The New Confessions
|28 Sep 1987|
The New Confessions (1987) is a novel of the Scottish writer William Boyd. The theme and narrative structure of the novel is modelled on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Les Confessions, the reading of which has a huge impact on the protagonist's life.
The book follows the life of John James Todd from his birth in Edinburgh up to his final exile on a Mediterranean island. Todd fights in the First World War and also films it as a cameraman, he then works for a film studio and ends up in Berlin where he starts his filming of The Confessions. After the financial collapse of his backer, he move to Hollywood along with many German exiles. He becomes a war correspondent during the Second World War and then returns to America where he becomes caught up in the anti-communist witch hunts.
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The novel's protagonist, John James Todd, experiences a lonely childhood growing up with a father who is distant and cold towards him and a brother, Thompson Todd, who dislikes him intensely. His only solace is Oonagh, his nanny, who, although illiterate, has a tough, sharp mind and acts as a kind of surrogate mother. His father, Innes McNeil Todd, is a senior consultant at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and University Professor. John James's school years pass uneventfully until he decides to run away to visit his mother's sister, Faye, living in the south of England - a woman for whom he has developed a schoolboy crush as a consequence of their correspondence following her husband's death. During his stay, John James exposes himself whilst they are having a picnic whilst punting in Oxford and his aunt slaps him. Feeling disgraced, he decides to enlist in the army and ends up on the Western Front.
Todd's war starts off fairly peacefully because he is stationed at Nieuport-les-Bains in Belgium at the extreme northern end of the Front. His regiment - the 13th (Public School) service battalion of the Duke of Clarence's Own South Oxfordshire Light Infantry is made up of former public school pupils, none of whom Todd particularly likes apart from Leo Druce. Todd takes part in the attack and his company suffers over fifty percent casualties. On 22 August 1917 Todd is involved in a second attack - one of the Bantams tries to kill him (after a previous run in) but mistakenly kills Todd's Lieutenant. Todd is finally relieved from his own personal nightmare by Donald Verulam, a friend of his father's, who enlists him into the WOCC (War Office Cinema Committee).
As a WOCC cameraman, John James spends his time filming subjects that are worthy of propaganda value and is delighted when his first four reels of film of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry are shown to the KOYLI colonel and his officers in their battalion reserve billets. Whilst filming other regiments, Todd decides to make his own film of the true horrors of fighting but this is rejected by the censors for being unpatriotic and he is almost returned to the front line (unlike his rival, Harold Faithfull, who is much lauded for his artificially-shot 50 minute film, The Battle of Messines. Todd ends up imprisoned in solitary confinement in Weilberg, Germany and sinks into a profound depression until he befriends a German guard, Karl-Heinz, who, in return for kisses, smuggles him torn out pages of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Les Confessions. Finishing it over a seven-week period, he weeps because he is so profoundly affected. Eventually, his story is confirmed and he is transferred to an officers' camp in Mainz for five months until the war's end.
The story moves forward to July, 1922 and Todd is now working for Superb-Imperial Films in Islington, London. Todd starts filming in and around Edinburgh, joined by his old friend Leo Druce as producer, whom he meets again at an old regimental reunion and who is down on his luck. The film is a commercial success but his employer goes bankrupt. However, Todd receives a postcard from Karl-Heinz saying that he is making lots of films and plays in Berlin. He joins him, only to find that Karl-Heinz is just a bit-part extra, so he becomes the doorman at The Hotel Windsor and moves in with Karl-Heinz. Karl-Heinz starts to enjoy more success whilst Todd remains in a rut, and one day presents Todd with a copy of Rousseau's Julie which the latter hates but turns into a film script. Liking it, Karl-Heinz introduces Todd to Duric Lodokian and his son, Aram - the Armenian owners of Realismus films - and they offer him a contract. Todd's prospects are now looking up and he is joined by Sonia and Vincent, their son, at his apartment at 129b on Rudolf Platz. All goes well until Todd encounters Doon Bogan, an American film star, who Karl-Heinz suggests play the lead role of Julie.
After their first meeting, Todd knows he is in love with Doon. However, whilst living with Sonia and his increasing family, he is able to keep his emotions in check. However, after one particularly successful scene while filming Julie, John James makes his feelings known to her only to receive a knee in his groin. John James bemoans his position to Karl-Heinz and he is only restored when he decides to make a film version of The Confessions. Now he is happier living at home and becomes very attached to his second son, Hereford, who is an engaging affectionate baby. He also rents a small wooden villa and has an affair with a German actress, Monika Alt. Doric Lodokian dies but extracts a promise from his son that Realismus will undertake the three films, each three hours long, of The Confessions. The Confessions: Part I starts to be filmed and requires a vast machine to set it in motion.
