William Boyd’s latest novel is purposively ambiguous; or, more accurately, it entices the reader to see it as such. Like his fictional litterateur, Logan Mounstuart (b.1906 d. 1991), whose “intimate” journals form the bulk of the 504 pages, he has written a book whose “metaphorical interpretation will be unconsciously supplied by the reader.” Images, characters, and phrases swim in the reader’s mind, occasionally colliding to give the impression of significance, but it is a book with no artistic brilliance. This is a book filled with all the familiar climacterics: coming of age, the loss of virginity, character formation, marriage, infidelity, war, death, you know, all the kinds of thing which readers seem to want from a literary novel. It is also a historical novel, encompassing the best part of the twentieth century.
In this respect, one is reminded of Anthony Burgess’s masterpiece, Earthly Powers, whose scope and perspective is similar. Both books have the chief social events of the century carefully woven into their protagonist’s – both mediocre writers – divagations. However, it is their mediocrity that gives the novels their form and content approaching, one might hazard, a modern genre.
We live in an anti-heroic age. The margins occupy the foundation for our projections. Literature is now irrevocably marginalized due to the hegemony of image-based media (TV, internet, film), which, in our democratic age, form the centre. By having a mediocre writer at the helm, an author can write about history without any of the artistic complications and integrity that come with the great writer.
For in this, Boyd’s eleventh book, we find a necropolis of dead aspirations, faded imprints, and authorial vanities. Under the general rule that there are no more than two great writers in any generation, there are bound to be a legion of fourth-raters, although confirmed as so only in retrospect. These we forget about, cheerfully; glad to see our lists of required reading reduced. Do we need the novels of C.P. Snow? or John Wain? or countless others? No, we do not. The same fate is imagined in Any Human Heart. The fizzle of promise consumed by personal and historical necessity. There is a temptation to imagine the same fate for William Boyd himself.
One of Boyd’s main claims to fames is the fact that he has managed to retain an air of literariness whilst appealing only to the irredeemably middlebrow. Towards the end of this lengthy, frictionless novel, the common reader may find themselves feeling besmirched; and not just by the narrator’s descent into dining on dog food. What is really begriming is the artistic mediocrity, not just of Boyd, but also of all the characters: spiritless and shallow.