Sunday, October 7, 2012

The story of the 20th century as the search for a 'self' (Books - Any Human Heart by William Boyd)

It seems that my vacation reading brought an unintentional spate of novels built on the autobiographical form.  In most ways, What is the What could not be more different than William Boyd's Any Human Heart but they both involve relating the events of a life from a subjective point of view.  Any Human Heart (a recommendation of Danielle's - another good one - thanks!) is the picture of a century.  The 20th century, to be exact, but it is told through the journals of one Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, a British subject born in Uruguay and sometime resident of England, America, Nigeria, and France. 

On the one hand, one could say that Mountstuart lives a life like any other - he goes to school, he loves, he has friends, he has family, he works as a writer, a soldier, a dealer of paintings, a teacher, and an activist.  Mountstuart is miserable, but he lives, he finds great happiness but doesn't keep it, he makes piles of money and doesn't keep that either, he eats dog food, he writes bestsellers, and he can barely earn £5 for newspaper reporting. He reminds me of that great song by Stephen Sondheim from Follies - Good times and bum times/I've seen them all and, my dear,/I'm still here... On the other hand, while never making Mountstuart "great" in his own right, Boyd wittily places him where he intersects with some of the great figures of our cultural history: Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson, Hemmingway, and Frank O'Hara, making him into a sort of British Zelig who always finds himself bumping into history, and adapts himself to every situation, and survives through it all.

This could have been nothing more than a trite entertainment - fodder for another Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (which it became): another Oxford-Educated English schoolboy writes, makes a success, and drinks way too much.  What elevates it above a silly series of contrivances which place Mounstuart near but not quite at the center of the Stock Market crash, a World War II POW camp, and the Cedar Bar, is a subtle accumulation of sympathy for its protagonist so that, like him, we begin to search for one narratives among the fragments he has left us. Why even make a record of one's life, asks Mounstuart at the outset:
Why do we urge ourselves on in this way, us journal-keepers?  Do we feat the constant threat of backslide in us, the urge to tinker and cover up?  Are there aspects of our lives- things we do, feel and think - that we daren't confess, even to ourselves, even in the absolute privacy of our private record?  Anyway, I'm sure I vowed to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc., etc., and I think these pages will bear me out in that endeavour.  I have sometimes behaved well and I have sometimes behaved less than well - but I have resisted all attempts to present myself in a better light.  There are no excisions designed to conceal errors of judgement ("The Japanese would never dare to attack the USA unprovoked"); no additions aimed at conferring an unearned sagacity ("I don't like the cut of that Herr Hitler's jib"); and no sly insertions to indicate canny prescience ("If only there were some way to harness safely the power in the atom")- for that is not the purpose of keeping a journal.  We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being.  Think of our progress through time as one of those handy images that illustrate the Ascent of Man.  You know the type: diagrams that begin with the shaggy age and his ground-grazing knuckles, moving on through slowly straightening and depilating hominids, until we reach the clean-shaven Caucasian nudist proudly clutching the haft of his stone axe or spear.  All the intervening orders assume a form of inevitable progression towards this brawny ideal.  But our human lives aren't like that, and a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganized reality. 
What finally causes this novel to accumulate into a touching whole is Mounstuart's search for a coherent self at the end of it all.
Reading my old journals is both a source of revelation and shock. I can see no connection between that schoolboy and the man I am now.  What a morose, melancholy, troubled soul I was.  That wasn't me, was it?
In the era of Freud and the "me generation," that has now morphed into self-records made via Face Book, Blogs, and Tweets, isn't it fitting that the story of a century becomes the story of a 'self' - or rather, the search within an accumulation of fragmented selves - for a whole which makes sense and feels to the possessor like that person he or she knows from the inside. 

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