All the Names, by Jose Saramago

With each novel, Saramago creates his own world, his own physical world, metaphysical world, and literary world. He creates a premise, an uncommon premise, and then stretches its ramifications as far as his imagination will take him. And he evokes these ramifications in page-long paragraphs of dialogue among his characters, but within which the reader is never confused by whom is talking. While this review features certain plot revelations, what matters here is not the story itself but how Saramago tells his story.

This 1997 novel is the tale of a clerk, Senhor Jose, who works in his city’s Central Registry. The Registry is highly organized under the dictatorial Registrar, and contains the official records of everyone in town, their birth, marriage, and death certificates, etc., all on paper and all meticulously filed, the still living in one area, the dead in another.

Our hero, Senhor Jose, has the hobby of collecting information about famous people, such as in newspaper or magazine articles, along with copying their official records. And one day, while collecting the records of five unnamed famous figures, he finds attached to them, mysteriously, the record of an unidentified woman. Who is she? He becomes obsessed with finding out. And with this premise, Saramago takes off into his unique world.

Senhor Jose is a bachelor, middle-aged, subservient, cautious, and shy. He seems to be the last person to pursue the identity of this woman. And yet he does, drawing us into a world of regulation, of conformity, of tragic irony, of both the trivial and the search for elusive truth. On awarding Saramago the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited, “parables sustained by imagination, compassion, and irony,” which The Times of London called, “a description which perfectly captures [this] novel.”

The pursuit by Senhor Jose takes him to an elderly neighbor of the unidentified woman, to the school she attended, into the bowels of the Registry at night, and to a cemetery. And the richness of this novel comes through the extended description of these scenes. Senhor Jose has fabricated an official letter to legitimize his search, and when the elderly neighbor sees through this subterfuge, he confesses the truth and she becomes his only friend. Then, in a marvelously moody, tense, and hilarious scene he breaks into the woman’s school at night, even sleeping on the headmaster’s couch, in a futile attempt to learn more about this woman.

Living in a house adjoining the Registry, Senhor Jose continually sneaks into it at night in search of the woman’s papers, and, on discovering she is dead, explores the dark and dusty halls the dead people’s papers have been exiled to. He also must report to work each day, or create excuses for not doing so. And at one point, the dreaded Registrar seems to take an interest in him that neither his colleagues nor this reader understands. It certainly gives him more freedom for his search, but does this reflect the author’s need to explain this freedom, or did I miss an ulterior motive?

Senhor Jose’s visit to the cemetery is the philosophical climax of the novel. He goes there to learn more of the woman, finds her grave identified only by a number, and sleeps there overnight. He awakens in the morning surrounded by sheep, and the shepherd explains that his practice is to shift the numbers on the graves, explaining “that it’s possible not to see a lie even when it’s right in front of us.” The lie of the numbers Senhor Jose takes to heart, as he witnesses a burial and then changes its number. Whereupon, in typical Saramago fashion, he speculates that the shepherd may return and himself also change the number, returning ironically the original one.

At the novel’s actual end, the Registrar confronts Senhor Jose and explains that he knows what our hero has been doing. But, he explains, it is keeping with his own idea, a new idea, that the dead should not be separated from the living, as if they no longer exist. “Just as definitive death is the ultimate fruit of the will to forget, so the will to remember will perpetuate our lives.” And at the end, he sends off Senhor Jose to find the woman’s death certificate and place it in her living file. She will live on in everyone’s memory, just as she has in Senhor Jose’s life.

This is apparently Saramago’s celebration of life. That we live on in this world in the minds, the records, of others. It is consistent with his belief in a natural but not a supernatural world. While a believer in the supernatural, I have no problem with any of his works, since the literary world itself is limited, with rare exceptions, to the natural world.

To sum up, this is typical Saramago, inventive, elusive, ironic, parabolic, and intense. It exists more on the surface of the page than within its characters, and that surface has been stretched to its limits. And so, ironically, while the title of this novel refers to a sign at the cemetery gate, none of the characters in this work actually has a name—except Senhor Jose. The people are more symbolic than real, more reflective of the anonymity of their eventual death. And the message of this volume is to suggest that we return them to the world of the living, or at least to the card catalog of the living, so that they will not cease to exist but will be remembered.

The anonymity is deepened when we realize that none of the people here are described much less given a name. But, in contrast, there is a precise description of the Central Registry, its history, its architecture, the layout of its furnishings, the clearly defined hierarchy of its staff, and the exact rules of internal communication, all offered with extensive detail.

The book jacket cites, “The loneliness of people’s lives, the effects of chance and moments of recognition, the discovery of love, however tentative.” Yes, love. In his relationship with the elderly neighbor, but also a metaphor for his complex fascination with the unidentified woman.

This is not the best of Saramago’s novels, but it works in its own terms. It establishes a truth about one’s identity; and, to demonstrate this, stretches the familiar world to realistic limits—well, to limits of realistic absurdity. (June, 2015)

Advertisements

World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

As I’m reading this 2015 novel, I’m thinking: this is the gangster novel to end all ganster novels. And then I remember: that is how I began my review of his last novel, Live by Night. So which is better? This novel. Because Joe Coughlin has more depth. He is tring to leave the world of violence behind, (Shades of Godfather!), and a ghost of the past haunts him. Moreover, as my interest grows, I realize that Dennis Lehane also loves his hero, and whether or not Joe survives at the end of this work might well depend on whether Lehane wants to write another novel about him. Which he could. But will he?

Joe Coughlin is still a gangster in Florida as the book opens, but he no longer sees himself as such, because he has retired from directing underworld affairs. He is now on the crime family’s, so to speak, board of directors. He has made a lot of money for his criminal friends, and they continue to benefit from his past actions. And so he tries for a life of comfort with his young son Tomas, from whom he tries to coneal his past, even as he persists in an affair and continues advising his underworld friends.

But as the novel opens, he is surprised to hear of a threat to his life. It appears to make no sense, because he has helped so many friends become wealthy. And then comes a very provocative and innovative scene, when Joe sees off in the distance the vague figure of a young boy. Is he real or imaginary? Who is he supposed to be? Himself? And if he is a ghost, does that means there is life after death, and thus exists the God that Joe says he doesn’t believe in? And if God does exist, is he sending a message to Joe?

As these mirages continue to pop into Joe’s vision, one senses that at a minimum they express a guilty conscience. And even Joe wonders, at times, if he will be damned. For peace of mind, however, he has compartmentalized his life, justifying to himself each person he has killed. It was out of loyalty, or self-defense, or simply to benefit the organization that relied on him.

The details of this book, of his search for the person who will kill him, do not really matter. What matters is that they kept me reading this novel in large gaps. In fact, I read it in three takes. Because each step Joe makes to discover his potential murderer leads to a new threat, a new risk, a new confrontation with friends who may not be the friends they seem to be. Or with enemies Joe respects and who respect him.

This historic context adds further interest and a deeper reality to this work. For the events take place during World War II, when the underworld controls many of the docks and the war effort depends on the shipping of men and material abroad. Moreover, Joe is dealing here with real gangsters, with Meyer Lansky. Lucky Luciano, and others. He even suggests an idea for getting Luciano out of jail after the war, and history reveals he actually was released. To which might be added a touch of Batista’s Cuba, and the inroads that Joe has helped to make there for Lansky.

There is also, as I said, a love affair, a surprising one for the reader; and it is milked until the very end. Will they or won’t they, go off together into the sunset? His lover is not sure, because he is a gangster, and she is a respectable woman, even if in thrall to him. But through her we see the sensitivity and the yearning for good that is inside Joe, and which he cannot express in his relationships with gangster friends.

He does express it regarding his son Tomas, protecting him at all cost. He even tries to protect him from the truth about himself, but fails. He worries, however, about his son’s future as well as his own. Will he be around tomorrow to protect him?

The internal morality of the gangsters also raises this work to a serious level, a literary level. The rationale is that an attack on a fellow crime family member is an attack on me. It is an eye-for-an eye philosophy that enables Joe and others to stand against the world. Thus, the violent death of any crime family member calls for an equal payback. This is true whether the killer is a member of an enemy gang or the same crime family. It is also true whether or not the killer was justified in killing the crime family member, such as when an enemy kills in self-defense.

The reason for the title is elusive. Does it mean that in his semi-retirement Joe has tried to leave his old world behind, or that that world has now left him behind? Does it refer to the ghost of the boy and his world? Does it suggest that Joe will leave this world for another world? It is provocative, like the rest of the book.

Which brings us to the ending. Three shocking events take place over the last eight pages, as if Lehane wants to top himself, and sock the reader—pow, pow. But are these events real? The first event is unpleasant but inevitable in the book’s terms, whereas the next is hopelessly romantic and contrary to the book’s terms, and the last is more an intrusion by the author, and might have worked only if it had been set up more carefully.

