun that Boyd has with history in this novel can be traced through the footnotes, which give an equal sense of verisimilitude to an encounter with Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Aldous Huxley at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country house (cross-referenced in a note to The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume III) as they do to Logan’s relationship with an American artist by the name of Nat Tate.  A footnote on page 336 instructs the reader “For a fuller account of Nat Tate’s life , see Nat Tate: An American Artist by William Boyd (21 Publishing, 1998).  That book is a real publication by the author of Any Human Heart, but Tate, whose name is a compound of the National Gallery and the Tate in London, along with his artistic oeuvre, is as metafictional as most everything in Any Human Heart.

The epigraph to this novel comes from Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”  And indeed, alongside the historical pageant that fills its pages, Any Human Heart delves deep into the heart of Logan Mountstuart, into his hopes, his despair, his loves, and his losses.  It is an intimate psychological portrait of a man.  It looks to explain how contingency and chance shape a life, but it also provides a novelist’s perspective on how personality and character respond to fate and create a life that nonetheless has consistency, pattern, and meaning.  There is a web of connections, amidst the “sporadic highs and appalling lows … brief triumphs and terrible losses” in Logan’s life, his marriages and love affairs, his friends and his foes, that is as richly drawn and complex as those that we know from the chronicles of the twentieth century’s savagery.  And in many ways, these intimate stories are what carries the plot forward and sustain our interest in and sympathy for Logan.

It is this combination of personal and public history that gives extraordinary richness to the weave of one man’s life as recounted in Any Human Heart, and suggests that such richness is ultimately to be found in any human story.  Added to this is the clarity, the brilliance even, of Boyd’s prose.  Here is a sample, drawn from late in the book, as  Logan ventures out into a Indian summer day at his home in the French countryside.

Through a gap in the trees of the park I can see the blond grass of the meadow—turned quite yellow under the sun like the waters of the old River Plate—and the dark green of the oak woods, offset beyond, the trees so densely leafed that they seem to billow out over the sun-bleached yellow grass like smoke or waves.  And, closer to, the sharp clarity of the sunlight on the bushes and the creeper around the house is perfect: the perfect balance of leaf-shadow, leaf-shine and leaf-translucnece—absolutely correct, as if worked out by mathematical formulae to provide the ideal visual stimulus.  Down by the barn a thick patch  of thistle is in seed and the wandering breeze snatches the thistle-down and lifts it skyward in small urgent flurries—backlit by the sun so that the down seems to sparkle and gleam like mica or sequins—so much so that it looks like photons of light are taking to the air, flying upwards—rising upwards, blowing away across the meadow—like what?—like glow worms,  like lucent moths.

It is among the most satisfying novels I’ve read in many a year.

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