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Old 21st Jan 2005, 12:50   #1
John Self
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William Boyd is one of the great overlooked writers of our time. He's not unknown exactly but his blip on the radar is far dimmer than most of his contemporaries. Maybe it's because of his forgettably pedestrian name...

Anyway. I say all this as a fairly recent convert. I bought his most recent novel Any Human Heart in early 2003 when it came out in paperback. It had been lauded to within an inch of its life on publication and I was itchy to see what all the fuss was about. One of the reviews on the back said "[Boyd] has probably written more classic books than any of his contemporaries." Now given that his contemporaries (he was born in 1952) include Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Douglas Adams, Iain Banks, Paul Auster, Louis de Bernieres, etc. etc. - this is a bold claim. So where are all these classics hiding? When I looked in the bookshops I saw gaudy-coloured paperbacks in "popular fiction" size with unpromising titles like Brazzaville Beach, An Ice-Cream War and On The Yankee Station.

Still, Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart turned out to be a triumph. The pleasure was almost entirely cumulative in nature - you could easily get halfway through and be thoroughly underwhelmed - but the rewards for completion were richer than almost any others I have experienced. I urge everyone to read it (and HoneyPotts will back me up on this, as will RC I think). It's a cast-iron masterpiece (not to be confused with a cast-iron mantelpiece). I can't remember ever being so convinced of the authenticity of a fictional narrator as I was by Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, lazy writer and adulterer who lived through most of the 20th century with varying degrees of success: as someone else said about another novel of Boyd's, I was "so hypnotised by the realism of its autobiographical form, I found myself riffling through the pages for the photographs." I had been given to believe, perhaps by reviews of other books of Boyd's, that AHH would be a laugh riot. In reality it's not particularly funny and in fact it's the moments of sadness and pathos which are its best. The fictional characters and footnotes are quite impossible to tell apart from the historical ones and the book taught me more about the Spanish Civil War, the Biafran War, and the leftwing terrorist groups of the 70s than anything else has.

I subsequently trawled through Boyd's oeuvre in reverse chronological order. Armadillo (199 was bound to be a disappointment, and is certainly the weakest of his novels that I've read.

It's probably the only novel ever to see the light of day which is about professional loss-adjusting - and certainly the only one not to have been published by a vanity press. Lorimer Black is the hero, a thirty-one year old who turns out to be of eastern European Transnistrian heritage, real name Milomre Blocj ("the j is silent and the c has a dot under it," he tells people, though sadly not in the character set available to me). His family calls him Milo and doesn't know he's Lorimer in "real" life; and his friends and colleagues don't know about his "real" name and past. But the novel is less about reality and identity than about control and fate. Working in a profession linked to the insurance industry, he knows all about what people do to try to second guess fate or luck, and his own life seems to be spinning out of control with increasing rapidity; which is perhaps why he likes to collect ancient helmets, all the better to protect him from chance.

Like Any Human Heart, is isn't as funny as the reviews suggest, and frankly the plot has a hole or two in it - and ultimately on the one hand descends into the sort of unknowability which is perhaps just right for a story about the complex and ineffable world of corporate finance, and on the other seems too pat and sorted - but it is elsewhere that Armadillo succeeds best. Most books are either about domestic situations, omitting work life; or about the job, and leave out lovers; Armadillo covers all the bases. It successfully, and with remarkable simplicity, factors in all the, well, factors that run everyone's life, including friends, family, job, neighbours and lovers, and the complexities of associations between all the different elements. For that alone Armadillo deserves several trumpets and salutes. It's also an easy, breezy read, so you can multitask while reading it - keep an eye on the baby, or the pesky neighbourhood kids, or the live war broadcasts - as a sort of tribute to Boyd's brilliant ability to keep all his plates spinning at once. It was also adapted for TV a few years ago - did anyone see it?

