BS Johnson Gets His Biography
But The Unfortunates was written so well that I read it three or four times, without thinking to change the page order.
When I got to university I searched the dusty cormers of the library for Johnson's other books, and found that I was the first person to borrow some of them since Kendrick Smithyman thirty years earlier. (And Smithyman didn't really count, because he'd borrowed everything. A friend of mine who taught in the English Department used to have a competition with a couple of his colleagues - they'd try to find a book which didn't have the name K Smithyman written on the LOAN card tucked in its back cover.)
I looked around for writing about Johnson in literary journals, and found nothing much besides a snide little article in the Times Literary Supplement about the problems which the unique format of The Unfortunates caused uptight British librarians. It was years before I learnt that the great man wasn't just suffering from writer's block or unsympathetic editors, but had died, by his own hand, in 1974, aged only forty.
It's good to see that one of the most unusual modern English novelists is now getting his just critical rewards, in the form of a big fat book by Jonathan Coe called Like a Fiery Elephant: The Life of BS Johnson. Frank Kermode writes a typically thoughtful review of the books here.
To whet your appetite, here is Kermode's quick summary of Coe's extended treatment of Johnson's novels:
His main interest is in the novels, and early in the book he provides a useful potted version of each of the seven. It was the more necessary to do so, since some of them have been hard to find; but there is now a new 'omnibus' volume from Picador containing Albert Angelo, Trawl and House Mother Normal. Picador have also in recent years nobly reproduced The Unfortunates in its box, and reprinted Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. For Johnson's first novel, Travelling People, and his last, See the Old Lady Decently, one had best try Amazon.
Coe describes Travelling People as concealing under 'a veneer of stylistic adventurousness . . . a conventional enough Bildungsroman' which mingles fiction and autobiography in a manner Johnson soon came to deplore. Each chapter is done in a different style, a homage to Ulysses, but this did not save it from its author's condemnation as a story, not the truth. Albert Angelo was meant to correct that fault. In its scattered, episodic way it tells the tale of a young architect forced to work as a supply teacher while lamenting the loss of - or, as he prefers to put it, his betrayal by - a girlfriend: an obsessively recurring theme in Johnson's work, so that even the devoted Coe gets fed up with it.
But this book made it obvious, if its predecessor hadn't quite done so, that Johnson was a strong writer; he had a wide range of interests and treated them in resourceful prose. His real enemy was not what he thought of as the inevitable falsity of stories but an agonised egotism, the sense that it was essential but impossible to tell the whole truth about himself. Warburg, who preferred novels, was right to think he would be fobbed off with a series of autobiographies. Johnson wanted his books to be entirely about himself, as he sat there in his familiar room writing them. He greatly admired Frank Harris's My Life and Loves, until he heard that Harris told lies. He might have admired Rousseau and eventually been disillusioned again. Not that he read Rousseau; his reading was scattered and he didn't seem to understand that his troubles were not uniquely his, that it is well known that autobiography and fiction share a very unstable frontier.
Trawl, the third novel, is hardly a novel at all, though Johnson perversely insisted on saying it was. It is an autobiographical account, 'all interior monologue', of three weeks passed in a deep sea trawler. Amid the discomforts of his passage the author reflects on or trawls his past, his sorrows and betrayals, his experience as a wartime evacuee. When he reaches port, his wife, who was to give him some years of relative happiness, is waiting on the quayside. Coe finds this conclusion 'too pat', and Johnson himself might have thought it involved a certain illicit manipulation of the facts, a concession to story, the enemy of truth. But Trawl has magnificent pages and can claim to be his best-written book.
The Unfortunates, the famous novel-in-a-box, was published in 1969. As I have already remarked, the randomness it aspires to is much reduced by the fact that the first and last sections are blatantly identified as such. In between are 25 sections one is invited to read in any order, a muddle in the middle. Johnson had been a football reporter on a Sunday paper, and his story is accordingly of a football reporter who goes to Nottingham to cover a game. A very close friend of his had lived there, though, with a vague gesture to Kafka, this man is said not to recognise the city. Eventually he makes his way slowly towards the stadium. We follow haphazardly, as he laments the death of his friend from cancer at 29. Mourning is randomly interspersed with other remarks on the protagonist's past, and comments on Nottingham architecture. The general effect is excellent; once again Johnson proves that his powers as a writer can withstand his quixotic attempt to overcome the hated restrictions imposed on his truth-telling by the odious convention of binding up paper, each page in its due and boring order, into artefacts known as books.
Formal experimentation continues in House Mother Normal (1971), which consists of a series of monologues by the inmates of an old folks' home, each further gone in senility than his or her predecessor. This regress is signalled not only by increases in mental confusion but by typography less and less coherent, the type straying over the page, and with some pages simply blank. As Coe explains, there are ten sections each of 21 pages, and the same event occurs on the same page, and on the same line, in all the sections. Coe argues that this makes the book 'richly polyphonic'. The House Mother has the final word: she describes herself as 'the concoction of a writer' - another sop to Johnson's conscientious objection to making things up.
The most amusing of the novels (and Johnson had considerable comic talents) is the brief Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973). Christie is a clerk in a Hammersmith cake factory (as Johnson himself had once been). Having mastered double-entry book-keeping (which I have heard described as the invention that made the modern world possible), Christie applies the principle - 'every Debit must have its Credit' - to his own dealings with that world. Whenever he suffers an injustice he credits his side of the ledger appropriately. Beginning with trifles, he progresses to larger evils. 'Socialism not given a chance' is balanced by £311,398. He ends by murdering 20,000-odd Londoners by poisoning their water supply. The number is selected because it is, roughly, the number of words in the novel. The Offence for which this slaughter provided Recompense was committed by Them. The book rattles along, its lexicon full of mysterious words like helmnuthoid, retripotent, campaniform, sufflamination, ungraith and brachyureate. There is much enjoyable fun at the expense of the author's own narcissism.
The last novel, See the Old Lady Decently, was meant to be the first of a trilogy about the life of Johnson's mother and the contemporaneous decline of Britain. It covers the time between his mother's birth in 1908 and his own in 1933. Published posthumously (1975), it is a complicated book, mixing facts about his mother's youth as a waitress with documents including letters from her father in the army and facsimiles of the official correspondence concerning his death. Despite the degree of organisation implied by the numerical coding of the chapters, Coe can describe the book as 'diverse and fragmentary'. The medley includes concrete poems, extracts from Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, and an elaborate account of the progress of a foetus (himself) from conception to birth, so Coe's stricture seems just, if a little severe.
It is part of Johnson's charm that he has so many ways of making the medley interesting. He can explain his worship of the White Goddess and tell bawdy jokes, offering Chaucer as a precedent. The jokes may not be up to much, but in the end it seems right to admire the author's nerve...