Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B S Johnson by Jonathan Coe - review by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

Hour of the Egoist

Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B S Johnson



B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson was born in 1933, in Hammersmith, West London, of working-class parents. His mother was a former domestic servant; his father a stock-keeper for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. After leaving school in his mid-teens, Johnson worked at various clerical jobs before going on to study English at King’s College, London, and to publish his first novel, Travelling People (1963), with Constable. In all, he produced seven full-length works of fiction (there were numberless side projects, including plays, poems and edited anthologies), certain of whose idiosyncrasies are here appended.

Albert Angelo (1964) contains small holes cut into the pages at various points to give the reader advance notice of plot developments. The format of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) can perhaps be divined from its title. House Mother Normal (1971), set in an old people’s home, ultimately reduces itself to a few individual letters chucked randomly about the page, the better to convey the thought processes of its disintegrating cast. Most famous of all, though, is The Unfortunates (1969), whose twenty-seven discrete sections were offered up to purchasers in a cardboard box. A forceful presence on the literary scene for a scant ten years, Johnson was acclaimed in certain quarters as an experimental writer of genius who had almost single-handedly reinvigorated the English novel (given over, in those post-war years, to niggling social realism), and reviled in others as a petulant and vainglorious obscurantist. In a fit of despair he committed suicide in 1973 at an age when most novelists are barely getting into their stride.

My favourite Johnson anecdote – not told by Jonathan Coe – dates from the autumn of 1967. A S Byatt had just published her second novel, The Game, a complex and traumatic take on the nature of goodness, as seen through the actions of a pair of contending sisters. It was well received, and appeared to move Byatt a rung or two up the pecking order of rising young novelists. A fortnight or so after publication, the phone rang. It was Johnson. What he had to say was brief and to the point. He had read The Game, our man crisply deposed, and just wanted to tell her that she was ‘no competition’.

Modern literary criticism – and quite a lot of fairly elderly literary criticism, if it comes to that – very often goes on about the necessity of separating the artist’s life from his work. B S Johnson’s life and work, as soon becomes apparent in this biography, were not so much inseparable as the same thing. Many contemporary pundits had a high opinion of his writing – Travelling People and Albert Angelo both featured in a mid-1960s TLS list of significant novels of the post-war era. No opinion, sadly, could be quite as lavish as that conceived by the talented author of himself. He was a vain man and the letters in which he summarily sacks agents or administers stinging rebukes to people who had failed to appreciate his talent are some of the most unintentionally funny ever committed to paper. ‘You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke’, ran his salute to the distinguished US publisher Tom Wallace, while he informed Deborah Rogers, taken on board to sell his overseas rights: ‘I enclose an up-to-date list of my credits, and am sure you will agree that there are only one or two other writers of my generation who achieved or published as much. . . . I would like to read your comments on your past failures and what you intend to do to assure future successes.’

In some ways the fact that Johnson could write this kind of rant (‘I know the book could not have been petulant written in any other way’, etc) and get away with it is a tribute to how seriously he was taken. With a few ominous exceptions, London publishers were prepared to put up with his moaning and his volcanic temperament until such time as the stridency became unbearable or Johnson cooked up one of his favourite schemes – a contract, criminally weighted in his favour, that would stop him having to double up as a sports journalist or television playwright. To vanity could be added deep depressive tendencies – he never really recovered from his mother’s death in 1971, and The Unfortunates is a kind of threnody to his dead friend Tony Tillinghurst – and an absolute romantic fatalism, whereby each rejection or ‘betrayal’ became a suppurating wound carried remorselessly from book to book. No doubt this is overstating the case. As Coe demonstrates, there were decent aesthetic reasons for Johnson’s tendency to turn each of his novels into an exercise in narcissistic self-pitying – more of this in a moment – but the effect on the reader, that fugitive, phantasmal presence (‘Anyone would think that I was writing for the PUBLIC’ ran a note once pinned above Johnson’s desk), can sometimes be rather lowering.