The Blue Afternoon (1993) came next - or before - and is absolutely magnificent, miles better than Armadillo and my joint favourite with Any Human Heart. The centre of the book is the 200-page tale of Salvador Carriscant, a surgeon in Manila at the turn of the 20th century during the forgotten Philippino-American war, who falls in love with a US soldier's wife and hatches a crazy scheme to escape with her without her husband ever finding out. Stitched into this are a murder mystery, professional rivalry and the first attempts at powered heavier-than-air flight. The story is entirely gripping and drips with atmosphere - the most obvious reference point for the tale of Western sensibilites, betrayal and passion in foreign climes was Graham Greene, although I was also reminded strongly of Rupert Thomson's Air & Fire (which came out the same year). I will go so far as to say, almost uniquely for me, that I really did not want it to end. However end it did, which leaves us with the odd sections of the book which come before and after this main central spine.

These are set in 1937, when Carriscant meets a young architect in Los Angeles called Kay Fischer, tells her that he is her father, and takes her to Lisbon to find his lover. (The central story, therefore, being recounted by Carriscant to Kay as they travel.) It's a brave move, as the main story is so compelling it would be easy to demand it be left alone, but I thought the additions worked, particularly as they do not spring the expected surprises and have an entirely worthwhile world created all on their own.

Then to Brazzaville Beach (1990), which came before The Blue Afternoon and is not, in my opinion, as good as it or Any Human Heart, though it does exceed Armadillo.

If a name can be mellifluous and clumsy at the same time, then here it is: Hope Clearwater, who tells her story almost entirely in flashback, presuming that the reader is itching to discover what brought her to live on Brazzaville Beach: "Brazzaville Beach, on the edge of Africa." And so she tells us of two periods in her life in parallel: her time working as a naturalist employed in England dating hedgerows (stay awake at the back there) while she had a to-and-fro relationship with a brilliant but troubled mathematician, who ends up having a mental breakdown; and her time after that, assisting in the study of chimpanzee society in the Grosso Arvore park in Africa during a period of civil war (which doesn't exactly narrow it down much).

If we are expecting moments of blinding revelation at the end of each thread we will be disappointed, although the dramatic moments, which invariably involve death and violence, are stark and vivid and memorable. Essentially in the chimp sections Hope discovers that the chimpanzees in one section of the forest have taken to killing others and cannibalizing their young - bowling over the accepted notion that humans and ants are the only animals that wage war. Of course the project leader cannot accept this as it would harm his proposed publication and future funding, so Hope is left to battle against the odds etc. to bring the truth to light.

Perhaps because I had been spoiled by some of his others, I found it easy to find fault in the book, which is not to demean it as it's still a satisfying and nourishing read. He takes various tiny risks some of which pay off - no chapter divisions, so you have to keep reading - and some of which don't - the inevitable desire for a male author sooner or later to take on a female narrator. It also tended to be overwritten in places, Boyd I suppose indulging himself in lush descriptions of his native Africa. (Perhaps the density and sense of sometimes cutting through the undergrowth was added to by the fact that I was reading the hardback which I got on eBay - 310 pages but it feels much longer because of the dense type: the paperback breathes more easily at 420. Routine page-numbering obsession comment over.) I was also unconvinced of the necessity of the section where Hope and Ian are "kidnapped," purporting to bring the civil war to the foreground but not really succeeding. It reminded me of the uncomfortable shift in Waugh's A Handful of Dust when we meet The Man Who Loved Dickens: but there it was validated by taking us through to the end of the story, whereas here the kidnapping ends and everything returns to where it was 70 superfluous pages earlier.

But again I don't want to overstate the case - Boyd's still a great writer and Brazzaville Beach is still very good. It's just not as good as some others he went on to write. Overall it's far and away his most deeply solemn book, with little italicised (but straight-faced) sections covering various tangents of higher mathematics like chaos theory and Fermat's last theorem (both of which I suppose were novel to the general reader in 1990, when the book was published), and overall themes of cruelty, war and - cheer up! - human failure and frailty. Brazzaville is not one for the beach.

