How do we measure a life lived? By the sum of all the money we have made? By the people we love and who have loved us back? By the places we have been or events we have witnessed? By all of these things or none of them at all?
Any Human Heart is the story of a full life told to us through the memoirs of the man who lived it, Logan Mountstewart through the various journals he kept from childhood on wards. Born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1906 we follow Logan as he moves to England, goes to a minor public school (Public school is still one of the most baffling oxymoron’s ever conceived).
From here we explore various periods in his life – Oxford in the 20s, Paris in the early 30’s,
the Spanish civil war, the Bahamas during the second world war, New York in the 50’s and 60’s,
Nigeria during its Biafrian civil war, London in the 70’s and finally rural France in the eighties.
(Side note I could not find a single gif of Jim Broadbent seriously he was in hot fuzz and harry potter what does the man have to do to get some love internet???)
Logan dreams of becoming a writer and in this has some success though the course of his life is not what he had expected dabbling in journalism, running an art gallery, intelligence work, and lecturing at a university. He has relationships and affairs, family and children, all told against a back round of a changing world. The word to describe the scope of what Boyd has written here is ambition; a sweeping novel and I personally loved it.
Mountstewart is a fascinating character. As he takes through almost a century of life he never tries to gloss over his flaws or paint himself in a rosy light, we see him as he is and it makes for a great character. At times he does less than honourable actions; he cheats on his partners, he drinks far more than he should, And yet he never crosses over into being unlikable or unsympathetic and he is never not interesting. He lives through a wide variety of experiences and meets famous people from history – he drinks in Paris with Hemmingway, gets recruited by Ian Fleming during the war, he runs in the same art circles as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and has intrigues with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.
This could all easily have fallen into Forest Gump territory but Boyd is too skilled a writer to have it become unbelievable. After all an novelist living in Paris in the 30’s would likely have gone to the same parties as Hemmingway, running an art gallery in 50’s New York probably would have involved trying to acquire Pollack works and British Navel intelligence was and maybe still is an old boys network of Oxbridge types. Through out the whole novel from adolescence to adulthood, from middle age to old age Logan remains a believable character, he grows and changes but he never stops being himself. I also liked the restraint that Boyd writes him with. It would have been easy to make him important and successful or to put him at the centre of the major events during the sweep of history but this is not the case. He writes a few well-received books and yet in his later life they are all out of print. He works in the art world but always for his friend, he never owns a gallery or becomes a patron in his own right. And while he does get caught up in events that a reader with a knowledge of history would recognise more often his journal rarely talks of current events and when it does they are of the point of view of an ordinary man rather than anyone with more than a general understanding of the world at large (“Coffee with Land Fothergillat the Cadena. She was wearing a velvet coat that matched her eyes. We talked a little stiffly about Mussolini and Italy and I was embarrassed to note how much better informed she was than I.”)
Other than Logan the novel is packed with interesting rounded characters from his childhood and life long friends peter and Ben, to his Scottish father and Uruguayan Mother. We see the women he has relationships with; Land (that is her actual name!) a student at Oxford who challenges him intellectually, Lottie who he enters a loveless marriage, Monday who turns out to be wrong for him in all the possible ways, to Freya the great love of his life. Each of these characters, plus the cameos from real life people, are engaging to read and with the various settings I get the feeling that Boyd could have written a full novel about any of these people, places and times and it would have been just as engaging. Reading a few reviews before writing this it seems not everyone was happy with the journal style and overall way it was written. Rather than a single grand arc connecting all the events the novel weaves its way through periods in Logans life and moves on. Characters who in other works of fiction would play pivotal parts later on drop out of view with little fanfare. Mysteries and betrayals that deserve answers go unfulfilled. And rather than Logan learning from his experiences to become a better man bad habits remain intact and mistakes are made again. I loved that exactly because it isn’t quite satisfying, life doesn’t come wrapped up with a neat bow and we remain flawed people despite ourselves. Any Human Heart was a great read for me, witty, moving, constantly engaging and I highly recommend it.
Or at least watch the mini-series. Hayley Atwell plays freya
Do I need to say more??