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William Boyd

The New Confessions

For Susan

Monsieur Rousseau embraced me. He kissed me several times, and held me in his arms with elegant cordiality. Oh, I shall never forget that I have been thus. ROUSSEAU: “Goodbye, you are a fine fellow.” BOSWELL: “You have shown me great goodness. But I deserved it.” ROUSSEAU: “Yes, you are malicious, but ’tis a pleasant malice, a malice I don’t dislike. Write and tell me how you are.” BOSWELL: “And you will write to me?” … ROUSSEAU: “Yes.” BOSWELL: “Goodbye. If you are still living in seven years I shall return to Switzerland from Scotland to see you.” ROUSSEAU: “Do so. We shall be old acquaintances.” BOSWELL: “One word more. Can I feel sure that I am held to you by a thread, even if of the finest? By a hair?” (Seizing a hair of my head.) ROUSSEAU: “Yes. Remember always that there are points at which our souls are bound.” BOSWELL: “It is enough. I, with my melancholy, I, who often look upon myself as a despicable being, a good for nothing creature who should make his exit from life — I shall be upheld for ever by the thought that I am bound to Rousseau. Goodbye. Bravo! I shall live to the end of my days.” ROUSSEAU: “That is undoubtedly a thing one must do. Goodbye.”

— The Private Papers of James Boswell

1 Beginnings

My first act on entering this world was to kill my mother. I was heaved — a healthy eight pounds — lacquered and ruddy from her womb one cold March day in Edinburgh, 1899. I like to think that for a few hours she knew she had another son but I have no evidence for the fact. The date of my birth was the date of her death, and thus began all my misfortunes. My father? My father was lecturing to his anatomy students at the University. Word of my mother’s confinement was sent to him at once but the messenger — a dim porter called McPhail — could not gain admittance to the lecture theater. My father’s habit was to lock the doors from the inside and refuse to be interrupted. I believe that day he even had a cadaver on a marble slab before his lectern. The messenger, McPhail, having tried the door, peered through the portholed glass, saw the corpse and queasily decided to wait until the lecture was over. My father later emerged to learn the good and bad news. By the time he arrived at the infirmary, I was alive and his wife was dead.

How did he feel? I can almost see his bloodless bony face, the thick tufts of unshaved bristle on his cheekbones, as he looms over the cot. No emotion would be registered there — neither joy nor desperation. There might be a thin reek of camphor and formaldehyde overlaying the smell of tobacco that normally clung to his clothes (he was a sixty-a-day man). And his hands, firm on the cot frame, would be perfumed too, with carbolic, and the nails would be edged white with residues of the talcum powder that preserved the rubber of his dun, transparent operating gloves.

My father was normally a clean man, almost obsessively so, and I could never understand why he did not take the end of a match or the point of a penknife to his cuticles and scrape away the small talcum beach deposited there. It was one of two personal features that I found continually aggravating. The other was his refusal to shave those bristles from his cheeks. Twin dense sickles of beard grew there, beneath his eyes. It is an affectation I have observed frequently among Englishmen, particularly in army officers, yet I would say that my father was a man almost bereft of affectations — so why did he persist with such an obtrusive one? As I grew older it sometimes drove me almost insane with irritation.

On those rare occasions when I came across my father asleep, I would stand and gaze at his waxy features — at once smooth (because of the paleness of his skin) and crude (because of the sharp angularities of his facial bones) — and be genuinely tempted to attempt a clandestine razoring. I might at least remove or so seriously damage one tuft that he would be obliged to shave off the other. Of course, I never dared, and the cheek fuzz remained.

Why do I go on about it so? you might ask, with perfect reasonableness.… Let me put it this way. When you live with someone, when you see his face every day, and you do not love him, the banal traffic of social intercourse is only tolerable when there is nothing on that face or about that person that attracts your eye. It could be a scar, a squint, a tic, a mole — whatever — the gaze is irresistibly drawn there. You know how sometimes in the cinema a hair or a piece of fluff will get trapped in the projector’s lens and flicker and twitch maddeningly at the edge of the frame until freed? When that happens, have you ever been able to pay full attention to what is on the screen? Never. An irritating blemish on the face of a constant companion has the same effect: a large portion of your mind is always claimed by it. So it was with me and my father. He was usually irked by me, and I was needled by him.

Ergo, I did not love my father.… I do not know. Perhaps I did, in my own way. Certainly, it was a complicated enough relationship to do duty as Love’s understudy. I know he never loved me, but that, as far as I am concerned, is of little importance. He did not love me because, quite simply, I was a constant reminder of his loss. As I grew older the correlation paradoxically reasserted itself. One of the last times I saw him — he an octogenarian, I in my forties — I caught his image reflected in the slightly ajar door of a glass and mahogany cabinet (I had turned my head to call for tea). There was a detectable flare to his nostrils, a quiet disgusted shake of his head. And I remember being particularly pleasant to him that afternoon, in spite of his appalling testiness. But at that stage of my life nothing — not even he — could disturb my own misanthropic calm. His last words to me that day were “Why don’t you get your bloody hair cut?” Hair. Very apt. Full circle. I almost told him I would if he would shave off his sodding cheek-bristles, said I would have seen a hell of a lot more of him in the last thirty-odd years if he had, but I kept my peace. I can see his pale-blue eyes, hard and clear, sandwiched between their hoary brows, upper and lower, and still hear his strong, metallic, precise Scottish accent (I had lost mine by then, another source of scorn). “Yes, Dad,” I said, “right you are.” Forty-seven years of age and still trying to please the old bastard. God help me.

Anyway, I digress. Let me tell you something about this enterprise upon which we have both — you and I — embarked. Here is the story of a life. My life. One man’s life in the twentieth century. This is what I have done and this is what has been done to me. If on occasion I have used some innocent embellishment, it has been only to fill the odd defect of memory. Sometimes I may have taken for a fact what was no more than a probability, but — and this is crucial — I have never put down as true what I knew to be false. I present myself as I was — vile and contemptible when I behaved in that fashion; and kind, generous and selfless when I was so. I have always looked closely at those around me and have not spared myself that same scrutiny. I am not a cynic; I am not prejudiced. I am simply a realist. I do not judge. I note. So, here I am. You may groan at my unbelievable blunders, berate me for my numberless imbecilities and blush to the whites of your eyes at my confessions, but — but — can you, I wonder, can you really put your hand on your heart and say, “I am better than he”?

My name is John James Todd. My father was Innes McNeil Todd, senior consultant surgeon at the Royal Infirmary and professor of clinical anatomy at the University. When I was born he was thirty-seven years old, astonishingly young for a man in his eminent position, a rapid promotion brought on by his eagerness for experiment and innovation. He was a “modern” in the world of medicine, striving earnestly to free it from the tenacious hold of its medieval past (still alarmingly prevalent in the late nineteenth century). He sensed a lightening in the east and he wanted to be there to welcome the new dawn. He would try anything to advance its progress, such was his zeal, and some of his efforts paid off.