I polished off the last of his novels that I have, his 1987 epic The New Confessions, in three days, reading the last 290 pages in one day. He has that effect on you. It makes a neat matching bookend with his latest book, Any Human Heart, in that both are weighty tomes which relate the life of a creative success and failure through the 20th century. It has a little less verisimilitude than AHH though, as its form is autobiography rather than diaries, and Boyd can't resist making it a little too artful and artificed to be quite convincing. The narrator, too - film director John James Todd, born in 1899 in Edinburgh ("My first act upon entering this world was to kill my mother") - is less sympathetic than Logan Mountstuart, largely because - the novelist's art again - he's more of a character and less of a person. Mainly he's self-involved and self-important, and his autobiography is littered with slights on those he sees as lesser (but luckier) talents, as well as the odd "footnote to historians" about some cinematographic first or other he claims, Kubrick-like, to have performed.

As in his other books, Boyd cannot resist the lure of exploring all the facets that make up a life, and at times The New Confessions seems like several novels in one - the boarding school novel, the Great War novel, the cold-war-'n'-McCarthyism novel - but like Any Human Heart it works. He also weaves in his other favourites like higher mathematics and of course oodles of adultery (in fact all but one of the five Boyd novels I've read feature extra-marital affairs prominently and importantly. Are you listening Mrs. Boyd?).

The title comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, which the teenage Todd reads as it is smuggled piecemeal to him by a sympathetic guard while being held prisoner in wartime Germany (the price he pays for the contraband is a chaste kiss, but refuses the guard's requests for a "masturb"). As the only reading material or distraction of any kind that Todd has had for months, he becomes lovingly obsessed with Rousseau's work, blind to the parallels in his and Rousseau's early lives, and presumably of the fact that his mentor ended his life in effective exile from the public and civilisation. It's a warning he should have heeded, because if The New Confessions lacks the, well, human heart of AHH, it has more in the way of a determinedly plotted ending, which reminded me of Roszak's Flicker and Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, both - like Boyd's book - masterpieces of paranoia, popular culture and conspiracy theory.

He has written other novels, which I haven't read: Stars and Bars, An Ice Cream War, and A Good Man in Africa, in my patent reverse order. Any thoughts on those (or any of the above), anyone? In summary anyway, I think William Boyd is a great writer and it's a shame that because of a dull name, badly-designed paperbacks and prejudiced idiots like me who dislike dull names and badly designed paperbacks that he's not more widely celebrated.
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 12:56   #2
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Do you make notes as you go along or something. Anyway thank goodness you do as my thoughts and impressions of William Boyd are as follows: Armadillo - good, Any Human Heart - really good, Brazzaville Beach - a bit crap really. Er... thats it.
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 14:15   #3
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Quote:
Still, Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart turned out to be a triumph. The pleasure was almost entirely cumulative in nature - you could easily get halfway through and be thoroughly underwhelmed - but the rewards for completion were richer than almost any others I have experienced. I urge everyone to read it (and HoneyPotts will back me up on this, as will RC I think).
Right you are John (as ever). I was at least halfway through and groaning before I began to see why you had praised it so highly, but by the end I was overcome knocked back and smitten AND glad that my faith in your judgement had seen me through. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend it to everyone, I can think of some readers who wouldn't appreciate the eventual payoff well enough, and to them I begrudge sharing a book I loved.
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Old 21st Jan 2005, 14:32   #4
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Splendid write-up John - so inspiring that I will look out for Boyd in my next foraging expedition at the charity shop bookcase, or when I next go for a browse in Kingo library. I have to admit I knew absolutely nothing about him before.
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Old 24th Jan 2005, 11:32   #5
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Like you, John, I am a great fan of William Boyd. However, strangely, though I have read all the books, and enjoyed them all, my preferences among his works are almost the exact opposite of yours.

I adored Armadillo, and Brazzaville Beach, A Good Man in Africa and An Ice-Cream War (all these last three set in Africa). I liked Stars and Bars. I disliked The New Confessions because I disliked the protagonist. I found Any Human Heart deeply depressing for similar reasons.

