William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

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Matt Haig (2017) How to Stop Time.

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I rattled through this book in no time. A simple story told in the first person voice of Tom Hazard who was born on the 3rd March 1581 and is now—I’m crap at arithmetic, so I’ll jump from page 1 to page 316, near the end of the book—and say Tom is around 439 years old. He’s done a lot of living. And his daughter, Marion, who is also over 400 years old, calls the American President ‘a motherfucker’. Wisdom comes with age.

Only it doesn’t. Look at Trump. There’s a shadowy character a bit like him called Hendrich, who is rich, but obviously not as dumb or he wouldn’t have lived to be near 1000 years old. He is the leader of a shadowy organisation, the albatrosses (or albs, for short) whose purpose is to preserve the lives of those that live to a Malthusian age. The albs help Tom change his identity every eight years and move on. That’s the optimum time before people begin to notice people like Tom don’t seem to have aged and begin to ask difficult questions like what kind of wholemeal diet are you on? Tom explores what it means to be human.

Tom and the other albs, or in medical parlance, ‘anagerias’ do age. ‘Just much slower…generally it is a 1:15 ratio. Think of dog years which are a ratio of 1:7, or Cher, who grows younger and gets a better figure every year. Tom admits to be a bit of a name-dropper (and Zelig) in his relative youth, after his mother was drowned in a ducking chair as a witch, he plays the lute in William Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the Bard saves his life when the same the witch finder that snared Tom’s mother tries to arrest him.  By then Tom has responsibilities. He has met the great love of his life Rose, who is two years older than him, which isn’t anything, but remember that ratio. And remember in the seventeen century living to adolescence and not being covered in body lice was a considerable achievement. Rose aged quickly, Tom stayed the same. What devil is this? their neighbours asked

Each chapter from the past is interspersed with Tom in the present. He’s taken a job in Oakfield School in London’s Tower Hamlet territory. He’s the new history teacher. As you’d expect he’s pretty good at the subject. He watched Rose die in the great plague, was there in the great fire. But he’s not a stay at home. He was on the Adeventurer, sister ship of Captain Cook, when he discovered New Zealand. He played piano in Paris during the roaring twenties and congratulated F Scott Fitzgerald on his new novel The Great Gatsby. He had to reassure him and his wife Zelda that the book was indeed Great, before the infamous couple nipped off to have cocktails with others of the Parisian avant-garde such Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

Those who cannot remember the past, observed the philosopher George Santayana in 1905, are condemned to repeat it. And you only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth.

A life without love has no meaning. But it’s a bit like Fight Club. The only rule in Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. The only rule in the albs have is you don’t pick up attachments. Not human, Tom gets a dog from Hackney Pet Rescue Services with sad eyes to keep him company and to take on walks in London Parks.  ‘History is people’, Tom tells his head teacher when she interviews him for the job.  But he’s not a real person, he needs rescuing from himself, because he’s not allowed to fall in love. ‘We are who we become.’ So, of course, he falls in love with the French teacher, Camille. Of course, he does, he was born into the French aristocracy all those years ago.

Will Tom or won’t Tom? We know he will. People are what they are. There’s wisdom here. Look at Trump, he could live to be 1000 and he wouldn’t learn a thing. He’s a monkey brain in long pants and painted on quiff. ‘All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players, And one man in his time plays many parts…’

Read on.