Those familiar with William Boyd’s past antics cannot help but approach his latest work, Any Human Heart, in a lighthearted manner. After all, this latest novel is inextricably linked to Boyd’s infamous biography, Nat Tate: An American Artist, a book that amounted to an elaborate practical joke on the New York glitterati.
On the eve of April Fool’s Day in 1998, the elite of New York’s artistic and literary circles gathered to celebrate the launching of Boyd’s biography of a rediscovered American artist, Nat Tate. Tate, an abstract-expressionist painter, had associated with artists such as Picasso and Braque, but then methodically destroyed most of his work and committed suicide at age 31, throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry and into artistic obscurity. Boyd and David Bowie (a director of 21 Publishing, which produced the book) solemnly read excerpts from the biography and were surprised and gratified as they mingled with the guests to hear that a few people attending the party remembered meeting Nat Tate.
The only problem was that Nat Tate never existed: the biography was completely fictional. Its credibility was boosted by facsimiles of the artist’s recently discovered drawings (created, for the most part, by Boyd himself), grainy pictures of the artist and his acquaintances (taken from collections of anonymous photographs), and an endorsement on the dust-jacket by writer Gore Vidal (who was in on the joke as well).
In Nat Tate: An American Artist, Boyd mentions in passing that he learned of the artist from Logan Mountstuart, an art dealer and critic whose journals he was editing. And as an impish extension of the joke, the artwork on the cover of Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart is credited to none other than Nat Tate. However, Any Human Heart is anything but a frivolous follow-up to Boyd’s hoax on the art world; it does not try to provide a second punch line to the Nat Tate affair. Although Boyd’s engaging prose is notable for its wit and humor, he avoids any intra-oeuvre jokes that might disengage the reader from the reality of this particular novel. The character of Nat Tate appears in Any Human Heart only in a short-lived subplot. Since the “journals” span Logan Mountstuart’s entire adult life, Tate’s brief appearance is an inconsequential bit of fun.
Any Human Heart tells the story of Logan Mountstuart’s life from his years as a schoolboy until his death at the age of 85. Although the “Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart” are complete with editor’s footnotes, a bona fide index, and accurate cross-references to other texts such as the published diaries of Virginia Woolf, Boyd does not try to relive the role of the hoaxster: the cover prominently displays the words “A Novel.” Yet, in the course of telling this first-person life story, Boyd is able to illustrate in detail a transformation from the self-importance, ambition, and idealism of youth to the stoical resignation of old age. Even though in his final journal entry, Mountstuart wryly evaluates his life as “Not so much a rollercoaster—a rollercoaster’s too smooth—a yo-yo, rather—a jerking, spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child,” he manages to look back on his life of unfulfilled potential with a certain satisfaction. For one thing, he tells himself, he “managed to live in every decade of this long benighted century,” but more than that, Mountstuart has led a unique and spectacular life.
Boyd describes Mountstuart as a man who “was perhaps most successful at happening to be in the right place at the right time during most of the [twentieth] century.” He hobnobs with Hemingway and other expatriates in 1930s Paris. He reports on and is incidentally involved in the Spanish and Nigerian civil wars. He serves in British Naval Intelligence during World War II under the command of a pre-Bond Ian Fleming. In other words, Any Human Heart has the attractive characteristic of many best-selling biographies, memoirs, and published journals: it gives the reader the opportunity to vicariously experience the seminal events of the twentieth century.
The book never devolves into pure historical spectacle, though. In fact, Boyd does not focus on the historical events themselves; rather, he focuses on how the same conditions that create and surround these major events affect personal relationships. For example, most of Mountstuart’s journal entries during the Spanish Civil War focus on his relationship with Faustino Peredes, an Anarchist officer who has been appointed as his press liaison. Boyd skillfully creates characters such as Peredes with enough idiosyncratic detail that they provide insight into historical reality and do not become merely symbols. By developing each character, whether historical or fictional, with the same individual attention, Boyd manages to blend the historical and the fictional in such a way that what is “extraordinary” does not also become unbelievable.
Though the episodic journal format might seem to preclude any overarching thematic significance, there is an important message in this story. Above all, Mountstuart embodies the philosophy of the “Cosmopolites,” a group of poets in post-WWI France about whom Mountstuart writes a book: the only book that he writes out of sheer passion without the thought of financial prospects. Mountstuart writes of these poets, “They are all about romance, about life’s excitement and adventure and its essential sadness and transience. They savour everything both fine and bittersweet that life has to offer – stoical in their hedonism.” Despite Mountstuart’s many failures, dark period of depression, and self-destructive habits, he has lived his life fully and with élan. This, Boyd suggests, is a noble accomplishment.