We meet, however, on The Blue Afternoon, a palpable masterpiece, though I thought he could have tied up the architect plot better, or at all, in fact.

There is also, of course Nat Tate - the biography of an American artist (he crops up in Any Human Heart), too. This was a (I think unintentional on Boyd's part) literary prank - David Bowie was involved. Apparently, the New York art world actually believed he existed for a while.

Here it is. A BBC report on the incident
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Old 24th Jan 2005, 12:17   #6
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Hurray for The Blue Afternoon! As you can see (at time of writing), I have picked up Stars and Bars - following my plot of reading through his books in reverse order - and am enjoying it. I must get hold of Nat Tate. I remember reading about it in the books pages before I knew anything about Boyd. Given the frequent verisimilitude of Any Human Heart and The New Confessions, it's likely to be pretty plausible.
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Old 24th Jan 2005, 17:39   #7
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Just finished Stars and Bars (thanks to a mild-sniffle-based day off work), Boyd's third novel from 1984. I gave it four stars on my Palimplist, but it should really be three-and-a-half. It's an entertaining romp, a culture-clash comedy of an Englishman in New York, and subsequently in the Deep South. For a book the length of The Blue Afternoon, it pales in comparison, and its range is far more limited, but then its intentions are not the same. It's a farce where the Englishman, Henderson Dores, an art specialist, is summoned to Alabama to value the paintings of an old patriarch. The substance of the book, two-hundred-odd pages of it, is in and around the home of the patriarch and details Dores's comic clashes with the various family members. I laughed out loud on a couple of occasions, though it went on for a bit too long, and the scenarios were (necessarily, I suppose, for a farce) highly contrived. But it gives a nice sense of a life unravelling and the mild lessons to be learned from that.

Incidentally, Boyd's next book will be published later this year as part of the Penguin 70 year celebrations. Those of us old enough to remember the Penguin 60s (which were tiny 60-ish-page minibooks costing 60p each, that stayed in the bestseller charts for ages and languished in overstocked bookshops for even longer after the novelty had passed) will be horrified to realise that another ten years has passed since then. From the details of Boyd's contribution - a memoir called Protobiography - it seems that this time they're commissioning original work instead of just ripping them untimely from existing books.
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Old 24th Jan 2005, 19:58   #8
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Here's a brief interview with William Boyd from the Penguin Books site, from circa Any Human Heart:

Quote:
Can you tell us your experiences of first getting published? I heard that you originally wrote a book of short stories which was bought by the publisher on the condition that you then wrote a novel.
In the early eighties the most pragmatic way of getting your name in print was by writing short stories. I had quite a lot of success; I had stories published in magazines and broadcast on the radio. I had submitted a collection of short stories on spec to Hamish Hamilton, my current publishers, and I got the dream letter back from the editor saying we’d like to publish the collection of short stories but we’d like to publish the novel first. The only trouble was that I hadn’t written the novel, so I took three months off my job, borrowed some money, and wrote A Good Man in Africa in about four months.

Out of all your other novels, Any Human Heart seems closest to The New Confessions. Was this deliberate?
I think Any Human Heart does share a lot with The New Confessions, but the biggest difference is in the way the story is told. In The New Confessions the hero is at the end of his life and is looking back. The difference with Any Human Heart is that the man telling you the story is telling it day by day, in the form of an intimate journal that starts when he’s seventeen and ends when he’s in his eighties. As a story-telling situation it’s massively different. As his life unfolds, you can look back and see what’s gone wrong, what mistakes he’s made. In the end we begin to understand him in a way that I think we understand ourselves.

Do you think the reader will like him, or do you think that’s irrelevant?
Any Human Heart is an attempt to examine humanity in a novel, but without hindsight or manipulation. We’re all flawed and Logan Mountstuart is not a saint either; he behaves very badly, he’s very self-regarding sometimes. I didn’t want to make him a nice guy, I wanted to make him a human being. In a way the question of do you like him or don’t you like him is irrelevant.

