Why any human should read ‘Any Human Heart’

…or at least watch the TV adaptation.

It was a pleasant surprise when my A-level English teacher announced at the start of one term she would be hand-picking a novel for each person in the class to read. The following week we were greeted by a sack of books from her personal library. It felt like Christmas. Naturally, we immediately started guessing who would be given the longest book – which appeared to be me until my friend was given The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (which I had at home anyway). The whole exercise was a curious one because it felt somehow like her choice reflected her own impression of you. Imagine setting your friend up with another friend – only that friend was a book.

SHOCK HORROR: Any Human Heart by William Boyd was the novel she assigned me. I cannot recall what she said as she handed over the copy, but in hindsight I wish she had warned me to cancel any plans I had for that weekend. I had been prescribed a 500 page addictive drug.

George R. R. Martin wrote that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” and I strongly recommend that you live Logan Mountstuart’s. You will find the experience effortless as the novel takes the form of his journal, recounting over half a century of his life, from the ages of 17 to 85. It appears almost a work of non-fiction in its depiction of the 20th century; it is also partially drawn from Boyd’s personal history. This mode of delivery, capturing a whole world by tracing a single character’s life from its beginning to end, is a possibility so rarely explored in literature. It has the effect of layering the story to the extent that the novel becomes plot-less. Boyd disperses with a predictable story-arc, leaving lose-ends all over the place, to achieve raw realism. He even has his narrative voice evolve throughout to reflect the aging Mountstuart, and in doing so captures his own “thesis that we [humans] are an anthology, a composition of many selves”.

I feel like I read this book at the right time in my life. I opened the journal at the same age that Mountstuart puts pen to paper. I was aspiring to read history, or rather be a writer, just like him, and had even naively visited Oxford earlier that year. I remember loving the opening chapters, immediately relating to Logan as an adolescent. But I also remember wondering whether I could possibly enjoy the book as much as the protagonist aged. I need not have worried as Logan’s story really is just the story of any human heart. It will have you thinking about the past and your future.

As a reader you live Logan’s life with him. You get to write the book you always wanted to. You get to meet literary figures from Ernest Hemingway to Virginia Woolf. You get to travel the world. You get to fall in love. But you also experience the suffering of the war. You find yourself wrapped up in dirty politics. You taste poverty (it tastes like dog-food). Not to mention get your heart broken over and over again. Any time in your life is the right time to meet Logan Mountstuart, I would like to re-acquaint myself with him when I am 85, but I suspect I will many times before then.

If I am yet to convince you to get hold of a copy for yourself, well firstly I have done this book a great injustice, but secondly I would urge you to at least check out the TV adaptation, featuring the likes of Jim Broadbent as (old) Mountstuart. I would not usually make this kind of recommendation, but the show is in its own right brilliant, almost certainly because it was written by Boyd himself.

Find all six glorious hours of it here:

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/any-human-heart/episode-guide

Never say you know the last word about any human heart

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