I’ve now read 12 of my 20 Books of Summer, with progress frequently halted by the temptations of new books (Tana French is especially to blame here). Here are my thoughts on two recent reads.
The Temporary Gentleman: Sebastian Barry
I remember enjoying The Secret Scripture when I read it as a student, but the story has had remarkably little staying-power; I can’t remember a thing about it. This is especially unfortunate because The Temporary Gentleman, like other Barry novels, shares many of the same characters with The Secret Scripture. It focuses upon Jack McNulty, a former UN observer who is now living in Uganda and writing his memoirs. Although there is a brief excursion into the Second World War, when Jack works as a bomb disposal expert, the book largely focuses on the breakdown of Jack’s marriage, and the disintegration of his wife Mai. Both Jack and Mai are deeply unlikeable, although Jack, having gambled away the family home, certainly deserves a bigger share of the blame for starting the dark spiral. The title is apt, referring literally to Jack’s temporary commission in the army but figuratively to his own awareness of how deeply he has ruined his own life, and the lives of other people. The ending achieves a real bleakness – the sense of a loss of a huge amount of past, which is skilfully done considering how short the novel is. But, on the whole, I found The Temporary Gentleman slight and unoriginal. Barry’s prose is flawless and smooth, but I was rarely struck by a truly brilliant line. Indeed, at times it feels as if the cadence of the sentences skates over much of the emotion in the book. The writing is better suited to Jack’s war experiences than to his marital disharmony, perfectly conveying his disconnected shock after he is almost killed by a bomb and when a ship he is travelling on is torpedoed. But this hasn’t inspired me to return to Barry soon.
Any Human Heart: William Boyd
This is the other side of the coin; twice as long as The Temporary Gentleman, but packing an emotional punch many times that in its narration of the life of a man who, like Jack McNulty, lived through the twentieth century, and, also like McNulty, might be considered a ‘failure’. There’s probably little I can say about either Any Human Heart or about Boyd that hasn’t already been said, but as this was the first time I’ve tried his work, I’ll give it a go. The book masquerades as the collected diaries of Logan Mountstuart, a man who, like Margaret Forster’s female narrator in Diary of an Ordinary Woman, feels absolutely real. Boyd effortlessly traces the metamorphosis of Logan’s narrative voice across a period of seventy years, making us feel – unlike Logan himself, who ‘can see no connection between the schoolboy I was and the man I am now’ – that there is an absolute continuity between his different selves, but also that he has been utterly and profoundly changed.
The joy of this narrative is that every reader will have their different favourite sections. I was actually most impressed by the opening pages of the book, the ‘School Journal’, where Boyd brilliantly skewers the pomposity of eighteen-year-old schoolboy Logan, but also makes him feel like a person, not a caricature. Logan’s war years are also worth a mention. Throughout the entirety of the novel, however, I kept on coming across fantastic passages that made even the more plodding periods (I was least impressed by Logan’s time with the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII) come to life. Boyd is especially good on ageing and on what comes to matter as you grow older. As Logan notes at the age of 71: ‘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.’ And near the end of his life, having said little about his father since his unexpected death while Logan was still at school: ‘ “As sound as a bell of brass.” This is a phrase my father used to describe perfectly frozen meat. Can’t think why it should suddenly pop up in my head.’
Any Human Heart also poses a metatextual puzzle. Who has ‘collected’ Logan’s diaries – annotated them, footnoted them, written an index? At the beginning of the novel, I thought that Logan was going to become a famous writer and this would explain why his diaries are available to us – and why they appear on the list of his collected works – but by the end of the novel, I realised this couldn’t be the case. Obviously, this is all made up (although I can’t have been the only reader who almost believed I could get hold of one of Logan’s novels, in the same way as I wanted to read the collected works of AN Dyer from David Gilbert’s & Sons.) But I so desperately wanted to believe that Logan had been rediscovered after his death – that he had become an important literary figure, hence the publication of the diaries and their ‘editing’ by Boyd. Or should we believe that this was done by somebody who loved him – or by one of the few remaining people that he genuinely loved? There’s no answer, of course. What is revealing is how much I came to care about Logan (despite his many flaws, particularly his appalling treatment of women) and how I wanted his significance as a person to be recognised by the wider world. But Logan is not really that special; and we cannot all be famous. His final realisation that he is ‘proud’ of the life he’s lived made me wonder why I was so determined for him to be better-known. In the end, it was more important for him to realise that he does not envy the young people he sees on the beach: ‘I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done.’ It’s hardly an epigraph that Jack McNulty could have written.