He does suffer the terrific misfortune of losing both the love of his life and his child during the war. Is the fact that he does survive and go on something that the reader warms to?
Everybody wants to love and be loved, if you’re in that state you can cope with anything. In Logan’s case, he suffers the worst kind of body blow that any human being can. He is in the middle of his life and this terrible thing has happened to him, so what happens next? He runs the gamut of every human experience available, but somehow emerges as an old man living in a self-appointed exile in France. There’s a serenity that arrives with his self-knowledge. I don’t think he’s a heroic figure but maybe he’s an exemplary figure in the sense that we all hope we could cope as well as Logan.

The novel is written with real people interwoven into the story, which gives it a strangely Victorian feel. Do you think it’s peculiar having those two things together?
The structure of the novel was dictated by the fact that I wanted to write a life from the beginning to the end. Logan is born in 1907 and dies in 1991, so he lives in every decade of the twentieth century. Not many novelists have to cover all that ground. Because I was writing it as a journal, I couldn’t just say ‘Chapter six - fifteen years later’. Maybe you will think Logan Mountstuart did exist because it’s all so incredibly plausible and it’s all so incredibly documented, there’s even an index at the back of this novel.

Do you feel you’ve been influenced by any other writers?
I’ve studied and taught English Literature for twelve years so I’ve pretty much read my way through the canon. I re-read Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens and American writers like John Updike and Philip Roth. I also read and re-read a lot of Russian writers; Nabokov is a great favourite of mine, as is Gogol, and Chekov. I don’t think, however, ‘oh I must write in a Chekovian way’, or ‘I must write like John Updike’ it’s just that what you like inevitably comes out in what you write.
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Old 24th Jan 2005, 20:36   #9
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Thanks for that, John. If I find an author whose work I admire greatly, I do like to know something more about them. Everything I read about Boyd smacks of success. He's one of those lucky swines who not only has an abundance of talent, but seems to be well-adjusted, thoroughly likeable and damn bloody lucky, to boot. Nowhere do you get a whisper of disappointment or struggle: everything seems to just land in his lap - literary success, happy marriage (his wife is the editor of one of the top glossy mags, forget which), good looks, et-eat-your-envious-heart-out-cetera. Hope this isn't Boyd overkill, but take a look at this brief biog of the man:

William Boyd was born in Accra, Ghana, on 7 March 1952. He was educated at Gordonstoun School, Glasgow University and Jesus College, Oxford. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), was published while he was a lecturer in English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists' in a promotion run by Granta magazine and the Book Marketing Council.

His other novels include An Ice-Cream War (1982), winner of the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Brazzaville Beach (1990), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) and the McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, and The Blue Afternoon (1993), which won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction). Armadillo (199 is set in London and follows the adventures of insomniac loss-adjustor Lorimer Black. The book was adapted for television as a four-part series screened by the BBC in 2001 with a screenplay by the author. The publication of Boyd's book Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 (199, the 'biography' of a neglected genius, reportedly fooled a number of prominent art critics who claimed to have heard of the wholly fictional painter.

A former television critic for the New Statesman (1981-3) magazine, William Boyd is also a scriptwriter. He wrote the television screenplays for Good and Bad at Games (1983), Dutch Girls (1985) and Scoop (1987), as well as the screenplays for film versions of two of his own books, A Good Man in Africa and Stars and Bars. He also wrote and directed the First World War drama The Trench, first screened in 1999. A new radio play, the ghost story A Haunting, was first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in December 2001. His screenplay for The Galapagos Affair is shortly to be made into a film.

William Boyd became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. His eighth novel, Any Human Heart (2002), is a history of the twentieth century told through the fictional journals of novelist Logan Mountstuart. In 2004, Fascination, a new collection of short stories was published. William Boyd lives in London.




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Old 24th Jan 2005, 20:41   #10
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Was there an image with that, HP? (because there's /img at the bottom)
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