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