“I WAS SURE I had genius, and was not deficient in easiness of expression, but was at a loss for something to say, and, when I set myself seriously to think of writing, that I wanted a subject.” So Robert Zaretsky quotes James Boswell saying in 1762, a year before the 21-year-old met Samuel Johnson, whose celebrated biography he would publish three decades later, and two years before his first trip through Europe, a celebrity-packed Grand Tour of its intellectual and political hot spots. The line is candid and unintentionally funny, at once boastful and modest, and captures the low-watt charm that brought Boswell into close contact not just with the father of the English dictionary, Johnson, but also with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, David Hume, Pasquale Paoli, and other luminaries captured in Zaretsky’s enthralling new book, Boswell’s Enlightenment.

If Boswell had grown up in a later era — say, our own — when the question of what someone with literary talent should write about could be answered with so many variations on the same subject, oneself, from the photorealism of Karl Ove Knausgaard to the greatest-hits diaries of Heidi Julavits and Sarah Manguso to the recovery memoirs that keep filling virtual library shelves, he might not have considered it a problem. But in the 18th century, with the Enlightenment focusing the world’s attention on scientific empiricism, proofs of God’s existence, and the ground rules of Capitalism, Boswell felt that his ambition overshot his ability.

As a stopgap measure while searching for something more substantial, he decided to keep a personal journal intended for public consumption. His father, a burgher of Edinburgh society who wanted him to become a proper, respectable lawyer, objected to his son exposing himself in this way and railed against it, but Johnson, Boswell’s surrogate father and moral conscience from the moment they met, approved, arguing that “a journal was much more than an archive for the storing of memories … [it] was a tool that encouraged change no less than reminiscence.” Boswell had grown up in a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist family and struggled (weakly) against his sexual urges, and so seized on the idea that a record of his thoughts and actions would present his character in such a way that he might learn from and correct its mistakes. While the journal would fail in this — like many self-help books, it promised more than it could deliver — it would train its author to become a careful and diligent observer of the places he visited and the company he kept.

Zaretsky concentrates on Boswell’s journals from 1763 to 1765, when the young Scot’s tour of Europe coincided with a tour “also [of] the ideas and ideals, hopes and fears of his era.” It’s a novel strategy that both reveals Boswell in a state of becoming and explores the intellectual currents running through the time, when ratiocination replaced blind faith. Zaretsky, who is the history editor for LARB, has written two books about Albert Camus, as well as books about French history and European intellectual history and politics, and he writes widely for publications in the US and Europe. He is a lucid writer who in quick, deft strokes illuminates several aspects of the Enlightenment — or Enlightenments, as historians describe its regional variations — and underscores the wit, if not wisdom, of its practitioners. This, for example, comes from a passage on Voltaire’s hatred for Rousseau:

“Ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable” were just a few of the adjectives with which he described his nemesis, though they scarcely measure up to his description of Rousseau as a “bastard of Diogenes’ dog” whom he would gladly see beaten senseless were it not for the fact that he was already insane.

Boswell, in order to appease his father, upon whose financial support he relied, left London in 1763 to spend a year studying law in Utrecht, and it is there that Zaretsky’s book takes shape, as the sort of picaresque tale that Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne might have produced in collaboration, combining the former’s interest in slapstick misadventure and the latter’s in mock Continental sophistication. Zaretsky presents Boswell yearning to overcome his provincial (Scottish) background by surrounding himself with important people, like a more garrulous and self-consciously intellectual Nick Carraway.

Boswell wasn’t just a collector of famous friends, however. In addition to being the future author of the most celebrated biography ever written, in 1763 he contained a genial mass of enthusiasms, frivolities, and neuroses that Zaretsky conveys with a novelist’s eye for complexity of character. Boswell loved writers and ideas and arguments, regretted his sexual conquests while fighting to increase their number, nursed a morbid fear of death, sought corroboration for his religious beliefs from everyone he met, and chafed against the perquisites and demands of his family’s minor nobility. With astonishing energy, confidence, and luck, he was as much Zelig as Forrest Gump, admiring man’s natural state with Rousseau, wondering at God’s caprices with Voltaire, and worshipping liberty with Corsican freedom fighter Paoli. He took a year’s vow of celibacy and then hired a different prostitute every night.

Zaretsky makes a forceful case that Boswell belongs as much, if not more, to our time as to his own, suggesting that what might have been characterized as lack of conviction in the 18th century seems like wise ecumenicalism in the 21st. Boswell’s restless curiosity, his keen disappointment that understanding did not bring happiness, his desire to sit at the feet of greatness and listen — he was the ur-TED talk audience member. Or, echoing what Flaubert said of his most famous creation, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Zaretsky suggests Boswell is “like us, but only more so”:

In his great swings of exuberance and enervation, his moments of great insight and great weakness, Boswell not only embodied the enduring doubts and hopes that mark the modern age, but also expressed them with an intellectual honesty and spare artistry no less enduring.

Writing about The Life of Johnson in an 1831 edition of Edinburgh Review, Thomas Macaulay gave another, strangely balanced assessment of its author:

Without all the qualities which made him the jest and the torment of those among whom he lived, without the officiousness, the inquisitiveness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensitivity to all reproof, he could never have produced so excellent a book. He was a slave, proud of his servitude, a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues, an unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.

By its conclusion, which looks forward to his travels with Johnson, his five children, and his 70-essay project in London Magazine called “The Hypochondriack,” Boswell’s Enlightenment proves that the world’s greatest biographer makes a fascinating subject in his own right. As Thomas Carlyle put it:

Boswell wrote a good Book because he had a heart and an eye to discern Wisdom, and an utterance to render it forth; because of his free insight, his lively talent, above all, of his Love and childlike Open-mindedness. His sneaking sycophancies, his greediness and forwardness, whatever was bestial and earthy in him, are so many blemishes in his Book, which still disturb us in its clearness; wholly hindrances, not helps. Towards Johnson, however, his feeling was not Sycophancy, which is the lowest, but Reverence, which is the highest of human feelings.

To Boswell we owe thanks for a Samuel Johnson whose quips and quiddities are legendary — “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” for example, and “Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding” — and to Zaretsky we owe thanks for a Boswell who lives beyond the shadow of Johnson, as a young man who knows, like Walt Whitman will a century later, that to see further than other men, it is necessary to stand on the shoulders of giants.

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Josh Emmons has written the novels The Loss of Leon Meed and Prescription for a Superior Existence both out from HarperCollins in the UK and Australia in 2015 and teaches at UC Riverside.