“Memories Crowded In”: William Boyd, Love Is Blind

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Brodie looked around. It had been years since he had last stood here and the place looked the same–only the season and the weather were different. The same couldn’t be said for him, he realized, thinking about all that had occurred in his life since his last poisonous exchange with Malkey, here on this driveway. Perhaps the garden was more unkempt; the lawn was tufty and weedy under the conifers and the monkey-puzzle trees. yet, now he was here, memories crowded in–it seemed as if he’d been here last week, not over six years ago. You may leave home, but home never leaves you, he thought darkly.

By the end, William Boyd’s Love Is Blind turns out to be more like Any Human Heart than I thought at first. Any Human Heart (which I found plodding at first but, eventually, deeply moving) takes us through the whole course of its protagonist Logan Montstuart’s life, never ascribing greater meaning to it or making it representative of anything besides his own unsteady march from beginning to end:

He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures.

In a general way, Logan’s story is all of our stories, of course, but Boyd resists the literary lure of the Bildungsroman or any other form that would make it more philosophically meaningful. heart

Love Is Blind is also strangely plodding for a novel full of incident, both historical and personal. Boyd’s approach is structurally very literal: one thing after another, lots of exposition, few stylistic flourishes–though there are some really nice descriptive passages and plenty of piano-tuning neepery. It doesn’t follow its hero, Brodie Moncur, for very long–less than a decade–both because it starts in his adult life and because that life is cut short by the tuberculosis that plagues him for most of the years it covers. For momentum, it relies on two interconnected stories: Brodie’s love for the Russian singer Lika Blum and his enmity  with her jealous husband, Malachi Kilbarron. The love story unfolds as Brodie makes his way to Paris and then to St. Petersburg doing his work as a piano tuner; after a climactic turning point, it unravels as the lovers try and fail to elude Malachi’s relentless pursuit. Like Logan’s, Brodie’s death is his novel’s finale, and the feeling it gave me was a similar sense of poignancy that it should all (that it always does) come to exactly this, an ending, a negation.

boydOne distinctive aspect of Love Is Blind is its preoccupation with music. I expected this to bring a more transcendent dimension to the novel–life may be flat, but melody elevates it, or something. Brodie’s own relationship to music is mostly mechanical, though: while he works for a piano virtuoso, his job is weighting the keys and perfecting the piano’s pitch, not rhapsodizing over the results, and the pianist himself is elated at his own skill but conveys no spiritual and hardly any emotional connection to the music he produces. I found this disappointing; it made me think again about other novels about music that made me more excited about it, such as Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul or (my frequent touchstone for this) Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. If I had believed in the love story more, that would have made up for the relatively emotional flatness of this aspect, but Brodie’s passion for Lika never felt vibrant or meaningful to me–I never felt for them or yearned for them.

Love Is Blind kept me interested, but I was never enraptured with it, or gripped the way I was with, say, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Freeto pick another historical novel for comparison. Miller uses historical detail differently, more delicately. I don’t mind exposition, even in really large doses, and I quite enjoyed the fin-de-siecle voyage Boyd took me on, from Edinburgh to Paris to Nice to St. Petersburg to Biarritz to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands–this last location seeming to me quite arbitrary, thematically (though maybe I’m missing something, since Boyd frames the rest of the novel with it) but interesting nonetheless. Overall, I thought the novel was fine: well conceived, competently executed, solid. Unlike Any Human Heart, though, I don’t expect it will stay with me long after reading.

William Boyd, Any Human Heart

heartI almost didn’t finish reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. By about 200 pages in, I was tired of Logan Mountstuart, his personality, and his life. He seemed archly insouciant, pretentious, insubstantial–as did the novel’s conceit of following this unappealing person through the 20th century, punctuating his episodic memoir (the novel consists of his journals, ‘edited,’ complete with footnotes, editorial commentary, and an index) with encounters with Woolf and Joyce, Hemingway and the Duke of Windsor and Picasso. Here’s a typical diary entry:

Tuesday, 4 MarchWe dined at Luigi’s and went on to the Cafe Royal. It was busy, full of unfamiliar faces. Spotted and spoke with Cyril [Connolly] and Jean who were with Lyman? Leland? [unidentifed]. They left shorty after. Then Adrian Daintrey[22] came in with a party in evening dress–which included Virginia Woolf[23], smoking a cigar. I let them have our table and during the general milling around that took place I introduced Freya to Woolf. ‘Are you two here alone?’ she said to Freya. ‘What a ghastly crowd. How it’s changed.’

