Book reviews: Boswell’s Enlightenment

A portrait of James Boswell by George Willison, with gothic-looking owl appearing threatening rather than serene. Picture: Getty

A portrait of James Boswell by George Willison, with gothic-looking owl appearing threatening rather than serene. Picture: Getty

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WHEN James Boswell was in Rome, aged 24, and with few accomplishments to his name other than bouts of gonorrhoea and panic attacks about the afterlife, he had his portrait painted by George Willison.

Boswell’s Enlightenment

Robert Zaretsky

Belknap Press, £19.95

It is a curious piece. In it, Boswell is wearing a fur-trimmed coat, reminiscent of the signature dress of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he had met six months earlier, and whom he would latterly hustle into making him the unofficial ambassador to Corsica (as well as sleeping with his mistress).

Above Boswell in the portrait is an owl, a traditional symbol of wisdom. At the same time as he met Rousseau, Boswell met his philosophical foe, Voltaire, who in a parable about governance cast the owl as the Machiavellian mastermind. The owl in the portrait has a gothic look about it, appearing threatening rather than serene. After Boswell’s death, another philosopher, Hegel, would write that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”, meaning that philosophy only understands an era as it is closing.

Oddly enough, in the landscape behind Boswell’s portrait, the sun seems to be setting. Robert Zaretsky’s book may be about Boswell and the Enlightenment, but it cannot wholly ignore the imminent darkling plain. Boswell may be a figure fashioned by the Enlightenment, but in his hysteria and histrionics, his self-dramatisation and self-doubt, he seems more akin to the Romantics than the Age of Reason.

The idea that there is some kind of irreversible threshold between “Romantics” and “the Enlightened” is, of course, bogus. It was the Enlightenment that introduced sensibility and fellow-feeling as key concepts about what makes us human; it was a peculiarly lachrymose generation, given to ostentatious weeping as much as to cerebral rumination. Boswell is the ideal person through whom to explore the ambiguities and contradictions of the Enlightenment. In the opening chapter, Zaretsky foregrounds this, narrating Boswell and his friend Temple as young students, climbing Arthur’s Seat and hollering “Voltaire, Rousseau, Immortal Names!” across the grey North Sea. That they did not grasp the differences between them is part of why Boswell’s biography is so illuminating rather than enlightening.

Through a combination of chutzpah and naivety, Boswell managed to meet most of the major figures of his age: not just Rousseau and Voltaire, but David Hume, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson (whose biography he would write) and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the portrait painter (whose biography he intended to write). One of the funniest parts of Zaretsky’s book – and, in a way, Boswell appears here like a picaresque hero, bumbling from encounter to encounter, never quite getting what he has been told – is Boswell’s desperation and failure to meet Frederick the Great. The section on his failed seduction of the gloriously named Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken is worth the whole book: she saw through Boswell, and he did not even realise he’d been intellectually and emotionally rumbled.

Part of the cleverness of this work is to describe a Boswell before he became Johnson’s amanuensis and sidekick. His relationship with Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican nationalist, was every bit as significant and sentimental. Boswell believed that Corsican independence was a chance to change political history – I am reminded of Byron’s enthusiasm and innocence over Greece. Corsica could have been the Berlin Wall of the 18th century. It actually happened in Paris and a Corsican, Napoleon, reaped the benefits. The entanglement of reason, heroism, “feeling”, liberation and tyranny could have no more embroiled a knot. If only Boswell had been alive to witness it.

Some of Zaretsky’s broad-brush descriptions are askew. John Knox is denounced as a prim Presbyterian killjoy – but this was a man who saw himself represented on stage, and whose agenda about education and, for want of a better phrase, “social security”, pre-empted Enlightenment thought. That Boswell got goose-pimples over Hell and Annihilation cannot be blamed on Knox and the Reformation. The fact he could go to university is a tribute to Knox’s improvements.

This feels like the first volume of a bigger work. It is about becoming Boswell, not being Boswell, and Zaretsky expertly highlights the points where Boswell examines himself on who he might be or not be. It is an overture more than an opera. But he did eventually decide, and that decision is important, even if he never managed to make his beliefs and his actions ethically aligned. The cover of the book is taken from the portrait I mentioned, but is clipped to show just the eye. It’s a red and rheumy eye, as if the sitter had just been full of tears. Later portraits show a swaggery, self-satisfied sitter. How did one transform into the other? Did the more comfortable Boswell remember the fearful, pompous Boswell?

