Boswell's Presumptuous Task

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9780140254211: Boswell's Presumptuous Task

James Boswell died a disappointed man, considered by his contemporaries to be a "foolish failure". Yet today his "Life of Johnson" is esteemed as the template for modern biography and Boswell himself is regarded as a formidable, if somewhat anti-heroic intellect in his own right. Sisman provides not only an account of Boswell's life but a creative investigation into how Boswell managed to be simultaneously so risible and outstanding and, by extension, an investigation into the nature of biographers and biography. Making use of Boswell's letters and journals (only recently uncovered and unhindered by the constraints of academia), Sisman's book depicts Boswell and the 18th-century world he lived in with clarity and frankness.

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Like Dr Watson or Sancho Panza, Boswell was for over a century thought of as stooge or straight man to a genius. He was a buffoon who had unaccountably written a masterpiece. It took a steadily torrential discovery of Boswellian journals and papers in the 20th century to first force a reappraisal and then inspire an industry, while Johnson studies have withered somewhat. The irony is not lost on Adam Sisman, who abandoned a conventional biography of the man who invented its modern form to concentrate on his relationship with Johnson, and his "presumptuous task" of assembling, over seven years, the pioneering Life of Samuel Johnson. Sisman calls Boswell's note taking "a kind of stock cube" from which he made up a broth. If so, then Sisman reduces its sauce to a delicious piquancy.

Although he only knew Johnson for just 425 days over a period of 21 years, after meeting in a Covent Garden bookshop in 1763, Boswell's rapacious memory and devotion to his master (he had something of a father-figure fixation) saw him put together a Life which was to be "in scenes", so that the reader could observe Johnson in all his pomp--and faults. Stuffed full of conversation snippets, the inclusion of which scandalised many of those quoted, a defining moment for the genre, Sisman writes of this hugely fallible Scottish facilitator, the original "clubable" gentleman, that his Johnson "is a heroic expression of Boswell himself": depressive, hypochondriac, heavily in debt, with a continuous hangover and full of the pox from whoring. And his sympathetic study largely supports his assertion, though wisely asserting the largely unsung role of Irish Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, Boswell's own "Boswell", in judiciously editing the text to help conjure, as well as remember, Johnson. Sisman's own writing is marvellous, measuring a mischievous indulgence of his subject's "ticklish mind" (Johnson's observation), against a sharp, articulate organising of his sources and a sympathy for the nitty-gritty of biographical writing and book production. Though the Doctor would inevitably have found fault, one senses that Bozzy would approve of this lively return from his legacy. --David Vincent


"An exhilarating book about James Boswell - the father of modern biography. The man who, most of all, wanted to be like his 'mental physician' Samuel Johnson. 'A triumph!' - Francis Wheen

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Published by PENGUIN BOOKS LTD (2001)
ISBN 10: 0140254218 ISBN 13: 9780140254211
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Irish Booksellers
(Rumford, ME, U.S.A.)

Book Description PENGUIN BOOKS LTD, 2001. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 140254218

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