Bryan Stanley Johnson did not write ordinary novels so it’s fitting that this is no ordinary biography. Jonathan Coe unfurls the life of BS Johnson through summaries of his work, extracts from the author’s novels, poems, articles and correspondence and selected interview statements from people close to our Bryan.
Despite publishing seven novels the term “fiction” must be used with caution where Johnson is concerned. His mantra was “telling stories is telling lies” and his attempts to present the truth in his fiction became one of his obsessions. This seems a naive concept considering that stories are not objective and present selective information.
Johnson saw the world in black and white rather than shades of grey, but being economical with the truth is inevitable, just as he was when he deleted a section from Albert Angelo. It might have revealed too much personal info about his own friendship with a man named Michael Bannard; a relationship that remains shrouded in mystery.
Johnson was all about extremes and lack of compromise. He often had a very high opinion of himself and could be abusive and condescending. He once wrote to the publisher Thomas Wallace: “You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke. I don’t know how you came to read my novels in the opposite order to that in which they were intended to be read, but, for your information, ALBERT ANGELO was reviewed by the Sunday Times here as by ‘one of the best writer’s we’ve got’, and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett…”
While these claims are true, the way in which Johnson reminded people of this at every opportunity became quite comical and it’s almost as if he was trying to convince himself that he was in the premier league of literature. He even went as far as to write this to the chief obstetrician at St Bartholomew’s in the summer of 1965:
I enclose a copy of my novel TRAVELLING PEOPLE for you. On the publication of my second, ALBERT ANGELO, the Sunday Times called me ‘one of the best writer’s we’ve got’, and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett. If you have already read these books, you will know that they are based upon a relatively new technique of truth to all experience.
However, it seems I am to be denied the opportunity of a most profound and important experience: of being present with my wife Virginia when our first child is born at your hospital on or about July 24th.
May I respectfully ask you for allow me (sic) to be present at all stages of the birth? I have recently seen films of labour and delivery at the National Childbirth Trust (where my wife has attended classes) and have read appropriately: I am therefore prepared for what should normally happen.
Hoping you will grant this reasonable request,
I think it unlikely that your average obstetrician would have the time or notion to read such experimental work. This shows that Johnson’s sense of reality overlapped with fiction even at serious moments in his life. He was also prone to providing notes and manifestos and so on to back up his writing. On the one hand he felt the need to defend himself prior to criticism and on the other he thought others were too thick to grasp the depth of his vision. These swings between self-doubt and sheer arrogance were an important part of his character and would play a part in his downfall.
Johnson’s brashness meant he was pretty skilled in the art of receiving funding, something that outraged the Daily Mail (what’s new?). They ran a piece entitled They’re Giving Away YOUR Money to Spoonfeed Hippy “Art”. Johnson was singled out for criticism along with Glaswegian beat writer Alexander Trocchi. The latter was described as a ‘former pornographer and self-confessed heroin addict’ while Johnson was accused of bleeding the English Arts Council dry by scooping grants of over 3,000 quid in three years before moving on to its Welsh equivalent.
“What sort of books does he write? One contained blank pages covered in grey or black to signify unconsciousness and death; another had holes cut in pages so readers could glimpse through to see what was going to happen.” – The Daily Mail.
I like to imagine an indignant Daily Mail journalist returning his copy of Albert Angelo to the bookshop, complaining he has been sold faulty goods and then feeling such a fool that he decides to take revenge on the author. Wishful thinking perhaps as it’s not very likely that anyone at the Daily Mail went as far as actually reading any books by the writers they were criticising. Johnson was enraged – particularly about being described as a hippy since he hated the 60’s counter-culture – and threatened to sue. The rag printed a public apology and paid him damages of 250 quid; not bad money in 1970 and more power to the author’s bank account.
The Unfortunates made a huge impression on me when I read it some years ago. I don’t deny that it was at the back of my mind when I wrote Countries of the World, a novel/fictional memoir, which combines football writing with a narrative that is not very plot driven. The Unfortunates was also something of a novelty in the sense that it came in a box with loose sections that were to be read in random order bar the first and the last. Johnson got this idea from a Frenchman called Marc Saporta whose novel Composition No.1 had been published some years earlier. It may sound like another promotional gimmick but there is a lot more to The Unfortunates. This fine novel centres on the death of a close friend of Johnson’s from cancer, but it does not come across as morbid or depressing.
Funnily enough, one of the few parts of Coe’s biography that I did not enjoy was Johnson’s report of the 1966 World Cup Final. Perhaps I’m leaving myself open to accusations of Scottish bias, but I don’t see what the most long-winded match report in history (5 pages of the biography) adds to the story. It doesn’t tell us anything about Johnson since we already know that he reported on football (life experience that he used to good effect in The Unfortunates).
But Coe’s biography leaves me thirsting for more. Trawl is likely to be next on my list. The decision to set his third novel on a fishing boat led Johnson to spend some weeks at sea aboard a working trawler since he could not commit the sacrilege of writing about something that he had not directly experienced.
BS Johnson died in 1973. For those who know little about his fate (most of us I guess but his suicide at the age of 40 is no secret), Like a Fiery Elephant gathers momentum as the intrigue and suspense builds. What did he do in his final hours and who he did he spend them with? I won’t spoil it any further by explaining where the strange title comes from. But a word of caution; as with Johnson’s novels don’t expect the loose ends to be tidied up. Life isn’t like that just as the man himself would have told you.