Online Edition: Spring 2003

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Any Human Heart

William Boyd

Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

by Emily Johnston

Novelist William Boyd has a fondness for framing devices: The Blue Afternoon told the story of a man's love affair while describing his daughter's new and enigmatic acquaintance with him decades later, and Brazzaville Beach opens with a woman at a seaside African cabin reflecting upon the tumult of the previous years. In Any Human Heart Boyd continues this framing in minimalist fashion, presenting a story told almost entirely in journal form, but with occasional passages and footnotes supplied by a supposed literary executor. At its finer moments, the novel reads like something you might find in the musty attic of a family home, open with mild curiosity, and then read straight through, fascinated by the engaging, detailed evocation of one individual's thoughts throughout a long life.

From childlike self-proclamation--"Yo, Logan Mountstuart, vivo en la Villa Flores, Avenida de Brasil, Montevideo, Uruguay, America del Sur, El Mundo, El Sistema Solar, El Universo," the book begins, in its only Spanish entry, when our protagonist is first given a journal--Any Human Heart moves on to adolescent delights and traumas; to youthful hope as the author, a writer, begins publishing; to middle-aged compromises and the shattering effect of World War II; and finally to a penurious but more serene old age. The moods of the character's aging are for the most part wholly believable, however the intimacy of a journal does come with dangers; inevitably episodic in nature, the novel loses its drive as Mountstuart loses his exuberance, and sags dangerously about halfway through its nearly 500 pages.

One problem is Boyd's decision to make Mountstuart a successful and peripatetic enough author and gallery manager that he meets most of the great writers and artists of the early and mid-1900s. The London-Paris-New York axis of these worlds was indubitably a small place, and a moderately well-connected writer really might have gone drinking with Picasso, Waugh, Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, Frank O'Hara, Pollock, and innumerable others. But combined with the decision to have Mountstuart become friendly with, and possibly be the victim of a conspiracy by, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor--in a cloak-and-dagger assignment originated, of course, by Ian Fleming--it results in a corny, you-were-there, Forrest Gump feel to the middle of the novel. Boyd seems to find it interesting to imagine characters on the edge of great historic moments--one of the minor characters in The Blue Afternoon is a near-winner in the race for a flying machine. There's something beguiling about this exploration of what it might have been like to be centrally involved in such lost moments, but Mountstuart's closeness to fame proves far too distracting.

Because the first third of the novel is so engaging, it's a great disappointment when the appealing exuberance of both Mountstuart and one of his two closest friends disintegrates. In Mountstuart's case we are given something that could be a reason--returning from the war after a surreal imprisonment in Switzerland, he finds that his passionately loved second wife has 1) remarried, as he had been declared dead two years before, and 2) died, killed by a bomb along with their little girl, as they walked to her nursery school. In the course of a little over a hundred pages, the reader goes from entries such as this:

Freya Deverell. Freya Deverell. I have that feeling of heartrace, that bloodheat and breathgasp, just writing her name.... It terrifies me, the fragility of these moments in our lives.

to ones such as this:

Is this worth recording? I experienced what can only be described as a spasm of happiness--the first since I heard the news--when I managed to work out (with a toothpick) a shred of mutton that had been stuck in a crevice between two back teeth.

The problem is this movement away from honest emotion had begun years before his harrowing return, rendering him both less self-aware and less appealing. Shortly after being rebuffed by a much-loved friend in his still-hopeful early twenties, he marries Lottie, a woman he doesn't love, and is a terrible cad to her and to their child. This might happen, of course--it happens every day--but we never find out why; like other critical junctures in the book, this major shift is simply elided in a note by the executor. (Mountstuart also makes painful intellectual errors regarding World War II, but given the kind of shallow man he has become, these are less surprising than his profound unkindness.)

In the case of his friend Peter Scabius, there is nothing to explain his degeneration; he enters Mountstuart's journals as a beloved boarding school friend--shy, honorable, and very much entranced by the farm girl he is dared to kiss. Though she seems simple at first, Tess is his equal, and they marry a few years later. Before long, though, Scabius is a compulsive womanizer as well as a trivial, pompous writer who lives as an exile to avoid paying taxes on his fortune. (Mountstuart stays in touch with him, somewhat inexplicably, though he doesn't bother to read his novels.) There is no real exploration of this change.

On the second page of the novel, an older Mountstuart says that in the missing pages of his earliest journal he probably made a commitment to be "wholly and unshakeably truthful" and asserted "refusal to feel shame over any revelations which that candor would have encouraged." Presumably Boyd offers these shifts as the compromises of aging in a man such as our unreliable narrator, to point up his folly and self-deceit. People can lose their idealism and compromise themselves, self-justifying all the way. But because the reader doesn't really see Mountstuart and Scabius losing their finer qualities, their later selves seem less real than their earlier ones.

Late in the novel, as an elderly and humbled Mountstuart sits people-watching at a rented beach shack, he says:

I feel...a strange sense of pride: pride in all I've done and lived through...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.

This last line is a shock: Mountstuart hasn't been that self-deceiving, and old age has made him moderately less so; there is a poignancy to these later entries that has not been present since the earliest ones. He certainly has nothing to feel triumphant about--a very few people loved, not particularly generously; many people hurt; a few books published--and these no braver, evidently, than their author is in the rest of his life.

Boyd can be the subtlest of writers: there's a moment in The Blue Afternoon, in the midst of a love story presented for the most part as though its narrator were reliable, when the reader has a laser-sharp awareness of the man's self-deception as he unfavorably compares his no-longer-beloved wife and his new love in order to believe more fully in his new love story. This weakness is like one Boyd explores more explicitly in Brazzaville Beach, when his protagonist realizes with chagrin her own narrative manipulation: "She was behaving like a Soviet historian, cooly airbrushing assassinated generals or purged ministers out of official photographs, reshaping, tidying events to suit her own way of thinking." Now that culture, language, and even trickery have been discovered to have analogues in the animal kingdom, self-deception may be all that truly sets us apart, and it has always been rich territory for a novelist. In Any Human Heart, though, we have neither romantic self-deceit nor warm-blooded and intelligent self-assessment--in a journal, of all places, we lack a view of the interior journey of the narrator.

Despite the authentic feel of the journals, Boyd seems too willing to let cleverness trump subtlety here; there's even a winking footnote that refers to a supposed biography of a minor character--in fact, this "biography" is a novel that Boyd himself published in 1998. The bulk of Any Human Heart is dominated by a not very likable man who brushes up against a lot of famous people, and offers, even to himself, little in the way of honesty or deep emotion. Such a character could still command our attention--and Boyd's skill as a writer does, for the most part--but the contrived center of the novel allows our narrator too little room to be human, and the exploration of his heart is too insubstantial to be satisfying.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents