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William Boyd: Any Human Heart

If I were to write the publisher’s blurb for this novel, I think I would say an intellectual and sexual romp through the twentieth century. But I am not writing the publisher’s blurb, so I won’t say it. It is the story, told year by year (with a few odd years omitted) of Logan Mountstuart. Logan’s father, as the name implies, was of Scottish descent. He was the manager of a beef company in Uruguay, famed for producing Foley’s Corned Beef. Logan’s mother was Uruguayan. Logan was born in Uruguay in 1906. The company was sold in 1914 and the family returned to England, arriving a week before World War I broke out. He went to a minor public school where he met and became friends for life with Peter Scabius, a fellow Roman Catholic, and Ben Leeping, a lapsed Jew. Their religious differences meant that they tended to stick together in a small group. They decide to have a challenge, with the other two finding something appropriate for the third, the winner to be documented in their Livre d’Or. Logan, who hates rugby, has to get into the 1st XV, Ben convert to Catholicism, while Peter has to seduce the daughter of the local farmer. Peter wins and ends up not only seducing Tess but will eventually marry her, to the horror of both families. However, we learn much not just about Peter but about Logan from this relationship, as Logan will have a brief fling with Tess before she and Peter marry. He will also have a fling with Peter’s second wife, Gloria. For the rest of the book, Logan will continue in his sexual escapades, getting through three wives and numerous conquests. He will have an affair with a sixteen-year old, visit prostitutes (including a twosome which he describes in some detail), be sexually attracted to his fourteen year old step-daughter and frequently masturbate. He will continue this behaviour for the rest of his long life.

While at Oxford University, he starts writing a book on Shelley and this book, successfully published, will start his writing career. His second book is a novel, based on his relationship with a Russian prostitute which receives mixed reviews. He will continue to write (though not always publish) but briefly stops when he marries the daughter of an earl, whose father buys them a house and gives them an allowance. But he will pursue other careers, from publisher’s reader to spy, from art critic to art dealer (thanks to Ben Leeper, who did not go to university but set up as a successful art dealer in Paris), from journalist to, finally, bagman for the Baader-Meinhof Group. He will have two children (by two different mothers), who both predecease him. He will spend two years in prison in Switzerland. He will report on both the Spanish Civil War and the Biafra War. He will drink and smoke heavily and eat well. He will meet and befriend the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and then (in their view, at least) betray them. He will get to know and, in many cases, befriend many of the famous writers and artists of the twentieth century, from Hemingway (whom he likes as a person but despises as a writer) to D H Lawrence, from Virginia Woolf (whom he insults) to Picasso. He will watch the rise and fall of Nat Tate, an artist who destroys all his paintings and who is entirely fictitious. At times, he is well off. At others, he is flat broke, even eating dog food at one time (very nice, he says, with curry and rice). He works during World War II with Ian Fleming. He will inherit a house from the (fictitious) French poet Cyprien Dieudonne. He will watch Peter Scabius’ career as a writer take off and be crowned in far greater glory than his own is. He will live in Paris, New York, London, Nigeria as well as his early life in Uruguay. In short, his life, though not always easy, is varied and colourful.

The TV version of this novel has three different characters portraying Logan, at different ages. The three occasionally occur together, as though the past, present and future are talking to one another. This does not happen in the book, which is strictly chronological, though, of course, with the inevitable reminiscences. However, there do seem to be three Logans. In particular, the old Logan seems to be different from the younger ones. Sex and booze seem to be key but less so than in his younger days but he seems less sure of himself, not unsurprisingly with a limited future ahead of him and is more willing to be manoeuvred than before. Logan is not a totally loveable character. He behaves badly towards several of the women in his life, has an affair with two of his best friend’s wives, drinks heavily and holds conventional right-wing views. But he also shows kindness to several people and, above all, is a fascinating character with his literary and other adventures, his acquaintances in the literary and artistic world and his lively and usually interesting life.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Hamish Hamilton