I confess that after the first couple of chapters I had to go and look the book up on Wikipedia because I was not sure if Logan Mountstuart was a real person or an invented character. This was almost my favourite aspect of the book. It is subtitled inside as 'The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart' and is written as if it is the collected journals and diaries of Logan (all in the first person of course), with brief explanatory notes in places to fill in extraneous details and explain the gaps in the story (written by an anonymous editor). He is referred to in these notes, and the footnotes as LMS, even though he insists to the SPK (Socialist Patients' Kollective) that it is not a double-barreled name.
The tale follows Logan through his life, from the age of 6 when he lives in Uruguay to his death in France aged 85. And it is a real roller-coaster of a ride. He comes from a relatively wealthy and privileged background, attending a public school and going on automatically to Oxford University. The reader gets an inside view of the way the world works for the upper classes and the importance of social connections. The two friends he makes at school, Ben and Peter, remain lifelong, though increasingly distant, friendships. His first marriage is to Lottie, an Earl's daughter, with whom he has a son, Lionel, but his literary aspirations seem to put him at odds with his in-laws and he finds their world somewhat stifling. He uses his writing and journalism as an excuse to escape and he travels widely in Europe, meeting many significant literary and artistic figures along the way. He begins a relationship with Freya, falling in love at first sight with her at the consulate in Lisbon. This continues for some years, with Logan establishing a second home in London with her and leading a double life. Their discovery precipitates the first of Logan's downward plunges. He has a tendency to take money for granted and the loss of his wife's income comes as a bit of a shock. His widowed mother had entrusted the family finances to an American investor and Wall Street Crash reduces the carefully built up family fortune to nothing, so not only does she have to resort to renting out rooms in the family home but Logan not longer has any inheritance to fall back on. Logan and Freya marry and have a daughter, Stella, but then the war intervenes in their lives.
He spends the war working for Naval Intelligence; entrusted with 'keeping an eye on' the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after they are moved to the Bahamas, and then being sent on a secret mission that goes terribly wrong. He ends up spending two years in a Swiss prison, only being released some months after the war ends. He returns to London to discover he had been presumed dead, Freya had married again and then she and Stella had both been killed by a bomb. Logan is devastated and this dominates the next few years of his life until he attempts suicide in 1949.
He is discovered by a girlfriend and the crisis forces him to get some help. His friend Ben, who has become an art dealer in Paris offers him the chance to help run a gallery in New York, so he moves there and starts a new phase of his life. He enters the art world and comes to love american life. He marries again, to Alannah, though still struggles with his grief for his former family. A relatively uneventful part of life, lived in comfort and newfound domesticity. The marriage ends acrimoniously, with both parties having affairs and Logan is then cut off from his two step-daughters. The younger of the two, Gail, he is particularly fond of because she reminds him of Stella, and they manage to sustain an intermittent relationship through the book in spite of her mother's animosity. His son Lionel reenters his life after many years absence, tragic events overtake them and the 'New York Phase' has an abrupt and undignified end.
I am not quite sure why he goes to Africa next. It was the one part of the book that felt a little contrived, to put him in a new environment and open up new journalistic possibilities for him with the proximity of the Biafra War. I like the way that Logan is so adaptable. He goes to new places and seems to find it very easy to acclimatise, and in no time at all is dismissing his former life as dull and unsatisfying. He works as a lecturer in English literature but also writes articles about the political situation, something he has some experience of, having also been to report on the Spanish Civil War. This period also ends abruptly with his enforced retirement.
I suddenly realised I am writing far more about the plot than I usually do so I think I may leave you in the lurch now and hope that I can tempt you to read it yourself. As I said above I found myself liking Logan more as time went on and he turns into a wonderfully cantankerous old bloke, with his strong self reliance and flexibility ensuring that he copes with all the crap that life proceeds to dump on him. His friends and other acquaintances resurface from time to time, sometimes to offer something, sometimes needing something from him.
What I love most about the book (as I also said above) is the way it is so real. William Boyd has integrated his character and his character's life within the real world and real historical events. I love the fact that the world Logan inhabits is authentic. He becomes part of the literary world and comes into contact with a wide range of influential writers and artists. Boyd doesn't try and make him a major figure himself, he is just a minor player on a big stage, but he sees everything and comments on it, and in some cases his actions even impact on real events. You feel as if you looked hard enough you might find his name somewhere in a history book. A fascinating tour through modern history from an unusual perspective. Logan lives a most full and varied life. When he is thrown out of a society party at the request of the Duke of Windsor the hostess exclaims, "What a funny old life you've led, Logan." (p.361) However he sums up his own life right at the end of the book. He is watching a group of young people on the seafront in the south of France, "Play on, boys and girls, I say, smoke and flirt, work on your tans, figure out your evening's entertainment. I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done." (p.484) I knew how the story would end but that didn't stop me feeling sad. A thoroughly thoroughly engaging book.