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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Movie : THE NEW CONFESSIONS by William Boyd (William Morrow: $18.95; 476 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Ronald Gottesman | Gottesman teaches literature at the University of Southern California. and

William Boyd's fourth novel in eight years is hugely ambitious and largely successful. It is in many ways an old-fashioned read: It provides a vivid sense of time and place (the 20th Century in Western Europe and California), an engaging narrative (in the form of a candid autobiography of a gifted film director), and a sufficient measure of thoughtful reflection on the relationship between the interior life of a convincing protagonist and the world through which he comically and tragically makes his way over the course of 70 years. But the novel is also new-fashioned: It is aware of itself as a linguistic contraption and of its status as legatee of two centuries of fictional technique, and it is, in the familiar "modern" way, committed to a universe in which uncertainty and incompleteness are the basic facts.

We used to count on novels to provide information--about vocations, technological processes, social milieu, distant places, historical events, and other forms of popular entertainment. Boyd's fiction serves this purpose well: The book tells us a good deal about films and film directing; about middle-class English life; about, respectively, Edinburgh, London, Berlin and Los Angeles in the 1910s, '20s, '30, '40s and '50s; about (harrowingly) trench warfare in World War I; about the psychopathology of the HUAC hearings and black- and gray-listings; and about many other agreeable and nasty features of 20th-Century life.

To the extent that one has firsthand experience of these matters, one is bound to be impressed and delighted by Boyd's ability to evoke images of the familiar. (His descriptions of certain vistas in Edinburgh, for example, are uncanny in their pictorial precision.) Even if one is ignorant of the times and places he evokes, Boyd has that even rarer ability to compel one's imagination to believe that one knows something one has not directly experienced. This ability to use mere words to conjure reality, this aptitude for what English teachers call verisimilitude, is crucial equipment for a novelist, and its skillful deployment results in no small part of our pleasure in reading fiction. In fact, one might even say: no verisimilitude, no pleasure--at least for non-professional readers of novels.

"The New Confessions" offers additional satisfactions. Boyd tells a story well; one believes in the protagonist: His often zany adventures seem to grow inevitably from his eccentricities as a person, and surely he is no more decentered than the times he lives in. This person (if he were less convincing, we would call him a character) is John James Todd, whose mother dies at his birth and whose father is so remote as to leave the infant an emotional orphan. Todd discovers his spiritual father, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while he is a German prisoner in the Great War, and Rousseau becomes an inspiration and the subject of his unfinished film masterpiece--an epic three-part film based on Rousseau's "Confessions" (1781). Much of the novel concerns itself with Todd's recurrent attempts to complete this extravagant, visionary project.

The novel chronicles the picaresque adventures of a man who, like Rousseau, is more than one man, who suffers from contradictory thoughts and paradoxical desires, who seeks out mother and father substitutes while he deserts his own family, who is both impulsive and od1684830496faithful to them than to wives or lovers), who is brilliant and sophisticated and addled and naive--not by turns but at the same moment. In the end, in spite of--perhaps, rather, because of--his foibles, his follies and his vulnerabilities (he is a magnet for betrayal), Todd is an attractive human being: open, honest, passionate, self-critical, curious, and essentially without vanity. Todd is an example of a disappearing human type in an age of cynicism: a person capable of joy, a person who allows hope to triumph over experience.

The novel charts, if not Todd's growth, at least his frequently painful passage through the violence, dislocations, tyranny and demagoguery that are among the chief leitmotifs in Western European and American experiences since World War I.

Finally, "The New Confessions" is a novel of ideas--or at least a novel with ideas. These ideas are chiefly associated with Todd's boyhood friend, Hamish Malahide (he suffers from extreme acne), a whiz at "maths." Todd is reunited with Hamish late in the novel when he visits him at a think-tank near Princeton. After dinner:

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