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)

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

 This is a marvelously written novel from 2010. It captures cosmopolitan New York City, the modern, commercial art world, and the complexity of human relationships. It is the story of Peter Harris and his wife Rebecca, who are in their forties and who live for their professional life as much as they do for each other.

But for me this is also a very uncomfortable book.

Uncomfortable because its narrative revolves around a different kind of triangle. A triangle among Peter, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s young and handsome brother Mizzy. A triangle in which Peter sees in the male Mizzy a younger and beautiful version of the wife he once fell in love with. Now, he and Rebecca are both settled in their marriage, and here come Mizzy, whom Peter falls for, and envisions as a way out of his humdrum life as the owner of an art gallery always searching for beauty.

Cunningham himself is gay, and perhaps it was inevitable that in today’s changing culture, he would decide to tackle head-on a love relationship between two men. But even he still belongs to the old school, since their relationship does not reach a satisfying conclusion. It is even hinted that Mizzy seduced his brother-in-law in order to prevent him from revealing that he, Mizzy, has returned to a life of drugs.

But what Cunningham does establish is that Peter has fallen for Mizzy, can’t get him out of his mind, and dreams of abandoning his marriage and his career and then running off with him. But if Peter convinces himself he is in love, this reader is less convinced. Yes, Mizzy is a younger version of his wife, but Peter argues too much with himself, first whether he is gay, then whether he is in love, and finally whether he should run away with, of all people, his brother-in-law. The gradual recognition is too scripted. As also is Rebecca’s concern and support of a brother who is basically beautiful but irresponsible.

Whereupon, it seems that Mizzy may be the more sensible one, when he, not Peter, decides the outcome of their relationship. Peter’s deep introspection thus appears not to be worth the author’s effort, or is even beside the point. Which leaves a resolution that needs to be reached by Peter and Rebecca, and with which they are barely comfortable—and the reader even less. If Peter confesses, will he be forgiven? Will Rebecca change, just as he has changed, just as beauty keeps changing?

As one critic wrote: “The novel is a slim book that takes on some big issues: the evolving relationship of long-married couples, the often-fraught bond between parents and their adult children, the duty siblings have to one another. But it also enlarges to consider the role that beauty plays in our lives and the necessarily one-sided nature of our relationship with it.”

Indeed, what makes this novel so vivid for me is its explorations of: the nature of beauty, the subjective evaluation of art, the commercial motives in the art world, the political intrigue among artists and galleries, and each artist’s need for recognition. The personal narrative drives the novel, yes, but it is a narrative that the reader easily anticipates. Indeed, one that this reader hoped would not occur, but which becomes too obvious when Mizzy is conveniently created as both beautiful and a younger version of the wife Peter fell in love with.

But, it is the depth of the art world that makes so real the penetration of these emotional lives. Peter is fascinated by beauty, is in search of it for his art gallery, yet cannot see the beauty in what is recognized today as art. This frustration is mirrored by his relationship with his wife, whose beauty has also disappeared. While she has become a person he is comfortable with, she is also a person who is as dissatisfied with her career as an editor as he is with the responsibilities of an art gallery. This mutual frustration is what makes this novel so interesting, especially as it is enriched by its exploration of artists, agents, managers, and curators in the art world.

Cunningham obviously saw how this dissatisfaction could be expanded into Peter’s emotional life, and into a new area of literary exploration, namely the origins of a gay relationship. And in his own terms, I am sure he felt that he succeeded. But not being a part of that life, I felt a certain manipulation in the way Peter confronts Mizzy. Such as when Mizzy is naked in the kitchen. Such as when Mizzy is naked in the shower. Because at that point you knew where the novel was headed, even with the reservations that Peter had in committing to a relationship that would overturn his comfortable world.

To sum up, Cunningham remains a magnificent novelist. But he reveals here perhaps the prejudice of a gay writer. That there is an element of being gay in all of us, and he wishes to show how easily it can surface in a man who has never confronted that possibility. Which means that behind the sensitive introspection of his characters, behind the rich portrait of the art world, Cunningham has an axe to grind. To show that being gay is a normal way of life for some, and that it is a legitimate subject for a work of literature. Even if this were true, however, I wish he had been more subtle in presenting his story. Especially, the brother being a younger stand-in for his wife.

Will I read more Cunningham? I certainly wish to, but I also know that my decision may be based in part on his future choice of subject matter. This may be considered as prejudice by some, but I do not see Peter’s story here as an exploration of a common human experience. For Lolita and Mann’s Tadzio, for example, the sex symbolized more an inner need than it did a means of escape. (August, 2013)