Samuel Johnson fascinates me. A writer that single-handedly, over nine years, writes a dictionary is worthy of reverence. (I covet a first-edition of Johnson’s Dictionary). The dictionary contained 42,000 words, rich with literary quotations, and, unusually for a lexicographer, filled with opinionated humour. The best known of Johnson’s witty definitions is probably:
Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.
In Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson poses the same question as Chekhov in My Life, the Aristotelian ‘How to live?’ but Rasselas is an undiluted philosophical allegory. Though presented as fiction it reads as Johnson’s personal discourse on the impossibility of finding earthly happiness, similar in purpose, but not message, to Voltaire’s Candide.
A bored prince and his sister escape the claustrophobic confines of Happy Valley because they wish a ‘choice of life’ (the book’s original title). Various sages and pundits offer different critiques on the pursuit of happiness. The fable ends without resolution.
In a different context I would have completed this book, turned back to page one to start again, pen in hand. Once the art of the novella challenge is complete, I will return to read this book more attentively. A single reading is an injustice to the exquisite writing, and to the remarkably modern ideas. It is an extraordinary little book.