John Clearwater, the tormented mathematician in William Boyd’s novel Brazzaville Beach, wants to reduce chaos, flux and turbulence to an elegant set of equations. He’s also an obsessive moviegoer who refuses to watch anything which doesn’t meet his one absolute criterion: ‘he believed, with a fundamental zeal, that a true film, a film that was true to the nature of its own form, had to have a happy ending.’ It’s no surprise when Clearwater ends up drowning himself, because in novels by William Boyd life rarely obeys the conventions of upbeat movies. It obeys the conventions of novels by William Boyd, in which the world will usually contrive a neatly ironic retort to whatever schemes or patterns the characters try to impose on it.
There’s often someone available to explain this state of affairs. In Armadillo, for example, it’s George Hogg, an implausibly lyrical loss adjuster. ‘No, my friends,’ he tells his team, ‘life does not run smoothly along tracks that we have laid down . . . However much we seem to have it under control, to have every eventuality covered, all risks taken into account, life will come up with something that, as the good book says, “disturbs all anticipations”.’ And so it does. In The New Confessions, on the other hand, there’s Hamish Malahide, a student of Gödel and Heisenberg who takes a more sanguine view: ‘There may be uncertainties but don’t you think it’s better to live in the full knowledge of this than go on looking for illusory “truths” that can never exist?’ Whatever the tenor, though, the song remains the same.
Boyd’s books are rambling, lucid, genial affairs with an easy flow of narrative and a sharp eye for gentle comedy. What usually lets them down is the contrast between form and theme. For all their insistence that life is capricious, confusing and fundamentally uncertain, the novels themselves are reassuringly old-fashioned – well-made in the sense of well-made plays, packed with schematic clichés and mechanical ironies. Of course, we could always read the thematic material as camouflage, as literary garnish to what’s essentially just a thumping good read. But that would be a little unfair to Boyd – especially when his new novel, Any Human Heart, struggles earnestly to embody the uncertainties that his previous novels have only registered as themes.
Any Human Heart purports to be the intimate journals of one Logan Gonzago Mountstuart. ‘LMS’, as the notional ‘editor’ calls him, made his first appearance in 1998 as a source for Boyd’s curious hoax biography Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-60. The book even included a small black and white photograph, captioned ‘Logan Mountstuart, 1959’, that showed a round-faced, faintly-smiling man with abbreviated eyebrows and incipient jowls. Boyd described him as
a curious and forgotten figure in the annals of 20th-century literary life. ‘A man of letters’ is probably the only description which does justice to his strange career – by turns acclaimed or wholly indigent. Biographer, belletrist, editor, failed novelist, he was perhaps most successful at happening to be in the right place at the right time during most of the century, and his journal – a huge, copious document – will probably prove his lasting memorial.
And now we have the diaries – nine in all, running to nearly five hundred pages and complete with a 12-page index. The earliest dates from 1923, when Mountstuart is a precocious public schoolboy (‘I shall go and smoke a cigarette behind the squash courts and think more great thoughts’); the last ends with his death in 1991.
In between, the journals cover Paris and Oxford in the 1920s, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the postwar New York art scene, the Biafran War, and even an unlikely association with a British affiliate of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Mountstuart publishes a number of books, contracts a number of marriages and meets just about everyone worth meeting. Anthony Powell and Henry Green are his contemporaries at Oxford; he takes tea with Ottoline Morrell and twits Virginia Woolf. Cyril Connolly and Evelyn Waugh are London acquaintances. Picasso sketches his portrait, Hemingway is a fellow war correspondent, and Paris brings a meeting with James Joyce. His wartime boss at Naval Intelligence is, of course, Ian Fleming, who sends him to keep an eye on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas – and so on.
In his opening preamble Mountstuart announces that he has made ‘no excisions designed to conceal errors of judgment (“;The Japanese would never dare to attack the USA unprovoked”); no additions aimed at conferring an unearned sagacity (“;I don’t like the cut of that Herr Hitler’s jib”); and no sly insertions to indicate canny prescience (“;If only there were some way to harness safely the power in the atom”)’. In this, he is good to his word. So, as a budding critic in 1924: ‘Holden-Dawes lent me a poem called Waste Land by Eliot, advising me to read it. There were some rather beautiful lines but the rest was incomprehensible. If I want music in verse I’ll stick to Verlaine, thank you very much.’ Buying paintings in Paris in 1926: ‘I’m afraid abstraction leaves me cold – there has to be something with a human connection in a painting, otherwise all we are talking about is form, pattern and tone – and it’s simply not enough for a work of art.’ (This from a future friend of Clement Greenberg.)
Like John James Todd, the hero of The New Confessions, Mountstuart isn’t particularly interested in politics. After discussing Mussolini with a left-wing girlfriend, he’s moved to note that ‘her opinions were strong and full of idiosyncratic detail; mine seemed straight from the editorials of the Daily Mail – at least those that I’ve bothered to read.’ During the General Strike, he volunteers as a special constable, ‘unthinkingly, because everyone else at Oxford was determined to “do something”’. (‘A letter from Dick. A train he was driving was derailed near Carlisle and two passengers were killed. Very “Dick”, somehow.’) Later, as a self-satisfied bestselling author: ‘Peter has to write a third leader on Mosley and the BUF. I told him I’d met Mosley and been impressed with the man . . . a fair amount of what Mosley says, in the current climate, can’t be dismissed as fanaticism or bombast – he’s no Mussolini.’ And then there’s Munich: ‘Hitler doesn’t want war . . . Perhaps this is what Chamberlain understands and is why he has given this final concession but cleverly extracted peace as its price.’
