Too often the easy response (“I liked the book better.”) to television or film adaptation of a novel comes about through dissatisfaction: it seems that the richness of the original cannot be reproduced in a different medium. But since I had not read the book, I could not make even this hackneyed remark about Any Human Heart based on William Boyd’s novel of that name (PBS Masterpiece production last winter). By the time, months later, that I found the novel in the local library, I had read other works by Boyd. I count myself lucky to have seen the adaptation, both for the success of the production and for the fact that it had given me the incentive to read more of Boyd.
Just a brief look at the author’s web site indicates something of his range, but Brazzaville Beach, a work that won prizes in the ‘nineties, stands out for me. The plot encompasses primate research in Africa, professional fraud and deceit among scientists, political revolution set against a story of marital failure of the English female narrator – the collapse driven by the psychological delusions of her spouse. The novel is masterful in its parallel construction and its handling of voice. It succeeds in bridging two disparate places and the discontinuities they bring in the life of the narrator, managing to tie revolution to renunciation. It is wise and subtle in unraveling of the knotted difficulties that beset the narrator who views her life in retrospect.
Restless also employs a female narrator, with the generation gap between mother and daughter providing a chasm. The secrets of the mother’s past, which she reveals piecemeal in letters to her daughter (She was an English spy in the Second World War.), become a demand to right old wrongs. In the process her daughter has to reckon with her estranged German husband, his shady family, and an Iranian student opposed to the Shah’s regime. The novel exploits the spy thriller genre and goes beyond it.
New Confessions is an ingenious paralleling of Rousseau’s Confessions and self-revelations of a fictional English film maker who establishes his reputation in post – World War I Germany. A film adaptation of Rousseau’s work will constitute his masterpiece and its completion takes decades that see the rise of the Nazis and the encroachment of the Hollywood studio system on evolving German film industry; the focus is German advancements in sound technology. Martial failure, bankruptcy, war, displacement to America and the HUAC ‘s machinations provide a remarkable set of plot obstacles that show off Boyd’s command of period and character. As in the best of novels, we travel where we have never been, especially in that past where things are done differently.
And then there is Any Human Heart, a book that one critic said did in a volume what Anthony Powell did in the many books of Dance to the Music of Time. This sweep through the twentieth century has Logan Montstuart as the focus. He finds himself embroiled in great events that allow him to negotiate from a unique perspective Waugh’s Oxford of the twenties, the Spanish Civil War (and a chance meeting with Hemingway), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bahamas, imprisonment during the Second World War for spying, and a latter day career as an Art Dealer in the post-war New York. Dissatisfaction with retirement leads Logan to an unwitting role in a Bader Meinhof- like bomb plot. The form of the novel, journal entries, catalogues not only his adventures but his marriages and many infidelities. His end, in the south of France, is remarkably restrained. The great issues of life’s significance, guilt and responsibility, and what constitutes the just life are left unstated but are inescapably present in the reflections of one who has lived so long and so affectingly in this fiction.
Boyd is a remarkable author, too little lauded for his achievements. He deserves the recognition that seems to be reserved for his far better known contemporaries such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes. Yes, television adaptation has had for me a most positive effect – a firm appreciation of the novelist’s art. There is much richness in Boyd’s works for Commonweal readers to explore.