Doon and John James finally make love and, on their return to Berlin, they carry on the affair intermittently until they are discovered by Sonia's private detective. Sonia announces she is divorcing him and returning to London with the children. Doon is offered a role by her ex-husband Mavrocordato in a new film. Todd's film is at last completed but Aram arrives (now calling himself Eddie Simmonette) and thinks they are too late owing to the introduction of sound. Doon announces she is moving to Paris - disliking Germany because of its increasing Nazification - and Realismus films comes close to bankruptcy as a result of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The Confessions: Part I is shown in the enormous Gloria-Palast cinema on the Kurfurstendamm, accompanied by a 60-man orchestra - but the great auditorium is half empty for the gala and closes after a week.
Eddie manages to scrape up enough money for The Confessions: Part 2 and filming starts at Neuchatel in January, 1934. However, it is beset by misfortunes and Eddie finally arrives to say that the studios have been shut down and all his property impounded after his being declared a 'non-Alien'. He has a cold, comfortless meeting with Sonia and the children and is forced to pay support. Todd returns to Edinburgh and has to go through the ritual of being caught in flagrante committing adultery so Sonia can divorce him. Todd is taken on by Courtney Young, the owner of Court Films, and is joined there once more by Leo Druce as his producer. Young is persuaded to finance The Confessions and pays Todd to work on the script of Part II, but is then asked by his boss to direct a film about King Alfred. Following a meeting with Druce, he decides to turn it down, only to find out the next day that Druce has been made its director and they have a furious falling out. John James is sacked by Court Films and, with nowhere else to go, returns to Scotland. After failing to raise finance for The Confessions: Part II, he relocates to Los Angeles but his position worsens when he becomes stuck without a visa in Tijuana, Mexico. Luckily, he meets a local newspaper proprietor and becomes a photographer for the Tijuana, Tecate, Rumorosa and Mexicali Clarions.
Between 1940 and 1943 Todd's fortunes look up. He is reunited with Eddie Simmonette in LA and he directs eleven westerns, all under one hour long. He also re-encounters Mavrocordato, only to learn that Doon left him in France to return to the United States. He asks Ramon to try and track down her whereabouts and learns that she is living in Montezuma, Arizona. After finishing his film, The Equaliser, he visits her, only to find an older, more cynical chain-smoking Doon who is completely different from the young woman he knew twenty years earlier. Determined to take a role in the war, he is sent by Ramon as a war correspondent to follow General Patch's 7th Army invasion of France's southern coastline.
John James returns to Berlin to look for Karl-Heinz and eventually manages to be re-united with Eugen P. Eugen who eventually tracks down Karl-Heinz in a half-demolished church, suffering from stomach disorders. After flying to LA, they start filming Father of Liberty for Lone Star Films. However, everything changes when Eddie asks to meet him secretly and they discuss the Hollywood Ten and John James' listing in "Red Connections" as a communist. Taking advice from Eddie's lawyer, he appears before the Brayfield subcommittee of House Un-American Activities Committee and pleads the Fifth Amendment. From this point on, he is laid off by Eddie and blacklisted by all the major studios. Eventually, he is named in executive session by Monika Alt and Ernest Cooper as a member of a revolutionary communist cell in Berlin in the Twenties. John James gives a confident performance in front of the cameras and Doon perjures herself in order to save his skin. From their detailed knowledge, Todd knows he has been set up and, speaking to one of his students, a Japanese businessman, he hires a Japanese private detective to find out who - it turns out to be Monroe Smee, a nobody whom Todd met when he first came to the U.S.A. and who he inadvertently offended by criticising his tacky scripts. Todd, after following Smee to the Red Connections office in West Hollywood, decides to confront his persecutor at his home but is thrown out.
Finally, fear of the Red Threat wains and Todd once more takes up film directing. Karl-Heinz suffers from ill-health and is found dead in the Hotel Cythera where he has always lived. Retiring to the convict shack at Big Sur which he and KH rented whilst filming, Todd decides to have his private detective, O'Hara, get Smee of his back after he sees him observing him swimming. O'Hara misunderstands his instructions and kills Smee to order for a one thousand dollar fee and, together, they dump the body over the edge off the cliff by the ocean. The novel finally comes to a close with John James finishing his reminiscences at the Villa Luxe, a house he has been renting on a Mediterranean island for the past nine years from Eddie, after fleeing the US owing to his fear of being connected with Smee's death.
The New Confessions, William Boyd, Penguin, 1999
- The Independent, "William Boyd: A chapter of accidents", 20 April 2002