A Life Laid Bare

August 26, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 5 2 min read

Logan Mountstuart. Born 27 Feb. 1906. Montevideo, Uruguay. Father: British. Mother: Uruguayan. 1914, Mountstuart family returns to Britain. Schooling: Abbeyhurst, then Oxford. Logan moves to London. Marries. Pursues a career in letters, where he becomes a minor writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Supplements his income with proceeds from reportage from Spain during the Civil War. Is recruited as a spy by MI5 during the Second World War.

Those are the broad strokes of the rising arc that is Logan Mountstuart’s early life. That, and the fact that he’s fictional. Born of the fertile mind of master storyteller William Boyd.

coverAny Human Heart is structured as a series of journals which Logan keeps throughout his life. At school, then at Oxford, then in London, then during the war, and on through the years. Never revised, Logan’s musings are presented as written, often with footnotes added by an older and wiser Logan to clarify comments that his younger self had made. But never to deny his earlier misjudgments, or his cocky foolishness. It is the document of a human, his life laid bare.

If the first act of Logan’s life fills the reader with youthful promise, the second act reminds us that rising arcs don’t rise forever. After the war, life for Logan, as for countless others, changes so drastically that you – the reader – quickly recalibrate your expectations for him. Okay – this is where his life is leading him now. These are his new hopes. This is what he’s left behind, this is what he’s accepted, and this is what matters to him now. You know all that stuff when he was young and aspiring? Forget it. He’s a changed man. He’s been damaged. And this is where his heart is leading him now.

It’s frustrating to abandon youthful hopes, and you hang onto them long after Logan himself has abandoned them. But you’re no fair-weather friend so you cling to his journals because you hope he finds contentment. And you shift your expectations to match his because this is his show and you can either adapt or leave. And Logan’s journals are too damn interesting to abandon.

After all, as a minor published author and scholar, Logan meets Hemingway (whose early work Logan appreciated) in Paris and later in Spain, and he golfs with the abdicated King Edward and Mrs. Simpson. After the war, working in a New York art gallery, he meets Jackson Pollack (who Logan dismisses), and still later, much later, he has a bizarre but ultimately plausible dalliance with the English cell of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Far from being a Gumpian set of coincidences, Logan’s life follows its own internal logic. Reading it, it all makes sense. There’s nothing that isn’t true to Logan’s behavior as we know it. And while the historical figures add a spark to Logan’s tale, there’s no getting away from the longing and the heartbreak at Logan’s exposed core.

One of the great pleasures of the Millions over the years has been exposure to authors I didn’t previously know. Emre Peker, a fellow-contributor back in the early days of the Millions, wrote eloquently and often about William Boyd. The first Boyd novel I read was Armadillo, which inspired this early Millions essay. Since then, I’ve read half-a-dozen of Boyd’s novels – each introducing me to a fascinating and flawed human, and drawing me into his ruptured world. Any Human Heart is the most epic in scope, but it’s intimate to the core. A wild, wandering story brought into focus and pushed forward by its pulsing heart.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.


  1. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so glad you’re profiling it!

    My wife and I were even thinking about naming our forthcoming son Logan, but that name got used by a family member recently… too bad!

  2. The most epic? I’d say that that The New Confessions is equally epic. And it is my favorite of Boyd’s books, although I liked Any Human Heart well enough.

  3. I am trying to locate the book Life Laid bare, about the genocide in Rwanda
    Any suggestions as to where I might find a copy. Amazon has the book for $130.00

  4. If you go to http://www.worldcat.org, you can check OCLC records (by zip code!) for the nearest library with the title. Your local public library can probably get it for a nominal fee via Inter-Library Loan. My search of Worldcat shows 504 copies of all 4 editions.

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