Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson 
by Jonathan Coe.
Picador, 486 pp., £20, June 2004, 9780330350488
Show More
‘Trawl’, ‘Albert Angelo’ and ‘House Mother Normal’ 
by B.S. Johnson.
Picador, 472 pp., £14.99, June 2004, 0 330 35332 2
Show More
Show More

B.S. Johnson died by his own hand in 1973. He was 40, and the author of seven novels, all of them rather odd in ways that put publishers off because their oddities made them expensive to produce and hard to sell. He bullied the publishers haughtily and often got his way, though at some cost to himself: the books were hard to sell. Fred Warburg, responding to Johnson’s peremptory complaints about a paperback advance beneath his dignity, explained to him that his ‘ideas about how novels should be written are, if not unique, at least held by a tiny, but tiny minority’. Warburg saw Johnson’s manic insistence that his novels should contain no lies as a threat that he would produce nothing but a string of varied autobiographies, and he suggested that if, as he expected, he lost money on them, he would hold the author to his promise to remedy the situation by producing ‘a brilliant bunch of lies’. But he knew that Johnson would consider such fiction ‘a vulgar pandering to an ill-informed public’.

Johnson went his own way, not only in novels but also in film and television scripts. Convinced of his stature, he grew more and more angry about his poor sales. He was proud of being quite well known but could not see why he wasn’t marketable. Though always ready to quote, again and again, any favourable comment, he regarded publishers, agents and reviewers as stupid and venal. He was not without discerning admirers, and won the admiration and friendship of Samuel Beckett, with whom he occasionally claimed equality of esteem. But he failed to see that avant-garde novelists rarely become bestsellers, believing that truth would necessarily prevail over fictions (lies). He defended and advanced his cause with much emphasis; one of the children he taught as a supply teacher called him a ‘fiery elephant’, which is where Coe gets his title (though he thinks the child meant to call his enormous instructor a ‘fairy elephant’ ).

It may be true that in the 1960s and early 1970s Johnson was, as Coe’s publishers maintain, ‘one of the best-known young novelists in Britain’, but his celebrity quickly faded. Now, as this large biography attests, there has been a revival of interest. Coe has worked on his book for years, occasionally lamenting the loss of time that might have been devoted to writing fiction, his main business. While he has been labouring in the huge archive preserved by the author’s widow, others have done their bit to bring Johnson back into the conversation. Nicolas Tredell’s Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B.S. Johnson, a very well-informed book, was published by Paupers’ Press in 2000, and Philip Tew’s B.S. Johnson: A Critical Reading (Manchester), a heavier, more philosophical study, followed in 2001. Tew projects onto Johnson his special interests, which involve many darkly erudite meditations by the philosopher Roy Bhaskar. Johnson is credited with having employed a kind of analysis that permits ‘the multiple diffraction of dialectics as dialectics to accord with the complexities, angularities and nuances of our pluriversal world’. I cannot decide whether I think Johnson would have been pleased to know this. On the other hand, Tredell’s lucid and respectful commentary might have impressed him. If a reappraisal was called for, Tredell showed how it could be done. However, if Johnson is to become, in his fashion, canonical, it will probably be as a consequence of Coe’s more elaborate act of devotion.

The restoration to favour of forgotten books and authors is always a chancy business. It is a myth that time will do the testing; it would be truer to credit chance, and, more important still, the continuation of reasonably well-informed talk. Sometimes it is possible to guess why, in one case and not in another, that talk continues. Many have argued that a book’s defiance of contemporary opinion and convention is itself an index of virtue, that some element of ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarisation’ is a preservative, and that too easy a compliance with accepted norms is bound to result in oblivion. Literary transgressiveness, often reflecting radical social and political opposition, can thus be taken as a justification for rescue work. It may be, as Roman Jakobson believed, that its virtue lies in its power to protect us from ‘automatisation, from the rust threatening our formulae of love and hatred, of revolt and renunciation, of faith and negation’. Since the transgressive has this value it will be worth much effort to recover lost examples of it.

