The Life of Johnson, Cont.

It’s often bothered me that history books become more thorough as they progress through time, so that if one were to bookmark off each decade or century, one would observe a kind of exponential growth.  Almost everything works this way, so I guess there’s little fighting it.  I am less than fifty pages into the second of six volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and already Johnson is fifty eight.  Their first meeting is recorded, with charming precision, at the end of the first volume, May 16, 1763.  Boswell panicked: “I do come from Scotland but I cannot help it.”  He was twenty three, and Johnson fifty four.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to me just how much that is famous appears in this first volume: There is the dictionary, and the definition of oats, “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” to which Boswell records the reply, “And where else will you see such horses, and such men?”  Johnson gets involved with a hoax, the Cock Lane ghost, and Boswell is at pains to explain that Johnson wasn’t as credulous as some claimed.  So too to make clear that he wasn’t really sadistic in conversation; the insults are just too memorable.  And of course there is his refutation of Berkeley, which is better in the full telling than I remembered.  He does not merely kick the stone, but struck “with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it.”

Boswell’s lengthy descriptions of Johnson’s unusual person and mannerism, as well as his depressive turn of mind, make for a vivid account, both of Johnson himself and of Boswell trying to reconcile his partiality for his friend with biographical truth.  For example, in the course of describing nights in the public houses with Johnson, Boswell reports that he affected not to be troubled by cold and rain but adds, “The effects of weather upon him were very visible.”  Boswell takes mild issue with the melancholy of Johnson’s novel Rasselas, quoting Voltaire “Apres tout c’est un monde passable” but he admits that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” is, “in many respects, more than poetically just.”  What marvelous circumlocution.

It’s hard to imagine what we’d have if Johnson had been “entirely preserved” as Boswell speculated.  From the many years before Boswell met him, we might have learned more about Johnson the parliamentary reporter.  In his time, magazines carried highly idiosyncratic accounts, sometimes inventing speeches like Thucydides and sometimes hiding the identities of the speakers and even the real subject of debate.  There would be more about the nights when Johnson (despite being married, and to a much older woman) was so poor he spent all night walking around London with the disreputable poet Richard Savage.  Perhaps we would have more of the Johnson who knocked down the “impertinent” bookseller Osborne with a heavy book and throttled him. 

I have a long way to go in The Life of Samuel Johnson, and I’m rather looking forward to it, chronologically biased as it may be.  The Club, which at various times included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon, is only just getting started.  Then there is their trip to the Hebrides to look forward to.  I’m also looking forward to learning more about Boswell, who, at least in age, at this point in the narrative, I have more in common with.  If I am still curious about him afterwards, I could always read his journals.  These were only published in the twentieth century, and perhaps constitute one of the great recoveries of literary history.

Literal Immortality?

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

I’d been feeling like my reading lately had been a bit lightweight.  (Larry McMurtry and Kim Stanley Robinson probably won’t make it up on here.)  My solution?  The Life of Johnson.  Borges contends that although Johnson’s literary work was outstanding in itself (he wrote a dictionary all by himself), it was the devoted work of his younger, less talented friend Boswell that assured their immortality.  Boswell wrote that his plan for the Life included “not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought…”  In effect, he wrote down everything he ever heard Johnson say.  “Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved.”  Later he speaks of biographies in which Johnson himself “has embalmed so many eminent persons”.  Keep up your Twitter and Facebook, your diary and your correspondence; you never know.

A New Book from Jorge Luis Borges (sort of)

I’ve been getting drawn into A Course on English Literature in spite of myself.  The book is a transcription of lectures given by Borges in 1966, published in Spanish in 2000, and released in English by New Directions last year.  Borges died in 1986, but I think it will be a long time before readers of English have access to all of his works, or even get a real sense of them.  (I do read Spanish, but I haven’t read Borges much in the original.  In Argentina I was daunted by the many editions of his work and by the appearance of a colossal (Boswellian?) memoir by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I may be giving myself too much credit but I think there is something essentially hard to grasp about Borges’ work.  I began to read the short stories more than ten years ago.  More recently I’ve read a small number of his essays.  Along the way I picked up This Craft of Verse (a series of lectures given at Harvard) and Seven Nights.  Still, every time I pick up one of these books, I find myself lost, apart from a very few really iconic stories: “The Library of Babel”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Aleph”, “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard”, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.  The stories, reviews, and essays all blend together.  I actually read a good bit of Seven Nights, a book of interviews, without realizing I had read it years before under a different title.  That may not sound like praise, but it was the book’s evocation of the streets of Buenos Aires, of Borges learning Italian by reading Dante on the streetcars, that sent me to Argentina.

The main reason I was skeptical of A Course on English Literature is that it seemed likely to cover a lot of the same ground as This Craft of Verse.  While it’s true that the section on Anglo Saxon poetry in the new book uses many of the examples already familiar to me (he must have been very fond of “whale road” and maere tungol, “that famous star”), A Course is more thorough and I’m finding a lot that’s worthwhile.  The comparison of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas with Candide is really interesting.  And he’s actually making me want to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which is saying something.

I wish, of course, that I could say just what it is that makes Borges’ work at once beguiling and ungraspable.  It has something to do with his way with allusion.  His stories teem with great works and authors.  Certainly his famous self effacement could be a way of handling a technique that usually has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, but it also leaves one wondering what, if anything, has been said.  I still recommend This Craft of Verse and I count Borges as a major, though in some ways dubious intellectual influence.