19 December 2010 | paul2001sw-1
There's a section in the memoirs of the philosopher Bertrand Russell where he recalls an unexpected sexual encounter; he writes of it (in among weighty reflections on the meaning of life and the foundations of mathematics) with an almost puerile glee, like a child remembering being locked in the sweet shop. And there was something of the same tone - of baffled exultation, if you like - in a short story by the writer William Boyd, supposedly comprising a portion of the journals of a middle aged man called Logan Mountstewart (note the spelling), recounting a not dissimilar tale. Boyd must have enjoyed writing this, because a few years later he reconstructed the entire life of a renamed Mounstuart, in his novel 'Any Human Heart'. The author gave his character an accidentally interesting life, so that he happens to witness many key stories in 20th century history; but what really gives the book its quality is the believable nature of Logan's narrative voice.
As a television drama, it's not nearly so successful. Most obviously, Logan's own words are lost, leaving us the story without the commentary. In its place, tedious flashbacks, and scenes of an elderly Logan reviewing his life, just in case we had forgotten the plot. Secondly, television is a much less imaginative medium, and many drama series set over decades struggle to truly convey the passage of time. 'Our Friends in the North' was one that succeeded; this one does not. The random happenings in Logan's life no longer appear like chance events, retrospectively interesting, in a story driven by its own imperatives, but rather as implausible plot; instead of Logan making acquaintances who transpire to be famous, there's a feeling of shallow name-dropping (here he meets Hemmingway, there the Duchess of Windsor); and coincidences seem contrived when they're all there is. The background of ordinary life, behind which Boyd so successfully disguised his somewhat preposterous tale, is lost. I'm reminded of the disastrous television adaptation of 'A Dance to the Music of Time'; that was worse, as it compressed not one book but thirteen, but there's something of the same problem here. There are also other similarities, in the tale of an aristocratic writer in an where aristocracy is in decline. I didn't see the similarities when I read the book, but they are enhanced not just because of the televisual medium but for other reasons as well: the simplification of the character of Peter Scabius (making him an almost Widmerpool-style figure), and a reluctance to paint the world of Logan's youth in anything other than familiar 'Brideshead'-style colours. Related to the latter, the desire for a certain aesthetic has led the director to cast a stunningly beautiful woman in the role of almost everyone with whom Logan has an affair; the younger Logan is also very dashing, although the older Logan is allowed to age (he still has a final fling, however, with a very pretty French lady, and before that, with an attractive prostitute). While the original character had a messy personal life, there was never the feeling of perpetual glamour one gets when watching this production. To make it worse, we have to be shown Logan having sex with every one of them, an unimaginative and eventually tiresomely repetitive decision. What can be slyly implied in one line of a book becomes an endless succession of sweaty bodies, as if we couldn't be trusted to imagine it for ourselves.
This feels like a bitter review. But the book was good. It's become a series that is merely good looking; and sadly, utterly lacking in heart.