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  • Written by William Boyd
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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 512 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42485-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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William Boyd’s masterful new novel tells, in a series of intimate journals, the story of Logan Mountstuart—writer, lover, art dealer, spy—as he makes his often precarious way through the twentieth century.


Webmaster's Note: Footnotes have been inserted in appropriate places. In the actual text, they appear at the bottom of the page, as usual.


"Yo, Logan," I wrote. "Yo, Logan Mountstuart, vivo en la Villa Flores, Avenida de Brasil, Montevideo, Uruguay, America del Sur, El Mundo, El Sistema Solar, El Universo." These were the first words I wrote--or to be more precise, this is the earliest record of my writing and the beginning of my writing life--words that were inscribed on the flyleaf of an indigo pocket diary for the year 1912 (which I still possess and whose pages are otherwise void). I was six years old. It intrigues me now* to reflect that my first written words were in a language not my own. My lost fluency in Spanish is probably my greatest regret about my otherwise perfectly happy childhood. The serviceable, error-dotted, grammatically unsophisticated Spanish that I speak today is the poorest of poor cousins to that instinctive colloquial jabber that spilled out of me for the first nine years of my life. Curious how these early linguistic abilities are so fragile, how unthinkingly and easily the brain lets them go. I was a bilingual child in the true sense, namely that the Spanish I spoke was indistinguishable from that of a Uruguayan.

* This preamble was probably written in 1987 (see p. 464).

Uruguay, my native land, is held as fleetingly in my head as the demotic Spanish I once unconsciously spoke. I retain an image of a wide brown river with trees clustered on the far bank as dense as broccoli florets. On this river, there is a narrow boat with a single person sitting in the stern. A small outboard motor scratches a dwindling, creamy wake on the turbid surface of the river as the boat moves downstream, the ripples of its progress causing the reeds at the water's edge to sway and nod and then grow still again as the boat passes on. Am I the person in the boat or am I the observer on the bank? Is this the view of a stretch of the Río Negro where I used to fish as a child? Or is it a vision of the individual soul's journey through time, a passage as transient as a boat's wake on flowing water? I can't claim it as my first reliable, datable memory, alas. That award goes to the sight of my tutor Roderick Poole's short and stubby circumcised penis, observed by my covertly curious eyes as he emerged naked from the Atlantic surf at Punta del Este, where we two had gone for a summer picnic one June day in 1914. I was eight years old and Roderick Poole had come to Montevideo from England to prepare me for St. Alfred's, my English prep school. Always swim naked when you can, Logan, was the advice he gave to me that day, and I have tried to adhere to it ever since. Anyway, Roderick was circumcised and I was not--which explains why I was paying such close attention, I suppose, but doesn't account for that particular day of all others being the one that sticks in my mind. Up until that precise moment the distant past of my earlier years is all vague swirling images, unfixed by time and place. I wish I could offer up something more telling, more poetic, something more thematically pertinent to the life that was to follow, but I can't--and I must be honest, here of all places.

The first pages of the lifelong, though intermittent, journal that I began to keep from the age of fifteen are missing. No great loss and, doubtless, like the avowals that begin almost all intimate journals, mine too would have commenced with the familiar determination to be wholly and unshakeably truthful. I would have sworn an oath to absolute candour and asserted my refusal to feel shame over any revelations which that candour would have encouraged. Why do we urge ourselves on in this way, us journal-keepers? Do we fear the constant threat of backslide in us, the urge to tinker and cover up? Are there aspects of our lives--things we do, feel and think--that we daren't confess, even to ourselves, even in the absolute privacy of our private record? Anyway, I'm sure I vowed to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc., etc., and I think these pages will bear me out in that endeavour. I have sometimes behaved well and I have sometimes behaved less than well--but I have resisted all attempts to present myself in a better light. There are no excisions designed to conceal errors of judgement ("The Japanese would never dare to attack the USA unprovoked"); no additions aimed at conferring an unearned sagacity ("I don't like the cut of that Herr Hitler's jib"); and no sly insertions to indicate canny prescience ("If only there were some way to harness safely the power in the atom")--for that is not the purpose of keeping a journal. We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being. Think of our progress through time as one of those handy images that illustrate the Ascent of Man. You know the type: diagrams that begin with the shaggy ape and his ground-grazing knuckles, moving on through slowly straightening and depilating hominids, until we reach the clean-shaven Caucasian nudist proudly clutching the haft of his stone axe or spear. All the intervening orders assume a form of inevitable progression towards this brawny ideal. But our human lives aren't like that, and a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganized reality. The various stages of development are there, but they are jumbled up, counterposed and repeated randomly. The selves jostle for prominence in these pages: the mono-browed Neanderthal shoulders aside axe-wielding Homo sapiens; the neurasthenic intellectual trips up the bedaubed aborigine. It doesn't make sense; the logical, perceived progression never takes place. The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn't try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn't try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people--all these different people are me.

Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary--it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum. I was born on the 27th February 1906 in Montevideo, Uruguay, the sea-girt city on its bay in that small country wedged between beefy Argentina and broiling Brazil. The "Switzerland of South America" it is sometimes dubbed and the land-locked associations of that comparison are apt, for, despite their country's long coastline--the republic is surrounded on three sides by water: the Atlantic, the vast estuary of the Río Plata and the broad Río Uruguay--the Uruguayans themselves are defiantly non-seafaring, a fact that has always warmed my heart, divided as it is between seadog Briton and landlubberly Uruguayan. My nature, true to its genetic heritage, is resolutely divided: I love the sea, but I love it viewed from a beach--my feet must always be planted on the strand.

My father's name was Francis Mountstuart (b. 1871). My mother's was Mercedes de Solís. She claimed to be descended from the first European, Juan Díaz de Solís, who set his foot on Uruguayan soil early in the sixteenth century. An unfortunate move on his part as he and most of his band of explorers were swiftly killed by Charrua Indians. No matter: my mother's preposterous boast is unverifiable.

My parents met because my mother, who spoke good English, became my father's secretary. My father was the general manager of Foley & Cardogin's Fresh Meat Company's processing plant in Uruguay. Foley's Finest Corned Beef is their most famous brand ("Foley's Finest": we have all, we British, eaten Foley's corned beef at some stage in our lives), but the bulk of their business was in the exporting of frozen beef carcasses to Europe from their huge frigorífico--a slaughterhouse and massive freezing unit combined--on the coast a few miles west of Montevideo. Foley's was not the biggest frigorífico in Uruguay at the turn of the twentieth century (that honour went to Lemco's at Fray Bentos), but it was very profitable--thanks to the diligence and perseverance of Francis Mountstuart. My father was thirty-three years old when he married my mother in 1904 (she was ten years younger than he) in Montevideo's pretty cathedral. Two years later I was born, their only child, named Logan Gonzago after my respective grandfathers (neither of whom was alive to meet his grandson).

I stir the memory soup in my head, hoping gobbets of Uruguay will float to the surface. I can see the frigorífico--a vast white factory with its stone jetty and towering chimney stack. I can hear the lowing of a thousand cattle waiting to be slaughtered, butchered, cleaned and frozen. But I didn't like the frigorífico and its chill aura of mass-produced death*--it made me frightened--I preferred our house and its dense and leafy grounds, a big villa on the chic and swanky Avenida de Brasil in Montevideo's new town. I remember a lemon tree in our garden and lobes of lemon-coloured light on a stone terrace. And there was a lead fountain set in a brick wall, with water spouting from a putto's mouth. A putto who looked, I now remember, just like the daughter of Jacob Pauser, the manager of the Foley estancia, 30,000 acres of the Banda Oriental, the purple-flowered flatlands where the beef herds roamed. What was this girl's name? Let's call her Esmerelda. Little Esmerelda Pauser--you can be my first love.

* 80,000 cattle a year were slaughtered at the Foley frigorifico and numberless sheep.

We spoke English in the house and from the age of six I went to a church school run by monoglot nuns on the Playa Trienta y Tres. I could read English but barely write by the time Roderick Poole arrived in 1913 (fresh from Oxford with a pass degree in Greats) to take my slipshod education by the scruff of its neck and make me fit for St. Alfred's School, Warwick, Warwickshire, England. I had no real concept of what England was like, my whole world was Montevideo and Uruguay. Lincoln, Shropshire, Hampshire, Romney Marsh and Southdown--breeds of sheep routinely slaughtered in my father's frigorífico were what my country meant to me. One more memory. After my lessons with Roderick we would go sea-bathing a Pocitos (where Roderick had to keep his bathing suit on) and would take the number 15 or 22 tram to reach the resort. Our treat was to order sorbets and have them served to us in the gardens of the Grand Hotel--gardens full of flowers: stock, lilac, orange, myrtle and mimosa--and then rattle home in the tender dusk to find my mother in the kitchen shouting at the cook, my father on the terrace smoking his quotidian cigar.