To understand the colossal fuss made about Johnson then and now – a fuss which, it should immediately be said, is well worth making – it is necessary to consider the context in which he wrote. The 1960s – Beckett-haunted, Joyce-fixated – were the silver age of home-grown literary experimentalism, full of wide-eyed madlads (and lasses) enthusiastically scrabbling around with syntactical innovation, cut-and-paste and dense interior monologues. Such works have not, generally speaking, stood the test of time. Back in 1967, however, the prospect was cheerful. As Johnson’s friend Eva Figes put it ten years later in a contribution to the New Review‘s symposium on ‘The State of Fiction’, ‘I was young enough to believe that I and a few other writers with similar ideas could change the face of English fiction.’ Well, as the lad Sir Kingsley Amis might have said, Eva Figes was wrong about that, wasn’t she? Johnson’s particular recipe for changing the face of English fiction, which Coe examines in forensic detail, was based on a single ingredient. He believed that fiction forfeits most of the validity it could otherwise claim as a record of human experience by ‘telling lies’. The closer, therefore. that the novel comes to the writer’s personal experience, the more authentic it will be. ‘Imagination’ was to be deplored, and if you wanted to write about conditions on board a deep-sea trawler (as Johnson did in Trawl) your first act should be to sign up for a month before the mast.

Depending on your theoretical vantage point, this is either a highly sophisticated view of the fictional process or, with its denial of imaginative sympathy, an extraordinarily stupid one. At any rate, it was the kind of thing that was being said all over the cultural landscape of thirty-five years ago. John Lennon, after all, once disparaged Paul McCartney’s ‘novelist’ songs about ‘boring people doing boring things – being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I like to write about me, cos I know me.’ (Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, 1994). Among several effective demolitions of the Johnson case, the most memorable is delivered in a letter by his fellow-novelist Gordon Williams, whose Booker-shortlisted From Scenes Like These (1968) is arguably more ‘experimental’ than anything Johnson wrote. Williams’s complaint, as Coe points out, is not about ‘technique’, but whether in the last resort Johnson’s books actually say anything meaningful about anything except the person who wrote them. Was it not self-indulgent, in fact, to set a book on a deep-sea trawler and focus not on its crew but on ‘the romantic disappointments of a protagonist who has a comfortable intellectual life in London to return to in three weeks’ time’? The crew of the Northern Jewel thought Johnson was slumming it (‘a pleasure tripper’) and said so. Johnson would have replied – did reply – that narcissism and self-pity are important to those who suffer from them, but the charge of solipsism is very hard to rebut.

In any case, no arrow ever fired at Johnson, whether by reader, disinterested friend, publisher or agent, had the slightest chance of hitting home. It was useless to complain that within the carapace of ‘experimentalism’ he had constructed around himself lay an imaginative ‘ordinary’ novelist trying to fight his way out: the theoretician in Johnson would always know better. (Incidentally the even more glacially avant-garde Christine Brooke-Rose came at him from the other side, maintaining that The Unfortunates was merely an attempt to dress up conventional social realism as something flash.)

Appropriately enough, given the frets and fractures of Johnson’s life, Like a Fiery Elephant (the phrase is Adrian Mitchell’s) is a deeply unconventional biography. Relying on a huge pile of documentation left by Johnson at his death, in which his widow allowed Coe J to roam, it is a kind of literary bouillabaisse into which fragments of critical theory, personal obsession (though I got the feeling that Coe was thoroughly exasperated by his exemplar by the time he finished), documentary and symposium have all been thrown. The nearest thing I can think of by way of critico-biographical comparison is Prancing Novelist, the late Brigid Brophy’s impassioned compendium on the life and works of Ronald Firbank. It is quite brilliant and will be of interest to about three hundred people. As for Johnson himself, you end up feeling that despite the epic self-centredness of the novels the work was really only a smokescreen to divert attention from a deeper turmoil. As Eva Figes puts it, ‘It might have worked better for him, both as a person and a writer, if he had been more in touch with his inner problems, and had really explored them in his writing. Instead he tried to seal off the seething cauldron. Truth became a lie, and the result was destructive.’ In November 1973 the cauldron boiled over. Typically, Coe is able to quote the valedictory postcard (‘This is my last word’). Thirty years later there remain only the fragments of a titanic ego and, scattered among the novels, some passages of startling lyrical beauty.


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