The most melancholy part of Zaretsky’s work is Boswell’s anxieties. Johnson – twitchy, strange, grumpy, dislikeable – was far more of a tether to the self-loathing Scot than the elegant Voltaire or the iconoclastic Rousseau. Boswell sought out atheists and cringed when they advocated atheism. Johnson’s placid, placatory piety was more appealing, especially as he struggled to believe it himself. Both men were pursued by the black dog of melancholy, but Johnson forbore while Boswell caved in on himself. It makes Boswell more interesting, and Johnson more noble. Despite the fact that Boswell wrote one of the world’s greatest biographies, one always feels he’d rather have taken a selfie.

Stalin’s Agent: The Life And Death Of Alexander Orlov

Boris Volodarsky

Oxford University Press, £30

OF ALL the Soviet spies who defected to the West, Alexander Orlov (1895-1973) was surely the most audacious. He made his reputation in the Spanish Civil War, where he supervised the transfer of more than 500 tonnes of the Spanish gold reserves to Moscow for safekeeping, and payment for supporting the Republican side. He was also charged with eliminating all Trotskyites in the Communist and Socialist parties. Orlov was not an executioner himself, but he was a linchpin in this operation in Spain and beyond.

Before long, the purge extended to the NKVD itself, and in July 1938, Orlov received a telegram ordering him to travel to Antwerp, where he would be met by the head of foreign intelligence and return to Russia. Instead, Orlov left for France, met his wife and 14-year-old daughter, collected savings and valuables (antiques and, some have said, a few bars of the Spanish gold) worth £1 million at today’s rates, and boarded a ship for Canada.

The family made their way into the United States and effectively disappeared for 15 years, but not before Orlov had activated his “insurance policy”. He wrote to the NKVD head, Nikolai Yezhov, listing the assassinations that the NKVD had been responsible for in the 1930s, with particular detail about Spain. He would keep all this secret provided no one attempted to find him and that his immediate family in Russia would not be harmed. If either of these were to happen, lawyers would publish Orlov’s record of Stalin’s crimes. Only when Stalin died in 1953 did Orlov begin to reveal aspects of his story, contributing to Senate hearings and giving briefings to the FBI and the CIA whenever required. All his family remained safe and he, the last of them, died in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 78.

Boris Volodarsky was born in Russia, became a military intelligence officer with Soviet special forces and settled in the West during the Gorbachev years. Coming from military intelligence, the GRU, he has a low opinion of the KGB and political intelligence. As a child of glasnost and perestroika he clearly delights in openness and the availability of sources.

But he is Russian, and he carries with him a fierce pride in his country and a fiery combative approach in his writing. He despises what Orlov did, and he despises the Russian foreign intelligence establishment which seeks to glorify Orlov and to show that he remained true to the Soviet cause by never revealing, for example, his detailed knowledge of “The Cambridge Five”. Volodarsky holds that this Russian intelligence establishment continues as the bearer of the OGPU, NKVD, KGB torch and is scornful of its selective use of documents and sources to make its case. The reality, says Volodarsky, is that Orlov was a thief, a liar and an opportunist. (What sort of spy isn’t, we might ask.)

The problem is that he either uses similar techniques to make his case, or is so enamoured of his writing freedom that he obscures it with a welter of often inconsequential evidence. Most comes from secondary sources, some from what he calls “Author’s archive”, and few from reliable Russian sources. Pots and kettles come to mind unless he were to be explicit about the problems to be faced in this field of research. His endnotes, often essays in themselves, or repeated in the main text, take up 194 pages, and the index, which is only patchily cross-referenced, runs to 32 double-columned pages. There are factual errors, and the book is over long, poorly edited and inadequately proofread.

A book that attacks Orlov’s current reputation in both Russia and the US is needed, but this is not it. While we wait, perhaps an observation in 1994 by Pavel Sudoplatov, one of Orlov’s NKVD contemporaries, might be a good starting point: “Orlov was simply trying to save his own skin.”

Vin Arthey

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