Book: Any Human Heart
Author: William Boyd
Review by: Glenn Hendrix, chair, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP
“That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up – look at the respective piles. There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says.”
That’s the theme of William Boyd’s novel, Any Human Heart, which features a British writer, Logan Mountstuart, whose fictional life (1906–1991) intersects with some of the key events and iconic figures of the 20th century.
Mountstuart’s story is told through his diary. The journal entries serve to capture the random, often capricious, twists and turns in his life. In explaining his use of this narrative device, Boyd observes that a daily journal is “written without the benefit of hindsight, so there isn’t the same feeling you get when you look back and add shape to a life. There are huge chunks missing.” As in life, there are also false starts in the storyline; some plot lines simply peter out.
Aside from advancing Boyd’s theme, the absence of a linear storyline yields lots of surprises, and the result is an entertaining read. Mountstuart bounces from continent to continent, relationship to relationship, and endeavor to endeavor, experiencing happiness and grief, wealth and penury, and success and disappointment along the way. He rubs shoulders with Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, Picasso, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The transitions in Mountstuart’s life are credibly drawn, and his interactions with the celebrity cameo characters are convincing and sometimes comical.
The novel and its depiction of Mountstuart’s changing self are oddly reassuring. While one seldom lives a life according to the straight course they might have planned or wished for, the bumps, diversions and jolts along the way make for something that’s perhaps more fulfilling. In Mountstuart’s case, they certainly make for a more interesting story.