Reading guide for Any Human Heart by William Boyd

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Any Human Heart

The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart: A Novel

By William Boyd

Any Human Heart
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2003,
    496 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2004,
    512 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The introduction, discussion questions and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Any Human Heart, by William Boyd, author of Armadillo, The Blue Afternoon, and Brazzaville Beach. William Boyd, who has been called "a master storyteller" (Chicago Tribune) and "one of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today" (The Atlantic Monthly), now gives us his most entertaining, sly and compelling novel to date, a novel that evokes the tumult, events and iconic faces of our time, as it tells the story of Logan Mountstuart—writer, lover, and man of the world—through his intimate journals.

Reader's Guide

  1. Is Logan a likeable and engaging character? If so, what are the qualities that make him so? Is he a risk-taker? Is he egotistical? What qualities does he bring to his friendships? How does he change as he grows older?

  2. What is the purpose of the "challenges" that Peter, Ben and Logan impose upon each other in their last year at Abbey? How is Logan’s approach to his challenge indicative of his approach to life? Why is Logan so unhappy at Oxford, and why does he receive only a third-class degree?

  3. Logan’s father is the manager of a corned-beef factory; his Uruguayan mother was his father’s secretary but claims descent from the Spaniard who first entered Uruguay in the sixteenth century. What are Logan’s assumptions about his own class status while at Abbey, at Oxford, and in his first marriage to the daughter of an Earl? Is he a snob or just the opposite? To what degree is Logan’s life determined by the solid bourgeois values his father instills in him?

  4. Is Logan’s early literary success surprising? Is it a matter of luck, or is it driven by his intelligence and his confidence in his own abilities? At the beginning of 1929 he writes "I sense my life as a writer—my writer’s life, my real life—has truly begun" [p. 113]. How does this idea resonate throughout the book? Why does Logan choose to have his tombstone commemorate him, simply, as a writer? Is his autobiography his most significant work?

  5. What role does sexuality play in Logan’s life, and to what extent is his erotic life an indicator of the level of his vitality?

  6. Throughout the novel, various historical figures pass through Logan’s life—Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ian Fleming, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, etc. [see index]. What is the effect of these moments? How do these famous people come across in ‘real life’?

  7. Logan’s chance meeting with Freya is described in urgent, bewildered terms: "it terrifies me, the fragility of these moments in our lives. If I hadn’t lost my passport. If her father hadn’t crashed the car. . . . If she hadn’t gone to the consulate at that precise hour. . . . The view ahead is empty and void: only the view backward shows you how utterly random and chance-driven these vital connections are" [p. 155]. The loss of Freya and Stella is similarly chance-driven. How is Logan changed by the deaths of Freya and Stella?

  8. During the Spanish Civil War, Logan and his friend Faustino discuss what is most important to them. To Faustino’s "love of life, love of humanity," Logan adds "love of beauty" [p. 185]. How important is this friendship to Logan? What is the significance in Logan’s life of the Miro paintings Logan "inherits" from Faustino?

  9. What happens on Logan’s mission in Switzerland? Why is he captured? Was the whole mission, and Logan’s long imprisonment, a set-up? If so, who set it up and why? What does Boyd want his readers to understand about this crucial and tragic episode in Logan’s life, and why doesn’t he explain exactly how and why it came about? Does Logan ever exact revenge on those he suspects are responsible?

  10. How does Boyd use Any Human Heart to comment on the relationship between an individual life and the historical moments through which that individual lives? What, if anything, is the relationship between the two? How does Logan react to, or interact with, the moments that become "history"? Is history a critical part of Logan’s life, or simply its backdrop?

  11. How reliable is Logan as the narrator of his own story? Are there moments when the reader distrusts the veracity of Logan’s account? Or, on the contrary, does the journal form project a sense of immediacy and truthfulness?

  12. What is comical, or touching, about the phase of life Logan calls his "dog-food" period [see pp. 416-18]? How does he adapt to poverty and obscurity, given the wealth, success, and fame of his youth?

  13. Boyd’s book The New Confessions is a fictional autobiography of a character whose life spanned much of the twentieth century; Any Human Heart takes up, with a very different character, a similar fictional task. If you have read The New Confessions how do the books differ? What do both books express about the process of telling a life? What is it about fictional autobiography that might interest a writer so much?

  14. What is the reason for the dwindling of Logan’s creative life? How humiliating is it when his literary agent points out that his books haven’t made money since the Second World War? Why does he destroy the draft of Octet before his death? Given that his friend Peter Scabius is meant to be a sort of foil to Logan in his writing career, what does the novel have to say about the vocation of writing?

  15. What is the effect of "The French Journal"? What does Logan mean when he says "the pleasures of my life are simple—simple, inexpensive and democratic" [p. 476]? What are Logan’s realizations in his old age? What has changed about Logan’s observant eye and his state of mind? Does this section provide what could be seen as a happy ending to Logan’s life?

  16. What illusion is created by the novel’s footnotes and index? The notes indicate an editor—who might this editor have been, and why doesn’t Boyd complete the illusion by providing the editor’s name?

  17. Late in his life Logan’s thoughts about Freya and Stella become a meditation on luck: "Freya and Stella. That was my good luck. . . . That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. . . . There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says" [p. 458]. To what degree is this conclusion sensible, even profound, in its stoic resignation?

  18. The book’s title, as the epigraph points out, comes from novelist Henry James: "Never say you know the last word about any human heart." Does Boyd want his readers to assume that despite the private revelations of the diary form, we still cannot know the last word about Logan Mountstuart? Does the human heart refute even self-authored attempts at revealing a complete truth?

Suggested Reading
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers; Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire; Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time; Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust; Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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