Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Book Review: "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd

"Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, writer, was born in 1906, and died of a heart attack on October 5, 1991, aged 85. Any Human Heart is his disjointed autobiography, a massive tome chronicling "my personal rollercoaster"--or rather, "not so much a rollercoaster", but a yo-yo, "a jerking spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child". From his early childhood in Montevideo, son of an English corned beef executive and his Uraguayan secretary, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, Mountstuart traces his haphazard development as a writer. Early and easy success is succeeded by a long half-century of mediocrity, disappointments and setbacks, both personal and professional, leading him to multiple failed marriages, internment, alcoholism and abject poverty."

I don't think I have ever had as complex a reaction to a novel as I have to this one.

My immediate and enduring impression of the work is that I don't like it. The main character is arrogant, unlikeable and relentlessly lecherous. The early stages of the book are characterised by overblown, adjective-littered pretentious prose, the plot is banal and the occasional lifts from mediocrity are scuppered when plot points are resolved in a mundane fashion, or simply abandoned. The novel seems to intentionally set out to irritate, with distracting footnotes and ridiculous celebrity name-dropping.

But once I began deconstructing the form of the book, I began to understand what Boyd was trying to achieve and though I still do not personally like this book, I have extreme admiration for its construction and the integrity of its message.

Boyd presents us with the diary of an ordinary man, living through the extraordinary events of the 20th century. The diary form, complete with its "edited" notes and interjections is the key to understanding what Boyd is trying to achieve. Boyd is striving for ultra-realism, presenting a chronicle of a human life rather than a novel: the attendant banalities, dead-ends and digressions are all part of conjuring this image.

As a protagonist Logan Mountstuart is despicable, with very few redeeming qualities. He abuses his friendships, allows his mother's decline without significant intervention, and is responsible for the collapse of two of his three marriages. The diary shows us "LMS" laid bare: it isn't a memoir which is intended to be read by other people, presenting the author in the "best light", nor yet is it a balanced biography written by a third person. It is one man, jotting down his thoughts more or less as they come to him, with no thought as to the opinion a reader would form of him. This renders the tedious lechery and unfinished plot points absolutely vital to the integrity of the piece, and although I personally did not enjoy reading about the character I felt that Boyd achieved his aim: Logan Mountstuart became human, as the hero of a novel seldom does.

The language and writing style is cleverly constructed to mirror LMS's journey through life, and his changing thoughts in relation to himself. I found myself intensely irritated by the opening chapters, but settled into the style as LMS matured, and again this is all part of Boyd's clever working of his character and his story.

I initially struggled to tell the difference between the characters Peter and Ben, but I later came to realise this was another of Boyd's clever devices: the friends grew from the homogeneity of youth towards separate lives, culminating in different deaths and varied obituaries. I found this transition through character, language and life events to be masterful.

I was extremely bothered by the ending to the Switzerland plot point. I had wanted to see LMS hunt down his betrayer: I also wanted him to solve the mystery in the Bahamas and I wanted him to uncover the sinister secret at the heart of Sainte Sabine. These were the three most interesting incidents in the book, but they had mundane endings which I found frustrating, until I realised they contributed to the ultra-realism at the heart of the book.

The one point I cannot reconcile is the issue of the irritating name-dropping in thr early stages of the book. I found the number of famous people who just "happened" to walk into the story to be preposterous. The exceptions to this are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose contribution was rich and colourful, a marked contrast to the otherwise monotonous processsion of celebrities.

Boyd's wider point is that life is ordinary. Even in interesting times, humans are caught up in banalities such as their budget, their love life, their dinner. When we ask questions about why certain events in our lives have happened the answer is sometimes straightforward, logical and unexciting, and sometimes there is no answer at all.

The type of book I like to read is flamboyant, magical and bohemian: the complete opposite of this book which focuses instead on ultra-realism and the mundane.

My chief issue with the book is that I already know that life is ordinary, having so far lived quite an ordinary life myself. I know that sometimes boring things happen, because they happen to me quite frequently. From a personal standpoint I want a novel to reach into the extraordinary, to show me something new or unexpected, and to pursue areas of interest towards a, well, interesting conclusion. So I didn't enjoy this book on the whole.

That said, upon reflection I am entirely in awe of Boyd's effortless manipulation of language, character and plot to create his overall effect which maintains its integrity until its final page. There is no other rating I can give it, than 5/5


  1. My God, this is the worst review of a book I have ever read. For a start, you've been through university, and you didn't immediately understand the ultra-realism Boyd's going for? You're not really supposed to like Logan when he's at University, he's a symbol of pre WWII aristocracy in a 'Vile Bodies' type of fashion.

    Secondly, "I found the number of famous people who just "happened" to walk into the story to be preposterous."---- seriously? Why? He's a semi-famous writer, at the same time as Hemingway, Woolf and Joyce are semi famous writers. He has a lot of money, he moves in high social circles- why would he not meet them? You have to remember most of them weren't particularly famous then. You clearly lack an ability to put literature in historical and social context. Boyd's extensive research shows that whenever he met a semi famous person e.g. Virginia Woolf in Paris, according to historical records, she was in Paris on that very day.

