Oh dear. Once more it has taken me far longer to get round to actually writing this review than it took me to read the book. The book in question being William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, or, to give the book its full title: Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

I watch very little television (in fact, we don’t actually have one in the house) but I did manage to see the television adaptation of Any Human Heart a couple of years back and enjoyed it, so I’ve been keen to read the novel ever since.

As the subtitle suggest, the book is entirely made up of journal entries written by the fictitious Logan Mountstuart over the course of his life. Now, as Mountstuart was born in 1906, and lives right through to 1991, he is a handy protagonist for William Boyd, who evidently wanted to explore many of the key events that took place during the twentieth century.

To this end, we find that not only did Mountstuart live through both World Wars (serving in the Naval Intelligence Division in the Second World War), but he also has many other rarer experiences of world events, such as reporting on the Spanish Civil War, playing golf with the Duke of Windsor, getting involved in the burgeoning art scene of 1960s New York, and, later, has first-hand dealings with members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

During the course of his life, Mountstuart also collides with various  literary figures, including Evelyn Waugh at Oxford, Virginia Woolf in London, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce in Paris, and Ian Fleming in the Naval Intelligence Division.

As can be seen from the little information I’ve shared so far, Mountstuart’s is no ordinary life, however much William Boyd might like us to think that it is.

Never say you know the last word about any human heart. (Quotation from Henry James, used by Boyd for the book’s opening.)

Things I liked about this novel:

  • It is certainly entertaining and compulsive in its own way.
  • The fact that the novel seeks to cover the whole of one individual’s life, from school days through to old age.
  • The scope of the backdrop – covering as it does many places (England, Barcelona, New York, Paris, Portugal, the Bahamas, Nigeria, rural France, etc.) and so many twentieth century events.

Things I did not think worked so well:

  • The protagonist is likeable in some respects, and certainly seems honest in his diary entries, but he is also a selfish and unfaithful so-and-so, who seems not to learn from his past mistakes. Clearly a novel’s worth and ultimate success is not contingent upon the likeableness of its main character, it’s just that after spending 490 pages reading about Mountstuart’s private life, I felt that I would have liked him to have been a greater man than he was. This is perhaps an unfair criticism, but it is what I felt.
  • To be honest, whilst I have said that I enjoyed the scope of the narrative, I still think that, on balance, Boyd would have been well advised to cover a little less. The main reason I say this is that it all becomes a bit of a blur at times, with few events receiving more than the most cursory attention. This seems a shame, considering the momentousness of some of the events.
  • The vast scope also leads to the character of Logan Mounstuart sometimes appearing less fully formed than I would have liked. I am perhaps being a bit unfair here, as Mountstuart is certainly not badly drawn, but I at times he did feel a little hollow to me.
  • Finally, there are just too many love interests! Again, I think that the old maxim that “less is more” applies here. To give you an idea of the number of lovers that Mountstuart chronicles throughout his life, I have drawn up a list:
    • Tess Scabius, a local farm girl (who was dating one of Mountstuart’s best friends at the time)
    • Land Fothergill, whom he meets at Oxford university
    • Anna, a Russian prostitute he frequents in Paris
    • Lottie, an Earl’s daughter who becomes Mountstuart’s first wife
    • Freya, Mountstuart’s real true love and second wife
    • Ordile, a French girl Mountstuart meets, working at an art gallery
    • Alannah, an American lawyer who becomes his third wife
    • Janet, another gallery owner he has an affair with
    • Gloria, Peter Scabius’ third wife
    • Monday, Mountstuart’s late son’s former girlfriend
  • And I suspect that there are others that I have forgotten. Personally, I found that the result of including so many lovers was that as a reader, I lost interest in them, or, at least, they held less significance and interest for me than they probably should have done.
  • Finally, I found the underlying philosophy put forward by William Boyd, through the character of Mountstuart, too simplistic, unsatisfying, and ultimately pretty depressing:

That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience.

I know that many people love this book. And I do feel that I’ve probably been a little too harsh in my write-up. It is after all, a very impressive achievement and an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to others. It’s just that I know that I am also a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t as truly great as I think it could and should have been.

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