There’s a challenge to hindsight implicit in all of this – would you have been more prescient in similar circumstances? – but the relentless accumulation of historical ironies at Mountstuart’s expense inevitably makes him comic. Towards the end of the Second World War, however, the tone gets darker. During the two years he spends imprisoned as a spy by the Swiss, Mountstuart’s much-loved second wife, assuming him dead, remarries and dies in a V-2 rocket attack. After a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt he eventually fetches up in New York, where he makes good as an art dealer and critic while experimenting with booze, pills and sex. His third marriage fails, his son dies, and, in 1964, he has to jump the country to avoid a statutory rape charge (‘No no no, I say, she told me she was 19’). After a desultory spell in Africa, he returns in the mid-1970s to London, where a spell of poverty sees him eating dog food spiced with curry powder. Having made an improbable foray into revolutionary politics, he votes Labour in 1979 and leaves for France to enjoy a relatively peaceful old age. Towards the end, a friend offers to find ‘some eager young lover of literature’ to catalogue his papers. Sensibly, Boyd forgoes a walk-on part.
The book’s title comes from a sententious line of Henry James’s (‘Never say you know the last word about any human heart’), and the opening preamble announces that multiplicity is going to be an important theme. A ‘true journal’, Mountstuart says, doesn’t record an ideal progression but a ‘more riotous and disorganised reality’ in which various selves jostle for prominence. He is, accordingly, by turns bumptious, diffident, selfish, generous, thoughtless, befuddled and acute. Plot-lines fizzle and fade: ‘Isn’t this how life turns out, more often than not? It refuses to conform to . . . the narrative needs that you feel are essential to give rough shape to your time on this earth.’ Historic or life-changing moments are rendered with calculated banality – bland announcements over cocktails of financial crisis in America, a belated discovery that the war is almost over. Mountstuart also contradicts and repeats himself, as diarists tend to do.
Along the way, however, the struggle between documentary realism and novelistic accessibility creates some weird effects. For a start, the period language can be half-hearted. Montstuart’s fear of having a ‘panic attack’ during the Spanish Civil War is particularly unconvincing. Like the hero of The New Confessions, Mountstuart also adapts a line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets several years before they were published. He veers between private scribbling and openly addressing the reader (‘Remember I have seen war at first hand . . .’), as if he’s not quite sure whether he’s writing for publication or not. And the exposition isn’t always sufficiently subtle. Shortly after the start of his disastrous first marriage, for example, he writes: ‘I’ve just ordered a brandy and soda. I shouldn’t drink this early in the afternoon but, what the hell, I am on my honeymoon.’ By the next page he’s moving on to whisky and soda at 3.30 p.m. One page further on and ‘I have a gin and tonic at 11, and a bottle of wine at lunch . . . I have a whisky and soda and a stroll in the afternoon, a bath, change, mix a cocktail, dine, drink more wine, finish with brandy and a cigar . . . we are invited to dinner parties where I try to drink as much as possible.’ By now, the reader may have guessed that he’s becoming a bit of a lush.
Then there are the celebrity cameos. ‘Waugh congratulated me on the Shelley. I congratulated him on Vile Bodies . . . He told me at some length that he was taking instruction with a view to becoming a Roman Catholic.’ The third line of dialogue attributed to Virginia Woolf is ‘No, I can put a pretty precise date to it: in December 1910 human character changed.’ And here come the Americans:
In the confusion of arrival and because I’ve drunk too much I don’t catch any of the dozen names that are thrown at me. I sit beside a burly square-faced fellow with a moustache. He’s very drunk and keeps shouting down the table at a smaller pointy-faced man: ‘You are full of shit! You are so full of shit!’ It seems some sort of infantile joke between them: they both guffaw helplessly . . . Then Alice Farino slides in beside me and asks . . . what I’m doing in Paris. When I tell her I’m waiting for my book to be published she reaches over me and tugs at the sleeve of the square-faced fellow and introduces us. Logan Mountstuart – Ernest Hemingway.
The pointy-faced man is, inevitably, Scott Fitzgerald; later on, with equal inevitability, a sentence about Tender is the Night is followed by one about jazz.
Mountstuart himself, on the other hand, remains strangely insubstantial. He does things and meets people, but it’s hard to get much sense of his temperament; his observations on Fleming apply to himself, too: ‘I can’t put my finger on his essential nature . . . He’s affable, generous, appears interested in you – but there’s nothing in him to like.’ Mountstuart’s flimsiness as a novelistic character is supposed to make the book more realistic by acknowledging that personality is nebulous in itself. In practice, though, it has the opposite effect. His inconsistencies are a matter of convenience – an excuse for him to meet Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf and all the rest – and for too much of the time, Mountstuart is revealed for what he is: a device allowing Boyd to write about 20th-century celebrities in the pastiche idiom of a contemporary observer. Boyd hustles you through to the end despite all this, but it’s hard not to wonder if it was really worth making the journey.