    'Boyd's wider point is that life is ordinary'---- No it's not. If anything it's that life is ordinary AND extraordinary. He even writes that a few times. But more than anything, there is no 'wider point' or 'overarching theme'- the idea is to create an account of a life, and people's lives don't have themes or 'wider points'.

    "I had wanted to see LMS hunt down his betrayer"---- You've clearly misread Logan's character- he is a very passive man- not the type to go 'hunting people down'. Also, as soon as he gets home he is thrown into deep depression on finding out about the death of his wife. Do you really think he'd then go hunting people down? He's a terrible spy as it is-- he doesn't have the ability for a start.

    Also the conclusion is one of the best parts. Logan finds peace and serenity after striving so hard for happiness throughout. The final pages are some of the best written descriptions of the soul connecting with the universe in I have ever read- rivalling Camus, Marvell, Wordsworth and Isherwood in my eyes. After all the people he has met, places he has been, things he has done, he dies alone. His death is understated- there are no obituaries, he is buried in France. How can you not see the poignance of that?

    You've misread or misunderstood a vast amount of the brilliance of Any Human Heart, and bits you did understand it seems it took you longer than anyone with more than half a brain to come to them. Just embarrassing, really.

    1. Clearly you are a fan of this work and that's no bad thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. However, while you are marvelling at what are, judging from both descriptions, rather laboured literary devices, it seems to me that anyone who uses a phrase as clumsy as "he's a symbol of pre WWII aristocracy in a 'Vile Bodies' type of fashion." while criticising someone else's critical ability and writing style would do better to maintain a dignified silence rather than committing such dross to any form of publication.

      You are absolutely correct in one thing. Your response was indeed the construct of someone with "half a brain" and "Just embarrassing, really." which is, no doubt, why you chose to attribute it to "Anonymous".

  2. As much as your comments are, and the best is you have not got the courage to put your name to your triade. Is that because you lack conviction in what you wrote?

  3. @Ebenwolfe Firstly, I strongly disagree that realism is laboured- I think it's quite the opposite- I think that authors don’t use it enough these days. The market is saturated with Fantasy, Magic Realism, Horror, Sci Fi, and there is very little room for brilliant authors such as William Boyd. Just because it's aged doesn't make it laboured.

    As for "criticising someone else's critical ability and writing style"- I strongly disagree with Ms Hunneyball's ideas and understanding of the novel, not her writing style. At no point did I criticise that. I think descending into criticising written style is pretty low- everyone’s is different. Plus I actually think Ms Hunneyball’s is pretty good anyway but that’s not really the point.

    I admit: my phrasing could have been better- I was quite angry at Ms Hunneyball’s views and wasn’t really concentrating on my own writing style. However, considering this was the only part of my comment you actually seem to be able to accurately criticise, your (witty as it was) “half a brain/embarrassing” remark is kind of negated (not to mention nonsensical, as obviously I wasn’t referring to my own comment which means I wasn’t ‘right in one thing’. You seem to have been so excited at your own wit that you didn’t stop to think whether it actually made sense or not, but hey ho).

    Furthermore, I take it from your opening line that you haven’t actually read Any Human Heart, and you had to resort to criticising my written style, which suggests that you don’t actually have anything of worth or interest to add to this page.

    And Bob Dunbar, no, I don't lack conviction, I just don't have a Google account- my name is Tom Leatherbarrow. I didn’t realise how much of a difference being anonymous would make- you still get to read my views.

  4. This book is awe inspiring. All Boyd is doing is charting the life of a man who lived in ordinary banality but happened upon extraordinary human events. Labored descriptions none the less fit in with a aging Oxford educated man. I'm sorry but deconstructing a books meaning was meant to be used as a literary exercise, are you not abusing the book for what it is? A subjective analysis of someones life in the fictional, how Logan is disappointed that his life promised so much yet achieved so little in human terms?

    Then again, I suppose you only really love this book if it 'speaks' to you in some form. I feel Logan as a protagonist managed to convey the feeling of the times perfectly and his high ranking, fashionable circle of friends were part of that. It wasn't 'name dropping' Ms. Honeyball. I could really believe Logan lived among these people.

    I do think you missed the meaning behind the book and butchered it purely because you don't understand how persons made their mark in society in the early 20th century. Through mixing with the now 'greats'.

  5. Hi Diana
    Thanks for reading the review of the book.

    If you read the review again I think you will find that we actually agree on most points. I agree that Boyd's achievement in this novel is awe-inspiring and his clever construction of the ultra-realist tone makes the book worthy of the word "masterpiece", which is seldom attributed correctly these days.

    I personally didn't like the novel because as you say it doesn't "speak" to me. I disagree with your suggestion that I have "abused" it: My personal emotional response is just that: personal, and I have nothing but the highest praise for Boyd's creation (remember I gave it 5/5).

    A point I was trying to make in the review, and perhaps didn't make clearly enough, was that as I worked through the novel I grew to strongly admire the way Boyd's technical prowess influenced my response: the "voice" of the author, the unresolved plot points and some of the banalities of certain sections were all parts I didn't especially like but they were integral to the work and were absolutely necessary.

    To reiterate, I admire this book very much and can appreciate its status as a modern classic as well as its elegant construction. I just dont' *like* it that much, because I prefer other genres.