“So here I am in New York, writing again, working again, fucking again, living again,” writes author and art dealer Logan Mountstuart (1906-91) on 21 September 1951. And here I am in New York, eating spaghetti again from the Bella Donna Trattoria on 77th near First, which can only mean that I have overshot my subway station (68th), the result of the reading matter at hand—namely, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, a novel comprising the fictitious Mountstuart’s century-spanning journals. If Conan Doyle gauged his Sherlock Holmes tales to fit inside a London commute, the Subway Test rewards those writings that erase, if temporarily, the world without—appropriate for a novel that compresses so well the continents and the decades.
Mountstuart’s preamble assures the reader that, in editing his voluminous journals, he has allowed “no amendations aimed at conferring an unearned sagacity (‘I don’t like the cut of that Herr Hitler’s jib’).” His humor and candor make him an agreeable companion, as he acquires experiences and acquaintances, without purpose or a dull stretch. The scenery shifts smoothly and radically: London and Paris, wartime imprisonment in Switzerland, a dash from New York City to Iriki, Nigeria, to avoid a Polanski-esque accusation. A pre-Bond Ian Fleming is his WW II spymaster; Logan’s contemporary Anthony Powell (1905-2000)—whose great 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time this book sometimes resembles in small—appears as a fellow student in the Oxford Journal. Other notables include Woolf and Hemingway, the Duke of Windsor, assorted Abstract Expressionists, Baader-Meinhof. But Any Human Heart is far from a dressed-up Who’s Who. Boyd has been developing the Mountstuart persona for some time: His straight-faced 1998 “monograph,” Nat Tate: An American Artist, even featured a snapshot of the inveterate journal writer. (In an act of intra-oeuvre reciprocity, Any Human Heart’s cover art is credited to the equally nonexistent Tate.) Along with the comedy, Boyd’s empathy is everywhere evident, whether in describing his hero’s soul-crushing loss of a family or the mundane melancholy of passport renewal (“These ten-year chunks that are doled out to you . . . are a cruel form of memento mori“).
“Never say you know the last word about any human heart,” runs the epigraph; the original line (from Henry James’s Louisa Pallant) ends in an exclamation point. For whatever reason, Boyd has withheld that mark here, but he punctuates all that follows with an addictive intimacy, the tangible impress of life lived. Could you pass the parmesan?