Saturday, April 29, 2006

The blood-bond of Siamese twins

What a good book!

I've just finished reading Jonathan Coe's Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, and found it wonderfully enjoyable; during the first half I was having some skepticism, partly about whether it was really necessary to emphasize the formal peculiarities or strangeness of the biography itself and partly concerning the personality of B. S. Johnson who seemed to me overwhelmingly and horribly dogmatic and bulling (in a vein that is all too familiar, and I could horribly easily imagine what kind of a website he would have if he were alive today, and what argumentative and hectoring comments he would leave on other people's blogs, and how much I would shudder & resolve to steer clear).

Yet in the second half the humanity of Coe's biographical practice brought Johnson's more human side into focus as well, so that this maddening man's vulnerabilities and (though I still think it is possible Coe's sentimentalizing, the quotations he gives from various survivors of the early 1970s London literary scene blithely saying "Oh, no, Bryan liked his drink but he certainly wasn't an alcoholic" and "He was a kind man" are obviously problematic) his fondness for his children and his strength as an ally and colleague for those he admired started coming through; and I was in the end wholly won over by Coe's procedure. (And Johnson occasionally surprises you too, as when we see his production notes for a documentary he's making on his New Brutalist architectural heroes Peter and Alison Smithson revealing his frustration with their intellectual self-absorption: "You are NOT talking to yr architectural mates . . . either you discipline yourselves or I do in the cutting. . . ." Elsewhere he seems wholly in their thrall, so it is a relief to see him for once sensible and human and not overly dogmatic in his perception of what the general public should want.)

This book provides an interesting complement to The Rotters' Club, which is surely Coe's best novel to date (it is a remarkably moving book, both that and the Johnson biography really are exceptional). I haven't yet read the sequel The Closed Circle, but am reminded I must get hold of it (and also a copy of the first one which I think I had better reread before going to the second, the one flaw of The Rotters' Club was that it was almost impossible to keep track of the different boys...).

I distinctly remember first reading Coe, I was in grad school and I can't at all remember now how I heard of him (he was much less well-known in the US in the mid-90s than in England), but I got The House of Sleep from the library (it was one of those interesting and appealing large-format paperbacks you get in the UK, but bound in library covers, and I am almost certain--oh, perhaps I just picked it off the shelf there at random--it was in the L&B room at Yale's Sterling Library, an interesting trove of recent literary and popular fiction including a lot of first-run non-US stuff that you would in those pre-lit-blog days have never come across elsewhere) and was transfixed by it, albeit without being sure whether I altogether liked it.

I read all the other novels of his they had at the library & distinctly registered Coe as someone worth watching though it was only with The Rotters' Club that he ascended to my list of favorites. (Though their writing is completely different, there's a strong resemblance between the writerliness of Coe and Jonathan Lethem; you can see both of them moving from early novels interested in avant-garde art and film and collectordom of the teenage boy kind but also a serious commitment to exploring memory into more obviously autobiographical work in their later thirties, and a kind of opening-up of humanity in the fiction that is only hinted at in the early books.)

Longwinded preamble!

What I loved about Like a Fiery Elephant: Coe's seriousness about novel-writing (which ultimately is the basis of his affection for Johnson, who took novel-writing with the utmost--sometimes off-putting--gravity). I strongly, strongly responded to this, I like the way he's willing to put himself on the spot about writing and its importance.

What I loved & was pained by at the same time: the awfulness of Johnson's letters, they are absolutely painful to read! (And even worse are the transcripts of tape-recorded conversations in which Johnson's awful bullying drunken dogmatic manner comes across, nb. the one starting on p. 161 in the British edition.)

Johnson to a prospective agent for his novel TRAVELLING PEOPLE:

[T]he device of using a different style or literary technique for each chapter has succeeded well beyond my expectation, largely as a result of the unifying element of the central character's logical progression and development. Joyce used this device in ULYSSES, of course, but by allowing the nature of the subject matter of each particular series of events which form one chapter to determine organically the style chosen, I seem to have avoided the contrivance to which Joyce was sometimes reduced.

Johnson to Allen Lane on Penguin's declining to buy paperback rights to his second novel:

Dear Allen Lane:

In reviewing my novel ALBERT ANGELO, the Sunday Times described me as 'one of the best writers we've got', and the Irish Times called the book 'a masterpiece' and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett.

You have refused to buy the paperback rights of ALBERT ANGELO. Why?

Yours sincerely,

B. S. Johnson

(Funnier and more sympathetic though possibly equally demented as a specimen of epistolary style is his letter to the Chief Obstetrician at St Bartholomew's Hospital, asking for an exception to the policy on not allowing fathers to be present at births: "I have recently seen films of labour and delivery at the National Childbirth Trust (where my wife has attended classes) and have read appropriately: I am therefore prepared for what should normally happen.")

Most likeable authorial footnote, as an addendum to a Daily Mail diatribe of 1970 against the Arts Council's funding for (among other things) the Midlands Arts Lab in Birmingham, a ramshackle cinema and theater complex in which (so the article charged) "girl members often paint their faces and bodies and simply sit around":

The present author must come clean and confess that he was himself a patron of this louche establishment in the late 1970s. Things must have changed in the itnervening years because I remember it as a rather quiet place where sensitive souls like myself could repair for a cup of coffee, a slice of fruitcake and--if we were feeling racy--perhaps a Werner Herzog or Howard Hawks film. To be honest I never saw any 'girl members' at all, let alone with their bodies and faces painted, 'sitting around' in (for such is the Mail's clear implication) nude and provocative poses. Too late, as usual: to qutoe Johnson himself--'Ah, the chances let slip!'

