A Question of Attitude

Another book review for China, this time about William Boyd’s novel “Any Human Heart”

To invent yourself a life, complete from beginning to end, must be one of the major temptations for many a novelist. At least this is true of William Boyd, British writer of colonial background and considerable skill, who has indulged in such adventure no less than three times. In 1988 he published the fictional memoir “The New Confessions”, telling the story of John James Todd, a Scottish movie director who learns his craft in the trenches of the Great War (World War I). Ten years later Boyd fooled many of his critics with the biography of a completely invented abstract expressionist painter, “Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960”. Some of them lost themselves to impossible recollections of a person who never existed. His latest novel, “Any Human Heart” (2002), the story of a certain Logan Mountstuart, writer, art dealer and man of many passions, seems to have grown out of a footnote in the “Nat Tate” biography, where Boyd mentions a study about the artist written by this very same Logan Mountstuart.

William Boyd, a Scotsman who was born in the West-African city of Accra in 1952 and grew up in Ghana and Nigeria, belongs to the same generation of British novelists as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Unlike these celebrated colleagues he’s never quite made it to the top-selling ranks. But none of his many books is out of print either. Boyd, who also works as a script-writer for TV and cinema, has very loyal followers. They adore him for his wisdom, dry sense of humour and confident craft, all these reliably put to a completely unpretentious use. Not a few of his fans are themselves writers,

For “Any Human Heart”, Boyd has chosen the form of a diary, full of the perspectival short-sightedness and gaps that are the characteristic of this genre, but at the same time rich in spirit, immediate impression and detail. Like the “New Confessions”, “Any Human Heart” blends historical fact and fiction to take the reader on what the cliché would call “a rollercoaster ride” through the 20th century with all its wars and illusions. Logan Mountstuart himself uses a different picture: “a rollercoaster’s too smooth – a yo-yo rather, a jerking, spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child”, he sums up his life shortly before his death. But compared with the earlier novel, which contains some of the most gruesome depictions of the terrors of war to be found in literature, “Any Human Heart” is in many ways the lighter, more easy- going book. The horrors of its time are not concealed, but they are not overly emphasized either. When Logan Mountstuart works as war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War he mostly meets proud and happy people. His only encounter with real combat then comes with a suddenness and absurdity that it leaves not only the hero of our story but also its reader shocked and confused.

But even in the darkest moments of Mountstuart’s life – when he returns from imprisonment after a James-Bond-like, but ridiculously failed spying adventure, to find his beloved wife and daughter dead from a V-2 rocket attack during the last months of World War II – we can trust our hero’s indomitable vitality. In the aftermath he reflects about masturbation as a psychological rescue: “What sick Victorian cleric has dubbed this practice self-abuse? Self help, more like, self-support, self-solace. Auto-eroticism keeps you sane.” Logan Mountstuart is going to survive a desperate suicide attempt (with an overdose of Aspirin out of all drugs!) and will show up only shortly afterwards in new guise and setting.

Boyd’s story-telling is shamelessly entertaining. The stages of Mountstuarts life pass by in a rapid sequence of colourful vistas, each one of them playing a different genre, a different melody, a different mood: from the vague memories of his childhood in Uruguay in the diaries’ preamble, the boyish and merry adventures during school time in Britain, to the ambitious and slightly over-confident first literary experimentation of his Oxford years; from the painful adjustment to reality in a failed first marriage, first literary successes, the subsequent love and bliss and second fatherhood painfully interrupted by wartime fate, to his prosperous post-war existence in New York City, where he settles as an art dealer. With every episode Logan Mountstuart re-invents himself, adding facette after facette to an increasingly rich but utterly comprehensible personality, a man you would like not only to meet but also to befriend.

Logan Mountstuart is painted as an extremely sociable human being. Tongue in cheek, Boyd adds a 12-page index to the diary, mostly consisting of a detailed rendering of Mountstuart’s various encounters throughout the book, with far more than a hundred other characters. Many of these are borrowed from historical reality: During the book’s course Mountstuart is been socially affronted by the writer Virginia Woolf, french-kissed by her male colleague Evelyn Waugh, recruited as a spy by the inventor of James Bond, Ian Fleming, sketched by Pablo Picasso and accompanied through the Spanish civil war by Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few. As Boyd is a master of the quick stroke of brush, most of these figures come to blooming life, seemingly without effort. In one of the most chilling episodes of the book he’s ordered to spy upon the Duke of Windsor, abdicated former King Edward VIII of Britain, and his American spouse Wallis Simpson, “A beautifully matched porcelain couple”, Mountstuart notes at their first encounter, “You wanted to put them on your mantelpiece.”

Even more than writing, the female sex is one of the major driving forces in Logan Mountstuart’s life. With the title of a late Truffaut movie we could call him “The Man Who Loved Women”. Like Truffaut’s hero Bertrand Morane, Mountstuart’s attitude towards the opposite sex combines eroticism with deep respect. Though, not in all of these encounters he’s free from fault. More than once his affairs are tainted with betrayal. And other dangers loom: After the death of his son Lionel he consoles himself with Lionel’s girlfriend Monday, but it soon turns out that this girl is only sixteen years old. As her family threatens to sue him, Mountstuart has to leave the United States in a panicky escape, the deepest and most sudden fall of his lifetime. He finds refuge only as a teacher in Nigeria, this episode marking the last years of his professional life.

When we finally accompany our hero into old age – and his creator doesn’t spare us the heart-breakingly sad and miserable aspects of life’s late autumn and winter season – we are led to understand this as the utmost challenge for any human heart. When everything comes to a close, when all physical, material and social resources are exhausted, when poverty and loneliness strike, it all comes down to questions of attitude. Attitude turns out to be not only the skeleton but also the vital essence of a character. With a strong sense of black humour Mountstuart gives a protocol of his late “Dog-Food Years” (to be taken literally). In his desperation he takes a job as newspaperman and courier for an obscure group of anarchist militants, loosely associated with the German terrorist group Red Army Fraction. We learn that in periods like these, even when you mix up with leftist radicals, it pays to once have spent nearly a year’s income for a set of hand- made suits from one of the best London tailors.

In the end, Logan Mountstuart’s seeming weaknesses turn out to be his very strengths. His curiosity, his vanity and pride, his philandering and strong sex drive, they all contribute to a vital posture that allows him to overcome all obstacles and crises and find himself a proper place for coming to rest. When we finally leave this man, lying dead underneath a chestnut tree, close to “a large clump of thistles”, in the unspectacular garden of his french cabin, we cannot help but wish ourselves a life as rich in happiness and pain, as fully lived and proudly suffered as his.