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Books: Off the shelf: A bat in happy valley: Kenneth Baxter on Rasselas, Samuel Johnson's sad and solemn tale

SOME books, Doughty's Arabia Deserta, for example, one feels obliged to read once, at any rate, because it is there. Others one returns to at intervals as if by habit. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia is habit-forming. Samuel Johnson told Sir Joshua Reynolds that he wrote it in the evenings of a week and used the pounds 100 he got for it to pay his mother's funeral expenses.

It was written in sorrow - and perhaps remorse for having too seldom visited her in her extreme old age, literary drudgery and constitutional indolence having intervened. He called it 'A Tale' - for him, a rare excursion into fiction. Exotic settings were in fashion; and he probably chose Abyssinia because, 20 years before, while lying in bed, he had dictated a translation of Father Lobo's account of that country.

Its subject - Johnson's perennial subject - is The Vanity of Human Wishes. It is announced - and one hears his 'Slow, deliberate utterance' - in the opening words: 'Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow - attend to this history]'

He is not interested in Abyssinia, its topography or ethnography; he is interested in universal human nature: and we are to understand that 'human life is a condition in which little is to be enjoyed, much endured.' There is no description for its own sake, and the characters exist only to serve Johnson's didactic purpose. The style may seem more suitable to a sermon than a story but the language is substantial, clear and accurate - as he said in the Preface to his Dictionary 'our English idiom' should be, and as today it too often is not.

Rasselas, confined in the Happy Valley until his turn comes to inherit the throne, and supplied with every pleasure that Art and Nature can provide, is neverless oppressed by 'the want of him that wants nothing,' and longs to escape. An attempt to fly like a bat fails disastrously, but at length, with the assistance of Imlac, an experienced traveller returned from the world outside, he and his sister succeed in escaping and make their way to Cairo. In their search for a philosophically acceptable state of existence they meet a diversity of people but none who are completely happy. Rasselas investigates court life, his sister domestic life, and together with Imlac they visit the Pyramids and the Catacombs.

Their impressions, discussions and discourses form the substance of the book. Like Voltaire, whose Candide was published at almost the same time, Johnson saw nothing to be optimistic about. But, unlike Voltaire, he was no cynic. He put his trust in virtue as a sure guide, but his unflinching realism told him that not even virtue can be certain of producing the happiness that man vainly seeks in an imperfect world. A sad and solemn little book, but one of the wisest ever written.