A sparkling account of the writing of one of the most celebrated biographies of all time – ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’ – and an account of the friendship that blossomed between writer and his subject.
James Boswell’s ‘The Life of Dr Johnson’ is acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language: a model of biographical endeavour and achievement, an epic attempt to capture the spirit of a man who embodied the spirit of an age. And yet Boswell himself has generally been considered as little more than an idiot, condemned by posterity as a lecher and a drunk, a man who spent his short life in various states of dissipation, on a fruitless search for amusement and diversion. But Adam Sisman’s sparkling account of the writing of Boswell's biographical masterpiece tells another story: of how Boswell succeeded in his presumptuous task of capturing the character of his garrulous, curmudgeonly, beloved friend Samuel Johnson on the page. And by tracing the friendship between the writer and his subject Sisman provides a fascinating, detailed and richly textured account of the writing of one of the masterpieces of literature in the English canon.
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‘“Boswell's Presumptuous Task” – the quotation is from his own foreword to the Life – has an exhilarating narrative clip and its scholarship, though robust, is lightly worn. In the overcrowded field of Boswellian studies, it stands out as a major achievement.’ Guardian
‘Sisman has written a brilliant anatomy of modern biography, showing us its pleasures and its perils, and suggesting that the rise of literary biography in our own day has largely rested on the rediscovery of Boswell’s methods. No one interested in the literature of non-fiction should miss this book.’ Michael Holroyd
‘Extraordinarily gripping…Sisman skilfully takes is into the biographer’s workshop.’ New York Review of Books
‘A wonderfully vivid reconstruction of Boswell’s epic struggle, over seven years long, actually to compose the great work itself…Sisman’s account has the pace and heady excitement of a battle narrative, where everything is being risked.’ Richard Holmes
‘To attempt the biography of the greatest biographer of all is a literary high-wire act – yet one which Adam Sisman has accomplished with great success and in splendid style.’ Simon WinchesterFrom the Author:
Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman
An Interview with the Author
Did Boswell have a sense of how he would be seen by posterity?
In some ways Boswell was very sensitive, but in other ways he had a thick skin, and it’s always difficult to know how he perceived the events in which he participated. Incidentally, that’s one of the joys of reading the Life of Johnson. Boswell often appears absurd in his narrative, but one is never quite sure of how much he is aware of how ludicrous he appears.
In the eyes of most of his family, including his children, relatives and descendants, Boswell must have seemed a preposterous failure. He failed in almost everything he did, with the one triumphant exception of his book. He clung more and more tightly to the book as his only hope of achieving something remarkable while everything else was destroyed in the whirlwind of his life. The book was the one thing that might bestow on him some kind of immortality, though the price was that he would be immortalised as a buffoon.
The discovery of reams of Boswell’s papers and, significantly, his journals in the twentieth century has spawned what’s come to be known as the ‘Boswell industry’. How did he feel about the journals? Would he have been horrified by their re-emergence?
Boswell had ambiguous feelings about the journals. They were like a hostage to the future. Part of him dreaded their being published after his death – but another part of him couldn’t bear to destroy them because he felt that so much of him lived in the journals – that if they were destroyed, his life would appear meaningless. And in a sense he was right.
You make the case in this book that writing his biography of Johnson also gave meaning to Boswell’s life …
Yes. We all gain status from what we do, and if I have to justify my existence, for example, I justify it in terms of my writing. We all have to do this, accounting for ourselves both literally, in terms of paying the bills, and metaphorically, in terms of feeling comfortable with who we are. As a middle-aged man I’ve given up hope of playing cricket for England or becoming prime minister. Funnily enough I’m exactly the same generation as Tony Blair; I knew him at university. But I’m content with my lot, I find writing biography very satisfying.
And as a biographer, how do you feel about the suppression of Boswell’s papers until very recently?
The process of destroying or hiding material, as happened with Boswell’s papers, is very frustrating for biographers, but it goes on happening. My new book is about Wordsworth and Coleridge, and I’ve been irritated to discover that Wordsworth’s descendants destroyed some of his manuscripts quite recently, in the twentieth century, because they felt them to be unseemly. And while as biographers we may deplore this, I think it’s also very understandable. When my father died he left me a locked suitcase with a label on it that read: ‘Adam, please throw this in the river.’ I don’t know what was in it. I never opened it. I threw it in the river as he’d instructed. Biographers want everything to be revealed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be.
Boswell evoked strong reactions from those who knew him in his lifetime – indeed, afterwards too. As someone who came to know him through the writing of this book, how do you feel about him?
I’m fond of him. As a matter of fact I think it’s difficult to write a biography of someone if you don’t like him or her. Of course Boswell was very silly, in many ways rather reprehensible. But lovable.
The Literary Club is a good marker of how his contemporaries saw him: when Boswell applied it seems he would have been blackballed if Johnson had not stood up for him. I think that most people who knew him regarded him as foolish and odd. But Johnson loved him; he says this to him again and again. And that’s terribly important to Boswell, and he stresses Johnson’s love for him in his book.
How did you happen upon this subject?
I came to Boswell whilst I was writing my biography of A. J. P. Taylor. Before then I’d never thought about the genre in any systematic way, and I’d never even read The Life of Samuel Johnson. But I realised then that there were all sorts of biographical issues that I’d never explored; issues of how we understand and make sense of our lives, and how we justify our existence. And I realised that the Life was a wonderful template for exploring them.
How long did the process of researching and writing the book take?
Far longer than it would have done if I had been able to concentrate on it exclusively! Like Boswell himself, I had to break off repeatedly to do other things to keep the wolf from the door. It was something like six years between the signing of the contract and publication, and I began to think that it would actually take me longer to write this book about Boswell than it had taken Boswell to write his Life of Samuel Johnson. But I’m glad in a way that it took me so long, because that gave me time to reflect on what I really wanted to say and how to structure the book.
Boswell was such a singular character. Was it difficult to say goodbye?
It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a subject who has preoccupied you for such a long time, with whom you’ve been living so intimately. And I don’t let go of them altogether. For me, the subjects I’ve written about are a bit like old girlfriends: there’s always a little bit of your heart that remains theirs.
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