I read this on the Kindle – a different experience from books. To start with it came as a blank canvas. There is limited blurb, no comments from critics, no publishing history. Mistakenly I thought it was a recent publication, but a quick search showed that in fact it was published in 1987, and that there are Sparks notes about the book – in other words it gets studied and set in exam syllabuses.
The New Confessions tells the life story of a Scottish film director. It’s a first person narrative – written in a formal and confessional style – which makes it rather stuffy and restrained in tone and description, perhaps a little bit boring. The story is told chronologically, from early days, with a distant father and a child nurse in Edinburgh, through a rather unconventional public school, enlistment in WW1, the inter war years in Berlin as a film director, then Hollywood, WW2 as film journalist and of course the McCarthy witch hunts. There is a marriage and a romance, and the ongoing attempt to film Rousseau’s The New Confessions is a recurrent theme. There is a thread in the present which concludes each chapter, and adds little to the story – some background detail about his fame as a film producer, some insight into his current frustrations and feelings.
I suppose if I knew Rousseau’s New Confessions I’d have understood a little more about the novel – though Boyd does include some quite clear summaries and one rather long extract. There is a lot going on here and Boyd’s perspective on some of the key moments in the twentieth century is of some interest. However I didn’t find this as interesting as Any Human Heart, which also tells the life story of someone who lived through the twentieth century. The narrative arc is a bit predictable, and some sections were anti-climactic: I expected more would be made of McCarthyism and the fall of the Weimar Republic. In fact the former introduced a rather unrealistic character determined to wreak vengeance on the protagonist, and I felt this undermined the concluding chapters.
Maybe I’ve got this wrong – Goodreads has a series of very positive reviews. Check them out: