I first read B. S. Johnson years after first learning of him. His (somewhat infamous) “book in a box”, The Unfortunates, was regularly cited as an extreme example of “high modernist experimentalism” during the sweeping “THIS IS LITERATURE” module my undergraduate degree opened with. I was more impressed, then, by Martin Amis’ ribald hypersexuality, and though intrigued by the idea of an unorthodox book, I never looked it or its author up.
Then, a few years later, working in the BIG CITAY, I decided to treat myself to a copy of this expensive “novelty” book. I read it in a single sitting one rainy Saturday afternoon and wept and wept and wept. Johnson’s memorial to a dead friend is beautifully crafted, deeply moving and its form is an apt and justifiable reflection of the swirling thoughts it contains. I wanted more. So bought myself The BS Johnson Omnibus a few months later and, last Summer, read Albert Angelo, Trawl and House Mother Normal. Then Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. And that’s it. If I want to read either of his other two novels I’ll have to get entry to a copyright library or pay £100 for an original edition.
So I mentally drew a line under reading more Johnson*, until I became aware of the structure of Jonathan Coe’s fantastic biography.
Playing with form in a way that would have made Johnson proud, Coe punctuates the main bulk of the text with 160 fragments of writings by Johnson himself. These include letters, notes, journalistic articles, unpublished work and all manner of snippets from the many scripts, poems, stories and novels that he wrote. Coe allows Johnson, who maintained a belief in the necessity of Truth in literature, to speak himself, to (wherever possible) narrate his own life. And built up around this are quotations from friends, family members, acquaintances, etc., all of which paint the picture of a talented (but troubled) individual.
Johnson’s glowing belief in his own importance is a running theme – his feelings of deserving recognition, wealth, fame, success… His insistence on his working class heritage, yet his sports car, wealthy (and apparently beautiful – in the words of many of his friends) wife, nice house and numerous establishment connections hardly made him that as an adult. He was a depressive, a drinker, he travelled a reasonable amount around Europe, he was friends with Beckett, he made difficult short films (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ptF4tJ0AEQ), he had raging arguments with numerous people, he had feuds, he hated critics, he abused strangers… He was opinionated and deeply committed to his opinions. He was contradictory. He hated hippies and 1960s counterculture, yet he wanted to be part of an “avant grade” – he was deeply attracted to an idea of London and an idea of literature that was dying/dead/half-fantasy. He put all the responsibility of his happiness onto his wife and, when he felt like his marriage was over, killed himself.
The book made me cry. Not for the sense of loss of an (in my opinion) literary great, but for the sadness that tinges every single quotation from a friend – and he had many – that Coe includes. There is such compassion, such care for this belligerent, self-important man that one cannot help but see his personality, and his charm, through their remembrances of him. People are frank, these are not rose-tinted recollections, but even when listing his faults there is such clear… love (I don’t know if that’s what I mean), affection, for him, for the memory of him…
He was sad and he was strange, but he wrote beautifully and Coe’s book is a vivid, compelling and moving exploration of a fascinating, lost, figure.
If you have any interest in Johnson, I’d give this a read. A real treat. (Desperation, Depression and Decline – ticked all my boxes.)
*Ironically, since I did so Picador has published a collection of his plays and shorter writings that I am yet to read…
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