The Way He Lived Then: Any Human Heart

Note: there’s a romance connection eventually (you knew there would be, right?) If that’s mainly what you’re interested in, scroll down to the last couple of paragraphs.

I’ve been meaning to read William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2002) for ages, but the copy in our house is a 500-page hardback, which is somewhat daunting and uncomfortable to read. Then I saw that my library has it on audiobook, narrated by the prolific–and excellent–Simon Vance.

Any Human Heart is a novel in diaries that cover most of the life of Logan Mountstuart, a fictional minor writer, journalist and art-dealer who “managed to live in every decade of this long benighted century” (the 20th, that is). I’ve read and liked several other Boyd novels; I like plot in my books, and he’s a great plotter, often with some kind of mystery or thriller element. Any Human Heart is necessarily something quite different. Unlike a biography or memoir, a diary lacks retrospect (though there are a few retrospective notes by LMS here, as well as comments by the purported academic editor). The life it presents is shapeless, meandering, episodic. Logan is by turns despicable, admirable, and dull; the events he relates comic, tragic and banal. The diary form, with its intimate, informal voice, worked very well on audio.

Some readers have compared LMS to Forrest Gump, because over the course of his long life he encounters so many famous writers, artists, and political figures: Joyce, Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Ian Fleming, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and many more. LMS is a literary celebrity in the 30s, a spy of sorts and prisoner of war during WW II, a New York art dealer in the 50s, professor at a Nigerian university in the 60s, accidental radical in the 70s. This summary makes the book sound more dramatic than it is; there are moments of real drama, but often Logan is less interested in those than in the details of his everyday life. Like the rest of us–well, me anyway–he’s usually not writing about world events in his diary. So what you get is a picture of how history does and does not affect the ordinary person, and how he does and does not shape historical events. A minor life like LMS’s, or most people’s, is just as much a part of “history” as the big events.

This book reminded me of other novels or series of novels that aim in part to capture The Way We Live Now (that’s Trollope) or the way it was to live at a particular time: A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (Powell makes a cameo in Any Human Heart) or “post 9/11” fiction like Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, or Chris Cleave’s Incendiary. And reading it was in part what led me to make a comment on Twitter about how hard it can be to define “historical fiction.” Part of this novel is set in Boyd’s lifetime, and when he wrote it there would have been people of LMS’s age alive. It draws on his personal experiences, but also on a lot of research. And it’s “about” history. So does that make it historical fiction, or what?

One of the great things about Twitter is that if you make a remark like that, you find yourself discussing it with readers of historical fiction, writers of historical romance, and social scientists who do historical research, all offering their perspectives. While the writer’s work may be somewhat different–certainly the research sources available are–for me as a reader there is an interesting parallel between a historical novel that tries to capture something about “what life was like” at a particular period and a contemporary novel which tries to capture “what life is like” now or in living memory. Both are inevitably incomplete pictures, and in both the writer must select which ideas, events, objects, etc. seem representative of that time, important to understanding it. Shapeless as the plot of Any Human Heart may be, you can see from the summary above that in some sense each decade of Logan’s life is “about” something (the war, the end of colonialism, radicalism). If you want to show the way they lived then/the way we live now, what do you choose to focus on? That choice, I think, is something historical and contemporary fiction can have in common.

Of course this led me to think about historical romance. When I taught a historical fiction course a few years ago, as part of my college’s abortive attempt at a Summer Institute in which students took linked Creative Writing, English and History courses, I did a week on genre, because genre fiction is such a prevalent form of historical fiction (although they weren’t allowed to write any in their creative writing course). We did three short stories: a mystery, a romance (Heyer), and an adventure tale. One thing I tried to get us thinking about was whether the past is seen as more romantic/mysterious/adventurous than the present. Why all this historical genre fiction? We never really came up with a good answer. Got ideas?

Most historical romance I’ve read does not seem to me historical in the way Any Human Heart is; that is, even if it is well-researched, its characters don’t feel entirely woven into the fabric of history. I think that’s because the story is focused so much on the courtship narrative that history stays in the background. These novels may care about what it’s like to love in a particular time (the conventions that keep people apart or force them together, for instance) but they don’t always pay much attention to living in that time in the larger sense. That’s not really a criticism, or if it is, it’s essentially one that’s often levelled at Jane Austen as well. Actually, the difference between Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Gaskell’s North and South, which reworks the same hate-at-first-sight courtship plot, is a good example of what I’m trying to describe. Sure, Darcy and Elizabeth are of their time, and it’s the class and other values of that time that keep them apart at first, but Margaret and Thornton’s relationship plays out and attempts to resolve the public political questions at the heart of their novel. That’s not the same as saying that Austen depicts contemporary life in a “wallpaper” way, but she has a much more domestic/private focus. 

My preference for more light or comic romance may be why I can’t think of many historicals that are deeply concerned with the “broader” history of their time. A lot of mysteries I read are, though, like the post-WW I-set novels of Jacqueline Winspear and Barbara Cleverley. I’d love suggestions of historical romance where the history really affects the romance.

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4 Responses to The Way He Lived Then: Any Human Heart

  1. Great post! I love the William Boyd books that I’ve read, but it’s been a while.

    One of my favorite genre romances with a strong integration of the historical period is Truly by Mary Balogh. It’s set in Wales in the 1840s and incorporates the Rebecca riots. One of the best depictions of how riots come about that I’ve read. Also a terrific romance.

    Some of the older epic romances have more historical material in them, but I wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy/authenticity.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Now I want to read a bunch of books with romance and riots. North and South of course, and I think there’s a riot in Bronte’s Shirley as well. This could be fun!

  2. I think that contemporary fiction or romance is always going to be far more complete than historical romance, because it is being read by someone who can fill in all the gaps from their own experiences. A reader may go “huh?” at my description of a WWI portable spark transmitter and struggle to picture it. The same reader, when I describe the scotch tape wrapped around the broken battery compartment of my old cellphone, will go “Yeah” in sympathy and require no further description to understand. What might leave contemporary fiction incomplete is when it is read by someone who never owned a cellphone or had to patch anything with scotch tape.

    I think the past is filled with more romance/mystery/adventure just because it’s a world that is and isn’t our own. We bestow on the past a certain infant-like quality, we pat it on the head because it was so charmingly naive and rough-edged compared to the world we know. I think it works in the same way as our fond reminiscing on our individual younger days. I look back on my twenty-year-old self and often think what a lost little baby that girl was and how in the hell she coped as she did. People in the past, in their impossible clothes and primitive ways and means of living, exist in a fantasy world for us, a world we can’t live in except through stories, hence the romance; but it’s a fantasy world with a sharper edge, because we know it wasn’t fantasy, we know people lived, loved, and endured things we don’t have to, and I think the fascination comes in when we ponder how they did manage to live, love, and endure under what we’d now consider often unendurable circumstances.

    I love this post and Any Human Heart sounds extremely interesting. Cool blog you have. I should like to look around more.

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