In its nature the transgressive will tend to be ‘experimental’. Sometimes it may be startlingly so, as it was in some French novels, especially the nouveau roman, which had the advantage of Robbe-Grillet’s own theoretical comments, and the invaluable support of Roland Barthes and other influential voices. The English avant-garde novel was, at least until quite recently, a bit short on theory, though Christine Brooke-Rose has done what she could to put that right. What tends to be ignored is the degree to which practically all the modern novelists now admired, though not for their technical stunts, have gone in for ‘experiment’, from James, Ford and Conrad and Joyce to, say, Golding and Ian McEwan. Lawrence saw how much might be done in a novel, how free it could be of constraints, how apt to the business of making it new; the novel was protean, insisting on its own virtually infinite possibilities, experimental in its very nature.

Johnson was fond of Sterne, and aware that from an early moment of the novel’s modern career it was possible to use the flexibility and variety of the form to make fun of narrative convention, and even to set up comic resonances between typography and story. You didn’t have to tell the tale in chronological order. You didn’t have to stick to an ‘omniscient’ point of view. You could do the most extraordinary things, enabling you to go far beyond the possibilities of straightforward story. But while Johnson admired the treatment of time in Wuthering Heights, he shows no interest at all in James, Conrad or Ford. Conrad understood how certain contiguities, certain repeated motifs, could be allowed to interrupt the chronological progress of a story; Ford learned from the French about such matters as the ‘progression of effects’, defying simple sequentiality.

All such experiment continues an ancient tradition of intercalating elements of a different narrative in a principal narrative – witness the Odyssey and the Gospels (Salome and John the Baptist). Johnson’s plan to revolutionise the novel came down to the use of ‘devices’ intended to disrupt ordinary forms of attention by involving the physical book itself, the material base of writing, in unusual ways, as if to take revenge on it for a long history of tyranny. The most striking but by no means the only instances are the hole cut in a page of his novel Albert Angelo and the presentation, in The Unfortunates, of a box containing a bundle of unbound gatherings to be read in random order. Of these more later.

Johnson was very serious about these innovations, but they kidnap the notion of experiment or estrangement by making it appear that the violation of narrative order in the interests of what he thought of as truth must be blatant. In fact these tricks simply prompt one to ask what the point of this sort of innovation really is. They distract attention from the novel, the true interest of which is independent of them. Johnson must have been aware of this when he agreed with his publisher to label the first and last gatherings of The Unfortunates as opening and close, to avoid confusing readers, thereby greatly reducing the randomness he had wanted to prevail, but giving his readers a break. Since there isn’t a great deal of development in the story anyway, what is left is not very different from a conventional presentation. The book is interesting and well written, but it has never been the primary topic of discussion, the sensationally loose gatherings in the box having pre-empted that position.

Johnson was a stubborn man, but he must have had some notion of this. His attention was reserved for the manipulation of the more material aspects of books. If he had known the word, he would have cared as little about ‘narratology’ (still not admitted to the OED) as Lawrence might have done. Some time around 1972 he came once or twice with his agent, Michael Bakewell, to a seminar at University College London, attended by students and lecturers but open to interested visitors. I can’t now remember anything he said, but he made himself welcome, and my memory is of a large and genially argumentative presence. He enjoyed the relative informality of the occasion and enjoyed the arguments, taking part in them but less ferociously than Coe would lead one to expect. The seminar included graduate students fresh from Paris, from the classrooms of Barthes and Gérard Genette, who had so elegantly explained ‘anachrony’ and the way narrative can defy chronology. In Genette’s analepses, prolepses, syllepses and the like in ‘classical’ narrative Johnson could summon little interest, though these words relate to matters that did concern him. He was a little like Casaubon, slaving at his system but taking no notice of what the clever Germans had been doing for the best part of a century; but this analogy breaks down when one remembers that Casaubon’s results were meaningless, while Johnson’s results were his forceful and idiosyncratic novels.

