Book Review – Any Human Heart

‘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.

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Influences

Yesterday I started to read a new book. I put this book on my Amazon wishlist after I came across a glowing review of it on a Facebook friend’s ‘Books I’ve enjoyed’ Pinterest board. There it sat for more that half a year. The synopsis and general reviews were encouraging, the price was not off putting, yet I never seemed to move it across to my basket when other books or DVDs were being purchased. It was the cover that put me off.

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I like my books to be challenging or, at the very least, thought provoking. This cover made me think it was a romance. Not just that, but a televised romance; appealing to a mass audience. How snobbish does that make me sound? I hate myself for that thought.

And then I spent a highly entertaining evening following a Twitter question and answer session between Tom Hiddleston and his fans. He was asked to name his favourite book of all time and came back with two:

.@inceptioning Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. And “Any Human Heart”, by William Boyd. #TomQandA

— Tom Hiddleston (@twhiddleston) September 12, 2013

That weekend I ordered the book.

I am not a Hiddlestoner, but my daughter is. Through her I have started to take notice of the various television dramas and films that this actor has been in, and I have enjoyed what I have seen. To my untrained eye he appears to be a talented thespian, classically trained, intelligent and fun loving, who does not take himself too seriously. Who knows what he is like in private, but his public persona is eminently appealing. His answers to interview questions are riddled with quotes from Shakespeare, well known and lesser known poets, and his own mantras, which are full of self deprecation and encouragement. From what I have seen, I like the guy.

When such a well educated, seemingly smart person names a book, alongside another that I have read and been challenged by, as an all time favourite, I take note. It was on my wish list anyway, but am I making excuses for being influenced by a celebrity?

This got me thinking about who and what influences me. I already know that I admire academic achievement. I have a number of Facebook friends who I have known for many years and who have opinions that are at variance to my own. I am forever trying to work out why they think as they do. They could not have obtained the qualifications that they possess without having the ability to question and reason, so I am perplexed as to why they are so vocal in their support of certain points of view. However much I may disagree, I will always listen to what they have to say because I admire their intellect and wish to understand where their arguments are coming from.

Book recommendations are, of course, harder to value. People look for different things in the books that they read. If a working day is spent being challenged in a demanding environment then it may be that a light hearted, easy read is desired. Books are an adventure and an escape; some people wish to indulge in romance, or to engage in trying to solve a murder/mystery. There are those who enjoy travelling to an imagined other world, and those who prefer something closer to realism, even if extreme or sugar coated. Of those who choose to read fiction, a variety of genres are often chosen with a few, oft returned to favourites. Some people prefer non fiction or historical fiction based on real events. Knowing a person’s preferences helps when deciding whether their views are likely to correlate with my own.

I wish to read a variety of books and genres. By limiting the recommendations that I will take notice of I risk allowing my reading list to lack breadth; I risk missing out on new authors whose work I may love. I do not enjoy fluffy, shallow books, but can see from the best seller lists that these sort of books appeal to many others. There are so many books out there. I will never be able to read them all so must action some sort of selection process. My imperfect and unattractive literary snobbishness is the best I have come up with so far.

Based on my reaction to my latest tome, I will judge a book by it’s cover. The original recommendation came from someone whose opinions interest me, but whose reading history was largely unknown. I am perturbed that I should be swayed by a celebrity when I abhor the cult of celebrity, but the book is turning out to be highly enjoyable. Perhaps the lesson I should take from this is that I need to be more open and less judgemental of all.

Over the weekend my elder son accused me of coming out with the sort of sweeping generalisation of a group that I berate others for voicing (I made a derogatory comment about Daily Mail newspaper readers and those who commented on newspaper articles). We discussed this and I was saddened to come away with the knowledge that I am still far too judgemental.

Being aware of my shortcomings and influences can help me to improve, as can reading a greater variety of books. Let me know of any work of fiction that has challenged your thinking in the comments below. I have been blown away by Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ this year. I would love to be pointed towards my next great read.