An Enemy of Promise

Review – Any Human Heart by William Boyd

I approached this novel with some trepidation. It had been reviewed well enough; and those of my friends and relatives who had read it all agreed that it was excellent. I suppose my reluctance stemmed from a sense that the journal format is a fairly tired and stale one, and that it can make good novelists produce frankly inferior stuff for no other reason, it seems to me, than the pursuit of narrative ease. It’s tough to be original if the events of every day are conveyed in under 250 words and always begin with ‘Dear diary’.

Another issue stemmed from Boyd’s choice of theme; I can’t help it, but as someone who tries to take history fairy seriously – and to read about it, write about it and study it in that vein – historical fiction holds little to amuse and enthral. Even artfully done it can appear a bit too clever-dick, too much like a novelist not quite of the first rank has got hold of a textbook and had a cracking idea about substituting its contents for anything resembling an original plot.

I need not have worried. For though Boyd’s book does use the historical as its backdrop of choice, it does so with a lightness – a wit – which is both charming and ultimately useful: this tale, comprising the life of Logan Mountstuart, has a vigour and grace which is often supplemented by real comic cleverness. Simply introducing dozens of eminent personalities as incidental characters – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway – takes some guts, and it is done with a pleasing self-deprecation.

It is this lightness of touch which makes the book, in its early stages at least, a real pleasure to read: a delightful and almost carefree narrative of youthful exuberance, the joys of privileged life, and the slow and pleasurable acquisition of experience. Mountstuart’s schooldays are unpleasant but livened up by the camaraderie of his circle; his Oxford experience passes by in a vivid flash, with his studies pushed firmly to the background; and in his burgeoning adulthood, the character as written by Boyd begins to enjoy some of the benefits of being young and interesting and clever, and his career as a writer commences with some dash and promise.

It is in the decadent swirl of parties, dinners and romances where Mountstuart finds his home; and this is where he seems destined to reside. He spends a great deal of time abroad, making use of the new possibilities for travel and exploration; he writes, both novels and non-fiction; and he finds himself in Spain during the civil war, a culmination of pre-Second World War Europe in many ways. A trend is therefore established, and its continuation seems sure. (Though the seeds of future unhappiness are certainly sown at this stage; Mountstuart’s pretentiousness and vanity are notable. His hubristic exploitation of others, taken together with a decided coldness, is another noteworthy character flaw.)

Even though such ominous hints are playfully scattered throughout Boyd’s telling of these halcyon days – Mountstuart finds he has to start worrying about money, for example, and affairs of the heart begin to wound him a little more – the novel seems on course to be little more than a litany of a happy life, and to avoid something much deeper.

Such a book would not have been boring (indeed, it could have been pleasing to the senses), but it would have avoided some of the more revealing and less pleasant episodes of its hero’s life, and missed out some of the catastrophes of that sad century entirely.

When war comes, as it must do, Mountstuart is understandably fearful. Boyd has him speak highly of the Munich Agreement, which, along with other inclusions demonstrating the truth of the hero’s own promise to impose ‘no additions aimed at conferring an unearned sagacity’, makes one genuinely forget one is reading a novel. It also highlights the personal aspect; and the tragedy that is to come – the death of the protagonist’s wife and their daughter while he was imprisoned in Switzerland – provides a sharp departure from the charmed life Mountstuart led before the cataclysm. (Covert wartime work in Switzerland also features in Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise, though with less immediate emotional impact.)

It is the shattered man – his life’s ambitions derailed by the war, his love’s happiness a wreck – who resumes the narrative. It is here that the novel embarks on a thematic shift of some strength; gone are the cocktail parties and the allure and glamour of their denizens. The story also cracks, fractures, too. Though the international travel never ceases – Boyd takes his hero to the Bahamas and to New York, to Iceland and to Nigeria – it has a less freewheeling nature; war is no longer presented as exciting stuff – the Biafran War is not, unlike in Spain, the making of the man.

The character of Mountstuart eventually runs out of places to run, to hide; he also runs out of all his money. He witnesses the deaths of his friends and relatives, and endures the indignities of old age. At one point, though it is described humorously, the once-promising young writer is reduced to eating dog food. The reader – and this reviewer – would be forgiven for experiencing a little disappointment at this decidedly morbid turn of events.

Such sentiment is eventually, via the Baader-Meinhof Group of all things, quashed; Mountstuart – and perhaps Boyd also – reconciles himself to extinction with dignity: ‘Life – still living, pleased to have managed to live in every decade of this benighted century. What a time I’ve had’. One is reminded of Macbeth: ‘nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it’.

This book is a difficult one to categorise: though the journal format is reductive, Boyd tells this tale with élan and skill. He is not just a writer but a practised professional, and more than that, perhaps, a trusted and witty companion. The same applies, in part, to Logan Mountstuart and his extraordinary failure to transcend the ordinary.