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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Any Human Heart

William Boyd

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To purchase Any Human Heart

Title: Any Human Heart
Author: William Boyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 484 pages
Availability: Any Human Heart - US
Any Human Heart - UK
Any Human Heart - Canada
Any Human Heart - India
À livre ouvert - France
Eines Menschen Herz - Deutschland
  • The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart
  • Any Human Heart was made into a TV mini-series in 2010, starring Jim Broadbent

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, if somewhat aimless entertainment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/2003 Brooke Allen
Daily Mail B 19/4/2002 .
Daily Telegraph A 20/4/2002 Toby Clements
Evening Standard A 15/4/2002 Catherine Shoard
The Guardian . 20/4/2002 Giles Foden
London Rev. of Books . 23/5/2002 Christopher Tayler
The LA Times A 6/4/2003 Peter Green
Le Monde . 6/12/2002 Florence Noiville
New Statesman F 1/4/2002 Nicholas Blincoe
The NY Times B+ 14/2/2003 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/2/2003 Richard Eder
The Observer D 14/4/2002 Tim Adams
San Francisco Chronicle . 16/2/2003 Anthony Giardina
The Spectator A- 20/4/2002 Anita Brookner
Sunday Telegraph A 14/4/2002 Caroline Moore
Time A 17/2/2003 Lev Grossman
The Times . 17/4/2002 Erica Wagner
TLS . 19/4/2002 James Campbell
The Village Voice A 22/4/2003 Ed Park
The Washington Post A 2/3/2003 Peter Cameron
Die Welt A+ 5/2/2005 Elmar Krekeler

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with some very enthusiastic and some very disappointed

  From the Reviews:
  • "But the novel is very much more than a travelogue through the past century. It is a reflection on the shape of individual lives: the themes, the repetitions, the true and false friendships; the way we are inevitably diverted from the straight courses we wish to pursue; the near impossibility of imposing meaning onto our experiences." - Brooke Allen, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Boyd's books invariably give intense pleasure with their accomplishment, cultivation and intelligence. Unfortunately, these qualities, all here in such abundant supply, are not enough to ensure an outstanding success." - Daily Mail

  • "Despite the inevitable decline in old age, all this is great fun. It is shot through with Boyd's customary black humour, combining a dry and sophisticated wit with a love for the embarrassing and the absurd. Except during a sketchy run-in with some terrorists, the voice is disciplined and authentic, and shows his terrific control of language and thought. The jokes and throw-away lines are perfectly timed." - Toby Clements, Daily Telegraph

  • "It's a sly, hefty and immensely entertaining gallop through school, university, two world wars, a couple of civil wars (Spanish and Nigerian), espionage, imprisonment and the New York art scene of the Fifties (.....) These apocryphal anecdotes may tickle people in the know, but Any Human Heart remains resolutely unpretentious." - Catherine Shoard, Evening Standard

  • "Logan's true secret sharer, the real tongue in his mouth, is Boyd himself, of course. (...) So when all is said and done, the heart the novel tries to dissect is the author's own. It is, as ever, an enjoyable spectacle for his readers." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • " Any Human Heart, struggles earnestly to embody the uncertainties that his previous novels have only registered as themes. (...) (F)or too much of the time, Mountstuart is revealed for what he is: a device allowing Boyd to write about 20th-century celebrities in the pastiche idiom of a contemporary observer. Boyd hustles you through to the end despite all this, but it's hard not to wonder if it was really worth making the journey." - Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books

  • "I have to say at once that the ventriloquist's magic demonstrated here is quite uncanny (.....) Boyd takes tremendous risks in making this not over-talented, ambitious sensualist draw so full and unflattering a portrait of himself. That he succeeds so triumphantly is chiefly a tribute to the never-failing realism of his historical ghost-raising, the rich and loving detail with which he invests each fresh scene and character, the pitch-perfect ear with which he catches the musings, not only of Logan himself but also of his friends and relatives, at each successive stage of their lives." - Peter Green, The Los Angeles Times

  • "L'effet de trompe-l'œil est saisissant. Au point qu'on en vient à se demander si Boyd, à demi déguisé, ne livre pas là un journal plus intime encore qu'il n'y paraît. L'auteur jure ses grands dieux que non. Mais lorsqu'on referme le livre, on reste saisi d'un doute." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde

  • "In truth, Any Human Heart drags worse than the dame in an amateur pantomime. And the device of randomly changing the setting or killing the characters only underlines how dull the book is." - Nicholas Blincoe, New Statesman

  • "Any Human Heart is a bigger, more ambitious book than throw-away Boyd efforts like Stars and Bars and Armadillo, and while it's a bumpy performance at times, Mr. Boyd does such a nimble job of ventriloquism in the book's opening sections that we find ourselves forgetting that Mountstuart is a fictional character. " - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "What he does give him is integrity of voice if not spirit, the lightest mockery of his own inconsequentiality and a gracefully chiseled play of sentence and phrase." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) distinctly odd book: a late-arriving lead balloon to the nicely timed punchline of Nat Tate. (...) The problem is that the individual created here never quite becomes vital in any of his lives. (...) It is as if by inhabiting this other writer, Boyd, lacking his usual easy charm, has sometimes forgotten that he still has to write." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "From the beginning of this long, intoxicating novel, there's a narrative looseness, a playing with conventions in order to subvert them, a barely masked glee that feels new." - Anthony Giardina, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Let it be said at once, this is an excellent picaresque novel, written in a confident, easy-going style that disarms criticism. (...) Any Human Heart is an old-fashioned, new-fangled tour de force which maintains its brio to the very end." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "(A) work of astonishing ventriloquistic virtuosity. (...) One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, chiefly because it grips like one -- which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skilfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of every diary." - Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Some people get their Brit fix from Harry Potter. They will get that, and much more, from William Boyd's brilliant, beautiful and exceptionally British Any Human Heart (...) With its upper-crust settings and century-spanning scope, Any Human Heart invites comparison to Ian McKewan's Atonement. But while McKewan's novel is a work of elaborate, formal artifice, Any Human Heart is determinedly, even defiantly, formless." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "The strength of this novel is that Boyd never allows his portraits of the famous (Picasso, the Duke and Duchess, Fleming, Virginia Woolf, to name but a few) to interfere with or overwhelm the story's emotional core. (...) The power of this novel lies in just what it seems to lack: a last word. It convinces the reader that Logan Mountstuart lived, somehow, outside of its pages: its apparent weakness is its particular strength." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "Overall, though, it is not the tendency to lie that makes LMS an inferior diarist. Some of the greatest have been vain and deceitful. It is that, for all his "funny old life", he is not complex." - James Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "One of the pleasures offered by William Boyd's new novel, Any Human Heart -- and its pleasures are countless -- is perhaps the simplest one a reader can know: following a character through his or her life. (...) (F)ortunately Logan is a fully rounded character, not a mere Zeitgeist device." - Peter Cameron, The Washington Post

  • "Man nimmt Platz auf diesem Yo-Yo, überläßt sich mehr als in einer Geschichte des üblichen allwissenden Erzählers, dem Auf-und-Ab des Lebens, der Abstand zur Figur verschwindet, man vergißt den Erzähler. Diese Spontaneität, diese Unmittelbarkeit aufrechtzuerhalten, war für Boyd, der kein journal intime, wohl aber ein Arbeitstagebuch führt, das schwierigste an diesem, seinem bisher großartigsten, berührendsten, unvergeßlichsten Roman." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The faux memoir, the invented diary is a curious literary fiction. Fiction is invention, and fiction written in the first-person fairly common -- but when it's in diary-form and mixes in actual personages ... it's odd. It grounds itself in a different reality from the usual novel, relying even more on the authority familiar names lend it. And one wonders why the author doesn't choose a different form of narrative to convey whatever it is s/he means to convey. More so than most with Any Human Heart, where it isn't quite clear what Boyd wants to convey.
       Is it the story of a century (the narrator lives 1906 to 1991) ? A novel of peripatetic existence ? (The narrator lives for extended periods of time in South America, England, New York, Nigeria, Switzerland, and France, and ventures elsewhere too.) Of the impossibility of the writer's life in the 20th century ?
       Boyd cleverly mixes fact and fiction. He doesn't (for the most part) overdo his narrator Logan Mountstuart's meetings with the greats; they're not central but rather plausibly peripheral. Among the nicest touches: the American edition's book jacket utilizes a drawing by Nat Tate -- Boyd's own invented artist, from his previous fiction, Nat Tate: An American Artist. (Tate also appears in the text, as does a reference to Boyd's study .....)
       Logan Mountstuart is born in Uruguay, but he's essentially English and the journals that make up this novel begin in 1923, with Mountstuart at school. Mountstuart isn't a true, obsessive diarist. The journals are kept intermittently, there are often large gaps in time, and some are only loosely dated -- just right to allow Boyd to fit his character's whole life in a single, not quite five-hundred page volume.
       Mountstuart comes from comfortable circumstances, and has some ambitions of becoming a writer, even before he heads off to university. It's not pure fabulation that he's drawn to, however: his first effort is a life of Shelley (though at least titled The Mind's Imaginings). While still in school he suggestively ponders:

Why am I lying so much ? (...) Does everybody do it as much as me ? Are our lives just the aggregate of the lies we've told ? ("Lives" -- the "v" is silent.)
       But it's a false clue: lying isn't the basis of this fiction, and Mountstuart doesn't turn into a man who builds his life on falsehoods (at least not beyond the simple self-deceptions that everyone indulges in in order to survive).
       Mountstuart goes to Oxford, where he does not distinguish himself. He does become a writer, though, unlike one of his close friends, never manages to establish himself as one and really build up a career: he writes too little, and what he writes is too varied.
       Mountstuart's success and failure as a writer is an interesting sidelight to the novel (Boyd hardly focusses on it). His Shelley study is greeted with good reviews ("Engaging and spirited" say the TLS), but "sales are disappointing". Soon afterwards he publishes his first novel, The Girl Factory, and the notices are awful ("Tawdry and shameful" writes the Mail) -- but it turns out to be a stunning success. The follow-up, The Cosmopolitans, -- again serious non-fiction -- , again gets a "very nice review" in the TLS -- and is a complete flop. A final postwar work, a novella called The Villa by the Lake, receives "serious and enthusiastic acclaim (...) and very modest sales". Critical opinion and popular appeal are diametrically opposed: a not too subtle dig by Boyd that suggests he's somewhat concerned about the state of the (literary) art.
       Mountstuart has a variety of romantic adventures. He makes a poor choice for his first marriage, but does find true (if not lasting) love afterwards -- which helps sustain him up to World War II.
       Along the way he has a few journalistic adventures, most notably in reporting from the Spanish Civil War. He's sent to the Bahamas during World War II to keep an eye on the Duke of Windsor, and then he's sent to Switzerland. Here and elsewhere, his missions are largely failures right from the very start. World War II also brings catastrophe at home, and Mountstuart eventually heads to New York, to help run an art gallery.
       Women again are some source of happiness and then trouble; eventually he has to flee. There's a tour of teaching in Nigeria -- and some journalistic coverage of the Biafran war -- before he settles down, old and increasingly impoverished, in London again.
       A lengthy stay in hospital leaves him in fairly dire straits ("I will refer to this period of my life as the Dog-Food Years"), and his main source of income soon comes from flogging The Situation, a weekly tabloid newspaper brought out by the SPK (Socialist Patients' Kollective). This leftist group, in touch with the German terrorist Baader-Meinhof group, eventually sends him on an errand to Germany -- which works out about as well as his previous foray to that area of the world.
       Finally, relatively happily, he settles down in France.

       Boyd writes well, and presents Mountstuart's life fluently enough. There's adventure here, a touch of history, famous men encountered (quite realistically, for the most part) -- and Mountstuart, with his always changing fortunes, is a sympathetic (though not truly riveting) character. There are exotic locales -- and, in a convincing touch, far more often than not, desperate boredom. There are some nice, persuasive depictions of Mountstuart's feelings for a number of women (while the men he is close to -- remaining almost always quite distant -- don't come off quite as well).
       The journal-form makes for an odd progression. The pieces are believable, as are the transformations Mountstuart undergoes -- but it's not quite enough. It's a warm portrait, but ultimately not a compelling one. The case for: this story, told in this form, is never convincingly made.
       An enjoyable if not fully satisfying read.

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Any Human Heart: Reviews: Any Human Heart - the TV mini-series: William Boyd: Other books by William Boyd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author William Boyd was born in Ghana in 1952. Educated at the universities of Nice, Glasgow, and Oxford, he was also a lecturer at Oxford. Author of numerous novels he has won practically every major British literary award, save the Booker (for which he has been short-listed).

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