William Boyd

"Any Human Heart"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 10 2003)

"[What] your life amounts to in the end [is] 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."

Life, as understood by Logan Mountstuart, is a series of random events, not events which are fated, controlled by a higher power, pre-destined, or the result of carefully made decisions. Though particular events in the life of one individual may have Read excerptcataclysmic importance to that individual -- both for the better and for the worse -- they rarely have any effect on the mass of humanity, and no external power controls world events. Since there's no blame to apportion for whatever good or bad luck we may have in life, a person may choose to enjoy the good times, seek out happiness wherever possible, and live life to the fullest, come what may, or sit back passively and just endure whatever happens.

Logan Mountstuart is one of the former types, a man who recognizes that "Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary -- it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make life appear interesting or humdrum." But Mountstuart also believes, even as a young student, that one can look for and find the extraordinary even within the ordinary. We see Mountstuart and his two best friends, Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping, as 17-year-old school students, evaluating events and performance in terms of whether they are "magnificents" or "sub-magnificents," and they deliberately devise challenges for each other which force them to do things which are difficult and not natural to them. With each challenge, the end result involves both good luck and bad and has lasting effects.

Mountstuart is revealed here through his personal journals, begun in 1923, when he is seventeen, and continuing to the time of his death in 1991. "We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being," Mountstuart informs us. "A true journal presents us with...riotous and disorganized reality. The various stages of development are there, but they are jumbled up, counterposed and repeated randomly." Though he is a fictional character, the reader comes to know Mountstuart intimately, both as an individual, growing and changing, and as an Everyman, someone who participates in and is affected by the seminal events of the 20th century, after World War I. Whether these are literary, artistic, social, or historical milestones, Mountstuart and his friends are there. By both particularizing and universalizing his characters, Boyd creates a novel in which an exciting plot is crucial, since universal characters, by definition, cannot be unique. With the novel's broad focus on world events, we see the characters primarily as they are affected by external, rather than internal, forces.

Because Logan Mountstuart is a writer, both of books and of feature stories for magazines, he is able to travel and to know the other writers and artists of the period. When he meets such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, and Ian Fleming, the reader has the vicarious fun of being there and meeting them, too, since Mountstuart, as a person, appears to be very much like the rest of us, a man with normal concerns and interests, trying to get ahead, often unable to control his impulses. He buys early paintings by Paul Klee and Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso draws a quick portrait of him and signs it. He engages in intellectual discussions about Braque, Picasso, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Bloomsbury group and generally keeps the reader aware of the many literary and artistic achievements which occurred in concert with important events in western history.

It is in his depiction of the historical moment that Boyd shines. By describing events through Mountstuart's experience, he is able to give a human face to people and circumstances which have influenced our history, and his choice of small details, often unique, offers a new slant on some familiar events. Some of the tension of the Spanish Civil War, for example, is reflected by the simple fact that Gen. Franco controls the Canary Islands, which is where all the country's cigarettes come from--only his troops have access to them. Mountstuart's supply of cigarettes from home gives him entrée to the nicotine-starved Republicans. The youth of Barcelona and Valencia, preparing for war, are depicted in their passion and fervor, and Mountstuart contrasts them with the "pinched, grey-faced, downtrodden populace" of London. He is particularly good at showing simultaneous events--Franco at the gates of Barcelona while Hitler is entering Prague--and his explanation of Neville Chamberlain's giving up of the Sudetenland resonates as an honest and even logical attempt to avoid the desperation of war.

Eventually, Ian Fleming, who works for the Secret Service, gets him a job in Naval Intelligence, and he suddenly finds himself working for the government as a "spy" on the Duke of Windsor, the exiled former king, when he is appointed Governor of the Bahamas, making sure that the Duke's German sympathies do not make him a pawn of the enemy. Because he is imprisoned at the end of that assignment, Mountstuart does not know when the war ends, and he discovers that the devastation of war matches that of his personal life. Post-war, Mountstuart continues to be involved with the world of artists and writers--and world events--eventually spending several years in Nigeria, where he covers the Biafran War and works as a teacher. Later, as an old man, he becomes involved with a "kollective," which has connections to the Red Army Brigade.

Any Human Heart is a testament to life itself. Mountstuart lives the credo of the "Cosmopolites," a group of French poets about whom he wrote a book early in his career: "[The Cosmopolites] are all about romance, about life's excitement and adventure and its essential sadness and transcience. They savour everything both fine and bittersweet that life has to offer." Mountstuart's personal life is tumultuous, with marriages, children, affairs, and deaths, but in the end he has LIVED it, despite the accidents of history and the bad luck which has changed it.

For the reader the book is a fast read, despite its length, filled with personal stories and colored by world events. Mountstuart's belief that life is the aggregate of one's good luck and bad luck--that things just happen--leads to a novel in which there can be no underlying thematic pattern, a novel which, like Mountstuart's view of life, feels more accidental and episodic than planned, with the passage of time serving as the primary framework. Mountstuart himself accepts what happens to him, though it often saddens him, and does not agonize over what he might have done differently--he does not believe that he could have changed things. In that regard he remains one-dimensional, in many ways an Everyman for the history of the times. Fun to read, the book offers a new "take" on many events which have shaped our own times, offering no lessons for the future, other than to live life, despite its ups and downs. As Mountstuart himself points out, life ultimately is a yo-yo, "a jerking spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child."

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About the Author:

William BoydWilliam Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana in 1952. He grew up in Ghana and in Nigeria and attended university in Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was published while he was a lecturer in English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of the 20 "Best of Young British Novelists" in a promotion run by Granta magazine and the Book Marketing Council.

His other novels include An Ice-Cream War, winner of the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Brazzaville Beach, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, and The Blue Afternoon, which won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction. Armadillo is set in London and follows the adventures of insomniac loss-adjustor Lorimer Black. The book was adapted for television as a four-part series screened by the BBC in 2001 with a screenplay by the author. The publication of Boyd's book Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, the 'biography' of a neglected genius, reportedly fooled a number of prominent art critics who claimed to have heard of the wholly fictional painter.

A former television critic for the New Statesman (1981-3) magazine, William Boyd is also a scriptwriter. He wrote the television screenplays for Good and Bad at Games (1983), Dutch Girls (1985) and Scoop (1987), as well as the screenplays for film versions of two of his own books, A Good Man in Africa and Stars and Bars. He also wrote and directed the First World War drama The Trench, first screened in 1999. A new radio play, the ghost story A Haunting, was first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in December 2001. He is currently writing the script for a television drama based on the life of Adolf Hitler.

William Boyd became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. He is married (to the editor-at-large of Harper's Bazaar) and divides his time between London and South West France.

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