William Boyd’s eighth novel deals with many of the same interests as his earlier works: British expatriates, the ups and downs of the artistic life, the chaos of war, the vicissitudes of love and sex, the boredom and joy of public-school and university life, and the indifference of the universe to the fates of individuals. Much like his earlier novel The New Confessions (1988), Any Human Heart encompasses a considerable portion of the history and culture of the twentieth century in presenting the travails of its protagonist. While the hero of the earlier work is a filmmaker, the fictional Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991) is a writer, but he is also a spy, the manager of an art gallery, and a teacher. Talented, introspective, and passionate, Logan is also essentially a failure. Once slightly famous in the United Kingdom, he is all but forgotten by the time of his death, little knowing that the journal he has been keeping since 1923 is his greatest accomplishment.
Logan’s journal begins a few years after his family leaves Uruguay for his father’s native Birmingham, England, in 1914. Logan describes his happy years at Abbeyhurst College, where he establishes lifelong friendships with Peter Scabius and Benjamin Leeping; his less happy time at Oxford; and his pursuit of the writing life following university. Logan follows a serious book with The Girl Factory, based on his experiences with prostitutes, and many of the friends who have seen him as a serious writer are puzzled by his creating a popular novel. His agent and publisher are subsequently shocked when Logan decides to follow this success with a study of an almost forgotten turn-of-the-century group of French poets, inspired by his meeting with their leader, Cyprien Dieudomo.
After falling in love with, and being rejected by, Land Fothergill, Logan exhibits bad judgment, not for the last time, by marrying Lady Laeticia Edgefield, known as Lottie. Following the birth of their son, Lionel, Logan quickly abandons Lottie and the easy lifestyle of the country aristocrat and finds the love of his life, Freya Deverell, who works for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). After Lottie divorces him, he and Freya marry and have a daughter, Stella.
Between books, Logan makes a living by writing reviews, travel pieces, and other journalism assignments, including covering the Spanish Civil War. He accidentally acquires several Joan Miró paintings in Spain, and they help support him during many hard times. At the beginning of World War II, he is recruited by his acquaintance Ian Fleming as a spy and sent to the Bahamas to keep any eye on the duke and duchess of Windsor. In 1944, Logan parachutes into Switzerland, where he is to pose as a Uruguayan businessman interested in buying ships. He is almost immediately arrested, however, and spends the remainder of the war in solitary confinement. During this period, Freya remarries, but soon afterward she and Stella are killed by a bomb. After the war, Logan is rescued from a long period of oblivion, including a suicide attempt, by Ben Leeping, who hires him to manage the New York branch of his art gallery.
Logan writes The Villa by the Lake, a fictional treatment of his imprisonment, and marries for the third and last time. His relationship with attorney Alannah Rule is as ill-fated as his first marriage, though he does become close friends with Gail, his stepdaughter. Following a few years teaching at a university in Nigeria, Logan returns to London. Back in the home he shared with Freya, his life slowly spirals downward. Cyprien Dieudomo then leaves Logan a small house in France, where Logan finds some peace during his final years. Except for his time with Freya, this is the happiest period of his life.
The novel’s title comes from the epigraph to Henry James’s story “Louisa Pallant” (1888): “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Logan’s life is full of lies and deceptions. No one, with the possible exception of Freya, truly knows him. He, Ben, and Peter are close friends for more than half a century yet know little about each other’s inner lives. Logan’s potential guilt over betraying Peter by having affairs with two of his wives is tempered by his assumption that because of his friend’s expanding self-importance Peter somewhat deserves betrayal. He is surprised when Peter is knighted because Logan has always...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)