The Writing Life
Any Human HeartWilliam Boyd
(Vintage · paper · $14.95)
Generally speaking, if you decide to become a writer you've opted for professional failure. It's as simple as that. Let's be honest: Like a kid who dreams of growing up to be president of the United States, the likelihood of becoming a successful writer is highly improbable, to say the least.
Sure, with a pinch of talent and a truckload of blind will, an aspiring writer can eke out enough to pay the rent. Yet by my estimate, at least half of Western Civilization is currently working on a novel of one kind or another. So, statistically speaking, the odds that Oprah or Letterman are going to invite us onto their shows to discuss our closet scribblings are mighty damn slim. That doesn't stop us from trying, of course. We scribblers are nothing if not tenacious.
Logan Mountstuart, the anti-hero of William Boyd's novel Any Human Heart, does much better for himself than most writers, which is to say he doesn't do very well at all. Educated at Oxford, Mountstuart kicks off his career by writing a well-received but commercially unsuccessful biography of Shelley and follows it up with a poorly received but commercially successful novel based on the life of a hooker he frequented while vacationing in Paris.
From there, it's all downhill. He spends years picking away at a treatise on an obscure bunch of pre-World-War-I poets in France. This slim treatise is eventually published to muted acclaim. Instead of working on another bestseller, Mountstuart wiles away his days slurping gin and hobnobbing with some of the best artists and writers of the 20th century—Picasso, Hemingway, Waugh, Joyce. He somehow becomes embroiled in a sinister murder involving the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. During World War II, he becomes a spy for Britain and is imprisoned for two years in Switzerland. When he's released, Mountstuart learns that his beloved wife and child were killed by Nazi bombers. He moves to New York to become an art dealer, then Africa to become a teacher.
Years pass as he continues to fritter away every opportunity for lasting literary achievement. By the last sections of the book, he's lost all his money, and most of his family and friends. Mountstuart ultimately resorts to eating dog food while working for a secret society of left-wing terrorists. In the end, he's forgotten and alone. His death doesn't even warrant an obituary in the local paper.
Boyd's novel, newly released in paperback, marks the kind of stunning success Logan Mountstuart only dreamed about. Told in a series of crisp and comical journal entries, Any Human Heart, despite its somber subject matter, is generally light and entertaining. Among its other strengths, it also serves as an amusing whirlwind tour of 20th century art and literature. Some of the novel's funniest moments come when Boyd portrays various iconic writers and artists—Virginia Woolf and Pablo Picasso come immediately to mind—as all too wickedly human.
The book has been compared to the hit movie Forrest Gump, and it does contain a similar kind of historical goofiness. In addition to all the familiar literary and artistic figures, Boyd throws in at least a dozen crazy plot twists so that, even though the novel is 500-pages long, it passes like a breeze.
Mostly, it's just good, old-fashioned, middle-brow fun. Aspiring authors, which I assume means you, will love every minute of it.