As a result, the author himself guides the action, and produces little satisfaction. Beause his ending is too arbitrary, and not a little puzzling. This is how it ends, the author says. That, in his mysterious world human actions have many repercussions, and worldly endings do not always make true endings. He ends with Joe hoping “there was more to this than a dark night, an empty beach, and waves that never quite reached the shore.”

I look forward to reading more Lehane. With that name, and a presumably Catholic background, he regards life much as I do, that humans are complex beings, that evil exists in this world, that another world may await beyond this one, and that earthly justice does not always prevail.

I have no idea, however, what his next novel will be about. Just as he plucked an inconsequential Joe out of The Given Day, will he pluck Tomas out of this novel and move a decade or so ahead? And whomever he focuses on, will he go back to Boston? Which I would like but do not really expect. Or might his hero move to Lehane’s new home in California, home of Latino gangs, racial violence, politics, water rights, and the entertainment industry?

It makes no difference. I am committed. (July, 2015)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

From the moment Rebecca Winter awakens in her rustic upstate cottage in the middle of the night, thinking she has heard a gunshot, I was in that dark cottage and in the mind of this woman—and was committed to this 2014 novel. Because it quickly caught her fear, her questioning, her uncertainty about why she was in this cottage in this godforsaken town where she knew no one.

Indeed, loneliness is a minor theme of this novel, underpinning the empty life of this sixty-year-old photographer who was once famous but now is almost ignored. She became famous for a photograph that gives this novel its title, part of a series of kitchen counter photographs that caught the public’s eye, especially feminists, and made her wealthy. But the money has run out now, she is divorced from an egotistical man who never appreciated her, and she has now fled Manhattan to balance her budget and revive her creative juices—renting this cottage that has no heat, no telephone, little electricity, and a bad roof.

Rebecca becomes such an interesting woman, as she ponders her loss of fame, deals with her house, and wanders the woods with her camera, that I had as little need as she in wandering into town. And even less interest in getting to know her upbringing, her fickle husband, her Manhattan apartment, her film-maker son, and her now elderly parents. Because these scenes which fleshed out her past interrupted the flow of this work. But apparently Quindlen likes these abrupt shifts in time, for she says she is going to use this technique in subsequent fiction. I did not need such flashbacks, however, to sense the depths of this woman. Instead, I wanted to leave the past each time, and follow her as she adapted to her new rural life.

Rebecca does meet a roofer, Jim Bates, a tea shop proprietor Sarah, and Tad, a former boy soprano but now a party clown; and we sense something will come of these relationships. But more interesting are the tiny white crosses, each with a personal memento, that Rebecca encounters and photographs in the woods. Worried about her bank account, she also takes on a job photographing migrating birds, working alongside Jim who has volunteered to track them. Their conversations suggest a promising relationship may develop. She also takes in a stray dog, and as she begins photographing him one senses her creative juices beginning to flow.

And yet, too much background keeps slowing my interest. It is Rebecca and Jim I am interested in, and Rebecca and the town. They like her, and so do I. I do not need to know about Sarah’s husband, or even Tad’s unhappiness. What does keep me turning the pages are those white crosses. Who is leaving them around? What do they mean? And why, early on, did Jim spirit away one he found in the woods?

But finally, the plot clicks in. Rebecca and Jim spend a night together. But a misunderstanding then separates them. It is a conventional device, but both are likable people, and we want to see them back together. More plot mechanics take Rebecca to the funeral of her father, introduce a new agent for her, and take us to her grand opening at a gallery in Brooklyn. Each of these scenes works, not least the gallery opening because both Quindlen and Rebecca scorn the pretentious art world it represents.

And then comes the philosophical raison d’être for this novel. It is not about feminism. It is more about life alone, another’s life. It is about why the white crosses were set out. That they were personal. That they were an unspoken plea. And that Rebecca has taken their three-dimensional reality and reduced them to two-dimensional art, when: “They’re not just pictures,” Jim says. “They’re real…The point is…what they mean. Not what the pictures mean, what the things mean.” And we suddenly understand the solid reality Quindlen has implanted in this book, and why she has made her heroine a photographer.

The realization also comes to Rebecca. “She looked at the White Cross photographs again with her new knowledge about what had become before and after them, and instead of static images they seemed an infinite prolonging….She wondered if the great artists had ever considered this, da Vinci with the woman who would become Mona Lisa, Sargent with Madame X, whether they had ever considered the terrible eternity of immortality….

