‘We keep a journal, to entrap the collection of selves that form us’.
I didn’t want to like this book at first. Logan Mountstuart as a teenager isn’t very likeable. I found him cowardly, and I didn’t like his attitude towards women – despite the fact that it’s very much of it’s time. Yet, the book crept up on me until I found myself empathising deeply with him during the war and towards the end of his life. What Boyd is telling us is that every life is both ordinary and extraordinary, and Logan Mountstuart’s – stretching across the twentieth century – is a rich tapestry of both. As a writer who finds inspiration with Hemingway in Paris and the Bloomsbury set with Virginia Woolf in London, the Spanish Civil War, as a spy recruited by Ian Fleming who was betrayed in the war, and as an art-dealer in ’60s New York, Logan mixes with the men and women who shape his times. But as a son, friend, lover and husband, he makes the same mistakes we all do in our search for happiness. Here, then, is the story of a life lived to the full – and a journey deep into a very human heart.
I loved the structure of the novel, told through a series of journals that begin when Logan is approximately fifteen, until he is 85. So the style of the piece constantly changes, as does the perspective and collected wisdom of the writer. He writes in the ‘now’, experiencing things without the benefit of reflection or hindsight. There is an honesty here that can be blunt, and the structure is further accentuated by footnotes and even corrections, as the older Boyd thinks again or finds out more. Here and there we have gaps where he hasn’t been able to maintain a diary due to physical obstacles, or where he hasn’t been in the right space mentally. These different voices of Boyd’s accentuate the voyage of time and his learning, but also the development into newer selves. For me it’s this change that’s intriguing and kept me reading. He isn’t likeable sometimes, but then he learns and goes in a different direction. Directions that are sometimes more about action for action’s sake, rather than a considered choice made.
It’s a strange experience, when we’ve finished, to reconsider Logan’s angst ridden teenage voice. It’s extra poignant, because we know if he’s been hindered by those aspects he lamented in his character. Similarly, in knowing how his life ends,we can decide whether his triumphs are adequately balanced by loss and failure. The losses he suffers in the war are so deeply moving and the feeling came to me, that what comes after is almost futile. He was always his best self with his son and the woman he loved. I also think the structure made Logan so vividly real that I mourned alongside him and despite disliking his teenage self, I was genuinely emotional at the end.
A bit like the film Forrest Gump, Logan has a talent for bumping into the rich and famous – including a regrettable period with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He meets authors as mentioned – Hemingway, Woolf, Fleming – and artists – Klee and Picasso, to name a few. This name dropping could get in the way of the narrative but Boyd is clever enough to make it a credible part of the story. We sometimes even detect their influence on his writing.
The characterisation and way Logan develops into his many selves, makes this book an absolute masterpiece. By the end of the book he was someone completely different and yet the same. There’s somehow a constant thread that joins the selves like beads on a string. The book reads like a real diary with no explanation for the changes in character we see, yet somehow we know why. The only part that did jar for me was the art dealer in NYC section, as it didn’t seem to fit anywhere but then maybe that’s the point. Could Logan survive the huge losses he experienced without a massive break from what and who he was before? The man who had loved so much couldn’t continue with the same openness. There’s a break here or knot in the thread.
I loved the sweep and scale of his story, but life isn’t always about that. It’s about the small, daily actions and our reflections on that. The way Boyd relates those mundane daily bits and bobs is genius. In an age before Instagram there are descriptions of meals eaten, conversations had, the weather, what he wore. There’s even a tendency toward new year reflections and hopes for the future. He gives himself a talking to, where needed. Sometimes he repeats himself or misremembers something. Then, when he’s alone in his flat, he cuts such a tragic figure that I forgot what I didn’t like and saw a nothing more or nothing less than a human heart.
‘And suddenly I wonder: is it more of my bad luck to have been born when I was at the beginning of this century and not be able to be young at its end. […] and then, almost immediately I think what a futile regret that is. You must live the life you have been given.’
Meet The Author
William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of fifteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of stories. He is married and divides his time between London and south-west France.