I enjoyed this tremendously, even though I watched the TV adaptation a few weeks earlier, so I already knew the characters and plot (though there are some differences).
STRUCTURED AS MEMOIRS
This is presented as a compilation of journals kept by Logan Mountstuart from shortly before he left school in the 1920s until just before his death aged 85. Consequently, they describe things as they were at the time, with candour and an absence of hindsight. It also means there are gaps and changes of style. The pretence is carried further by the presence of footnotes (including "corrections" and even a reference to Boyd's own biography of an artist), an index and other later editorial notes, including Logan's introduction, in which he explains, "We keep a journal to entrap the collection of selves that forms us". I think it is the different voices of Logan at different times in his life that make the book work so well: often he is not very likeable, but he has a certain charm, and his triumphs are balanced by tragedy.
It is not a continuous narrative, but rather, broken down into journals covering significant periods in his life: school (establishing his key friendships with Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping); Oxford university; London as a writer and journalist (marriage, then a coup de foudre); naval intelligence in WW2; return to a changed London; NY (art dealer); Africa (teaching); London (including links with the Baader Meinhof gang) and finally, retirement in France.
The framework of the book lends teenage anxieties more poignancy, e.g. "as ever, my predominant emotion is one of disappointment... could this be the pattern of my life ahead? Every ambition thwarted, every dream stillborn?". At other times, Logan as an old man does insert a retrospective analysis, e.g. "I often wonder if those early sexual experiences with Tess and Anna warped me irrevocably" - a plausible attempt to justify some of his subsequent behaviour.
A distinctive conceit of the book is the number of significant real characters Logan gets to know during his life: mostly authors (e.g. James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Virginia Wolf, Ernest Hemingway) and artists (Picasso, Paul Klee), but also the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I am not an expert on any of them, but it rings true, and feels a natural element of the narrative. The only weak part for me is the Baader Meinhof episode, but I suppose that is meant to balance and contrast with his earlier work in naval intelligence. Later on, Logan remembers being told that "the only point of keeping a journal was to concentrate on the personal... and to forget about the great and significant events in the world at large", but this book does both.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Logan's character is that he is a lapsed Catholic who is largely untouched
by guilt, even though he has much to be guilty about. He can feel guilt, though only his son arouses it in him. He coldy explains "need and opportunity - the ingredients of all betrayals" and "I absolutely need variety and surprise. I have to have the city in my life... otherwise I dessicate and die". Yet he often feels a victim of circumstance, "A sense of my life being entirely out of my control - which is not the same as being out of control".
The final question, and one Logan doesn't entirely resolve, is around the pain of having known true happiness - and lost it.
One detail that no one else would notice was that there were TWO, albeit very minor, characters called Cecily: Cecily Brewer, at whose home he lodged, and another Cecily who was his mother's housemaid.