Now Playing: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Night"
William Boyd, Any Human Heart (2002): My reading log that I kept for most of the 1990s records that I completed William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach on 13 July 1998. That was a difficult summer (and year) for me and it's not much of a surprise that little of the plot or themes stuck with me as I was occupied with much else at the time. I did have a lingering respect for Boyd that kept nagging at me for much of the intervening twelve years--he was a critically acclaimed British writer, much of whose work involved the interactions between Western and non-Western cultures, especially in Africa. Any Human Heart touches rather more briefly on the theme than his other work, but it was lying on the "free book" shelf at the Ann Arbor Public Library and I figured that was probably a sign of some sort (it didn't hurt that I knew a British TV adaptation--C4--was on the Masterpiece schedule after Downton Abbey). Any Human Heart poses as the collected journals of British writer, critic, and onetime spy Logan Mountstuart, and covers the 1920s to the 1980s. It's a grand, kaleidoscopic look at the twentieth century as seen through one man's wonderfully imperfect eyes, and, as some may note, bears no little resemblance in large to Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time. The resemblance doesn't last very long--Powell's alleged British riposte to the likes of Proust or Musil was tedious, meandering, and fatally quotidian, arguably the most overrated literary work I've read in a good long while (and it didn't have the excuse of being written in the 80s). Boyd's "discovery," on the other hand, is brisk, engaging, and indulges in a terrific degree of smartassery (I also can't avoid the exhilarating suspicion that he wrote it as a combined defiance/pisstake of his lauded "precursor").* Logan (LMS as he's termed in the entertaining "editor's notes") begins life as an Anglo-Uruguayan student at Oxford, experiences brief celebrity as a writer in Paris and a journalist during the Spanish Civil War (palling around with Ernest Hemingway, among others), gets involved in intrigue and incarceration during the Second World War in the Bahamas and Switzerland (crossing swords with the ex-Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson), experiences the heady rush of Manhattan life in the 1950s as an art dealer during the apogee of Abstract Expressionism, finds late adventure both as an English teacher in Nigeria during the Biafra War and a naive (?) participant in a radical left-wing revolutionary, possibly terrorist, group, and reflects on his amazing experiences at the end of his life in a remote corner of France.
I started Any Human Heart without any grand expectations, but it's a marvelous job and well worth reading. It could have been a name-dropping nightmare ("oh, hello, Hemingway") but somehow LMS' humanity and flaws shine, however great the tarnish at times, through any possible obscurement by the great and "good." With LMS, Boyd's basically raised one of the multifarious, often anonymous supporting characters in the lives of so many famous twentieth-century artistic figures to center stage (it would be like Floyd Dell becoming the central focus of Reds). If LMS has a real-life counterpart, it would probably be someone like Cyril Connolly (who, I recently discovered, died the day after I was born), who published one novel and a rumination on failure before moving on to become one of the century's most influential critics. Boyd also identifies one William Gerhardie as a primary inspiration in this excellent Guardian interview.* LMS has much the same kind of career, but with a number of picaresque scrapes and follies that barely touched even Connolly's eventful life. It helps, too, that not only are his flaws are front and center but that he's generally honest about them. He's a bit of a womanizer and hardly ever knows what he really wants, but tends to readily admit to this, at least in his journals. Through minor triumphs and appalling tragedies, he manages to keep his wits about him and never stops enjoying life in one form or another well into his twilight years, when even his retirement sojourn in France yields one more compelling mystery. The journals are breezy, clear and incisive throughout, and Boyd's mischievous editing brilliantly fits the spirit of his fictional "subject." The "liner notes" tend to help the story along in surprising ways, and the interaction of creator and character in this way is deliciously exhilarating. LMS' central "moral," if it can be called that, is that "we're none of us the same person" (literally translated in the series, as described below), and his own life, going through enormous swings of joy and sadness, triumph and tragedy, is a very good proof of such. Most of us probably won't hit the highs and lows of such a life, but it was heartening to read, especially for one reader nearing middle age who hopefully has a while yet to truly peak.
