The Most Likeable of All Our Literary Heroes

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 17, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Most Likeable of All Our Literary Heroes


Byline: NICHOLAS LEZARD

SAMUEL JOHNSON: A LIFE by David Nokes (Faber, [pounds sterling]25) FROM the definition in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary for the word "Superfluous": "More than enough; unnecessary; offensive by being more than sufficient." We don't, it has to be said, really need another biography of Johnson. Not even Boswell's was the first. Then again, it is the great man's 300th birthday tomorrow so you can't blame David Nokes, who has previously written biographies of Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen, for having a go at Johnson. As Boswell said, and as Nokes reminds us, the more we think about Johnson, "the more he will be regarded ... with admiration and reverence".

There is plenty to admire and revere about Johnson's character. In some ways, he suits our times almost as much as he suited his own. Or more: he was considered freakishly eccentric, which constitutes a large part of the pleasure we take in contemplating his life and, indeed, why we still want to read about it. He was, by the standards of the day, slovenly, either being mistaken for a burglar in his own home or greeting visitors well after noon in what were effectively his bedclothes (one shocked postulant commenting, as he turned to show her inside, that she was glad his milliner had not cheated him as badly at the front as he had cheated him at the back), and possessed by what we would now recognise as a variant of Tourette's syndrome.

The problem for Nokes, or indeed for any biographer, is finding some new angle to justify another biography, and sometimes it seems as though Nokes is anxious to find as many flaws as he can in the man, or to search for ignoble motives behind what may look, to the unpractised eye, like generous sentiments. So when Johnson writes to his wife anxiously after an accident to her leg, Nokes says: "Here, and throughout the letter, he is not only solicitous for her health; he is most anxious that she should recognize his solicitude. …

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