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Michael Dirda

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.

Travelling People (1963) was Johnson's first novel (each of its chapters composed in a different form -- letters, film script, etc.) and was followed by Albert Angelo (1964), the favorite of many of his fans. Apart from Christie Malry , it's the only book of Johnson's I've read and is an impressive work, though redolent of '60s experimentation. The portrait of a moody, introspective schoolteacher, Albert Angelo attracted particular notoriety for two rectangular slots neatly cut into Pages 149-152 so that the reader can peer into the future. In fact, this clever device doesn't seem that germane to the novel's purpose. All the same, this is an ambitious work of many styles, opening with play-like dialogue, shifting into double-columned pages reflecting what Albert is saying to his students and what he is actually thinking to himself, then modulating into a long internal monologue that focuses on the teacher's obsessive love for a woman who eventually leaves him. "Self delusion is the worst crime," Albert observes, just before his "onlie begetter," Johnson himself, unexpectedly steps into the novel to disparage all that we've just read:

"I'm trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality about sitting here writing looking out across Claremont Square trying to say something about the writing and nothing being an answer to the loneliness for the lack of loving."

There is a pleasing ambiguity in that last phrase, "nothing being an answer to the loneliness." All his life Johnson was obsessed with death. He periodically contemplated suicide and always dreaded the indignities and debilities of old age. In House Mother Normal (1971), the chapters are narrated by a succession of different, increasingly infirm and deranged nursing home patients. His last book, See the Old Lady Decently (1975), describes in clinical detail his mother's death from cancer.

Johnson's principal refuges from all the sheer bloody awfulness of the human condition were always art and love, with occasional support provided by humor and rage. He was lucky enough to be acclaimed for his early fiction and comforted by the devotion of a beautiful woman whom he adored. Alas, he was unlucky too, for when the editors and critics turned on his books and his ravishing wife began to grow restive, he found himself without the strength or resilience to cope, and so -- late one night, alone in his house -- he sat down in his bathtub and cut his wrists.

During the next 30 years, Johnson's work would pass into the limbo that succeeds any writer's death. Still, it's never been utterly forgotten, and this compulsively readable biography may give it a second chance. B.S. Johnson deserves a permanent, if modest, niche in the library of anyone who cares about 20th-century fiction. In an active career of little more than 10 years, he fought admirably for the freshly imagined against the dead weight of Victorian realism.

"Life," he insisted, "does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies." Instead, writers should seek to convey the truthfulness of their life and experience of the world. They must write "as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter." In this sense, all of Johnson's highly autobiographical work matters -- from his plays ("You're Human Like the Rest of Them," 1964) to his irresistibly titled collection of short pieces, Aren't You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973). Like God in a pantheistic universe, Johnson is everywhere in his diverse oeuvre.

Like a Fiery Elephant provides the best available introduction and guide to that oeuvre -- aside, of course, from the books themselves, which can be hard to find. Building on an abundance of quoted passages from Johnson's writing and papers, Coe reveals the multifaceted artist in all his intensity and periodic bellicosity, frankly envies his anchoritic work habits (long hours at his desk, graphs of his daily wordage) and sadly notes his steady overeating and drinking. Perhaps best of all, Coe lays out the threads of Johnson's life, shows how they might be convincingly knotted together and then chooses to leave them largely "untied, untidily."

B.S. Johnson brought to all his endeavors, in whatever medium, a personal zeal and forcefulness that sometimes crossed over into the boorish, and yet it's plain that he wasn't a writer because it was fun or would bring in buckets of cash, or somehow turn him into a celebrity. Worthwhile imaginative prose, he felt, needed to push hard against the limits, to extend and challenge the achievements of Joyce -- above all, to scorn the facile, commercial and false. Certainly Johnson lived by that ambitious and all too often thankless credo. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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