The Mountstuart family home was in Birmingham, where my father had been born and raised and where the head office of Foley & Cardogin's Fresh Meat Co. was to be found. In 1914 Foley's decided to concentrate on its meat-processing factories in Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia, and the Uruguayan business was sold to an Argentine firm, the Compañía Sansinena de Carnes Congeladas. My father was promoted to managing director and summoned home to Birmingham. We sailed for Liverpool on the SS Zenobia in the company of 2,000 frozen carcasses of Pollen Angus. The First World War began a week after we made landfall.

Did I weep when I looked back at my beautiful city beneath its small, fort-topped, conic hill and we left the yellow waters of the Río Plata behind? Probably not: I was sharing a cabin with Roderick Poole and he was teaching me to play gin rummy.

The city of Birmingham became my new home. I swapped the eucalyptus groves of Colón, the grass seas of the campo and the endless yellow waters of the Río Plata for a handsome, Victorian, redbrick villa in Edgbaston. My mother was delighted to be in Europe and revelled in her new role as the managing director's wife. I was sent as a boarder to St. Alfred's (where I briefly acquired the nickname "Dago"--I was a dark, dark-eyed boy) and at the age of thirteen I moved on to Abbeyhurst College (usually known as Abbey)--an eminent boys' boarding school, though not quite of the first rank--to complete my secondary education. It is here in 1923, when I was seventeen years old, that the first of my journals, and the story of my life, begins.


10 December 1923

We--the five Roman Catholics--were walking back from the bus stop up the drive to school, fresh from Mass, when Barrowsmith and four or five of his Neanderthals started chanting "Papist dogs" and "Fenian traitors" at us. Two of the junior sprats began weeping, so I stood up to Barrowsmith and said: "So tell us what religion you are, Barrowboy." "Church of England, of course, you dunce," he said. "Then count yourself very fortunate," said I, "that one religion at least will accept someone as physically repulsive as you are." Everyone laughed, even Barrowsmith's simian crew, and I shepherded my little flock together and we regained the purlieus of school without further incident.

Scabius and Leeping* declared I had done work of sub-magnificent standard and that the encounter and exchange were droll enough to deserve entry in our Livre d'Or. I argued that I should have a starred sub-magnificent because of the potential risk of physical injury from Barrowsmith and his lackeys, but Scabius and Leeping both voted against. The swine! Little Montague, one of the blubbers, was the witness, and Scabius and Leeping both handed over the honorarium (two cigarettes each for a sub-magnificent) with goodly cheer.

*Peter Scabius, LMS's closest friend from his schooldays, along with Benjamin Leeping.

When we brewed up after second prep I hatched a plan for the Martinmas term. It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of magnificents to happen--we had to initiate them ourselves. I proposed that we should each be presented with a challenge: that two of us, in turn, should think up a task for the third and that the endeavour would be documented (and witnessed as far as possible) in the Livre d'Or. Only in this way, I averred, could the ghastly rigours of next term be survived, and, after that, we were on the home stretch: summer term was always more agreeable and could take care of itself. There were the School Certificate and scholarship exams and then we'd be free--and of course we hoped Oxford would be waiting (for me and Scabius, at least--Leeping said he had no intention of wasting three years--of what was bound to be a short life--at university). Scabius suggested the raising of a fund to privately print and publish a deluxe limited edition of the Livre d'Or if only to preserve the iniquities of Abbey for all time. "Or as a terrible warning for our offspring," added Leeping. This was unanimously agreed and we each deposited one penny into the new "publishing fund," Leeping already pondering weight and weave of paper types, embossed leather binding and the like.*

In the dormitory that night I pleasured myself with delectable visions of Lucy. No. 127 of the term.

* As far as is known, the Livre d'Or was never printed. No trace of the manuscript survives.
William Boyd|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About William Boyd

William Boyd - Any Human Heart

Photo © D. Testa

WILLIAM BOYD is the author of nine novels, including A Good Man in Africa, winner of the Whitbread Award and the Somerset Maugham Award; An Ice-Cream War, winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Brazzaville Beach, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Any Human Heart, winner of the Prix Jean Monnet; and Restless, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year, the Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and a Richard & Judy Book Club pick.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with William Boyd

Q: ANY HUMAN HEART, your last novel Nat Tate, and your novel The New Confessions are all fake biographies (or in one case an autobiography). Why are you drawn to the concept of chronicling a single person’s entire life?
One of the best definitions of the novel is D.H. Laurence's. He described the novel as "The bright book of life"—and I suppose that the human condition—the investigation of human nature—is the novel's primary subject. The novel does our lives, our being-humanness, better and more richly than any other art form available. So to track an entire life with all its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies seems to me an obvious and satisfying thing to do.