She sat in a chair in the dark, watching [Jim and the dog], and when she was tempted to use her camera, she was suddenly ashamed of herself for the very first time.”

It is a marvelous evocation of photography, indeed of all art. All artists. Even novelists. That we use life to create art. That life is real and art is not, and that we must not confuse the two. This is not to deny art its legitimacy. It is simply not to put it above man. I found this moment quite moving, surely because it made me more aware of my own photography.

In the background, Rebecca often refers to the women’s movement in describing her success. That she pointed her camera at commonplace subjects in the home, such as a new baby, or a kitchen. But I see this novel more as the portrait of an individual woman, not of a movement. What carries this work is Rebecca herself, her loneliness, her doubt, her independence, her conviction, her family responsibility, and her need for human contact. She is a believable human being, even a convincing lover, at 60, for a man of 45.

To sum up, this is an outstanding Quindlen novel. I remember my regret when she quit her New York Times column in order to write fiction. But she had that belief in herself that Rebecca has here. And like Rebecca’s, her decision was the right one. Like Rebecca, moreover, her approach to a novel here appears to change. The premise does not begin with a situation, a violent husband, a baby on the doorstep, but on the loneliness, the doubt, of her heroine. All develops from that. What she does retain is the detail, the tiny observation that reveals character, that captures a moment of time.

I look forward to the next Quindlen novel, knowing it will be filled with pertinent details, with personal strengths and weaknesses, and, one hopes, with a further comment on the human condition. (July, 2015)

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

This 1999 work is a novel which the critics loved, but which I loathed. Loathed so much that I skimmed through it in one sitting. I almost did not write any comment, but I finally decided to be honest with myself and with the reader, even if it would expose my prejudices, my blindness, or simply my failings as a critic.

This is the story of Joseph and Celice, an elderly couple found murdered on a sand dune. They were scientists and teachers, unsuited for society but, we learn, perfectly suited for each other. Indeed, these unappealing characters were deeply in love, and went to the dunes to recapture the first sharing of their desire thirty years earlier.

The novel then advances on three levels. The first is their actual death in the immediate past, as the murderer sneaks up, and brains the unaware couple for their valuables. The second is the slow rotting of their bodies and the arrival, for a week, of birds, crabs, and insects to feed on those bodies. The third returns to a more distant past, to the couple’s initial meeting, courtship, and 30-year marriage. It is a marriage of two misfits, and this reader found it difficult to relate to or sympathize with either party. My approach was as clinical as was the author’s to their decaying bodies.

Much of the second half of the novel returns to the present, and concerns their equally uninteresting and estranged daughter as she searches for her missing parents. At this point, one wonders if Crace has deliberately created uninteresting characters in order that the reader focus on the corrupting bodies in the sand. Indeed, is that why he has created the dead couple as zoologists?

Yes, the process of corruption was distasteful to me, as was the details of the actual murder, including the couple’s complete unawareness of the killer as he inches closer. But what turned me off, primarily, was the unpleasantness of all the characters. Again, this is, I believe, because Crace wanted me to concentrate not on the characters but on death itself. And yet, it seems to be the “beauty” of this clinical description of the murder and the decaying bodies that has fascinated critics—along with the objectivity that confronts these unpleasant characters with inevitable death.

Such critics, I surmise, have no belief in or interest in any aspect of one’s character that might continue after death. Much like the author’s own lack of interest in his earlier tale about a Christ-like character spending forty days in the desert. Indeed, my reaction to that work, Quarantine, is consistent with my reaction here: “Crace, however, appears as uncomfortable with the spiritual world as he is comfortable with the physical world. And so while this novel succeeds in literary terms… it fails in its larger mission to discover a truth about a man and the meaning of his life. Crace sees his world precisely, but sees it only on the surface.”

Thus, I will accept that the author has even less interest in this book in the possibility of existence beyond death. But I feel he has stacked his deck too much. He has pushed the fact of inevitable death into our face and twisted it. I do not like being force-fed. I do not like being confronted with unpleasant people who endure an unpleasant death, and who live on only through their decomposing bodies. As if that is all of us that exists. That his decaying hand is found clutching her decaying ankle is not for me the beautiful symbol of love that the author intends.

To sum up, I am not as fascinated with the body as are the author here and his critics. We are more than bodies. We are hearts, minds, and souls. We are families. We are an interdependent society. We are more than two bodies decaying alone on distant sand dunes.

