"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd was one of the many, many birthday presents I received this year, and the friend who chose this book for me made a good choice. After having read about the arctic adventures of McClintock, it took me about 30 pages to really get into "Any Human Heart" - but then I found it hard to put down, and found myself reflecting on it many times during the day until in the evening I finally had time to return to reading.
More than once, I was reminded of a book I read more than a year ago: "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham. Don't get me wrong - the two books are not similar, but they both describe a man's life with all its facets, its ups and downs, and follow the twists and turns of their principal characters' paths through several decades. While "Of Human Bondage" spans less than 40 years, though, "Any Human Heart" wraps up almost the entire 20th century, which makes it all the more interesting.
Through the eyes of Logan Mountstuart, a fictional character (although you could really believe he existed; everything is so convincing) whose "intimate journals" from 1923 to 1991 form the book, we experience WWII, the post-war era, the 1960s and 70s with their manifold changes in culture and society, and finally, the 1980s. A lot of what Mountstuart mentions in his journals was new to me; for instance, I did not know much about the Spanish Civil War, and the same is true about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the (American) art scene of the 1950s and 60s and some aspects about the wave of terrorism affecting public life in Germany in the second half of the 1970s.
Because of these contemporary-historical bits, one could read this book almost like a work of non-fiction; a great number of artists (literature and painting, mostly) as well of political figures are mentioned, too. Mountstuart personally knew Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh, to name but a few.
I don't want to give away too much of the book, but the way the main character switches repeatedly from merely stumbling along events out of his control to actively taking charge of his own life, and how his decisions - or the lack of them - shape his present and future, is very well imaginable, as if it all really had taken place.
There are some very touching observations made by Mountstuart, while at other times one can't help but think that this guy wasn't a very nice person to know. Most of all, though, he - although fictional - comes across as entirely human.
If I am not very much mistaken, this was the first time I have read anything by William Boyd, but I am sure it won't be the last. I found an interesting article here; Boyd explains how he came to write "Any Human Heart", and why in this particular form.
The author's official website can be found here.