Q: In ANY HUMAN HEART we follow the life of writer-adventurer Logan Mountstuart via entries in his personal journal. Why did you decide to use this format for the novel?
Having tried the other formats available to any writer to tell the story of a life, I realized that the literary form that most fits the way we actually live is the journal. Other forms—autobiography, biography, and memoir—are all much shaped and therefore fundamentally artificial. The journal is written day by day without benefit of hindsight. The significance—or banality—of events is not apparent. Which is how we live, in fact, taking life as it comes, not knowing about the meaningful forking paths in the road ahead. So in a journal—even a fake journal like ANY HUMAN HEART—we get life in all its randomness and unpredictability. We see how all lives are shaped by chance, by hazard, by happenstance. Your life is really the aggregate of all the good luck—and all the bad luck—you have experienced. As true for Logan Mountstuart as it is for the rest of us.

Q: Why did you make Logan a writer? Are there shades of William Boyd in Logan Mountstuart?
I made him a writer because he was inspired initially by real writers. I am fascinated by the life and work of that generation of English writers who were born at the beginning of the century and reached maturity by the time of World War II. People like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Anthony Powell, obviously, but also less well known writers—Henry Greene, Laurence Durrell, Cyril Connolly and Wiliam Gerhardie. The last two in particular lurk closely behind Logan. I wanted to invent my own exemplary figure who could seem almost as real as the real ones and whose life followed a similar pattern: boarding school, university, Paris in the 20s, the rise of Fascism, war, post-war neglect, disillusion, increasing decrepitude, and so on—a long, varied and rackety life that covered most of the century. Thus it follows that there's not a lot of William Boyd in Mr. Mountstuart. I share some of his tastes—for painting, for French poetry, for example, but none of his vices—idleness, moral laziness, procrastination, self-indulgence (or so I hope)...

Q: Logan’s life spans virtually the entire 20th century. How did you decide what would happen to him? Did you outline the century first and fit Logan into world events, or did you make up the story as you went along?
Logan's life, curiously enough, takes him to places and involves him in events that I myself am very interested in: Paris in the 1920s, the Spanish Civil War, the Duke of Windsor's time as governor of the Bahamas, the New York art scene of the 1950s—and so on. I always work in the same way: I never start until everything is figured out—so I spent a long time planning Logan's 85-year journey through the 20th century. It was very deliberate but the challenge was to make it appear random—and therefore life-like.

Q: Throughout the journal, Logan is an impressive name-dropper. He has drinks with Hemingway and is sketched by Picassso. How did you decide which famous figures to include?
: This is part of the search for authenticity. If you were a successful young writer in the 1920s you would be bound to meet other successful writers and artists and move in a recognizable artistic society. It would have seemed odd if Logan hadn't met anyone "real" so I had him encounter and tangle with all manner of people whose portraits I was keen to present: Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Picasso, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ian Fleming, Jackson Pollock etc. He meets lots of fictional people as well (not least his three wives) but this leavening of real personalities in his life-story was to make his journal seem true, convincingly real.

Q: Logan’s voice gradually changes as he grows up and understands more of how life works. Was it difficult to age Logan from a young student to an old man?
This was another challenge and to do with one of the main themes in the book, namely that we as people are not consistent and unchanging and that over the course of a life we are actually many different "selves"—not one self. I wanted the literary tone of each journal to reflect this and so the voice subtilely changes as you read on: from pretentious school boy to modern young decadent, to bitter realist to drink soaked cynic, to sage and serene octogenarian, and so forth. I wanted the reader to have a palpable sense of Logan ageing and changing as he's buffeted by life and struggles onward.

Q: As in all of your novels, there are some odd names in this book. Why are you so interested in names?
Actually I think the names in my novels are wholly authentic. Open any telephone directory and you'll find odder names than anything I could invent. People have strange names, it's a fact. I was taken to task over this very matter by an English journalist until I pointed out his own name—James Dellingpole. Oh, he said, I see what you mean. On a more literary matter I think if a character is named correctly he or she already begins to breathe, to come to life. Characters called Fred Smith or Sally Brown don't really seem alive to me—even though Fred Smiths and Sally Browns do exist.

