Fetch the Scissors

Colin Burrow

  • Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew and Julia Jordan
    Picador, 471 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 2710 6
  • Trawl by B.S. Johnson
    Picador, 183 pp, £12.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 0036 9
  • Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson
    Picador, 180 pp, £12.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 0037 6
  • Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson
    Picador, 187 pp, £12.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 0035 2
  • House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson
    Picador, 204 pp, £12.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 0038 3

Until very recently I had never read any B.S. Johnson. I had a staticky reminiscence of what he might have been, which could be represented, using his own idiosyncratic conventions for marking the lapses that run through our consciousness of the world, as ‘experimental … . suicide … . wrists was it?’

To clear the static first: these reprints are to celebrate what would have been the eightieth birthday of the novelist B.S. Johnson, who died after slitting his wrists at the age of forty on 13 November 1973. He left (as the obituarists say) a wife and two children. Before his death he had published six novels, which were completed in the course of little more than a decade, and had written one more, which was to have been the first part of a trilogy about his mother’s death from cancer. He also left behind a number of plays (many of which were not performed and some of which were unperformable), several TV scripts, an array of polemical essays and some shorter pieces of fiction. Much of this is gathered together, and some of it published for the first time, in Well Done God! He also wrote football match reports for the Observer. In his fiction, drama and film he sought to be both devilishly avant-garde and a popular success. It was a perfect recipe for writerly torment.

Having read Johnson and about him I avoid using the word ‘experimental’ in my static-clearing version of his life, partly out of piety to the dead (‘Experimental’, he said, ‘to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful”’) and partly because that word misses the point of his writing. He was preoccupied with telling the truth, the main characteristic of which, so far as he was concerned, was its opposition to convention. He wanted in his fiction to show things as they are – bodies, pain, cancers, vomits, the gruesomeness of dying, the endless self-indulgence of memory – without letting anybody, least of all himself, escape into the cosy world of what he termed Dickensian fiction. Repeatedly he rebuked other novelists for failing to realise that James Joyce was the ‘Einstein of the novel’ and that the world had to be different after Ulysses. The unpityingness of this project (he is sometimes so savage that it must not always have been pleasant to be in the same room as him, and he is sometimes so self-savaging that it must have been very painful indeed to have been in the same head as him) is leavened by a Beckettian and boyish (usually 16ish) sense of humour. So in Trawl (1966), which is a novel-travelogue about a voyage on a fishing boat designed, he said, ‘to give substantial yet symbolic form to an isolation I have felt most of my life by isolating myself in fact’, and which trawls through his own past, he relates how one of the seamen ‘caught the cook in the galley this morning crimping a meat pie with his false teeth, and asked him if he hadn’t got a proper tool: Yes, said the cook, but that I keep for making holes in doughnuts.’ His prose style owes a deal to Beckett (with whom he played billiards in Paris), as do his grimmer jokes. So a doctor in his version of Woyzeck says to the commanding officer: ‘Sounds as if you’ve got a touch of the human condition, sir.’ His debt to Irish modernism is made literal in an otherwise not particularly successful short story set in Ireland (Johnson’s native terrain was London) called ‘Broad Thoughts from a Home’. This prefixes a description of O’Meara’s Bar in Dublin with a spoof invoice from ‘Kenny and Knight, Fact-finders to Literary Ladies and Gentlemen. Irish Atmosphere Our Speciality’ for ‘the supply of one description of licensed premises, Irish, situate in lowermiddleclass district of Dublin’.

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