‘We were here with Cyril Connolly, a moment ago,’ Freya said.

‘Was his black baboon with him?’ VW asked.

Freya didn’t know what she was talking about.

‘His little gollywog wife.’

I turned to Freya. ‘Now you understand Mrs Woolf’s reputation for charm.’ Back to VW. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’

We strode out and when we reached home had our first serious row. Freya was a little shocked at VW’s spite. I said you would never imagine the person who wrote all that lyrical breathy prose was steeped in such venom. ‘At least she writes,’ Freya said, without thinking. But it cut and so we looked around for something to fight about and duly found it. Now I’m writing this, about to go to sleep on the sofa, and I can hear Freya sobbing next door in the bedroom.

And so it goes, documenting Logan’s haphazard journey across the century. He’s a novelist, a journalist, a sort-of spy, an art dealer, a husband, a philanderer, a father. He meets Joyce in Paris, Hemingway in Spain, Frank O’Hara in New York. He is a kind of picaresque Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern, take your pick), always present, always involved, never really very important or impressive. He spends two years as a prisoner of war–in Switzerland! Somehow, that detail of his WWII escapades seems to me to capture something fundamental about how his life is conceived and presented in this novel, that he should parachute into Europe on a secret mission but to a neutral country, and end up so unheroically, and so diverted from the course of history that he doesn’t even know when the war has ended. It would be a comic incident (even Logan, mystified as he is by his internment, never seems to fear he will meet a terrible fate at the hands of the Swiss), if his return to action weren’t marked by a family tragedy. His story oscillates between such turns of good and bad fortune…and that uneven, unpredictable alternation of good and bad, happiness and grief, begins after a while to reveal itself as the underlying logic of the novel. As Logan reflects, near the end of his life,

That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up – look at the respective piles. 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.

As I realized Any Human Heart was not going to shape its protagonist’s life into something more definite, but would just keep on going with it, right to the end, I began to fall under its spell. I didn’t like Logan much more later in the novel than I had at first, and certainly he never achieved the level of moral self-reflection you might hope for if the novel were of a different kind (a Bildungsroman, for instance). The novel is a bit like David Copperfield, but without the benefit of hindsight in its narration, or of real personal growth in its action. But at the same time, the relentless forward movement of time itself has a kind of narrative to it. At one point Logan heads “to the passport office to collect [his] new passport, valid for another ten years”:

In 1965 I’ll be fifty-nine and the thought makes me feel faint. What’s happened to my life? These ten-year chunks that are doled out to you in passports are a cruel form of memento mori. How many more new passports will I have? One (1965)? Two (1975)? Such a long way off, 1975, yet your passport life seems all too brief. How long did he live? He managed to renew six passports.

heart2I thought that was a beautiful moment; it was certainly the moment at which I began to read without impatience, with a quickened interest in following Logan’s life the rest of the way. He has no great epiphanies. He just keeps on living, one way or another, sometimes better, sometimes worse, in comfort and in poverty, in sickness and in health. He makes and loses friends and lovers; he has good ideas and bad ones, successes and failures. His most lasting relationship is with himself (he dies alone), but he has the great gift of “genuine love” for three other people, a love that brings him to another brief but beautiful insight:

As I write this I feel that draining, hollowing helplessness that genuine love for another person produces in you. It’s at these moments that we know we are going to die. Only with Freya, Stella, and Gail. Only three. Better than none.

I finished the final journal entry, which is touching but unsentimental, very happy to have persisted with the novel. I was with Logan emotionally in a way I never would have predicted from my initial response. I’m not convinced, though, that the set-up, the elaborate pretense of authenticity, was necessary. The apparatus (explanatory prefaces, footnotes, index) seems gratuitously metafictional. We can suspend our disbelief readily enough when reading a novel cast as a diary (or as letters, for that matter); we don’t need to pretend we can read it because it was prepared for publication. I suppose this framing material does enhance the novel’s emphasis on Logan as a witness to history, something he himself becomes more self-conscious about, naturally enough, later in his life when having known Hemingway, or met Woolf, or been sketched by Picasso, confers on him a kind of status, as if he’s a walking relic. But it still felt artificial to me and even, at times, detracted from my unfolding sense of commitment to the individual voice speaking through the journals.