Tuesday, 15 July 2014

"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd - July 2014

Jasmina couldn't make it to the group meeting, but emailed her book review in - now that's dedication! Here's her review:

This book was a real pleasure to read; William Boyd's style is clear without being simple. His characters are well formed and Logan Mountstuart, the writer of the diaries we are reading in Any Human Heart, feels like a real character. Throughout his very eventful life he meets real people as well as the fictitious and Boyd plays with his readers: is Nat Tate, the subject of Boyd's book An American Artist, and footnote referenced on page 337 in Any Human Heart, fact or fiction? He's fictional, but we are cleverly manipulated by the author to wonder. There are plenty of other factual and fictional references too, throughout the book, to place Logan in his time and give the reader more knowledge about him and other characters.

Logan's life is fascinating. The reader is given, as Jeremy Paxman on the cover of the Penguin paperback version writes: "A terrific journey through the twentieth century". I agree with Paxman's final comment too, the book is: "Thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable".

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd - July 2014

William Boyd – Any Human Heart

Maybe it was the glorious weather or maybe it was just coincidence, but this July, our usually 8-strong reading group was reduced to just one member, Craig, and myself (Cordula). So I initially thought we’d run out of things to talk about after 10 minutes, not having our usual group input, but I was wrong – somehow, we ended up chatting about Boyd’s 2002 novel for over an hour, and I certainly could have continued for another one at least.

The themes are so many, and the experiences Boyd describes are so multifaceted and richly detailed, that there’s no shortage of incidents and topics to go into. To outline, the novel is a fictional diary of Logan Mountstuart, following his life from his first diary entries as a 10-year old boy born in Uruguay to a Uruguayan mother and British father. The Family moves to Birmingham when he is 10, and he grows up going to boarding school, Oxford, and then taking a variety of jobs (and lovers, marriages, friendships, and celebrity encounters) throughout his life. We follow him sometimes continuously, sometimes sporadically, through WW1, the Great Depression, his tries and successes as an author, through WW2 and his role in it as a spy (following the abdicated King Edward, Duke of Windsor and the Duchess, Wallis Simpson); his time in London, his time in New York (as an arts dealer), an episode in Africa, and, finally, his second time in London and his death.

Just recounting it I could go into so much detail as to fill pages, so I’ll stop myself here and just mention the things that stood out to us the most:

First of all, both of us loved the fantastic writing. Craig pointed out a killer line early on, when the 17-year old Logan writes this effortlessly arrogant sentence in his diary: “I shall now smoke a cigarette behind the squash courts and think some more brilliant thoughts”, which had stood out to both of us as just wonderful, capturing the dismissive, know-it-all haughtiness a teenage boarding schooler would easily possess. We both also thought that throughout the novel, the changing tone illustrates Logan’s maturing nature while retaining his own way of thinking and writing - it’s coherent yet shows his development, his deepening reflections as well as his blind spots. A scene that stood out to me as such a blind spot was the moment when members of the royal family remark to Logan how Duke (then King) Edward should have handled his affair with Wallis Simpson: they think he should have installed her back in America for a year or so, claim to have nothing to do with her any more, then secretly reinstate her in his life in a cosy little flat in London. When Logan expresses his disgust at the duplicity of this, they reply: “He’s the King, he can do what he damn well pleases”. Logan remarks in his diary how amoral and terrible he judges these people to be – remaining utterly unreflective of the fact that he’s practically living that exact story, having married a rich heiress, fathered a son, then met the love of his life and put her up in their cosy little London love-nest for a few years (until his wife discovers the flat and divorces him).

We dissected a good many more individual moments in the novel, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more: Craig pointed out another good line (and an interesting and possibly very true sentiment) when Logan remarks to his (second) father-in-law, that the difference between Americans and Brits is that an American uses his manners to further business relationships and get ahead in life, while the British use theirs in order to protect their privacy. We both agreed that this rang true!

We discussed much more: the amorality of Logan’s friend Peter (his childhood friends set him up to fail!), why Logan marries his rich first wife (he wants to get back at the girl that refused him!), the easily flowing, economical yet richly expressive language, the relaxed ease and the psychological astuteness with which Boyd describes Logan’s sexual encounters and views.

Last, but by no means least, we admired the unique set-up for the novel. We speculated whether this diary, in which Logan meets so many of the big names of the 20th Century, from Hemingway, Woolf, Picasso and Joyce, to working for Ian Fleming and hobnobbing with the former King, was written as a result of leftover research for Boyd’s other books? He seems to have constructed a plausible timeline for these famous names, e.g. citing Woolf’s real-life diaries and Ian Fleming’s correspondence, to account for times and places, and then he inserts this fictional character Logan Mountstuart and makes him meet them all. Wonderfully, Boyd sets up his novel with an editor’s footnotes and commentary, completing the ruse. I remember feeling pleasantly surprised and nudged out of my comfort zone every time I read one of those real-sounding footnotes, mixing fiction and reality. My brain had the biggest “ping”-moment later on in the book, when the novel’s fictional editorial voice inserts a footnote referencing one of Boyd’s own books, which is, funnily enough, another fictional account about a fictional artist ('Nat Tate', yes, derived from the National Gallery and the Tate), also constructed to sound real – and the artist turns up as another character in this book! What a great confusion.

To close, I think I can honestly say that we thoroughly enjoyed having our heads spun about by this alternative take on a history of the 20th century, and were more than happy accompanying Logan on his many endeavours. A very human hero, and an incredibly good book. By Cordula