I’m a great fan of the Scottish writer William Boyd and have read most of his books over the last number of years. The New Confessions is one of his best. Like all of Boyds novels its span, breadth and pace are second to none – a defining characteristic of one of the most accomplished storytellers of his generation – and you cannot help but revel in his joy as a teller of great tales.
A fascination for what happens next is the key to the human love of narrative and Boyd’s novels pulsate with so many ideas that when you finish one of his novels you find yourself utterly exhausted by the sheer speed and physicality with which things happen. This particular novel is no exception with his ‘what happens next in a person’s life in a moment of historical crisis’ – which has been his obsession for years – being the driving force behind ‘The New Confessions’.
The book follows the life of John James Todd from his birth in Edinburgh up to his final exile on a Mediterranean island, having fled the USA from fear of being implicated in a murder. Todd fights in the First World War and also films it as a cameraman. He then works for a film studio in Islington and then ends up in Berlin with close friend Karl Heinz, where he starts his filming of The Confessions. He falls in love with American actress Doon and shortly after his marriage falls apart. After the financial collapse of his backer he is forced to move back to Scotland before ending up in Hollywood along with many other German exiles. He becomes a war correspondent during the Second World War and then returns to America with Karl-Heinz where he becomes caught up in the communist trials of Hollywood actors and directors.
As Boyd himself said “There’s a lot of stuff in America now about ‘the Greatest Generation’ meaning, the people who lived through the Depression, then fought in the Second World War and made the world safe for democracy. And people did have amazing lives, then. My wife Susan’s father for instance, he was 19 when he fought at Tobruck, he was captured, was a prisoner of war, escaped to Italy, was recaptured by the Germans, shipped to a German POW camp, did slave labour in an ironworks, was shipped to another camp out East. He woke up one day to find the Germans gone and the Russians arriving. He commandeered a bicycle and cycled through the ruins of the Third Reich to meet the advancing Americans. Then he went back to Glasgow and became a tea merchant.
His life before and after was entirely normal – he got married, had three kids – but in the middle of it was this extraordinary event. And as that generation grows older and dies, the sons naturally wonder: what can it have been like? And they, the ones who didn’t take part, are the generation whose novelists want to write about it all.”
Telling the tale of a fictional character who passes through key moments of the 20th century is a popular enterprise so why did he want to do it?
“It was the scale of the thing, the format,” he says. “The New Confessions was about looking back on your life and shaping it and lying about it. But I wanted to create an intimate journal, where the diarist lives from day to day, but has no idea what will happen. That’s how we all live. My ambition was to make the reader live Logan’s life just as he does, as it happens, with its ups and downs and tragedy and uplifting elements, in a way you don’t get with any other literary form. I wanted to get this common, human-being experience that everybody shares, however grand or ordinary.”
Like all well written stories The New Confessions makes extremely interesting, exciting and entertaining reading as you follow the life of an individual through the great historical moments of the 20th century. An individual just trying to get on with it despite the circumstances he finds himself in.
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