Most appealing irrelevant biographical detail: on the expense claim for research done for a projected film commemorating the jubilee of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Johnson (having visited a meat-processing factory) requested "₤2.75 for shoes ruined by blood'--decimalization having been introduced a few weeks earlier).

Saddest list (from the notes for an unwritten novel):

Suicide - the goldfish - not to feed - but he came up mouthing - was he trying to commit suicide?

I am now thinking of this myself

I once had a gun (ref. SAC)

Now I have an air pistol, the cheapest

Buy a leg of lamb, say, belly of pork, see how far the pellet can penetrate

The combined pathos and humor--unintended?--of that line about the leg of lamb....

Most enticing possibility: that someone will release as an audiobook the BBC recording of Johnson and others reading aloud from Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (which sounds by far the most appealing of Johnson's novels): "when it came to Chapter XVI of the novel," Coe observes, which laid out how to build a Molotov cocktail, the narrator on the tape "explains--truthfully--that the passage has been banned by the BBC, and instead we get a recording of Johnson reading the chapter, but speeded up more and more until it becomes an incomprehensible stream of high-pitched noise."

Most perceptive comment about Johnson's writing by someone other than Jonathan Coe (the speaker is Istvan Bart):

Bryan may look like an avant-garde writer, but what turns out, after so many years, to be his contribution is that in fact all the time he was writing a folklore, a folklore of a whole society, of this working-class past: attitudes that simply disappeared and will never come back and are gone. Even at the time he was making this world up: it was not real at the time. It was dead. There were just relics of it. He was making up a lore for himself, on which to fall back. It was quite obvious that this was the past, this was gone.

I thought Coe's emphasis on his own distrust for the assumptions underpinning the writing of & popular appetite for literary biography was slightly overstated; surely all of the best literary biographies share this kind of skepticism (Biswell's Anthony Burgess one, for instance, or Richard Holmes's lives of Shelley and Coleridge). Similarly, yes, it is slightly unorthodox to paste in so many documents and offer self-conscious historical speculation, but I do not find it qualitatively different from many other biographers' practice (so that Coe, like Johnson, seems to be doing something rather more humane and--a word I rarely use in a positive sense, but in this case I will make an exception--middlebrow than he lets on).

But here is the book's real credo, the thing that makes it such a rich and fascinating and humane read (and it is idiotic of me to bury this at the bottom of such a long post, but it makes more sense after all the other stuff, and Coe saves it for the end too):

Real novelists, picking up their pens in the morning, booting up their computers, ask themselves this question every day: Is it worth it? Is there any point? Without that bedrock of doubt, nothing that you write will have any value. Novel-writing is not a hobby (although we're allowed to find it enjoyable); it is not a form of therapy (although it can be therapeutic). It's an intervention, if it is anything: an act of lunatic faith in the notion that by adding something to the world we might somehow be improving it. The stakes are that high, and taking our lead from B. S. Johnson we should occasionally throw off our wretched middle-class English self-deprecation (with which he was so thoroughly unencumbered) and say as much. Not many novelists are prepared to do that: to own up to their responsibilities - to the form, to their readers, to the tradition that they are inheriting. That is what B. S. Johnson meant by 'writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter'.

Here's a very thorough set of review links at the Complete Review, in any case; perhaps most notably, Ed Park in the Village Voice, Eva Figes in the Guardian and Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books.


  1. Excellent post!

    Interested readers who follow the link to the Voice review of LAFE might find this sentence somewhat mystifying:

    "Johnson's last novel, *See the Old Lady Decently*, part one of the ambitious Matrix Trilogy, is as much a M striptease as the Keanu extravaganza."

    Light Readers want to know: What's an "M striptease"? The boys in the lab have been doing their best to decode it, and have suggested that "M" stands for "Möbius" — the Voice website regularly blanks on words when an umlaut is present.

  2. Jonathon Coe in the introduction to his excellent biography of novelist B.S. Johnson suggests that we no longer read literature, but rather cross examine it in light of its writers’ lives, ‘assuming that it’s in the gaps…between theory and practice that the real truths about human nature will emerge…People now know more about Philip Larkin’s political beliefs, or Ted Hughes’s treatment of his wife, than they know (or care) about their poetry.’

    It seems, says Coe, that although literature is nowadays discussed more than ever before, it has never been less valued. Ironically he blames literary biography ‘for which the British have a unique passion’ for this state of affairs, and quotes Milan Kundera dismissing the genre, thusly: “the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid. All their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks. The moment Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K, Kafka’s posthumous death begins.”
    Now let’s peel back a century or so and get our old buddy Arnold Bennett’s take on this matter: “It is extremely important that the beginner in literary study should always form an idea of the man behind the book. The book is nothing but the expression of the man. The book is nothing but the man trying to talk to you, trying to impart to you some of his feelings. An experienced student will divine the man from the book, will understand the man by the book, as is of course, logically proper. But the beginner will do well to aid himself in understanding the book by means of independent information about the man. He will thus at once relate the book to something human, and strengthen in his mind the essential notion of the connection between literature and life.”
    I’ve always believed in sticking to the text, getting meaning and insight directly from it, rather than from any pervading social, political, even personal context. This said, it seems only natural that if you love the works of a particular author you’re going to want to learn more about them. You’re not necessarily going to discard his or her (…yes women do write novels) words in favour of an interpreter’s when searching for meaning, or an understanding of the author’s ‘feelings’. You’re simply indulging a curiosity. And this doesn’t make you a beginner.
    I suppose problems arise when readers pay more attention to the words of interpreters than those of the original creators. Where self important interpreters, post structuralists, etc., assume more importance than the legitimately important writers themselves.