Excerpted from Any Human Heart by William Boyd. Copyright © 2002 by William Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.
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
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?