Of course, Grace’s sole purpose here may have been to convey the reality of death. Which explains why he took the various technical steps I have criticized above. If so, my response is that the result is a tour-de-force—and fails to meet my parameters for a work of literature. Simply put, I do not like dead ends. (July, 2015)

Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark

This 2001 work is a beautifully conceived novel and professionally executed until the end, when it fails to match its inspired beginning—perhaps because the inspiration came from history, from a real crime that was never solved. Which means that Spark had to accommodate her ending to the known facts.

This is the story of two men who walk, separately, into the office of a famous Paris psychiatrist and claim to be a Lord Lucan who killed his children’s nanny 24 years earlier in a bungled attempt to murder his wife. The psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, is actually Beate Pappenheim, who herself has a problematic background. Years earlier, she swindled many people by posing as a stigmata. Indeed, she is also based on a historic figure, be it one who swindled people rather than assaulted them. But it is a typical cavalier approach by Spark, and, as I said, an inspired one, to combine these two historic personalities into one work of fiction.

The reader, like Hildegard, speculates about which of the two men who seek psychiatric help is the real Lord Lucan—one called Lucky or one called Walker—and why they claim to need such help. Later, however, and arbitrarily, Spark revels that the two men are conspiring colleagues, and they plan to blackmail Hildegard by threatening to reveal her past. It seems they need money. It seems that their wealthy aiders and abettors, who believe in protecting their fellow aristocrats, have been providing the true lord with money; and now they are now dying away, shrinking his source of funds.

And just as the two lords exist in a world of conceit and deceit, so Spark implies does Hildegard. For instead of listening to the lives and problems of her patients, like most psychiatrists, she tells them her own problems, until they either give up or buy into her approach. This is Spark, ever aloof, satirizing the life of both of her adversaries

The intrigue between these two dueling parties fades in the center of this short novel, however, as two figures from the lord’s past seek to track him down and interview him about the 24 years in which he has moved around the world, always being funded, and always escaping capture. The satire here extends beyond the life of self-righteous aristocrats to the pursuit of villains in detective stories. It even has a parallel track, with Hildegard herself disappearing briefly and her lover Jean-Pierre seeking to track her. Eventually, Spark does bring the pursuing couple into partnership with Hildegard and her lover, but their joining of forces is somewhat contrived.

The end result is a moral satire about an artful murderer dueling with a master con-woman. Spark here covers three bases. She addresses the nature of evil, indicts upper class mores, and maneuvers her characters into her resolution, in this case matching the history of an unsolved crime.

This is vintage Spark, even if imperfect, even if inspired by history rather than the author’s own imagination. For she remains aloof from her characters, revealing their crimes but letting the facts expose their true selves. Aristocratic Lord Lucan is so convinced of the justice of his every act, for example, that he believes it was his wife’s destiny to die. Just as it will be the destiny of his fellow Lord Lucan.

But although the two Lord Lucans become adversaries at the end, perhaps to meet the author’s needs, perhaps to add a new irony, the true duel is between Lord Lucan and Hildegard, as both threaten to reveal the other’s past. Michiko Kakutani points out their similarities in her New York Times review: “Both have spent much of their adult lives inventing new identities for themselves; and both, so to speak, have blood on their hands,” meaning Beate has because she faked the stigmata by placing menstrual blood on her hands.

The ending, which doesn’t work for me, has a touch of Waugh. The two Lord Lucans end up in Africa, and each becomes the victim of a different ironic fate. It is not the same as Waugh, and not as powerful, but it belongs to the same family of fates.

To sum up, this is 83-year-old Spark in complete control of her characters and their fates. She uses irony and satire to establish a certain moral level, but a level her characters easily transgress. The drawback is that it is an inspired treatment of a plot, but it is not itself an inspired plot. And because it must conform to certain facts of history, the conclusion does not have the bite that one expects from this author. (July, 2015)

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

This 2002 work is a tremendous novel. It is the story of a man’s life, of Logan Gonzalo Mountstuart who experiences the turmoil of the 20th century. It is told through an intermittent journal: from high school to college, from London before World War II to his wartime service, from that service in the Bahamas to a mission in Switzerland, and from post-war London to New York to retirement in France.

The journal approach works perfectly. Indeed, Boyd uses it to enhance a sense of reality, in fact suggesting that this might be a work of non-fiction. This is emphasized by footnotes that explain the real people whom Logan encounters, which include Picasso, Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cyril Connolly, Ian Fleming, and many others. It is further emphasized at the end with an index that highlights the historic events of Logan’s life as well as those individuals of history and art whose life he walks into on these pages.

