B. S. Johnson’s final novel, the first part of the never-completed Matrix Trilogy, has been out of print for decades. To buy a copy, even in the shabbiest condition, costs a minimum of about a hundred pounds. So, I’ve joined the British Library with the intention of reading all of my beloved Johnson’s obscure works before the end of the summer. I decided to begin where it, he, ended.
See The Old Lady Decently is a confusing and fragmentary novel about Johnson’s mother, her life, his birth, the process of writing and the collapse of the British Empire over the course of the twentieth century. As that list perhaps makes clear, the book is nothing if not ambitious.
By the time he wrote this, Bryan Stanley Johnson was severely depressed. Incredibly unhappy. His mother’s death from cancer in 1971 increased his fear of the growing, internal, invisible disease that he had engaged with so fully in The Unfortunates, the novel about his response to his friend Tony Tillinghast’s premature death. The Unfortunates is beautiful, heart-wrenching and magical… An experiment in form and style that works, perfectly, due to the sheer majesty and emotion locked within his words. Johnson could write, he sure as hell could write, but See The Old Lady Decently (particularly when compared with the film Fat Man On A Beach, the other major work of his final year), falls a little flat.
Johnson was trying to do too much. Trying to convey too much, too many things, transmit too many ideas and say too much. It’s short, too, 140 pages, and it refers throughout to the second and third volumes that he would never live to write. Maybe with more time, with more work, more pages, he could have, would have, might have, tied all his strands together, but as this posthumous text stands, it is far from the crass comic brilliance of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, the dark experimentalism of House Mother Normal, the funky modernism of Albert Angelo, Trawl… There should be this plus 200% more at the end. And there isn’t. And it shows.
I said above that the novel is “fragmentary”, and I mean that literally. There are various threads, signified by coded chapter headings, that tell differing narratives at various speeds. Letters sent from home from the trenches of the First World War written by his mother’s father, Peter Lambaird, describe the loss of hope and idealisation of home; complex passages with all nouns allowing specificity removed chronicling the history of Britain and its Empire; farcical imaginings of the sex lives of his mother’s colleagues in the restaurant she worked at in the 1920s; poems, gradually evolving in space and size to conclude with the word breast repeated in the shape of a breast, with nnc, cancer, hiding in the centre; a potted history of British politics during his mother’s life up until his birth; long quotations from his father detailing the courtship of his parents; short quotations from the psychologist Erich Neumann; dirty jokes; and occasional digressions into the writer’s present, where Johnson wrote about his children, his home, his friends, his interests, what he was eating, what he had been doing… The sections detailing Johnson’s life as he was living it were the strongest bits, in my opinion, and the closest to the aesthetic of his earlier, (to me) better, works.
‘Telling stories is telling lies’ is probably the most quoted line Bryan ever wrote (except for possibly “FUCK ALL THIS LYING”, which rather makes the same point), but See The Old Lady Decently is full of lies. And here, unlike the lies, the stories, in other books, he doesn’t bother to make it clear what is and what isn’t fictional. The novel includes printed photocopies of the official letters sent to his grandmother on the death of her husband in Ypres*, so a reader can presume those are true. When Johnson writes that he is quoting his father, or various academics, one can presume he is doing so. But other letters, other documents, how far they have been fabricated… is ambiguous. And due to the clearly made up farce sections about Virrels, the Belgian chef, a reader is inclined to see the possibility for fabrication, for fictionalisation, in every page of the book. The closing set-piece, in itself a highlight, tells of Johnson’s growth in the womb and subsequent birth… But there is supposition, presumption, fabrication, all over the place. This is not a novel rooted in Truth, it is not making a clear point well, telling a strong story, tearing apart the British establishment the way it perhaps intended to…
See The Old Lady Decently made me laugh, it made me think, and it made me smile. But it did not slap me in the face with the raw taste of human openness, actuality and honesty that I expect from Johnson’s works… There is too much in here, too much that doesn’t match up. And it’s sad, it’s always sad to see someone you respect weak, crumbling, falling apart. As was his marriage. As were his finances. As were, in his eyes, his career.
What this book says about B. S. Johnson is fascinating, is important, is valuable. However, what it says about the decline of Great Britain, what it says about romance in the 1920s, about being born, about dying at Ypres… I’m afraid to say, isn’t.
I’ve said this before, and I will say it again, but please do try as hard as you can to watch Fat Man On A Beach. It is a beautiful portrait of a marvellous man. The most moving thing about See The Old Lady Decently, for me, is its failure. It could have, with time and two more volumes, been a real achievement. But, as much as it pains me to say it, I’m not surprised it’s out of print.
Expect a lot of Johnson over the next few weeks…**
*Which is so offensively impersonal it really hammers home the frequency and politically-perceived meaninglessness of death during that conflict.
** Said the actor to the bishop.