‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd is not a book to read in one sitting. It covers the life of the fictional Logan Mountstuart, a marginal author and journalist from a wealthy family, whose life is woven around a tapestry of the culturally rich and famous in the twentieth century. As a piece of literature it is deep and satisfying; as a study of the human heart I found it depressing.
The book is presented in the form of a personal journal, a device that works well given the time span and subject matter to be covered. The strength of the book lies in the authors ability to write believably as a seventeen year old school boy, an aspirational graduate, a middle aged philanderer and an elderly gentleman.
The interactions with the rich and famous are as contemptuous or gauche as the protagonists situation at the time allows. As a writer and minor art expert he is unimpressed with many in these fields who he meets when young, but will invoke their names in later life to impress those around him. He has an awe of royalty which is, perhaps, a sign of the times in which he was raised.
The book succeeds in getting under the skin of many of the varied characters created to allow the story to flow. Those who we get to follow throughout their lives develop as old friends will; some steadfast and likeable despite their flaws, others whose selfishness and egotistical tendencies increase discreditably when they age. As in life, those who appear to succeed are often not those who deserve the accolades.
The book provided much food for thought and was best enjoyed in small chunks to allow for frequent processing of information and development. It was beautifully written, evocative and offered a depth that is rare. So why do I have reservations about it?
Much as I hate to generalise about these things, I suspect it may be a man’s book. The woman were there largely for background and sex; the men seemed obsessed with their virility, their ability to obtain sexual satisfaction driving much of their decision making. For all their many accomplishments and achievements, few seemed to recognise the value of anything other than this physical fulfilment. If that is how men think, then they are considerably more shallow than I give them credit for.
Perhaps it was the fact that the hedonism of youth did not subside until old age that irritated me. Despite a period when he was content to be happily married with an adored young child, subsequent behaviour ensured that this was not a state that he could repeat. If a mistake can only be made once, after which it becomes a choice, then Logan Mountstuart chose to be foolish for much of his life.
The author created a character who was given every opportunity to succeed in life. From his public school eduction, through his time at Oxford, to his early success as a writer; his contacts allowed him to move amongst the best in his field and be regarded as an elite member of the cultural club. His inability to perpetuate these jump starts to his career must be all too common, but it was his inability to be a likeable human being that killed any sympathy I may have felt for the character. Even allowing for the hardships that he endured from time to time, he ended up with more than I felt he deserved.
I found the middle section of the book, his middle age, the hardest to read. I wonder if this is because I am middle aged and wish to think that those around me are better than that which was portrayed in this book. It is to the credit of the author that he has created such a believable set of characters and annoyed me so intensely.
I preferred the penultimate few pages to the final ending, which felt a little weak to me after such a powerful, roller coaster ride through a life lived in numerous countries on four continents amongst a cast of the great, the good and the infamous. Thanks to the recommendations that caused me to add this book to my reading list, I had high hopes for it. I was disappointed not by the quality of the writing, but by my dislike of the human heart portrayed.
The shallowness of the men in this book have left me with an emptiness inside. I hope that real men are not as typical as they have been written to appear.