... a mea culpa, a self-appraisal so damning that it becomes almost endearing. Enough contrition, you want to tell him, you’re not so wicked a chap as you make out ... There’s plenty more he might have said about the relationship – and about his happy second marriage. But these aren’t tell-all Rousseauesque confessions. He’s respectful about Katherine and about his mother, to whom he grew close in her old age and widowhood. And he’s especially warm about his exasperating father, whose forced early exit from Wedgwood was unmerited and whose death happened at the same moment as a family landscape painting crashed from the wall in the room where his son was working. After a coincidence like that, who wouldn’t believe in higher powers? ... As for Wilson the controversialist, there’s little sign of him here, though if you’re like me you’ll dislike what he says about Salman Rushdie, LS Lowry, psychotherapists and disbelief in God being a failure of the imagination. By the end I felt knew him better. And having 'never been completely sure' who AN Wilson is, he too may have a better idea.
The cover of Confessions shows him in arch-fogey mode at 32, with his natty attire, midwife’s bicycle and meek demeanour — but this memoir, which takes us up to his mid-thirties, wants to demolish such an image. From the start Wilson presents himself as a shameless badass ... Wilson is a torrentially readable autobiographer, capable of howlingly funny paragraphs, desperately sad scenes, gay slapstick, literary analysis and gossipy name-dropping in the same chapter. His pen portraits of his parents don’t express loathing but hard-won, slightly exhausted understanding. His rampant showing-off (the languages he speaks, the breadth of his reading, his chats with the Queen Mother) seem driven more by glee than conceit. Although I don’t want to read another word about his fight with God, I look forward enormously to reading more about this talented eccentric’s grapple with the flesh.
Mr. Wilson makes up in wit what he lacks in celebrity antics ... He leaves no slight or sadness unexamined while traipsing through the decades, from his 19th-century forebears through his birth in 1950 in Staffordshire, England ... He mines these professional blind alleys, particularly the clerical one, for mirth ... The title’s Augustinian echo notwithstanding, there is little confessing here beyond Mr. Wilson’s self-recrimination over the occasional shabby treatment of his parents and first wife. As the subtitle signals, this is no bulletin of boozy exploits but rather a litany of shortfalls as son and husband, flickering betwixt the Catholic and Anglican churches and adhering to neither ... He livens things up with a parade of eccentrics ... Mr. Wilson embraces this old-fogy persona. He settles no scores here and keeps his criticism of writers to those safely departed ... reveals a dexterous storyteller who trundles out riskily meandering anecdotes—such as about J.R.R. Tolkien—yet chums them with details to keep his audience hooked ... Mr. Wilson examines the poignant human condition of being boring.