Q: It must have been strange for you to come to the end of Logan’s life. Did you know at the beginning of the book how he would end up?
I did. I knew exactly how, where and when Logan would die. But the key thing was not to let this knowledge inform the life—his life—as I wrote it. Still, it was a strange and moving moment when I killed him off, as it were. I had written his life chronologically, from start to finish, without jumping around, and felt I knew him better, possibly, than any other character I had invented. For a few moments it was like an actual loss—the emphatic and saddening sense of his journey ending. But then I became a ruthless, cold-hearted, clear-eyed novelist again.

Q: The novel’s index is very funny. How did you come up with the idea to include it?
: Again, the search for authenticity and plausibility: to encourage the reader's suspension of disbelief. To encounter an index at the end of a novel is extremely rare and somehow questions the novel's fictionality—for a second or two. It was great fun to compile as well—you have in the index Logan's life in microcosm and it can almost be read independently: you'd get a sense of who Logan Mountstuart was and what his life contained.

Q: What is the significance of the title ANY HUMAN HEART?
It's to show that for all his individuality and his idiosyncrasies, Logan is, in fundamental matters, just like every other human being, man or woman. His life, in its simple humanity—its desires and disappointments, its needs and its traumas—is exemplary, like all human lives.

Q: In addition to novels, you’ve written screenplays, scripts for television, short stories, essays on art. Do you prefer one form over the others?
I'm a novelist, first and foremost—there is no freer, no more generous art form in which to immerse yourself—all others involve some kind of compromise. But I love movies and I enjoy collaboration—many of my friends are actors and film directors. Working in film and television satisfies the more convivial side of my personality.

Q: Your novel ARMADILLO was recently made into a television film for A&E. Were you pleased with the result?
Extremely pleased. I thought the lead actor, James Frain, was exceptional. The key thing was that it functioned as a successful drama without requiring any knowledge of the book.

Q: Are any of your other novels or stories being made into a film?
We are trying to make a film of THE BLUE AFTERNOON, with Bruce Beresford attached to direct. I've also adapted two of my short stories: "Cork" and "The Destiny of Nathalie X" as films (low budget, art-house) and they are struggling on.

Q: You recently wrote and directed your first feature film, The Trench (1999). What was that experience like?
It was both tremendously enjoyable and daunting. I knew a lot about the process of filmmaking because of all the screenplays I’d had produced, but I’d never had to work with actors before—and for me that was the big question mark. In fact it all went extremely well. I was ludicrously over-prepared (I had personally story-boarded the entire film) and I had a crew that Stanley Kubrick would have been proud of. In fact, it was such a good experience that I have written a script—a noirish thriller called Stone Free –that I hope to direct in the near future.”

Q: We've heard a lot lately about actors who try their hand at directing a film they also star in (Denzel Washington, George Clooney). Is it more difficult to direct a film that you have another key role in, in your case as screenwriter? Is it more difficult if you don't have distance on the project?
I think that the more intimately you know a film project—the closer you are to it—the better. Also it is a true collaborative medium: there are lots of other eyes looking on and lots of other opinions to seek, and I was very happy to take advice if I ever felt uncertain. As a screenwriter I’m naturally very suspicious of the “auteur” theory—but as a writer/director I think you do get a bit closer to that perfect autonomy you have as a novelist: in film terms it’s the best of all possible worlds. You get to make all the final decisions (as director) and you have all the answers to any questions that may arise (as writer). For some reason I have a hunch it would be much harder to act in the film you were directing—who’s going to give you acting notes?”

Q: What are you working on now?
I'm currently writing some new short stories as I plan to bring out a new short story
collection in 2004 (my third). I've published about six stories in the New Yorker over the last few years and with a couple more new ones I'll have enough to make a book. I've also just completed my first stage play—a comedy about Jean Jacques Rousseau and a disastrous love affair he embarked upon in 1757—everybody behaves extremely badly.

Author Q&A

A Note from the Author on Writing ANY HUMAN HEART

Of all the eight novels I've written Any Human Heart was technically the most challenging. I had decided very early on in the book's conception that it would be written in journal form. The aim behind this decision was to try and reproduce the random nature of an exemplary human life: life in all its excitement and boredom, happiness, tragedy and absurdity. Logan's particular life, as he recounts it in his journal, could stand--therefore--as everyone's life. None of us truly knows what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, let alone next year and we advance forward into the empty void of the future more in hope than expectation. The journal form, of all the literary forms available to the novelist, most accurately replicates this feature of our human lives--lives governed by the twin, haphazard forces of good luck and bad luck.

