William Boyd's 'Human Heart' romps through the 20th century

On Books

February 02, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd (Knopf, 496 pages, $26) is the sort of rare novel that redeems the essential purpose of prose fiction - rising majestic above the vast fields of books, ranging from trash to near-art, disgorged from binderies year after year. It is a book that looks with confidence and yet unflinching awe at the circumstance of a human life -- of the meaning, if it is not absurd to say there is one, of life itself.

It is presented entirely as the sporadic personal journal of Logan Mountstuart, born in 1906 in Uruguay, to an Englishman in business and a Uruguayan mother. The family returned to England just as World War I was beginning. Logan was sent to boarding school. When he was about 15, he started an earnest diary, but the early pages were lost. He continues writing it, with gaps sometimes of several years, until not long before his death in 1991.

Mountstuart lived for 85 years, and Boyd presents a convincingly complete and truthful account of all of those years from adolescence. I never came to like the man, which seems to me strange, for I feel I knew him well and found him redeemingly human, for all his flaws. He came to be a full-blown person -- a living, complex, understandable human being, his internal mysteries no more elusive to me than they were to him.

The book begins with a "preamble," dated 1987, in which Mountstuart looks back on his whole body of work, concluding that "I have sometimes behaved well and I have sometimes behaved less than well -- but I have resisted all attempts to present myself in a better light."

Boyd has written seven previous novels, 11 screenplays, and other work. His The Blue Afternoon and Armadillo were critical successes in the U.S. In Heart, he manages the journal form beautifully. To give both perspective and persuasiveness, he often uses footnotes and occasional retrospective commentaries, presented as having been added by Mountstuart in the final years of his life. Some set straight a casual fact, others offer historical context or explain the loss of documents or the failure of memory. This device adds a rich and often very funny authentication.

Real characters flit in and out. Early on, Virginia and Leonard Woolf appear, and from time to time return. Others include Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (and their possible involvements in a complex murder mystery), Ian Fleming (Mountstuart's boss in WWII naval intelligence), Evelyn Waugh and any number of artists and writers active in New York and Europe.

As an adolescent, Mountstuart is arrogant, opinionated -- but smart. If you don't like the idea of Edwardian English school life or the complexities of British intellectual tribes or class structure, you may not take to this book, at least at the start. But if you aren't totally resistant, the outset has the joyfully troubled, revelatory quality of an English Catcher in the Rye.

Then comes Mountstuart's lifelong odyssey -- a series of disasters, most of them catastrophic: the unbearably premature deaths of his father, of his beloved second wife and daughter and of his son by a first, failed marriage. His serial career disruptions precipitate financial setbacks, one of which, for a long period, leaves him subsisting mainly on "Bowser" stew, tinned dog food. There are two years of unfair, never explained imprisonment during World War II and more, more, more.

The action is ceaselessly in motion, a wondrous sweep through many of the extraordinary events of the central two-thirds of the 20th century, offering an intense -- if very personal -- sense of what it was like to be there. To distill even that plot's major events would take pages and do no justice to the magic power of the narrative. Suffice it to say that Mountstuart's roles include, more or less in order, journalist, novelist, editor, war correspondent, spy, art critic, art dealer and university professor in Nigeria. He's very fond of women, especially smart and beautiful ones, and many of them are equally fond of him. A serious but not abusive drinker all his life, from time to time booze is a problem. He briefly dabbles in drugs.

By 1975, at 69, he is virtually destitute in a basement flat in London. He's hit by a truck and terribly injured. After a long, long hospital confinement, he struggles to put his life together, gets involved -- guilelessly, if foolhardily -- with some utterly juvenile but murderous terrorists from the Baader-Mainhof mob.

That Mountstuart manages to scramble back to his feet from every setback is a major element of the story. But so is the manner and method in which he seems often to have collaborated -- usually unwittingly -- with his relentless nemesis. There is a bit of Candide in this story, as well as an echo of The Odyssey -- but, then, is that not true of almost every redemptive tragicomedy?

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