All of which offers a verisimilitude that I enjoyed—and little of which seemed forced. The long encounter with the Duke and the Duchess, for example, works for me, perhaps because they are brought alive as they welcome this fellow golfer into their life, try to use him, and then dismiss him when rebuffed. Correction: one episode with London anarchists and German terrorists in the 1970s seems extraneous and artificial. What was that all about?

Actually, it is about Logan’s obtuseness, I think. It goes along with a snide reference to Tender is the Night that made me wonder. Was this an opinion of Boyd himself, or, as I hoped, was it to portray a certain shallowness in this hero who calls himself a critic and a writer, but who produces only two early works of criticism and two novels he derides—but talks about being a writer for the rest of his life. In fact, Logan’s dismissal of The Waste Land and his complaint that Ulysses is difficult to read re-enforce this conclusion.

What holds this novel together through all of Logan’s adventures is this voice. He is honest and objective, even if he does not fully understand himself or those around him. And he does not write for effect, at one point criticizing Nabokov’s Ada for its stylistic flourishes. Indeed, one senses this is Boyd defending his own style. Richard Eder in The New York Times Book Review sums up the author’s approach: “Boyd endows his narrator with no special quality of perception or sensibility as he recounts his…exuberant gains, painful reverses, and long-term decline. What he does give him is integrity of voice if not of spirit, the lightest mockery of his own inconsequentiality, and a gracefully chiseled play of sentence and phrase.”

What always impresses me about Boyd is that he takes a different approach to each of his novels. No, the journal form is not itself original, but it works perfectly here. Not least because each journal, each period in Logan’s life, centers around a dramatic development. Such as three student challenges that makes high school interesting. Such as murder and the changing attitudes of the Windsors in Lisbon and the Bahamas. Such as Logan’s lengthy imprisonment in Switzerland. Such as the art gallery he runs in New York for a friend, only to find the friend’s son is embezzling funds. And such as the partisan bickering he encounters in France long after World War II.

What is remarkable about this novel is that Boyd has captured each era that his story covers, as well as the character of Logan from an eager youth to a retrospective old man. Here are bits and pieces of high school and college life, of the Spanish Civil War, of the Blitz, of a Swiss prison, of London literary life, of the New York art world, of revolution in Nigeria, and of French provincial life. But more than that, here are the ambition and confidence of youth, the frustrations of love and professional recognition, the gradual acknowledgement of a thickening, sluggish body, and finally the awareness of aging as the precursor to one’s death.

It is this awareness of growing old that particularly impressed me. It is a remarkable achievement for a writer only in his sixties. Indeed, I wonder if this achievement will be understood by comparatively young critics, who will not have experienced what I myself have in my advanced years. As the New Yorker review said, “He allows Mountstuart’s voice to age like port.”

On another level, this novel captures in one life the experience of an entire era. It is about life in the literary world and the art world. About life in both the military and in marriage. About a life searching for love, finding love, and being denied love. About life that reaches its youthful peak in war, and then its decline as friends die and the body weakens. As Time reported, it carries “the full, devastating force of a lifetime of intermingled joy and pain.”

The title is taken from Henry James: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Which precisely reflects the portrait of Logan that we read. Indeed, Logan does not always understand either himself or the world and the people around him. He thinks he has earned high marks at his Oxford graduation, but has not and cannot understand why. He calls himself a writer, but he does little writing. He seeks love but fails largely to understand women, and does find love for only one brief period. He is even deceived into collaborating with German terrorists. He is an imperfect hero for such a perfect and powerful book—which is, of course, a tribute to the author.

As Boyd himself said in a Book Browse interview: “I wanted to invent my own exemplary figure who could seem almost as real as the real ones and whose life followed a similar pattern: boarding school, university, Paris in the 20s, the rise of Fascism, war, post-war neglect, disillusion, increasing decrepitude, and so on—a long, varied, and rackety life that covered most of the century.” He also said: “I wanted the literary tone of each journal to reflect this, and so the voice subtly changes as you read on: from pretentious school boy to modern young decadent, to bitter realist, to drink soaked cynic, to sage and serene octogenarian, and so forth.”

To sum up, Boyd has become one of my favorite authors. I think this novel may be his best, for its broadness and deceptive depth. That is, it breaks the rules, with its imperfect hero and its episodic journals—each with its own little drama—that reveal more than its hero suspects. (July, 2015)