The New Confessions

by William Boyd

I must confess to congratulating myself on having reached the end of this book. I had struggled with it from about a quarter of the way through.

A couple of weeks ago we were staying in a holiday cottage in Devon, and when I had finished one of the books I had brought with me, I found that there were several on the shelves there that I would wish to read, as well as several others I had already read.  It would appear that the landlady and/or previous guests have similar tastes in reading to my own.  I selected about four ‘possibles’, and chose this one.  We were snowed in for a couple of days, giving me enough time to get about a third of the way into the book, so I downloaded it in order to continue reading after we left for home.

I’m always ready to try something by Boyd, whose writing is incredibly fluent and engaging.  But the story really didn’t capture my imagination, being what appears to me a very macho, pseudo-autobiographical story of a self-obsessed and selfish man.  Some of Boyd’s novels I would class among the best writing I know: An Ice-Cream War, Ordinary Thunderstorms. His last two books left me cold, and I have mixed feelings about Any Human Heart although it did grip me at the time I read it.  Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa, did not appeal for many of the same reasons that I was turned off by this one: his character’s, and to some extent the author’s, callous treatment of women.

The ‘hero’ of this life story is one John James Todd, a Scot born at the very end of the nineteenth century.  His life reflects the times he lives in; he sees action in both World Wars, is named and persecuted in the anti-Communist persecutions of 1940s and 1950s America, experiences both the glamour and hardships of the film industry in pre-war Berlin and later in Hollywood, and rubs shoulders with many real and well-known people whose names are casually dropped into the narrative.  He experiences loves affairs, marriages, children, war wounds, friendships made and lost, betrayals.  On the whole he is alone throughout his life, and does not seem prepared to invest the emotional energy needed to make and preserve lasting relationships.  He seems devoid of any moral compass that allows him to decide when and where to do the right and decent thing.  His decisions appear to be driven, every time, by a desire for self-preservation.

Are we all like this, at heart?  IS this really the story of “any human heart” though written some years before Boyd’s book of that title?  Maybe Todd is just telling an uncomfortable truth that applies to every one of us: that all we are really interested in is ‘number one’.

I suppose it is fair to say that this book has made me think, and has captured my attention enough to make me finish reading it.

 

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Brazzaville Beach

by William Boyd

An amazing amount of research must have gone into this book.  Not only does Boyd draw a compelling picture of a marriage of two young people that is going nowhere, despite their best efforts.  He also shows, convincingly, the tensions and rivalries that can develop among a group of people working closely together and remote from the rest of civilisation.

Boyd writes knowledgeably about chimp behaviour and the mechanics of working in the field with these animals. That said, I have no way of knowing whether his story would ring true to working in this area, but I have to assume that his research has been thorough and his understanding sound.

Boyd rarely disappoints – the only book of his that I have not liked was Waiting for Sunset, and this may be because I can never really understand spy stories!

The Blue Afternoon

by William Boyd

I’m always ready to read something by William Boyd.  I picked up this novel at the twice-yearly book sale in Winchcombe church, and, along with Brazzaville Beach which I bought at Exeter Bookcycle a year or two ago, it has been waiting on my ‘to-read’ shelf.

With Boyd, you never know quite what to expect.  His settings and characters are so diverse, and his imagination so fertile, that each story is a new adventure.  I never find myself thinking “oh yes, another version of the same story” as might be the case with other authors.

What is a characteristic of Boyd’s writing, however, is the way a story may turn on a chance encounter, missed opportunity or unwise decision.  Our lives are not mapped out, but rather, our paths develop according to decisions made, opportunities taken or not taken, and ‘stuff’ that happens to us, often without us being able to influence it in any way.  One book which demonstrates this haphazardness of life in a highly dramatic way is Ordinary Thunderstorms.  It is a theme, too, of The Blue Afternoon.

The main story takes place in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ‘outer’ story begins in Los Angeles in the 1930s, when a young architect meets Salvador Carriscant, a man who purports to be her father.  They undertake a journey together, in which he recounts the story of his career as a surgeon and of his great love, Delphine Sieverance.

As a love story, it is touching and at the same time quite shocking.  Carriscant’s attraction to Delphine is animal and overwhelming.  Both are already married; they plan to run away together but the plan fails and they are separated for many years. Carriscant enlists the help of his daughter to find Delphine again.  For me, the trip and the eventual reunion are somewhat unnecessary and almost contrived.  The real story is what happens in the Philippines, and Carriscant’s efforts to find his lost love in later life are touching, but not central to the narrative.

I confess that I did try to skip ahead – so maybe the story did not engage me as much as I would have liked.  But it is nevertheless a very good story, with interesting (if not exactly likeable) characters.