Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

The "journals" of Logan Mountstuart, a writer who keeps an intermittent diary starting in his teenage years, and maintained until he's in his eighties. During his lifetime he experiences world wars, abdications, political crises, and crosses paths with many famous writers and artists.

Claire recommended this to me because she thought it reminded her of The Rotters' Club. This is because towards the start there's a section where Logan's talking about some schoolboy-ish pranks which are a bit reminiscent of the Coe book, but what this really reminded me of was A Man of Parts. In fact, it feels like either of these books could have sparked the idea for the other: both have a protagonist who is ostensibly a writer but has many other interests and who crosses paths with the great and the good of his time.

I liked the way that Logan is friends with - or at least meets - many "famous" people, but some of them are fictional. The role call includes Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Hemingway, Picasso, Ian Fleming ("affable, generous; appears interested in you, but there's nothing in him to like - too spoiled, too well-connected. Cosseted: everything in life has come too easily to him"), not to mention Edward and Mrs. Simpson, who he first befriends and subsequently falls out with. But then there are others (including the artist Nat Tate, who was the subject of another Boyd novel) who are completely made up.

This blurring of fact and fiction mean that at times you couldn't be sure how trustworthy some of the historical episodes were (such as the investigation of the crime on the Bahamas). This was pleasantly effective, because you were drawn into the world which had enough reality to make it believable, even if you were conscious that the story was a fabrication.

Some of the early stuff in the book, where he mentions, almost in passing, the General Strike and Wall Street Crash, reminded me of the Just William story where William attempts to enhance the value of some letters he finds by adding spurious historical commentary such as "P.S. Today was the Battle of Hastings, I hope Harold is alright."

Like A Man of Parts Logan is very frank and honest in his writing, and details his romantic life whether it paints him in a good light or not. From reading these two books you get the feeling that novelists must have pretty active sex lives - the sex wasn't explicit but there was a fair amount of it.

The book was reasonably long (about 15 CDs I think) but felt a lot longer - in a good way. By the time you got to Logan's 60s, it really felt as if you'd lived through a long time, and the early episodes almost seemed to have happened a lifetime ago. I'm not sure if this is a reflection on the writer's skill, or just an inevitable consequence of this type of book, but it worked really well.

What especially impressed me was the ending, in which - I suppose a bit like AMoP again, but more so - Logan's life just seemed to fade away. You might have expected that there'd be some redemptive scene, or that his earlier works might be subject of some revival and he'd have a period of fame in his twilight years, but instead things just petered out and he dies pretty much forgotten.

The one thing I think I might have changed is that the book is not exclusively extracts from the journals - there is a little bit of editorialising by an unknown hand, who explains the gaps in the journals, and fills us in on some of the details of Logan's life to help us make sense of things. I thought it might have been more effective if the journals had been presented with no commentary at all, with the reader left to make sense of things.

In particular, after Logan returns from WW2 (where he's been kept in a Swiss prison for two years after being captured on an espionage mission) his life falls apart, and there are large gaps and incoherent entries, but the reader knows what happened because he's had the editor telling us. I thought it would be much more effective if we'd just been confronted with the rambling entries and thought "what on earth is going on?" and slowly worked out what had gone on in the gaps. But presumably Boyd thought it would be better (or less difficult to achieve) this way.

All in all though, a fantastic book and I already ordered the DVD of the TV series to watch. Looking forward to that.

Completed : 12-Jul-2012 (audiobook)

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