I’m going to be out of town for the next few days, traveling to western New York state where my parents live — I have a brother who is graduating from High School this weekend (I’m the oldest child and he’s the youngest, with five other siblings in between), so Hobgoblin and I will attend the graduation ceremony and the graduation party. We’re bringing our bikes along with us to ride on the relatively flat roads along Lake Ontario. What a difference it will be from the never-ending hills of Connecticut!
I don’t think I’ll get a whole lot of reading done on the trip, but of course I’m going to bring along some books. Virginia Woolf is definitely coming along; I’m about halfway through The Voyage Out and enjoying it a lot. As other bloggers have noted, this first novel hints at some of the directions her later fiction would head, although it’s more traditional in form than books like To the Lighthouse. Then I’m bringing along Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which I probably won’t get to, but I want it on hand in case I finish the Woolf.
And then I began a new nonfiction book last night: Adam Sisman’s book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, about the writing of his Life of Johnson. I’ve read the introduction and first chapter, and it promises to be quite entertaining. It’s got three sections, one giving a brief biography of Boswell, the second — the longest — describing the writing of The Life, and the third discussing its reception.
Here are a couple interesting bits from the introduction:
In his book James Boswell made a heroic attempt to display his friend “as he really was.” He did not conceal his partiality; his reverence, affection, and even love for Johnson are obvious throughout, and an endearing feature of his biography. But neither did he conceal Johnson’s faults: his rudeness, his prejudices, and his temper. Boswell was the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities: an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell’s time a startling innovation.
Sisman tells how Boswell was mocked for his insistence on filling the biography with everyday details about Johnson — his eating, clothes, behavior, etc. All the things that make the biography fun, in other words, were the things people didn’t seem to get when the book first came out.
Sisman has this to say about the relationship between the two men:
The Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity. Johnson and Boswell are locked together for all time, in part-struggle, part-embrace. Boswell will forever be known as Johnson’s sidekick, remembered principally because he wrote the life of a greater man; Johnson is immortalized but also imprisoned by the Life, known best as Boswell portrayed him. Each is a creation of the other.
I wonder what they would have thought of this fate, if they could have known.