Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is a curious project. It is fiction, but fiction which attempts to mimic non-fiction. Written in the form of a journal, the story begins in England of the 1920’s with Logan Mountstuart’s childhood and follows him then until his death in France in 1991. The book is ultimately less about Logan as an individual as it is an exposé of the twentieth century.

In some sense, this journal style is slightly disappointing. Initially, Logan’s boyish narrator reminds us of Stephen Daedulus in many ways, a bit more irreverent perhaps but quite as impressionable. It is easy for the reader to become attached to this narrator and therefore expect the novel to follow a more conventional storyline. There are many books written in diary form that don’t mirror an actual diary, and those tend to make better fiction.

But a real journal often drops the threads of its story as the narrator ages. It isn’t often a coherent narrative – despite the continued familiarity of the subject. People lose interest in friends, stop caring about certain interests, move on, grow out of their preferences. Boyd allows many of the original characters to come back again and again throughout Logan’s life, but ultimately the story revolves more around the events of the twentieth century than it does around Logan’s hopes and expectations.

Although in fairness, this is really Boyd’s project – how to reflect and embody the great changes of the twentieth century in a single individual. Logan could be a stand in for anyone of that generation. His life is both extraordinary and completely mundane. And really, so are the events that come along to shape it – love, success, disappointment, true love, war, adventure, prison, loss, sorrow, renewal, poverty, friendship and finally peace. The ups and down of a century, therefore a lifetime.

So how does this make for a reading experience? The book is meticulous with its details of the changing times, especially in terms of life’s accoutrements – housing, dressing, eating and media. This is a really rich aspect of the novel. Also, Logan is a writer, both of fiction and for newspapers and journals. So his character reflects a preoccupation with minutiae – his own interior emotional life (for the fictional part of his art) as well as exterior events (for his journalistic reporting). That balance creates a nice tension, keeping us interested in Logan and what happens to him, but also ensuring we keep an eye on Boyd’s twentieth century project.

Any Human Heart also includes a fair share of humor, most of it delivered in knowing winks to the reader. Logan continually encounters famous real-life figures of the twentieth century – Picasso, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, members of the British royal family, Ian Fleming and many others. Aside from the comedic elements of many of these scenes (Logan dismisses Virginia Woolf as a complete shrew, for example, and is kissed by Evelyn Waugh at a party) these moments add a great texture to the book, anchoring it as a pseudo-artifact of the twentieth century. Yet Logan remains a fictional creation, an “everyman”, which places him on the reader’s side of history.

6 Responses to “William Boyd – Any Human Heart”

  1. Dorothy W.

    Interesting that the best uses of diaries in fiction are not very diary-like. It’s fascinating to think about the transformations that typically take place when transforming one genre into another, diary to novel. The Tenant of WH does the diary thing too, but it’s clearly fictionalized — the diary is the narrator’s way of catching up on and processing the really exciting events of her life, so all the boring stuff is left. out.

  2. Tabatha

    I came across this whilst researching him online – I had no clue he was also a screenwriter for “Chaplin”!
    I found some great video interviews of him talking about writing his books, etc – so interesting:

  3. litlove

    Despite the nice things you say at the end, I get the feeling this wasn’t quite the book you hoped it might be, verbivore! But I’m also sufficiently intrigued to read it one of these days!

  4. verbivore

    Dorothy – I had forgotten about the diary section in the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and you’re right, it is a fictionalized version – makes for easier reading, I think.

    Tabatha – Thank you for the link, I didn’t realize he was also a screenwriter, will have to check it out.

    Litlove – You are absolutely right that I did not love this book, but I could appreciate its project and it was an easy read in many ways, it wasn’t like I had to slog through it. But I can’t help wondering if there might have been a different way to carry off the same project and not lose any narrative power…

  5. gentle reader

    It’s so funny, when I started reading your review, I thought it was about the one Boyd novel I’d read, because that book was also a faux autobiography, and also spanned much of the 20th century, trying to tell the century’s stories through the life of one man…but I couldn’t remember the name of the book I’d read, so I had to look it up–and it wasn’t the same book at all, but The New Confessions. Funny! Clearly some similar themes running through his fiction, eh?

  6. tabitha

    Verbibore: I didn’t realize it either – especially that he was a screen writer for “Chaplin” with Robert Downy Jnr as well as the adaptation of his earlier book! 🙂

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