William Boyd has been one of our most popular ‘literary’ novelists for over 30 years. His profile has risen in recent years through the televising of the spy drama ‘Restless’ as well as of this book.
In ‘Any Human Heart’, first published in 2002, he creates the central character Logan Mountstuart who lives through every decade of the 20th century.
As a writer, journalist and art dealer, Logan is imagined as coming into contact with famous creative people and the events in his life are played out against real events over many years. Those real people and events give solidity to the novel and strain credulity only when Logan in his senior years in the 1970s uncharacteristically becomes entangled on the edge of the violent activities of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.
The narrative is based on Logan’s diary entries. The reader may experience a failure of sympathy for Logan to whom privilege and relative wealth come almost too easily. He could be said to portray a self-satisfied attitude to his worldly success.
His attitude to his many female conquests can also seem similarly selfish and shallow.
The reader’s sympathies change markedly as a result of the Second World War entries. Logan is sent as a secret agent on a mission into neutral Switzerland but is mysteriously betrayed and imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years.
Cut off from his family, friends and contacts, he discovers on his release after the end of the war that his wife had re-married, believing him to be dead, and that both she and Logan’s child had been killed in an air raid.
Later his worldly fortunes take a dip and the diary entries become wiser and more humorous at his own expense. Logan learns to live with relative poverty and to avoid rushing to judgements of others.
Unsurprisingly, this is a novel of over 500 pages, and yet it is highly readable and holds our attention throughout.