The TV series would inevitably be a disappointment, but it wasn't as much of one as I'd feared. LMS is played by three different actors--Sam Claflin, Matthew MacFadyen, and the great Jim Broadbent--and the action necessarily clips by at great speed, with fairly sizable chunks excised (most sadly the Nigeria sequence) and certain events altered or subtly ignored (LMS' reason for moving back to London from New York). Fortunately, it gets better as it goes along, with the older, wiser, sadder LMS visibly showing both the weight and benefit of his advancing years. Weirdly, the Masterpiece promo namechecks Gillian Anderson (Mrs. Simpson) and Kim Cattrall (LMS' friend and mistress Gloria)--and even MacFadyen (admittedly familiar to Masterpiece and British TV viewers)--but not Broadbent, the only Oscar-winning member of the cast. It clicks along nicely towards the end, which is at once both heartbreaking and heartwarming, with LMS full to the brim of memories, especially of the great love of his life, Freya Deverall (the smolderingly gorgeous Hayley Atwell). Even the unexpected appearance of Myanna Buring (aaaaigh!) as a German revolutionary of the Baader-Meinhof era wasn't as annoying as I'd dreaded (I think I'm on record somewhere calling her the "modern-day Yutte Stensgaard," but that's probably wildly unjust). All in all, it certainly wasn't a match for the book (and probably didn't achieve the extraordinary popularity of the preceding Masterpiece phenomenon, ITV's Downton Abbey), but it was an affectionate abridgement by Boyd of his own masterpiece, and will hopefully get more people interested in this tremendously engaging writer, as I myself have.
Masterpiece itself was the result of an amalgamation of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, both of them PBS staples for decades. There are now Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, and Masterpiece Contemporary (the latter mainly concerning itself with British imports that can in no way be considered period dramas, at least from before the 1960s or so). Watching these shows was a major part of my adolescence (not as great as Doctor Who, although the early 90s repeat of I, Claudius came pretty damn near), and, though they're a major target of those who would rid this country of one of its great cultural triumphs (and are coming close, having won a vote in the House of Representatives to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), had an enormous impact on how I saw the world. Watching shows made for a different country will inevitably change one's outlook on how one sits in the wider world, and this was never more true than of British imports on PBS. Shows like Masterpiece Theatre, privileging though they are (or have been in the past) of a certain kind of British identity (upper-and-middle-class, rural and suburban), do a great job of continuing the work shows like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood started, demonstrating to interested viewers that they aren't alone. They're special, but so is everybody else.*** Seeing people with the same language but radically different accents on a regular basis on TV helps to both consciously and unconsciously underline this reality; it "humanizes" "others," if you like. It follows therefrom that we're all in it together, facing many of the same problems, and that it therefore makes sense to work together on an equal footing. These are the messages I got as a kid and young adult from public broadcasting, and I've never seen any convincing argument against them (they also lay at the conceptual core of just about all the world's religions--one reason why I'm hesitant, devout agnostic though I've become and critic of organized religion though I've been for decades, to offer blanket condemnations of such institutions). In the world we presently inhabit, too, they stand as some of the only positive reinforcements of this same emphasis on cooperation and togetherness that have given this country some of its finest moments and greatest glories. Especially in places where there isn't access to cable TV or the internet, it's one of the only conduits for a wider culture and a showcase for differing views and voices. **** Even with the existence of cable, PBS shows personally come out on top for me largely due to their cooperative ethos (you only have to compare egregious cable cooking shows, focusing on camera-friendly primping and standards of competition that suggest the contestants haven't mentally cleared kindergarten, let alone culinary school--and let's not open that can of worms, eh?--or the vetting process, with something like Simply Ming). It's a great thing that exists in this country, this cooperative impulse, and has been trodden into the ground over the past several years, if not several decades, largely by people who can't bring themselves to believe that other people are worth anything, let alone as much as themselves. In short, PBS stands for everything that's finest in America, and it would be an extraordinarily stupid act of cultural self-harm if we let it fall into the disrepair these Tea Party-influenced legislators seem to want so badly.
*"27 November 1936: Evelyn [Waugh] was in the bar with some people and, in conversation, I let him know I'd just been in Spain and told him how impressed I'd been with the Republican spirit. He looked at me pityingly, his pale blue eyes wide and bright. 'Spain has nothing to do with you or me, Logan,' he said. And then immediately contradicted himself by asking if I'd seen any burnt-out churches. I'd seen locked ones, I said, but no signs of anti-clericalism. Then he changed the subject and started asking me questions about Aethelred and the Edgefields. Sometimes I think I'm only of interest to Evelyn because I married an earl's daughter."
**Their reviews are often shit, but they usually do good interviews.
***I've often seen the spectacularly wrong-headed accusation made elsewhere that Mr. Rogers actually encouraged self-centeredness among children by his emphasis on personal "specialness." I was well aware at the time that he was talking to many other kids just like me in that regard, and I'm pretty damn certain everyone else knew the same (just about every lesson imparted by the Kingdom of Make-Believe involved this idea, with a subtle anti-monarchist twist). When the arguments reach that level of crapitude, you can be fairly sure you're dueling with someone on bad faith.
****My friend Richard lives in California's Inland Empire, and apparently the region is already suffering the effects of KCET's harebrained decision to detach itself from the CPB and run itself largely on British imports, forgoing the kind of educational and grassroots American programming that forms much of the rest of PBS' output. That's the kind of thing we can anticipate across the country if the CPB gets defunded.