by William Boyd
I must confess to congratulating myself on having reached the end of this book. I had struggled with it from about a quarter of the way through.
A couple of weeks ago we were staying in a holiday cottage in Devon, and when I had finished one of the books I had brought with me, I found that there were several on the shelves there that I would wish to read, as well as several others I had already read. It would appear that the landlady and/or previous guests have similar tastes in reading to my own. I selected about four ‘possibles’, and chose this one. We were snowed in for a couple of days, giving me enough time to get about a third of the way into the book, so I downloaded it in order to continue reading after we left for home.
I’m always ready to try something by Boyd, whose writing is incredibly fluent and engaging. But the story really didn’t capture my imagination, being what appears to me a very macho, pseudo-autobiographical story of a self-obsessed and selfish man. Some of Boyd’s novels I would class among the best writing I know: An Ice-Cream War, Ordinary Thunderstorms. His last two books left me cold, and I have mixed feelings about Any Human Heart although it did grip me at the time I read it. Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa, did not appeal for many of the same reasons that I was turned off by this one: his character’s, and to some extent the author’s, callous treatment of women.
The ‘hero’ of this life story is one John James Todd, a Scot born at the very end of the nineteenth century. His life reflects the times he lives in; he sees action in both World Wars, is named and persecuted in the anti-Communist persecutions of 1940s and 1950s America, experiences both the glamour and hardships of the film industry in pre-war Berlin and later in Hollywood, and rubs shoulders with many real and well-known people whose names are casually dropped into the narrative. He experiences loves affairs, marriages, children, war wounds, friendships made and lost, betrayals. On the whole he is alone throughout his life, and does not seem prepared to invest the emotional energy needed to make and preserve lasting relationships. He seems devoid of any moral compass that allows him to decide when and where to do the right and decent thing. His decisions appear to be driven, every time, by a desire for self-preservation.
Are we all like this, at heart? IS this really the story of “any human heart” though written some years before Boyd’s book of that title? Maybe Todd is just telling an uncomfortable truth that applies to every one of us: that all we are really interested in is ‘number one’.
I suppose it is fair to say that this book has made me think, and has captured my attention enough to make me finish reading it.