In Any Human Heart, William Boyd sets out to chronicle the 20th century from a rather ordinary person’s point of view. Logan Mountstuart is a bit of an outsider, a bit of an insider, a moderately successful, moderately interesting person who manages to utterly charm and intrigue the reader through seven decades of fictional diaries. Following this long, detailed, believable and rather (in the end) unexceptional life, you can’t wait to see what happens next, even if it’s only a beautifully described sunset or a drunken night in the pub.
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Logan moves through boarding school and Oxford to London. In the 20s and 30s, he’s a writer, a party boy, a scorner of Virginia Woolf, and a slightly aloof asteroid circling the Bright Young Things. He bumps into Joyce, Picasso, and Hemingway in Paris through an art dealer friend who—after Logan’s inexplicable incarceration in a Swiss fortress during WWII—hires him to be his New York eyes and ears. This enables Logan to escape England and hang with de Kooning, Pollock, et al. As a down-and-out, dog food-eating OAP (old age pensioner) back in London in the 70s, Logan’s background as a spy (did I mention that he was “run” by Ian Fleming?) helps him aid, then foil, the Baader-Meinhof gang before decamping France.
The diaries convincingly stop and start as Logan picks up the threads of his life, trying to make sense of events from personal heartbreaks to political movements. He experiences great moments in history as many of us do, mostly from the sidelines as an interested, if not willing, participant. In Any Human Heart, author Boyd shows us the extraordinary in the ordinary; he’s clever without being sly (there is a ten-page index in the back, and a Logan bibliography), entertaining without being witless. It’s a delight for connoisseurs of recent cultural history, and an astonishing, seamless, literary tour de force.
Any Human Heart can be found locally at Vroman’s.