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Posted on 14 Jun 2013 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 1 comment

The Godfather: Peter Corris on William Boyd

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Peter Corris, AuthorA writer and his agent were having lunch in an up-market London restaurant a few years ago. The agent was paying. They started with oyster soup and moved on to Dover sole with a bottle of German Riesling. The writer, 45 or thereabouts, had published  a string of award-winning novels.

AGENT: So what’s afoot?

WRITER: Thinking about a novel.

AGENT: Spy stuff? Last I heard you were talking about a spy novel.

WRITER: No, not yet, not exactly, only partly.

AGENT (suspiciously): Mmm.

WRITER: More of an historical novel actually.

AGENT (after a gulp of wine): They don’t sell much, you know, apart from Bernard Cornwell and all those women.

WRITER (becoming enthusiastic): It’d be a sort of chronicle of the whole of the 20th century from the point of view of an insider who is really an outsider.

AGENT (who turned 21 when the last century ended and has forgotten about it): A chronicle?

WRITER: Yes, all done in the form of entries in a long-running journal.

AGENT (searching his memory, thinking Anne Frank, Joe Orton): Like a diary?

WRITER: No, disjointed, discontinuous, with explanatory footnotes.

AGENT (taking a deep breath): But with some spying?

WRITER: Yes, on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

AGENT: Now you’re talking.

WRITER: And in Switzerland.

AGENT (thinking cuckoo clocks and Orson Wells): Why Switzerland, for God’s sake?

WRITER: Wait and see.

This entirely fictitious conversation is something like what I imagine could have taken place if British novelist William Boyd, after a dozen successful and very diverse novels, had pitched his book, Any Human Heart (2002) to his agent. The book, a sort of fictitious autobiography of Logan Mountstuart, 1906 to 1991, is in the guise of a journal edited and annotated by an anonymous hand.

This form, essentially a first-person narrative, can only work if the voice, the character, is intelligent, interesting, experienced, likeable. Mountstuart is all these things throughout his career as a public schoolboy, Oxford scholar, writer, spy and art-gallery manager.

As I’ve said in earlier columns, I would like to have written a biography of someone who had a physically active and intellectually interesting life and was someone I admired. I never found such a subject. Boyd (who went on to write highly successful espionage novels) has invented his character and made him seem as real as an historical figure.* Mountstuart’s life is played out against the backdrop of the aftermath of World War I, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, World War II and the years of rapid social, sexual and technological change leading up to the end of the 20th century.

Mountstuart triumphs, flounders, rises again, fails, is betrayed and survives as the years and historical figures – Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Picasso, Ian Fleming, Evelyn Waugh – as well as a host of fictional characters, flick by and around him like a newsreel.

I discovered Any Human Heart quite by chance in a big-print edition in the Newtown Library. It is a magnificent achievement and it goes straight to the top of my best books read in 2013 list.

*Boyd had done something similar in his hoax biography, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1828-1980 (1989). He has a cheeky footnote to this book in Any Human Heart. Given Boyd’s penchant for invention I thought it only fair to do a little of my own when writing about him.

1 Comment

  1. This was made into a tv series in 2010 with Jim Broadbent, Matthew McFadyean and Conor Nealon – will have to read the book to see how true it was but as a series it was outstanding.