The key word here is "replicate." The massive difference between Logan Mountstuart's journal in Any Human Heart and the type of intimate journal that you or I would keep is that Logan's journal was written in full and precise knowledge of what was going to happen to him--written by me, that is, the novelist: all-seeing and omniscient. While Logan, my character, of course has no idea what the future holds. The technical challenge for me was to reproduce this innocence about a future life while being in full knowledge of exactly what lay up ahead. As a novelist, I found this was a very hard thing to sustain over the 85 years that Logan experiences. I constantly had to banish my awareness of Logan's several fates and write as if I was living exactly in the present moment as he was. I think it works: readers "live" Logan's life as he does: they simultaneously share his joy and despair, his tedium and his shock--but a lot of unnatural effort went in to making this seem naturally effortless!

-- William Boyd

Praise | Awards


“Its pleasures are endless. . . . Supremely entertaining.” –The Washington Post Book World

"Boyd has an exceptional ability to tell a really compelling story, in dense imaginative detail, about characters with complex, and convincing, emotional lives. . . . I've already read this book twice and probably shall again. Of how many novels can that be said?"--Peter Green, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“The sort of rare novel that redeems the essential purpose of prose fiction. . . . A high celebration of the plain fun of a life lived with relentless appetite and reasonable grace.”—The Baltimore Sun

“Entertaining and moving. . . . Can be read with sheer pleasure not only for the delicacy of its emotions but for the truth of its perceptions. Like saying goodbye to a good friend, it’s hard to see this brilliant novel come to an end.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A wonderful character—and a wonderful book. . . . Boyd persuades you that you’ve read the confidences of a real, flawed, marginal character battered by every malice and caprice of 20th-century history. ” —The Seattle Times

“A pleasure front to back, and a fond tip of the bowler hat to the upper-class fiction spawned by a long-gone world.”— Newsweek

“One of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today.”—The Atlantic Monthly

“A novel of deep humanity and insight.”—Newsday


FINALIST 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Its pleasures are countless. . . . Supremely entertaining.” —The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Any Human Heart, the latest novel from the author of Armadillo, The Blue Afternoon, and Brazzaville Beach. William Boyd, who has been called “a master storyteller” (Chicago Tribune) and “one of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today” (The Atlantic Monthly), now gives us his most entertaining, sly and compelling novel to date, a novel that evokes the tumult, events and iconic faces of our time, as it tells the story of Logan Mountstuart—writer, lover, and man of the world—through his intimate journals.

About the Guide

Here is the “riotous and disorganized reality” of Mountstuart’s eighty-five years in all their extraordinary, tragic, and humorous aspects. In his journals he recounts his boyhood in Montevideo, Uruguay; his college years during the 1920s at Oxford, where he published his first book; his time in Paris with famous expatriates like Joyce, Picasso, Hemingway, among others; and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, as an agent for Naval Intelligence, he becomes embroiled in a murder scandal that involves the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. After the war, he relocates to New York where he works as an art dealer during the wave of abstract expressionism; until he moves on to West Africa; then London, where he has a run-in with the Baader-Meinhof Gang; finally in France, in his old age, acquiring a measure of hard-won serenity.

Any Human Heart is a moving, ambitious and richly conceived novel that embodies the heroics and follies of twentieth-century life.

About the Author

William Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana, and attended university in Nice, Glasgow and Oxford. He is the author of seven novels and eleven screenplays and has been the recipient of several awards, including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. William Boyd lives with his wife in London and southwest France.

Discussion Guides

1. Is Logan a likeable and engaging character? If so, what are the qualities that make him so? Is he a risk-taker? Is he egotistical? What qualities does he bring to his friendships? How does he change as he grows older?

2. What is the purpose of the “challenges” that Peter, Ben and Logan impose upon each other in their last year at Abbey? How is Logan’s approach to his challenge indicative of his approach to life? Why is Logan so unhappy at Oxford, and why does he receive only a third-class degree?

