Any Human HeartMay 2013

In 1923, three bored public schoolboys decide to enliven their final year by setting challenges for each other: the Jewish one will convert to Roman Catholicism, considered fit for the priesthood; the shy, gangly one will seduce Tess, a local farmer’s daughter; the least sporty one will play for the First XV. Thus we are introduced to the three friends whose careers and intimate lives will form the backbone of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart.

Logan Mountstuart, whose head we are in (and who manages to fracture his left arm during the opening minutes of his sole outing with the First XV) is to be our guide through the 20th Century. His ‘lifelong, though intermittent’ journal will record its major events through his personal participation in them, alongside the minutiae of his private life. He and his Uruguayan mother, though extremely well provided for following the early demise of his father, the head of a meat-processing empire, slowly but surely descend into genteel poverty following the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Along the way we are introduced to several real-life literary and political luminaries: Logan has a spat with Virginia Woolf in London, meets James Joyce in Paris, enjoys a long acquaintance with Ernest Hemingway. He himself is feted for his first publications: a biography of Shelley and a novel about a French prostitute which becomes a best seller. But his amorous adventures affect his writing career. Logan loses his virginity to Tess, who has married her seducer Peter Scabius, falls in love with the arty Land Fothergill at Oxford and, when she refuses him, marries Lottie, an Earl’s daughter, and fathers Lionel. Bored to tears with country living and suffering writer’s block, Logan meets and falls passionately in love with Freya, a secretary at the BBC, and moves her into his recently rented flat in Draycott Avenue. Discovered and divorced by Lottie, he marries Freya and they have a daughter, Stella.

After his World War II exploits in Naval Intelligence Division which include a spell in the Bahamas keeping an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and being held prisoner in Switzerland for two years, Logan discovers on his return to England that Freya, believing him dead, had remarried before being killed, with Stella, by the blast from a v-2 rocket.

And so it continues, Logan being constantly helped out by his other friend, Ben Leeping, (who was never received into the Roman Catholic Church) who sets him up in his New York art gallery, while Logan drifts into and out of another marriage and various affairs, and suffers the death of his son, Lionel. He grows old, becomes destitute, has a brush with the Baader-Meinhof gang, ends up in the South of France after the deaths of his two best friends, and dies serenely at the age of eighty-five in his garden. We were sharply divided in our response to this novel: most loved the maturing writing style of Logan’s journals and were fascinated by his encounters with 20th Century celebrities during his long and fully-lived life. But a few were bored by the book and struggled to finish it.

Our last session before the summer break will be a discussion of The Salt Road by Jane Johnson on Thursday, 13th June.

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