Monday, December 8, 2008

Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763
It’s important to note two things: Boswell was twenty-two when he wrote this, and he embarked on it to fulfill an agreement with a friend – they would exchange daily jottings. Therein lie the weaknesses of this journal: youthfulness and writing under obligation. Despite its faults, Boswell has a brilliant mind and is mature beyond his years. Also, the style and anecdotal structure of the journal is the form he’ll use in his great biography of Samuel Johnson. But back to the weaknesses. On many days Boswell doesn’t have much of interest to write about; there are too many teas, strolls, etc. (whereas, with Johnson, there was always a bubbling of ideas). Also, Boswell ran out of steam at the halfway point; the task he set himself clearly became a chore. An interesting aspect of this work is the honesty with which he presents himself and his actions; as a result, I didn’t particularly like him. He’s too much of a social climbing fop. The hypocrisy of the Victorian Age has been much remarked on; here we can see it – as when Boswell has sex with a very young prostitute in the park (an outdoor brothel at night) and, the next day, finds the church service uplifting. He’s oblivious to any conflict between the two events. The book captures the flavor of London and its people (at least those of the upper class). But, when Boswell ran out of steam, so did I.

Notes from a Cold Island - Frederick Exley
This is the second part of an autobiographical trilogy that began with A Fan’s Notes, that wonderful ode to failure. Exley starts out by telling the reader that he’s having trouble with this book. And indeed he is. It’s a patchwork that cobbles together such disparate subjects as his dissolute life on Singer Island in Florida, a long interview with Gloria Steinam, a very long semi-biographical study of Edmund Wilson, an account of his stay at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, etc. The book is a mess, though maybe it reflects something about Exley. He’s living with a debilitating depression and is steadily drinking himself to death. But of his life on Singer Island he writes about his many loving friends, a colorful crew who do fun things (in particular, they cook epic meals – Exley is great at describing food); he has all the sex he could wish for (and which I could do with less description of; plus, I wondered how a middle-aged man with a long term drinking problem could carry on so lustily). Maybe Exley found it too onerous a task to write about the dark side of himself when he’d already, in the previous book, spilled his guts (and he is, by nature, an author with no other topic but his sad self). Despite the problems, Exley’s instincts are good; he can hit the mark – the heart – when he takes aim (as in the last paragraph of the book, when he bids us a fond and bittersweet farewell). I can’t imagine what Exley has left to say in the third installment.

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