Monday, August 22, 2016

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

As I’m sure must be true of many dedicated (perhaps I should say obsessive) readers, when  I find an author I really like, I tend to read up everything of theirs I can find. William Boyd is a reader’s delight not only because he is an excellent writer, but because he has written so much. Today I want to talk to you about one of his most ingenious novels published in 2004, Any Human Heart. He begins with a quote from Henry James, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Boyd proposes to describe what he can of one human heart, that of Logan Mountstuart, by giving the reader a set of intimate journals beginning in 1912 when Logan is six years old, and ending with his death in 1991. What is amazing to me is that while these journals really read as if they are memoirs, the character and the journals are spun out of air. Boyd takes us through nearly the entire century: The School Journal (boarding school), The Oxford Journal, two London Journals, World War II Journal, a New York Journal, an African journal a French journal and several others. The imagination required to create and flesh out this life simply stuns me, and Logan meets many of the writers and artists of the century who then play into the complexity of the story; Boyd has done his homework as he takes his character through a long and complicated life.

The voice of Logan is really established in the School Journal when Logan is seventeen, and that very convincing voice is carried throughout. Not only do we meet Logan, but also his two most important male friends, and their lives are chronicled as well in surprising detail.
We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people—all these different people are me.
The voice established in the boarding school journal is that of a bright but rather arrogant, pedantic and judgmental young man, who, with his similarly arrogant friends, is trying to put up with the boredom of their last years in school, waiting for their real lives to begin. They do this by noting the magnificent acts (or sub-magnificent acts) that each perform. Logan insists, however, that they can’t simply wait for these acts to happen. “It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of manificents to happen—we had to initiate them ourselves.” He proposes to do that by having two of the boys think up tasks for the third that must so far as possible be witnessed and documented by the other two. Against the boarding school tradition of addressing other boys by their surnames,  Peter Scabius, Ben Leeping, and Logan Mountstuart begin to call each other Pete, Ben, and Logan. They decide that Leeping, who is Jewish, has to become a Roman Catholic and has to be considered as fit for the priesthood, Scabius is to seduce an older girl who lives on a farm close to the school, a witnessed kiss to be the ultimate test, and Logan, who has a contempt for all sports and sportsman is set the task of winning school colors for rugby, and must make the first team.

While the schoolboy tricks and dares in the first journal make for humorous reading, it is soon apparent that all three boys are more than supercilious students who are contemptuous of their peers and their teachers, as Boyd begins to explore the depths of their very human hearts.

Logan has a particularly close relationship with his father, who is quite weak and frail even as Logan is growing up, and he dies at a young age.
The day Father was buried my faith, such as it was, went with him into the grave. Shelly was so right: atheism is an absolute necessity; in this world of ours. If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by our human spirit—appeals to a deity or deities are only a form of pretense. We might as well howl at the moon.
The self-absorption and vanity of the  narrator in this pretend-memoir is presented more baldly than were this a real memoir; even in telling of my worst deeds, I think I would be much less flippant in my self-description, self-evaluation. Although in the prologue we are told there will be no analysis or evaluation, only bare description, we feel Boyd’s analysis and value-judging, as we should. In his depiction of the sexual relations between men and women, especially moneyed men and poor women, he describes the times he is writing about in ways that expose the inequalities, the power issues. Still, there is a privileged class mentality in his male characters, even those Boyd seems to want to like, and want us to like. I suppose what I want to say is that there is not sufficient attention paid to class issues. Intellectual snobbery is also a class issue. He sometimes reads a bit too much like Fitzgerald—interesting stories about the complex inner lives of privileged people.

As amazing as Boyd’s understanding of history and incorporating it into his novels, I’m even more amazed by the difference of content and tone from novel to novel. Yesterday, I finished his Brazzaville Beach which has to do with primate behavior and the scientists who study it. It’s hard for me even to imagine the research he has to have done about primatologists, about Jane Goodall and other prominent field-scientists. So his research skills feed his incredible imagination as he unwinds these stories, exposes these worlds. He writes complex spy novels, love-story mysteries, and novels about  murderous chimpanzees. What’s next?

The understanding of 20th century art and art-dealers required to flesh out one of Logan’s personas is evident through several of the journals. We meet (along with Logan), Virginia Woolf, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Sartre, and so many more. As Logan eats handfuls of benzedrine and drinks gallons of liquor, we are led on  tours of Paris’ and London’s writers and artists. Logan’s self-absorbed rambling remains, at least for this reader, somehow charming and deeply human right to the end of this rather long book. Though there are moments?

I will leave you with another Loganism, a self-justification dreamed up as simply an essential (wired in) part of his nature. Men must be men, must heed the existential call.
Why did I wait so long? I must never let this damaging frustration build up again. I have to recognize that I’m simply not equipped, temperamentally, to stay at home and live a circumscribed, rural, English life—I’m essentially urban my nature—and also the prospect and reality of travel. Otherwise, I’ll desiccate and die.

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