Monday, November 02, 2009

`Almost Isolated, Strongly Individual, Things'

As a newspaper reporter I was occasionally dragooned into collaborating on projects with other reporters. Editors love projects – tedious assemblages of stories, graphs, photos and sidebars inflicted on readers for days or weeks on end. The driving engine behind such things is the vanity of writers and, even more so, editors. It’s their bid for seriousness (“We’re just as good as book writers!”), though the unsung heroes of any newsroom remain the drudge-reporters who cover cops, courts and city hall, feeding the beast daily, often without a byline, performing genuinely thankless work. In practical terms when I collaborated with other reporters we wrote little collaboratively. We shared reporting not prose, and I disliked even that arrangement. That’s how bloggers are born.

In literature, few collaborations are remembered – Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare and perhaps Middleton and Fletcher, Conrad and Ford. Their rarity speaks to the genuine implausibility of serious writers collaborating. Few things are so indelibly individual as poems, plays and novels. I had never before thought of the Life of Johnson as a collaboration between its subject and James Boswell but that’s how Hilaire Belloc sees it in “Boswell” (collected in The Silence of the Sea, 1940):

“There are collaborations in all the history of writing. Some few have proved fruitful...the most subtle collaboration of all, the most creative, is the collaboration between the writer and his subject. That collaboration Boswell enjoyed abundantly. What landscape was to Milton, what urban eccentricity was to Dickens, what the mathematic was to Pascal, that the personality of Samuel Johnson was to James Boswell. It fed, it invigorated, it moulded, it provided full purpose. The chances are that no one else could have played Johnson’s part, and very probably, almost certainly, no one else could have played Boswell’s part in the arrangement. Whereon hangs an interesting side issue: `What are the chances, one in how many million, of such a juxtaposition?’”

Judging from subsequent literature, the chances are zero. Their collaboration, in the strict sense of two writers sharing the job of writing, was no collaboration at all, though Johnson was a willing participant and much of the final text consists of his words, written and spoken. The match was unlikely and no one, most of all Johnson and Boswell, could have foreseen the result.

Boswell mingled drinking and whoring with naiveté and priggishness. In many ways he was not an attractive character, and only periodically interesting in his own right. His was an unformed personality who, in his journal, exhorted himself to “be Johnson.” Without Johnson he would never have become Boswell. He was, when they met, 22; Johnson, 53 – a father-son arrangement that drove Boswell’s “presumptuous task” (his words in the first paragraph of the Life). As Johnson’s second-greatest biographer, W. Jackson Bate, reminds us:

“Many readers assume that he was constantly in Johnson’s presence. But during the twenty-one years he knew Johnson, the total number of days spent in Johnson’s company amount to 325, plus another 101 during their trip to Scotland and the Hebrides in 1773.”

In his Boswell essay, Belloc places the Life in the greater context of English literature and touches on the sheer unlikely peculiarity of the book and the eccentric-friendly literary tradition in which it exists:

“I know not how it is with other national literatures, but certainly it is a mark of English writing that it throws up almost isolated, strongly individual, things which stand out not like a work of art or a perfection, but like a personality; so that we may compare the landscape of English Letters, surveyed over the last three centuries, to one of those countrysides in which the heights form no continuous chain, but stand individually, each alone.”

Consider The Anatomy of Melancholy and Religio Medici; Traherne's Centuries of Meditation; Tristram Shandy; Johnson’s own Life of the English Poets; Charles Lamb; the poems of Christopher Smart, John Clare, William Blake and Basil Bunting – to cite only the most gifted eccentrics. Great books and writers, some among my favorites, and not a collaborator in the bunch.

1 comment:

Lincoln Hunter said...

A gentle reminder to include Addison and Steele for their collaboration on The Spectator.