An elephant we should never forget


Jonathan Coe

Picador, 20

BS JOHNSON, the subject of an impressive new biography by Jonathan Coe, was the enfant terrible of English letters in the Sixties. A restless, creative, didactic novelist, poet, dramatist and scriptwriter, he was one of a group of experimental writers, which included Alan Burns, Ann Quin and our own, recently lost and still lamented Giles Gordon, who explored the limits of what could be achieved within the form of the novel.

Johnson committed suicide at the age of 40, in 1973. His death is as inexplicable as most suicides. Cesar Pavese, the Italian poet who ultimately killed himself, famously wrote in his diary after the death of one of his closest friends: "Suicide is an act of ambition that can be committed only when one has passed beyond ambition." As much as any other comment this could stand as an epitaph for Johnson.

Coe worked for eight years on this biography, studying - indeed at times it seems memorising - Johnson’s journals, letters, manuscripts and jottings. He brilliantly brings Johnson to life but cannot, finally, answer the question - why? Why did this man with so much talent, a loving family and friends, kill himself? In an epilogue to the biography, though, he combines close reading together with a novelistic eye and a detective’s instinct to offer a brilliantly persuasive account of the writer’s last hours.

Johnson’s work was highly praised by critics and showered with awards. Anthony Burgess described him as "the only living British author with the guts to reassess the novel form, extend its scope and still work in a recognisable fictional tradition". Samuel Beckett lauded and befriended him. But that praise and recognition did not feed through into sales. A constant note throughout the book is of Johnson’s complaints that he could not support a family on the advances he received from publishers. His conclusion was that writers should be salaried employees - no doubt a view which would still command support among many writers.

Yet his solution to this perennial problem of finance was to badger, antagonise and alienate editors, publishers and agents who had been strong supporters of his work. When Penguin declined to publish his second novel, Albert Angelo, in paperback, Johnson wrote directly to Allen Lane, founder and then still joint managing director of the imprint:

"Dear Allen Lane,

Thank you for your reply of 10 September to my rude letter.

Who the hell are you and your colleagues to determine the order in which my work reaches the paperback public?"

But for all those he thrust away there were powerful and committed supporters. At one point Johnson was so close to penury he wrote to Beckett seeking permission to auction the letters the Nobel Prize winner had sent to him. By return Beckett sent permission, and a cheque for 100. And in the voices of his friends who spoke to Coe there is still, more than 30 years after the event, a real sense of loss.

Along with his belief in the value of a writer’s work - and his right to a living wage - Johnson had strong views about literature. His fundamental view was that Joyce and Beckett had exhausted the possibilities of fiction and that the traditional ‘Dickensian’ novel was as dead as the epic poem. He took the view that all fiction was lies and that the only honest way to be a novelist was to write the truth. This single-minded, indeed simple-minded, artistic manifesto seems crude and dated, but the fiction it led him to produce is still fresh. His commitment to truth led him to mine his life. Part way through Albert Angelo, the story of a frustrated architect working as a supply teacher in a tough working-class London school, the narrator cries out: "what im really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture... Im trying to say something not tell a story telling a story is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality about sitting here looking out across Claremont Square trying to say something about the writing and nothing being an answer to the loneliness to the lack of loving".

That novel is not a complete success but the rhythms that he found when he started to write about himself directly enabled him to write Trawl which is, I think, his finest work. The product of a voyage on a deep-sea trawler, this novel brilliantly evokes the experience of life on board with the memories of his own that such confinement allowed him to dredge up and meditate on. His evocation of life as an evacuee, and later as a mature student, is powerful and moving. He subtly manages to make the patterns of work of fishermen on a trawler an objective correlative for his own feelings. Form and content work together in this book in a way that he never otherwise managed.

Most of Johnson’s work - and indeed those of his closest colleagues - has long been out of print. My own copies of his novels and poems were picked up second-hand when I was a student. Coe’s sympathetic account should do much to revive interest in him and, one hopes, the availability of his novels, which are of far greater literary value than most of the 100,000 or so new books published in Britain every year. But this passionate and partisan book does far more than revive interest in a neglected writer. Part annotated anthology of Johnson’s unpublished writing; part cultural history; part subtle reconstitution of the fabric and lived reality of a life; it is itself a tour-de-force.

Coe, as a teenager, was captivated by Johnson’s TV film Fat Man on a Beach. His family watched it because it was set on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales where they always went for family holidays, but he was captured for life by the compelling figure, and personality, of Johnson. This biography is a fine tribute to a complex and hugely talented author.

Those who have never encountered BS Johnson’s work have a wonderful treat ahead of them - not just finding out about his life but then tracking down and enjoying his work. For those of us who have lived with, and loved, Johnson’s work for years this provides a richer understanding of how he produced it, and some gems which have never been published before. At the outset Coe worries about the biographer’s role, quoting Milan Kundera: "The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist’s biographer thus undoes what a novelist has done… All their labour cannot illuminate either the value or meaning of a novel… The moment Kafka attracts more attention than Josef K, Kafka’s posthumous death begins." In this case, Coe triumphantly disproves him, bringing to life Johnson himself and in so doing reviving his works.