Thursday, March 16, 2017

Separate Lives

I was vaguely hoping to get to the end of Boswell's Life of Johnson whilst we are here in KL. However, this is almost certainly not going to be the case. I'm within sight of the ending - about a quarter of the total left - but there's no real momentum to my reading. Basically each page is more of the same, which is enjoyable in its way, but other than the inevitable deterioration of the great man's health (and that of others, with quite a number of friends and companions off to meet their Maker in recent pages) it's obvious that there'll be little new under the sun.

Indeed, it's the curiously circular, repetitive nature of the writing that exerts an unusual kind of narrative hold as once again either Boswell, or Johnson, or both, obsess about whether abstaining from wine is a good thing, whether they should really be hobnobbing with dreadful Whigs & Infidels and the like, why subordination according to birth is essential to a healthy society and why women sleeping around is infinitely worse than their husbands doing the same thing (amongst any number of other weird and wonderful concerns.) I suppose, though, there are other elements of narrative, or rather gaps in the narrative, that have a kind of intrigue about them: Exactly what is it that Mrs B. has got against the Doctor and will she ever forgive him? Is the biographer or his subject the more prone to the Black Dog, a shared species of suffering that clearly contributes to their odd sense of closeness? Just how outrageous does Johnson's behaviour have to get before someone decides to stick one on him?

So there is, I suppose, a kind of narrative pleasure to be derived from the text even as one has grown thoroughly accustomed to it. But this is not enough to keep this reader desperate for more. So for respite I've been dipping into Bate's Unauthorised Life of Ted Hughes. And here comes an odd synchronicity, of the sort that the great Yorkshire Bard would have enjoyed. It seems that the subject of the essay that Hughes was blocked on when he had the now famous dream of the man-fox was Samuel Johnson. Interestingly Bate reckons that TH was an admirer of the great lexicographer, despite not being able to get writing about him. I think I know why. Whatever else Johnson did he certainly lived.

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