Simon Kuper grew up mainly in the Netherlands, and now lives in Paris. He is a journalist with The Financial Times and the author of Football Against the Enemy, Ajax, The Dutch, The War, and Retourtjes Nederland ('Return Tickets to the Netherlands'), a book about the changes in Dutch society in recent years. Below Simon writes about William Boyd's Any Human Heart.
Simon Kuper on Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Almost all my favourite novels are ones I read before I was 18. I suspect most people feel that way. It's not just that before 18 you are most alive, most sensitive to new sensations. After 18, if you are a person who likes books, you know too much about them: that there is status in reading them, what a writer is trying to do, and that almost every book is an echo of better books written before.
I struggle more and more to suspend disbelief and the Internet, and to care about fiction. There's possibly only one novelist I've read in the last decade who has joined my private pantheon (Orwell, Greene, Waugh, Salinger, Joseph Heller), and that is William Boyd. All Boyd's novels except perhaps The New Confessions are wonderful, but his best is Any Human Heart (2002).
It's a book that attempts a rare feat: to tell the story of an entire human life, more than 80 years of it. It is the fictional lifelong diary of Logan Mountstuart, a sometime journalist and novelist, and that form makes for very effective prose: the brisk shorthand of a diary, but done with a writer's touch.
Mountstuart is born rich in Uruguay, son of a British meat-company manager. He moves to Britain as a child, and from then his life bobs through different eras and places. Mountstuart is a student at Oxford, a fêted young novelist in London in the 1920s, later a minder of the Duke of Windsor, a New York art dealer, a pensioner living off dog food, an accessory to terrorism, and so on. The tone keeps changing: from pompous schoolboy to self-satisfied young man to a sort of contented acceptance in old age.
All this allows Boyd to indulge his genius for evoking epochs. Unlike Greene or Orwell, he was not born in 'interesting times', and so he recreates them. Some real historical figures pop up in the novel and are nicely drawn: Ian Fleming, Picasso, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Here is Mountstuart on the Duchess:
When she talks to you she puts her face about two inches closer than is normal. As a result even the most banal statement has a quality of intimacy and when she speaks you feel her breath on your face. It is a fantastically effective trick.In doing his history homework and in much else besides, Boyd resembles Pat Barker. (When I finished the last book of her first world war trilogy on a beach somewhere, I wanted to stand up and applaud.) Like Barker, Boyd is an old-fashioned novelist. He is not innovative. He is the opposite of, say, Salman Rushdie. His books are about times and places, never about their own prose. Unlike Martin Amis, he is perfectly happy to write an ordinary sentence, though every word he writes has a job to do. But like Barker, and perhaps more than any other novelist I know, he can tell stories.
My friend and mentor Micky Thompson-Noel once told me that every age needs novelists like that: people who just craft good novels, and don't bother trying to change the history of the novel. It's a measure of Boyd's craftsmanship that Any Human Heart seems to be hardly autobiographical. Yes, Mountstuart inhabits some of the milieus Boyd knows: Oxford University, Nigeria in the late 1960s, the French countryside. But his life is not Boyd's. Achieving that differentiation is a feat for a novelist. Years ago I vaguely knew another well-known British writer, as well as some people in his circle, and though I still think his novels are excellent, I realized that much of the time he just describes the people and places and events around him and changes names, or sometimes not even quite that.
Any Human Heart is an easy read about the most fundamental of subjects: the shape of a human life. It's not so much that life is random; that, in John Lennon's words, 'Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.' It's that some of the threads in your life suddenly snap, or just stop, while others that didn't seem important at first continue forever. Among the people who end up enduring for Mountstuart are a forgotten French poet he knew in the 1930s, the daughter of a woman he was briefly married to in the 1950s, and a former friend's ex-wife with whom he had an affair at about the same time. The latter, Gloria, when dying of cancer in 1976, chooses to spend her last weeks with Mountstuart in his dingy flat.
I know it's terribly old-fashioned to expect a novel to teach you anything, but this one does. Firstly, how transient your current stage of life is: that it can vanish in a day. Secondly, that when you look back on a life, it's a few sweet moments that made it all worthwhile: a kiss in the back of a taxi, a goal in the bottom corner, or a sunny afternoon with your baby outside a café; or, in Mountstuart's case, a sunny prewar afternoon in a Biarritz garden, where in the latter stages of a long lunch all the women at table decide to take their tops off.
Mountstuart loses his family to the war.
In Battersea I found the crater made by the V-2. The end of a terrace of houses gone, wooden hoardings round the huge hole. It would have been sudden. The rocket falling silently out of the sky as the two of them walked along, hand in hand, heading back home from school.He ends up arguing about it with a friend who lost a leg in the fighting.
I said, you can't equate my wife and child with your fucking leg. Yes I fucking well can, he bellowed at me. To me - to me - my lost leg is more important than your lost wife and child.Orwell said that each life, viewed from the inside, is a series of defeats. That's mostly true of Mountstuart's, who is in a long-term decline from that childhood villa in Uruguay. Yet to the end he preserves his dignity: despite losing everything, he still loves, still cares, still thinks. Stuck in solitary in a Swiss jail during the war, for instance, he starts an insect farm:
October. Peregrine (one of my woodlice) has died. Found him in the morning curled in a tight ball and when I tried to unwind him he broke in half. Poor Peregrine, he was the most docile and least adventurous of my insect crew.Decades after everyone has stopped listening, Mountstuart keeps giving his response to life. 'There were no obituaries,' writes an editor, in the last sentence of the book. Yet we are left with a sense of the majesty of an ordinary, forgotten human life.