Michael Dirda

B.S. Johnson in 1968
B.S. Johnson in 1968 (From "Like A Fiery Elephant")
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 5, 2005

LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT: The Story of B.S. Johnson

By Jonathan Coe. Continuum. 486 pp. $29.95

Let me say -- flat out and without any of the usual reviewer's cavils -- that this is a wonderful biography. Jonathan Coe has spent seven years working on this "story" of the writer he describes as "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s." He's studied B.S. Johnson's seven novels, watched the innovative films he made, read his poetry and polemics, talked to all of the important people in his life and gone through the 20 boxes of papers he left behind after his suicide at the age of 40. All this groundwork is important, but what finally matters is the sheer vitality of Coe's engagement with Bryan Stanley Johnson. He writes with passionate admiration but also with hesitation, uncertainty. How can anyone really know or explain another man's life?

Coe is himself one of Britain's most laureled younger novelists, best known for What a Carve Up! (retitled The Winshaw Legacy in the United States) and The Rotter's Club . So it's not surprising that he brings a novelistic sense of pace and design to his biography -- even going so far as to set up a shock ending. Moreover, his own teasing speculations keep the reader actively caught up in what one might call the quest for Johnson. Coe opens with himself as a baffled 13-year-old watching Johnson's talky television documentary "Fat Man on a Beach" and closes with a mosaic chapter of summarizing anecdotes from 44 of the men and women whom Johnson loved or worked with. In between, he sets vividly before our eyes a man of great appetites and even greater ambition, a son of the London working class who barreled through life and literature "like a fiery elephant."

At the height of his fame, B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) was acclaimed as one of Britain's outstanding young writers -- corrosively funny, innovative in the design and form of his books, an heir to Joyce and Beckett. If American readers know any of the novels, it's probably Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973). The hero, a young clerical worker, decides to set up a system of moral bookkeeping in which society's insults to him are recompensed with equivalent penalties. Christie begins by exacting minor retributions -- he secretly defaces property, destroys letters -- but soon escalates to poisoning the London water supply and killing 20,000 people. Even that isn't enough to balance the ledger, as he sees it, and only an unexpected act of God manages to lead to a final closing of his account.

What makes this novel so sprightly are Johnson's deadpan tone, his gallows humor and a playful refusal of novelistic illusion. In Chapter 3, for instance, we meet Christie's dying mother:

"My son: I have for the purposes of this novel been your mother for the past eighteen years and five months to the day if I assume your conception to have taken place after midnight. Now that you have had your Great Idea and are set upon your life's work there is nothing further for me to do."

And so Johnson simply has the old lady die. However, her son must then arrange the funeral. Why, asks a supervisor, did Christie need to do it the very next working day? He answers, "There wasn't any more time. It's a short novel."

Now, C hristie Malry's Own Double-Entr y is unquestionably amusing, but it's hardly all that innovative. Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds employed the same narrative techniques (and others) with even greater flamboyance back in 1939, and Beckett's Murphy and Watt offer similar matey, tongue-in-cheek authorial confidences. Johnson knew these books, as well as Brechtian dramas in which actors play their parts "ironically" (the "alienation effect"). When I first encountered Christie Malry 10 years ago, I found it entertaining but slight and, after reading it again, don't see any reason to revise that opinion.

This is, in fact, the only problematic aspect of Coe's supremely entertaining book: Was Johnson really that original? His most controversial work, The Unfortunates (1969), appeared as a set of loose sheets in a box. As these could be read in any order -- aside from the fixed opening and closing sections -- they reflected the randomness of life and the myriad unforeseen accidents that beset each of us through the years. (The novel is, in part, an elegy for Johnson's friend Tony Tillinghast, who died young from cancer.) And yet, as Coe points out, the French writer Marc Saporta pioneered this loose-leaf notion in his Composition No. 1 , an experiment that Johnson knew about from its American edition.

Still, how can one adequately judge B.S. Johnson when, at least until recently, it's been so hard to find most of his books? For instance, Coe deeply admires Trawl (1966), which on the surface sounds intriguing: During an emotional crisis, the narrator -- roughly the author himself -- decides to voyage mentally through his earlier life while on a fishing boat trawling the Atlantic. The result, says Coe, is a "a sustained feat of muscular lyricism and unsparing scrutiny of the past."

At that point Johnson's own past included a working-class London childhood, failure in the all-important state exams, clerical work in a bank and bakeshop, after-hours study of Latin so that he might compete for a place at university and finally a degree in English from King's College London. During these early years, the young writer also fell under the spell of Robert Graves's celebrated study of the Muse, The White Goddess , encountered a cultivated homosexual soulmate who may have exercised an almost occult influence over him and suffered through various love affairs -- one with an older, married woman, another with a siren who troubled his dreams for years. Eventually, though, this big, overweight depressive managed to woo and wed Virginia Kimpton, who was invariably described by all who met her as ravishingly beautiful. They were to have a son and daughter.

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