Guest Review: Kay Sexton


Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
Jonathan Coe
477 pages

All teaching must be simplification,
and to simplify is to falsify:
how to teach the landscape of the complex heart
to those who have no wish to learn: and why?

This final stanza from B.S. Johnson’s poem “Basic Landscape” written in 1964, could stand as a metaphor for the life-and death-of this troubled and innovative writer. Jonathan Coe, an award-winning novelist in his own right, has tackled a daunting subject, not just because Johnson was a complicated man and sometimes impenetrable writer, but because Coe finds himself exploring the nature of the novel, and the nature of the writer of novels, through Johnson’s eyes. The perspective of a man who found writing to be an inadequate bulwark against the system often provides an uncomfortable viewpoint.

Bryan Stanley William Johnson was born in 1933. He wrote seven novels, two volumes of poetry, and many plays and scripts as well as articles and what can only be called polemics. He committed suicide in November 1973 after a series of literary and emotional disappointments apparently overwhelmed him. But the bare bones of fact cannot begin to clothe the astonishing reality of B.S. Johnson: a larger than life man in both the literal and the literary sense.

One of the many strands that Jonathan Coe brings to his complex delineation of Johnson is the fatefulness of coincidence. When Coe was a boy his family watched a documentary featuring Johnson because he was talking about a part of Wales they visited on holidays. They found it so odd and distasteful it was switched off, but Coe had been exposed to the man whom he would later spend eight years and five hundred pages exploring.

Life throws such coincidences in everybody’s path, but only the writer notes them, or perhaps even notates them. Johnson himself had a complicated relationship to fate, believing that he had seen his muse-the White Goddess as described by Robert Graves, she who is the tyrannical overseer of poetry-and that she had condemned him to die in his twenty-ninth year. As a result he was intensely superstitious and picked up paper clips in the street promising them a ‘good home.’ Perhaps he saw them as the portents of the Goddess.

Why did Jonathan Coe choose B.S. Johnson to write about? He never seems quite clear himself about his reasons, and admits to exasperation with his subject on many occasions. What Coe does in this book is undermine and subvert his own process of biography, using many of the techniques that Johnson propounded, to reveal how important Johnson was to the literary world in which he moved. In just over a decade this elephantine man, with his massive productivity, explored the novel form as thoroughly as his hero, Samuel Beckett, and fought against the boundaries of writing not just thematically, but in terms of design, production, specialization, and even contractually!

Let’s take that last point first: in 1965 Secker and Warburg agreed to pay Johnson on what was essentially a salaried basis, a two-book contract over three years with the sum of 180 to be paid quarterly. This was unheard of then, and certainly isn’t common now. Johnson was ebullient that a publisher was, ‘acknowledging that a writer is worth keeping alive by paying him a living wage’. Sadly, this pioneering contract didn’t cause a surge of salaried writers, but B.S. Johnson could serve as a patron saint for novelists for that one achievement.

But he did so much more: his seven novels were astonishingly innovative. From the holes cut in the pages of Albert Angelo, to the ten viewpoints of a single action in House Mother Normal, to the blanks in the text of See the Old Lady Decently where the reader is to fill in her own details of the scenery, he pushed the form of the novel to breaking point. That he, not the novel, was the one to break, is a bitterly tender story of an intensely solitary and loyal man who felt he had been left alone all his life: first as an evacuee, then by one publisher and agent after another, sometimes by his White Goddess, and finally, tragically, by his wife.

B.S. Johnson took pride in his working-class origins, but it is typical of his somewhat obtuse understanding that he should have misinterpreted the misspelled ‘firy elephant’ in a young pupil’s essay as ‘fiery elephant’ rather than the traditional and well-loved London expression, ‘fairy elephant.’ Given that the epithet was used to describe his own gait, it is equally typical of his own self-deprecating humor that he should have used the story so freely against himself: whether fiery or fairy, he could take a joke form time to time. But not that often.

Johnson is revealed as an intensely serious writer, who played with form not for the sake of innovation but because he detested story telling as lies, and wished to rescue the novel from Victorian ornamentation and restore it to the pinnacle of experimental truth as the ‘novel as life’. This is why he takes part in a fishing trip on a commercial trawler-to gather material. This is why the pages of one of his books are black at the point when a less committed novelist would give the interior monologue of a character. Johnson cannot, because it isn’t ‘true’ that we can see the thoughts of another. And the terrible blind alley that Johnson traveled is obvious: if a novel has to be lived to be written, how many novels can any novelist produce? How can any writer make a living if he or she will only be able to write the distillation of life once they’ve lived it? Suppose nothing happens worth recording? Is the novelist ‘worth keeping alive’ then? Johnson decided not. He killed himself in his fortieth year, having outlived his own self-ordained lifetime by over a decade, and Jonathan Coe has celebrated that complex life in a fashion Johnson himself might have approved.

Kay Sexton is Associate Editor for Night Train and a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner with columns at Moondance and The Run Down. Her website gives details of her current and forthcoming publications. Her current focus is “Green Thought in an Urban Shade” a collaboration with the painter Fion Gunn to explore and celebrate the parks and urban spaces of Beijing, Dublin, London and Paris in words and images.


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