William Boyd’s latest novel, Any Human Heart, is probably the one that best capitalizes on the author’s own peripatetic life—one that took him from Ghana to Nice and Glasgow. Any Human Heart at its core is a fictionalized journal of a fictitious character, Logan Mountstuart. The journal spans much of the twentieth century; Logan was born in 1906 and dies in 1991.
Logan’s journal is not a meticulous one, written instead in fits and starts. Logan Mountstuart is born into money and privilege, the son of a wealthy English businessman and his Uruguayan secretary. The journal starts up when Logan is in his late teens in high school, indulging in rather silly and mundane activities. He makes two close friends, Ben Leeping and Peter Scabius, and the two remain near-constant fixtures throughout his life.
Logan’s move on to Oxford is pretty much a given. In fact, for a good part of the book, he doesn’t seem to have to really try too hard. Oxford it is, followed by a writing stint. Logan churns out a study of the poet Shelley that receives good praise but garners only modest sales. His novel, Girl Factory, on the other hand, does unexpectedly well despite negative press. For most of the rest of his life, Mountstuart keeps at a stuttering writing career, cruising along on advances arranged for him by his efficient agent, Wallace. Logan never becomes a writer of repute, but he never tries too hard either. His writing career does give Logan the advantage of meeting many literary and artistic greats of the time. He meets Virginia Woolf, dines with Hemingway, and Picasso makes a quick sketch for him.
During the Second World War, Logan is drafted into Naval Intelligence and asked to spy upon the Duke of Windsor. A shady assignment in Switzerland causes Mountstuart to be imprisoned for nearly two years. The post-war years find Logan moving around, setting up home, making friends—in New York City, Nigeria, England again, and finally in France. Throughout, Logan lives, loves, marries, suffers ups and downs, and has affairs. His journal remains, at all times, unflinchingly honest.
With any journal, it is the everyday minutiae that add up to the whole; Logan’s is no different. The novel, therefore, gains increasing heft as the picture of the entire person emerges ever so slowly as one reads along. Boyd does an astonishing job of lending Logan’s voice increasing maturity over time. In his journal, Logan writes:
“David Gascoyne once told me that the only point of keeping a journal was to concentrate on the personal, the diurnal minutiae, and forget the great and significant events in the world at large. The newspapers cover all that, anyway, he said. Momentous events do lose something in the telling.” That explains why Logan pens his thoughts of “momentous events” succinctly if at all. Most world events are mentioned here (the events of WWII, man landing on the moon, etc.) often as footnotes. It is a great gift for the reader to be able to see and track a life through these recorded and known events.
Any Human Heart is a wonderful chronicle of one man’s life. One wishes at times that Logan were a little less passive. At one point, he recollects:
“Mr. Schmidt had screamed at me in New York: LOSER! You English Loser…I suppose he thought it was the most grievous insult he could hurl. But such a curse doesn’t really have any effect on an English person—or a European—it seems to me. We know we’re all going to lose in the end so it is deprived of any force as a slur. But not in the USA. Perhaps this is the great difference between the two worlds, this concept of Loserdom. In the New World it is the ultimate mark of shame—in the Old it prompts only a wry sympathy.”
Despite Logan’s passivity, it is his ungrudging acceptance of life as just “the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience” that stands him in good stead as he makes his way through his “dog food” years.
Any Human Heart is a wonderful thought-provoking title for this novel. In a sense, this journal could not be one of any human heart. It belongs uniquely to one person—Logan Mountstuart. There is no denying the fact that the class he is born into eases Logan into situations that many others might find difficult to achieve. At the same time, the novel is indeed a chronicle of any human heart. Boyd leads us to ask the all-important questions: What is the definition of a life well lived? What defines success in life? Logan Mountstuart, in his calm unhurried way, reassures the rest of us that “every life is both ordinary and extraordinary—it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make life appear interesting or humdrum.” When Logan dies, his neighbor recalls, “For an old man he seemed very well, and very happy.” In the end, we realize, attitude is everything.