Adam Sisman is the author of A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. He lives with his wife, the novelist Robyn Sisman, and their two children.
That’s just what I thought, and what I didn’t want to do. I’m not interested in doing something that’s already been done adequately in the past. And what particularly intrigued me about Boswell was not so much his life – though he had a very interesting life – but his work, in particular his Life of Johnson. So I decided to write a book about the making of a masterpiece, a biography of a book if you like. It helped that this was an extraordinary story of struggle and sacrifice. Boswell experienced disappointment, grief, humiliation, jealousy and almost despair before his task was complete. Of course, you can’t write about Boswell as a writer without writing about him as a man – but the focus of my book is quite different from that of a conventional biography.
You clearly developed a real respect for your subject.
First of all, I feel that it’s not for me as a biographer to judge my subjects – I leave that to the reader. When I wrote about A.J.P. Taylor, I was amazed how many people said I had showed him to be deceitful, or a scoundrel, or whatever – and an equal number of people who said I was too fair to him! What I try to do is to present as vivid and truthful a portrait as possible, though I can’t imagine writing a biography of someone I didn’t have some sympathetic feeling for. As for Boswell, well, of course I identified with him completely: struggling to write a book, staving off his creditors, under pressure from publishers and rival biographers, constantly breaking off work on the book to try and earn enough money to live on – that was me, just as it was Boswell. And of course, the more I studied what he had done, the more my respect for him as a craftsman, as a writer, as an artist, developed.
What made you want to write a book about Boswell’s Life of Johnson?
A.J.P. Taylor used to say that when he wanted to know about something, he wrote a book about it. It was like that with me. I had become interested in biography as a form, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the starting-point for all discussions of biography – so I found myself writing a book about it.
This is a book about two people, Boswell and Johnson. How would you describe their friendship?
They were friends, and they enjoyed each other’s company, though they sometimes quarrelled and there was always a tension in their relationship. It was never one of equals: Johnson was the senior of the two, and Boswell never challenged his superiority. “I cannot help worshipping him”, he once said. “He is so superior to other men.” It is a biographical cliché to describe theirs as a father-son relationship, but nevertheless there is some truth in this. Boswell and Johnson frequently used the term “love” to describe their feelings for each other, and it was Boswell’s love and reverence for his friend that kept him to his task even when his own life was falling apart. One should distinguish between the relationship between the two men as individuals and the relationship between them as biographer and subject. This was a constant tension in their relationship, and it adds an extra fascination to the Life of Johnson; it is a biography in which we can actually see the biographer at work, collecting information from his subject and those around him. Within the pages of the Life of Johnson one is repeatedly aware of Boswell as Johnson’s biographer, trying to pin down Johnson, and Johnson resisting him. It is like watching a play in which you can see the playwright scribbling down the lines in the wings. After Johnson’s death, Boswell was free to manipulate his portrayal of their friendship to suit his own ends, though his dedication to his task and his sensitivity to criticism acted as a restraint on this process. There is a sense in which the struggle for mastery between them continues to this day.
You live with another writer (the novelist, Robyn Sisman). Do you discuss each other’s work in progress?
Only every day!