3. Logan’s father is the manager of a corned-beef factory; his Uruguayan mother was his father’s secretary but claims descent from the Spaniard who first entered Uruguay in the sixteenth century. What are Logan’s assumptions about his own class status while at Abbey, at Oxford, and in his first marriage to the daughter of an Earl? Is he a snob or just the opposite? To what degree is Logan’s life determined by the solid bourgeois values his father instills in him?

4. Is Logan’s early literary success surprising? Is it a matter of luck, or is it driven by his intelligence and his confidence in his own abilities? At the beginning of 1929 he writes “I sense my life as a writer—my writer’s life, my real life—has truly begun” [p. 113]. How does this idea resonate throughout the book? Why does Logan choose to have his tombstone commemorate him, simply, as a writer? Is his autobiography his most significant work?

5. What role does sexuality play in Logan’s life, and to what extent is his erotic life an indicator of the level of his vitality?

6. Throughout the novel, various historical figures pass through Logan’s life—Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ian Fleming, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, etc. [see index]. What is the effect of these moments? How do these famous people come across in ‘real life’?

7. Logan’s chance meeting with Freya is described in urgent, bewildered terms: “it terrifies me, the fragility of these moments in our lives. If I hadn’t lost my passport. If her father hadn’t crashed the car. . . . If she hadn’t gone to the consulate at that precise hour. . . . The view ahead is empty and void: only the view backward shows you how utterly random and chance-driven these vital connections are” [p. 155]. The loss of Freya and Stella is similarly chance-driven. How is Logan changed by the deaths of Freya and Stella?

8. During the Spanish Civil War, Logan and his friend Faustino discuss what is most important to them. To Faustino’s “love of life, love of humanity,” Logan adds “love of beauty” [p. 185]. How important is this friendship to Logan? What is the significance in Logan’s life of the Miro paintings Logan “inherits” from Faustino?

9. What happens on Logan’s mission in Switzerland? Why is he captured? Was the whole mission, and Logan’s long imprisonment, a set-up? If so, who set it up and why? What does Boyd want his readers to understand about this crucial and tragic episode in Logan’s life, and why doesn’t he explain exactly how and why it came about? Does Logan ever exact revenge on those he suspects are responsible?

10. How does Boyd use Any Human Heart to comment on the relationship between an individual life and the historical moments through which that individual lives? What, if anything, is the relationship between the two? How does Logan react to, or interact with, the moments that become “history”? Is history a critical part of Logan’s life, or simply its backdrop?

11. How reliable is Logan as the narrator of his own story? Are there moments when the reader distrusts the veracity of Logan’s account? Or, on the contrary, does the journal form project a sense of immediacy and truthfulness?

12. What is comical, or touching, about the phase of life Logan calls his “dog-food” period [see pp. 416-18]? How does he adapt to poverty and obscurity, given the wealth, success, and fame of his youth?

13. Boyd’s book The New Confessions is a fictional autobiography of a character whose life spanned much of the twentieth century; Any Human Heart takes up, with a very different character, a similar fictional task. If you have read The New Confessions how do the books differ? What do both books express about the process of telling a life? What is it about fictional autobiography that might interest a writer so much?

14. What is the reason for the dwindling of Logan’s creative life? How humiliating is it when his literary agent points out that his books haven’t made money since the Second World War? Why does he destroy the draft of Octet before his death? Given that his friend Peter Scabius is meant to be a sort of foil to Logan in his writing career, what does the novel have to say about the vocation of writing?

15. What is the effect of “The French Journal”? What does Logan mean when he says “the pleasures of my life are simple—simple, inexpensive and democratic” [p. 476]? What are Logan’s realizations in his old age? What has changed about Logan’s observant eye and his state of mind? Does this section provide what could be seen as a happy ending to Logan’s life?

16. What illusion is created by the novel’s footnotes and index? The notes indicate an editor—who might this editor have been, and why doesn’t Boyd complete the illusion by providing the editor’s name?

17. Late in his life Logan’s thoughts about Freya and Stella become a meditation on luck: “Freya and Stella. That was my good luck. . . . That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. . . . There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says” [p. 458]. To what degree is this conclusion sensible, even profound, in its stoic resignation?

18. The book’s title, as the epigraph points out, comes from novelist Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Does Boyd want his readers to assume that despite the private revelations of the diary form, we still cannot know the last word about Logan Mountstuart? Does the human heart refute even self-authored attempts at revealing a complete truth?

Suggested Readings

Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers; Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire; Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time; Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust; Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

  • Any Human Heart by William Boyd
  • January 06, 2004
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400031009

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