His basic error arose from his belief that the truth of narratives was incompatible with the usual way of presenting them: that is, in books which by their very technology insisted on a spurious sequentiality. At the same time, he thought that the neglect of all manner of various typographic opportunities, long since exploited by Sterne and now shamefully ignored, was another enemy of the truth. That the material structure of books can affect their contents is of course true. The use of the codex in preference to the scroll made for a decisive difference between the Gospels and the books of the Hebrew Bible; the codex made easily available relationships between pages remote from one another, and these books, with numbered and turnable pages, may have influenced the writers and probably affected the early course of the new religion.

The modern book descends from the codex, not the scroll, and it inherits and develops the advantages of the form. Resonances between remote parts of a story can be achieved without cutting holes in pages: a regressive technique, which is expensive and does nothing that cannot be done without the bother. But Johnson wanted the reader to see through three lines at the end of page 149 of Albert Angelo and read on page 153 an account of the fight at Deptford in which Marlowe received a ‘mortal wound above his right eye’. The reference to that historical moment is what Genette would call a ‘heterodiegetic analepsis’, and, horrible as that sounds, the effect it specifies can be achieved without cutting holes in the pages. There was no need of the famous hole, though the hole and the frantic conclusion of the book are what people think about first when they turn their attention to Albert Angelo. The conclusion is a rhetorical trick enacting a great burst of candour; Johnson abruptly breaks off the story and says he will now tell only the truth: ‘fuck all this lying . . . whats the point in covering up covering up covering over . . . I want to tell the truth about me . . . if I start falsifying in telling stories then I move away from the truth of my truth which is not good.’ Telling the truth means holes in the page and typographical variation, chapters in random order, as if the book, to contain truth, needs to be a model of the author’s mind, or of the universe. But he can’t stop telling stories even in that final section.

Coe is a devoted biographer though not entirely happy in his work, wishing he was not telling the truth about Johnson but writing his own lying novels. He departs agreeably from the normal procedures of the biographer, sometimes a little in the manner of The Quest for Corvo. He provides copious quotation from the novels/autobiographies and the filmscripts and football reports, as well as from surviving acquaintances of the author. Now and then he lets the spotlight play on himself, as he visits Johnsonian haunts or trawls through that huge archive.

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.

For someone who died at 40 he wrote quite a lot, and intelligent people who knew him found him to be intelligent as well as huge and perverse. Coe does him justice, fascinated by his sentimental and generous style of life and his ineradicable conviction of his own slighted genius. He was self-destructive, intense in his friendships, unlucky in love, but perhaps making more of that than most people feel they should. He could, without blushing, apply to himself the lines of Hopkins:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold
them cheap
May who ne’er hung there . . .

Like other poets, he had a religious sense but no religion, except for the White Goddess, whom he found in Robert Graves. Having experienced an epiphany, he had a strong though not entirely easy personal connection with this goddess, believing she would ensure that he would never have a happy love, and that he would die at 29. Michael Bakewell, the agent he settled with after insulting all the others, saw him as a tormented character with an ever-deepening sense of the unfairness of the world. Coe catches quite brilliantly his arrogance (of those ‘Oxbridge bastards’ he could say: ‘Not only are your novels not as good as mine, but you haven’t even started’) and quotes from Graves’s The White Goddess the story of Little Gwion, ‘a person of no importance’ who accidentally lit on some mysteries, became an adept, and ‘began to despise the professional bards of his time because they did not understand the rudiments of their traditional poetic lore’. ‘Bryan Johnson, isn’t it?’ asked Coe. And then he found Johnson’s own copy of Graves’s book, with that passage underlined. A pleasant reward for a conscientious though temporary biographer, who can now get on with his novels.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 26 No. 17 · 2 September 2004

Frank Kermode says that ‘narratology’ isn’t in the OED (LRB, 5 August). it’s in the online version, with a first citation from Todorov, 1971.

James Grieve
Australian National University, Canberra

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences