Michael Scammell wrote the lives of Arthur Koestler and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writers who between them constitute a core sample of the twentieth century and its horrors. Scammell also helped translate The Gift, the final Russian novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, another of his century’s representative men. Asked by an interviewer who served as his model when writing the biographies, Scammell replied, James Boswell, “the greatest biographer of all time, and the one against whom I measure my own accomplishments, such as they are.” Mindful of Johnson’s pioneering biographies, Scammell notes that Boswell’s subject was also his literary model:
“. . . it took Dr. Johnson, who had one foot firmly planted in the ancient classical tradition, to challenge the reigning conventions. He was the one who first opened up English literature to biography as an art. In one of his books, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage, he came close to producing a biography with the vividness and modernism that characterized Boswell’s. Boswell, building on Johnson’s experiments, created the art of biography in the modern sense of the word.”
Scammell notes how little time Boswell spent in Johnson’s company, and that he “didn’t know him half as well as he pretended.” He was a slippery, less than trustworthy character. Lord Macaulay famously complained that Boswell was “one of the smallest men that ever lived,” and added: “Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none.” Macaulay’s review effectively stifled Boswell’s reputation for a century, and it’s true his C.V. is unlikely to have impressed any prospective employer – mediocre lawyer, drunk, pox-ridden roué. Now his preeminence as a biographer cannot be seriously contested. For most readers, Johnson largely remains Boswell’s Johnson. Scammell’s judgment is close to definitive:
“Boswell’s genius lies in the vividness with which he brings his encounters with Johnson to life. It’s Boswell’s scene painting that made such a big impression on me, as well as the way in which he organizes his material around those scenes and the interviews he contrived to have with Johnson. At the end of your reading, you feel you’ve been living with Dr. Johnson for a very long time and have really come to know him.”
As a bonus, here is Scammell on the odious Lytton Strachey: “I’ve read Strachey very carefully, but he’s no model for me. The biographies in Eminent Victorians are mostly very short and written in a satirical vein as part of a wide-ranging polemic against the hypocrisy and moral turpitude of Victorian England. His skill is immense, but he turns the exhortation of Ecclesiasticus, `Let us now praise famous men,’ completely on its head.”
On this date, Dec. 11, in 1758, Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler #30, in a passage rich with ambiguity: “One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention, and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read.” Solzhenitsyn was born on this date, Dec. 11, in 1918. He wrote the rarest of books – one that changes the world for the better – and The Gulag Archipelago has been read and studied my millions.