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William Boyd: The New Confessions

Based, very loosely, on Rousseau’s Confessions, this is Boyd’s longest book to date, more than five hundred pages long. The hero’s first two names are John James, a literal translation of Rousseau’s first two names (Jean Jacques). Like Rousseau in the Confessions, his mother dies giving birth to him. John James, surname Todd, the son of a Scottish surgeon, is born in 1899. As a child he has only one skill – maths. His sexual escapades are limited to an infatuation for the illiterate family housekeeper and for his widowed aunt. He becomes an amateur photographer, thanks to his father’s friend, Donald Verulam, a skill he uses during World War I, where he makes a documentary film and reads Rousseau’s Confessions. He becomes a film director in London and Berlin, where he makes a successful film version of Rousseau’s Julie and falls in love with the film’s star. His success enables him to start on a three part films series of The Confessions – as a silent. By the time he has completed the first part, sound has come in. He goes off to Hollywood, where he makes Westerns and then works as a war correspondent. However he is blacklisted as a communist. He finally does get back into the film business, filming his last film, the experimental The Last Walk of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boyd gives us a rich portrait of the film business in these events.

The book is Todd’s memoirs/confessions and, as a child of the century and a man associated with the film industry, he feels he is well qualified to comment on it. Those looking for Boyd’s trademark wit and farce will be disappointed. Others will not. It is a well written and complex story but also one that throws around many interesting ideas of the century, not just those related to the film business but also related to mathematics, war politics and, of course, how people function in different situations. More importantly, it works.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Hamish Hamilton