Hindsight Tickling

Christopher Tayler

  • The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe
    Viking, 433 pp, £17.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 670 89254 8

In Like a Fiery Elephant, his recent biography of B.S. Johnson,[*] Jonathan Coe writes feelingfully about the perils of too much Eng. Lit. He ‘emerged from the experience of reading English at Cambridge’, he explains in the introduction, ‘imbued with a thriving, unshakeable contempt for anyone who had had the temerity to attempt the writing of literature in the last seventy or eighty years’. For a while he made one exception: Beckett. Then he discovered Johnson, whose Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry bore a puff from ‘the great man’. ‘Knowing almost nothing about contemporary British writing’, Coe was ‘more than ready to concur with B.S. Johnson’s theories about the modern novel. Yes, of course it was all hopeless and old-fashioned. Of course there was no point in writing anything that didn’t follow straight on from Ulysses and The Unnameable.’ ‘Oh sure,’ as an insufferable student puts it in What a Carve Up! (1994), ‘there are a few people who are still doing interesting things with the form – Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman crowd – but any serious modern artist who wants to use narrative ought to be working in film … I mean, it’s all just a lot of pissing about within the limits set down by bourgeois morality, as far as I can see. There’s no radicalism.’

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Frank Kermode (5 August).