Literature: Novelist Who Blurs the Edges of Fact and Fiction

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), June 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Literature: Novelist Who Blurs the Edges of Fact and Fiction


Byline: MARIO BASINI

NOVELIST William Boyd's first excursion into biography promised to provide him with a resounding international success. The story of Nat Tate, a brilliant but tragic American abstract artist who was a great friend of Jackson Pollock, earned widespread acclaim from the critics.

Tate, according to Boyd, was an orphan who defeated the difficult circumstances of his early life to stand on the brink of worldwide fame. Then, at the wastefully early age of 31, he succumbed to a fit of depression, destroyed all his paintings, jumped off New York's Staten Island ferry and drowned.

Boyd's slim book had an enthusiastic endorsement from the great American novelist Gore Vidal on the dust cover. It contained quotes from the respected art critic and biographer of Picasso, John Richardson. And it had some grainy photographs of the artist himself. The publisher of the book, the pop star David Bowie, spoke at its launch at a brilliant party in a New York art gallery. Highly respected art critics and connoisseurs, reluctant to admit they had never heard of Nat Tate, spoke respectfully of his work and reminisced about the man.

The denouement of the story was hinted at by the date of the launch, April 1. The book was a hoax perpetrated on the pretentious world of high art by Boyd and his abettors Bowie, Vidal and Richardson. Boyd said after the hoax had been revealed that it was a ``fable for our time'', a commentary on a society that valued celebrity before achievement. Now, four years after the publication of the Nat Tate ``biography'' Boyd says the book had a more literary purpose. It was part of his ongoing project to bring the worlds of fiction and non-fiction closer together, to blur the boundaries between imagination and reality. His latest novel, Any Human Heart, represents another stage in that process. It purports to be the daily journal of a novelist, Logan Mountstuart, born in South America of an English father. It runs from the time he is a pupil at a public school in England to shortly before he dies in 1991, aged 85.

Boyd pulls out all the tricks to convince us that this piece of fiction is fact. There are footnotes and an index, just as you would expect from a work of

non-fiction. Mountstuart tells the story of his everyday encounters in a casual, anecdotal prose which is precisely what we would expect from a real diary written with little thought of publication.

``What I am trying to do in this book is to reproduce the human condition as accurately as I can,'' said Boyd, 50, at the Hay-on-Wye festival this week to talk about his life and work. ``The way we experience human life on a daily basis is largely through a random series of encounters with people. At the time, there seems to be no pattern to these encounters. They are largely a matter of chance.''

The novel itself frequently undermines Boyd's purpose. Mountstuart is far too colourful a character to represent the average ``manin-the street.'' He packs an astonishing amount into his long life: A literary career that begins well and peters out into silence, a brief life as a secret agent, innumerable love affairs. He seems to have been involved in most of the momentous moments in 20th-century history, from war to the birth of urban terrorism.

And he seems to have met most of the century's major characters. The book teems with Mountstuart's encounters with real people as well as populating his world with fictitious friends and relatives. …

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