Life studies

Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Adam Sisman <em>Hamish Hamilton, 403pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0241136377

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were a strange match. Dr Johnson was the grand old man of English letters, possibly the most revered man of his generation, an intellectual giant with a mind as original and independent as it was erudite. James Boswell, by contrast, was an ambitious, immature youth, notable more for his enthusiasm for whoring than for his literary or social prospects. Against the odds, Johnson immediately took to the excitable young Scot.

The foundation of their friendship was Boswell's unswerving admiration for Johnson. As a young man in Edinburgh, Boswell had read Johnson's essays and created in his mind the image of Johnson as the ideal mentor. "I am now on a very good footing with Mr Johnson," the 22-year-old Boswell wrote to a friend soon after they met. "When I am in his company, I am rationally happy. I am attentive and eager to learn, and I would hope that I may receive advantage from such society. You will smile to think of the association of so enormous a genius with one so slender." This sense of mingled awe and gratitude never left Boswell, and it colours all he wrote about Johnson, both in the Life and his own journals, over the next 30 years.

As Adam Sisman says, Boswell created an idealised Johnson, first on the pages of his journal, then in his biography. "Boswell's Johnson is a heroic expression of Boswell himself," Sisman writes. This is not to say that Boswell's Johnson was not true to life (Boswell had studied Johnson so closely for so long that he could remember and record the nuances of his conversation with apparently uncanny accuracy), but is a comment on the complex dialogue between biographer and subject.

In most biographies, this dialogue is implicit; in Boswell's, perhaps uniquely, it is there on the page. Johnson knew that Boswell planned to write his life. Boswell's assiduous note-taking was a standing joke in Johnson's circle; he would frequently ask Johnson his opinions in order to write them down. Johnson helped him remember incidents of their Highland tour, and made cryptic comments such as "it might be printed, were the subject fit for printing".

Both Boswell and Johnson believed that a good biography could not be written without the author being closely, almost mundanely, familiar with his subject. Where they differed was in message, not approach. For Johnson, himself a biographer as well as a lexicographer (he wrote the life of his friend, the ill-fated Richard Savage, as well as the monumental Lives of the Poets), life-writing was a way of expressing his own opinions and personality, teaching a lesson or pointing out a moral. Despite his unconscious projection, Boswell, as Sisman shows in his analysis of Boswell's innovative methodology, wanted to allow his subject's life to speak for itself.

While Boswell (and his book) is the stated subject of Sisman's own task, it is the interplay between Samuel Johnson and James Boswell - Sam and Bozzy, subject and biographer, venerable friend and adoring fan - that lifts Boswell's Presumptuous Task from good to wonderful. Underlying everything are essential human truths: that every significant connection we make with another person marks both parties irrevocably, and that the forms of these connections are as varied and rich as there are people in the world to make them.

Lucy Moore's Amphibious Thing: the life of Lord Hervey is published by Viking (£20)