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Boswell on the grand tour: Germany and…
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Boswell on the grand tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764

by James Boswell

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This is the third volume of the diaries to be published, following on directly from Boswell in Holland. At the end of his gap year at the University of Utrecht, in June 1764, Boswell gets permission from his father to travel on for a while through Switzerland and Germany. (His plan is to go on to Italy, but Lord Auchinleck being what he is, Boswell knows better than to ask for too much parental indulgence all at once.)

For the moment, Boswell has three great celebrity scalps in his sights: Frederick the Great, Rousseau, and Voltaire. With a mixture of charm, influence and foot-in-the-door, he manages to see all three, but only gets actual face to face time with the last two. Frederick turns out to be too canny, or too well protected, to put himself in the way of any of the traps Boswell sets for him. But the sessions with the two great philosophes more than make up for this, particularly since he met them both (Rousseau at Môtiers and Voltaire at Ferney) in December 1764, just before Voltaire published damaging revelations about Rousseau's private life that eventually forced him to leave Môtiers and go on the run again.

Boswell's strategies for hooking the interest of both great men are classics - with Rousseau he holds a letter of introduction from a man Rousseau owes big favours to, Lord Marischal, but he declines to use it, instead writing his own letter in which he proves - citing the logic of Rousseau's own writings - that he is "a man of singular merit". With Voltaire he gets in the first time on a letter of recommendation, then when he wants to come back for a longer visit, he writes to Voltaire's niece (knowing that her uncle will see it) a wonderfully comic letter in which, inter alia, he manages to imply that he wants to get into Ferney castle to seduce the niece's femme de chambre. Stalking, in modern terms, but stalking of more literary and psychological subtlety than you would expect from the average 24-year-old Inter-Railer...

There's lots of other interesting and amusing stuff in this book - visits to several minor German courts as well as Berlin and Potsdam, some pretty graphic tales of the discomforts of travelling in Germany, a few walk-on appearances by notables of the time, a few passing references to sexual escapades, and of course the background is-it-or-isn't-it romance with Belle van Zuylen, the young Dutch intellectual he'd made friends with in Utrecht but subsequently decided it might be rather fun to marry (she didn't think so, as we already know from the letters Pottle included in the previous volume). And Boswell's continuing worries about religion, masturbation, his own mental and physical health, his father's plans for him to become a lawyer, and the incongruity of imagining himself as the future Laird of Auchinleck. A treasure.

Minor disappointment: I didn't really think about this before starting, but apart from Frederick, there wasn't all that much of literary interest going on in Germany in 1764. Boswell certainly didn't meet any important German writers, and he would have had to talk to them in French or Dutch if he had. But of course Goethe and Schiller were still at school - a few years later, Boswell's ignorance of the German language wouldn't have been something he could get away with, but in Frederick's Berlin French was de rigueur anyway...

The absence of detailed musical interest is a pity too - Boswell stops in Leipzig, but there's no reason for him to be aware of J S Bach (d.1750), whom no-one outside the Lutheran church music world would have heard of at that time, so he doesn't even mention the Thomaskirche. Then in Mannheim - possibly the most exciting place in northern Europe for a musician at the time - he merely says that the music was "marvellous", without telling us anything about the musicians involved or what they were playing.

On to Italy, Corsica and France in the next volume... ( )
  thorold | Nov 19, 2018 |
To be a fly on the wall?! ( )
  Porius | Oct 10, 2008 |
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