“Never say you know the last word about any human heart”
“Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”. This line comes from “Any Human Heart”, a profoundly moving novel by the British writer William Boyd. The book portrays its protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, through excerpts from his intimate journals. It provides not only details of his intimate tribulations but a greatly evocative depiction of major historical events through the twentieth century.
Logan is born to a well-to-do English family but his identity is modelled by certain facts and influences that set him apart from the beginning. He is the son of an English father but his mother is Uruguayan and his first written words were in Spanish. The author displays an inclination for introducing these singular traits into a character that comes to exemplify human life in all its vigour and weakness.
Logan records his life on a number of journals that take the reader into an exhilarating ride through school, the life of a promising undergraduate at Oxford University, the early successes and challenges of a young and successful writer, marriage, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the art world in New York, the economic misery of the seventies and the denial of history in modern France….
Some critics have accused the author of compressing too many remarkable events and acquaintances in a single character’s life. Pablo Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming and The Duke of Windsor are just some of people that Logan encounters at different times of his life. Yet, if someone happened to be born at the right time and had a bit of luck, it is not utterly impossible to have participated, at least to some extent, in truly significant events and have met historical figures. Consider for example, the life of the English politician and writer, Duff Cooper, whose amazing memoir, “Old Men Forget”, covers part of the same historical period.
In any case, the greatest achievement of the book is that Logan Mountstuart emerges as a three dimensional character, with humour, virtues and weaknesses, brave but guilty of major errors of judgement, someone who loves and suffers equally intensely. He is not simply an excuse to lecture the reader on contemporary history but someone that happened to live through exciting but also tragic times. The fact that we see his life only through the fragmentary traces left on his diaries reinforces the feeling that we are reassembling something beautiful and fragile that was shattered to pieces during the journey.
It has been claimed that the novel is dead but William Boyd has proved that the genre is in good health and able to stir readers with beautifully-crafted storytelling.
P.S. The book has also been adapted by Channel 4 as a TV mini-series which I also highly recommend.