Thursday, 27 February 2014

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

Where do you start with a book this good? I could not drink this in fast enough, a whirlwind of history, art, literature, love, life, chances and embarrassment. An incredible biography of a fictional man. Absolutely stunning. The novel takes the form of diary entries, sometimes philosophical or nihilistic, sometimes blunt and upfront. Logan is a man of many moods and opinions and this comes across in his journals. Sometimes dated, sometimes not, depending on where he is in his life. An omniscient and anonymous narrator links the parts together as best he can, where Logan has been inattentive in his continuity.

The intimate Diaries of Logan Mountstuart start with Logan as a child in Uruguay, the son of a Beef Products manufacturer. His family move to Birmingham and we witness his East Anglian school days with his friends Peter Scabius and Benjamin Leeping, their bets and wagers designed to spice up their dull academic lives. They will appear regularly through the rest of it. Then to his unremarkable time studying History at Oxford, where Logan falls in love with the mysterious Land Fothergill and decides that his future lies in writing.

He writes. A biography of Shelley and a sexy novel, some translations of obscure French poets. He drifts from literature to journalism, to the art world, to literary criticism, enjoying a modest amount of success at each. The art scenes of London, Paris, New York. Battles of wits with Virginia Woolf, meetings with Joyce and Picasso in Paris, then a spell as a civil War reporter in Spain and acquaintance with Hemmingway (getting three Miro canvasses out of it too). Barbados, Ian Fleming murder and the Duke of Windsor. The War lived out in a Swiss prison. Logan spends so long waiting for his life to begin, waiting for it to get more exciting, more important. It's not until he gets to the latter stages of it that he realises it was important. He knew real love once, and losing it does not take away that memory.

The Jazz era, the War years, the post war, then the psychedelic 60s all come alive, bringing with them their important cultural who's-who that wend their way into Logan's life. All depicted with such conviction, historical accuracy and believability, that at times it's incredibly easy to forget that Logan Mountstuart wasn't a real person too. "Surely not" you think as you read this, "He must have existed and merely been forgotten by history". Logan as a character is a dream. At times arrogant, at others crippled with self-doubt and embarrassment. His respectable exterior and modest professional success disguising his slides into alcoholism and adultery and his grim bouts of depression. Every year ends in a roundup of friends lost, resolutions to drink less and finish that novel he's planning.

Boyd skilfully (sooooo skilfully it's almost painful) weaves the eras of Logan's life together, creating a person that is flawed, but always always interesting. He drifts apart from his family, rarely sees his children, or any of his ex-wives. His solitary life gets a bit grim, at one point he goes from a respected professor living with a staff of four and a villa in Nigeria to existing in a basement flat living on dog food and flogging political newspapers to students. But his fortunes prove that poverty, good luck and greatness can happen to anyone. Even the formerly grand Mrs. Mountstuart descends from wealthy widow to dishevelled landlady on the few occasions that her son visits her. We see that poverty has claimed her too.

I can't possibly even begin to describe the scope of this novel. It's an absolute gift. Absorbing, intimate, funny, tragic, life affirming- the whole human condition lived out in one remarkable life. The prose was absolutely joyous and the tableaux of domestic family life, scandal, political upheaval and personal disaster that it painted were beyond immersive.