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'Any Human Heart' by William Boyd

Diarist's resilience does the heart good

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Sharon Dilworth

After finishing William Boyd's new novel, I went to the computer and "Googled" the narrator, Logan Mountstuart.

"Any Human Heart"

By William Boyd

Knopf ($24.95)


The novel, a journal that spans the 20th century, is so convincing that I expected to see proof of this character's extraordinary life chronicled in cyberspace. But of course, the search came up empty. Logan Mountstuart is Boyd's masterful, fictional creation.

Born in 1906 in Montevideo, Mountstuart begins his lifelong journals at 6. His father is the general manager of a meat company that ships frozen beef carcasses to Europe. His mother claims to be a descendant of the first European on Uruguayan soil.

Mountstuart is shipped to England to attend school, eventually arriving in Oxford, but doesn't engage with his studies. After finishing poorly, he heads for Paris to become a writer.

Freed from the logic of narrative in his journals, Mountstuart acknowledges:

"A true journal presents us with a more riotous and disorganized reality. It doesn't make sense; the logical, perceived progression never takes place. The true journal in time understands this fact and doesn't try to post any order or hierarchy, doesn't try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people all these different people are me."

Like most diarists, Mountstuart writes mostly about his problems, doubts and concerns, so that the journal highlights the dramatic moments in the writer's life.

Mountstuart uses the journal as a means to clarify his desires and the direction of his life. His failures shape the novel; every time he stumbles, he forces himself to change the course of his life, thus broadening and enriching his experiences.

Mountstuart's first two books -- one a biography of Shelley, the other an autobiographical roman a clef of his obsession with a Parisian prostitute -- form his reputation as a writer to watch.

As a young writer who earns his living from magazine assignments, Mountstuart begins bumping into some of the most famous faces of the last century: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Ian Fleming and the Prince of Wales shortly before the scandal that ended his future as king of England.

When World War II breaks out, Mountstuart becomes a British spy with the job of keeping tabs on his friend, now the Duke of Windsor, who is sequestered as governor of the Bahamas.

The two have a falling out, with repercussions that will haunt Mountstuart for the rest of his life.

After his wife and daughter in England are killed in a bomb attack, he moves to New York, where, in the 1950s, Mountstuart becomes a success in the avant-garde art world. Once more, he is surrounded by the celebrities of the place and age, including Jackson Pollock and Frank O'Hara.

Circumstances then force him to move on, first to Africa then to settle in a small French village, where he continues to be actively engaged with the small community and their concerns. Boyd masterfully ages Mountstuart.

Continually self-critical but never self-defeating, the character remains curious and energetic.

Toasting himself for his feat of having lived in every decade of the 20th century, Mountstuart once again examines his own life and determines that there were plenty of ups and downs. "Not exactly a roller coaster, that would be too smooth, but a yo-yo."

And though he defines his life that way, Mountstuart is an admirable character for the courage he showed in the face of tragedy and loss as well as the way he is always inventive, always determined to do better for himself.

Entertaining and moving, Boyd's novel can be read with sheer pleasure not only for the delicacy of its emotions but for the truth of its perceptions. Like saying goodbye to a good friend, it's hard to see this brilliant novel come to an end.

Sharon Dilworth teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.

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