A review of Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson by Jonathan Coe

Like all heresies, his novels challenge our most fundamental beliefs: our belief in the moral integrity of ‘fiction’, our belief in the usefulness of storytelling when the daily truths thrown up by our misbegotten world cry out for immediate, practical attention. The challenge is posed not just by his work as a whole, but by each novel individually.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson
by Jonathan Coe
Picador
Hardcover 400 pages (June 4, 2004), ISBN: 033035048X

This is an important book. It is an attempt by Jonathan Coe, a fine novelist in his own right, to do right by and revive interest in the work of B. S. Johnson, another fine English novelist, one who led a troubled life and has been unjustly neglected since his death in 1973 at the relatively young age of 40.

Like a Fiery Elephant includes fulsome extracts from all of Johnson’s writings – his novels and poetry as well as the journalism, letters and unpublished manuscripts – and this is a necessary virtue. For most of Johnson’s work is now out of print and so inaccessible to the general reader. As befits its subject, the biography has an innovative structure. There are three main sections, dealing respectively with Johnson’s work, his life, and the perspective of people who knew him.

“A Life in Seven Novels” gives consideration to the work. All of the novels are autobiographical in nature; “telling stories is telling lies” was one of Johnson’s dictums: he always sought to tell the emotional truth about his own life. Coe asserts here, and he is surely right to do so, that “few other writers, either during Johnson’s lifetime or subsequently, have thought so hard about the novel as a form, have been prepared to put its possibilities to such intelligent scrutiny.”

Perhaps the most striking example of Johnson’s experimentation with form was The Unfortunates, which is a kind of hypertext novel. It consisted of a set of unbound sections placed in a box. The sections to be read first and last are so specified, while other sections can be read (or re-read) in any order. The subject of The Unfortunates is the death of Johnson’s closest friend from cancer, and the structure of the novel mirrors both the way that memories revisit one in bereavement, as the mind mulls over sorrow, and the seemly randomly manner in which cancer selects its victims. Along with his formal ingenuity, what is most admirable in Johnson – as is evident here and as Coe further remarks – is “the humanity that shines through even his most rigorous experiments, his bruising honesty.”

The second section, “A Life in 160 Fragments”, is the part of the book that most resembles conventional biography. The key question for most, I’d guess, is this: what ailed Johnson, how did he come to die so young? Coe makes many guesses as to the causes for the tensions in his life. There was the evacuation in wartime which entailed separation from his mother at an early age. There was the difficult relationship with his father and an impression, shared by some, of repressed or latent homosexuality. There was – as always with bloody England! – the disgruntlement thrown up by the class system. Some or all of these were present and maybe manageable, but to them, toward the end of Johnson’s life, further tensions were added. His marriage broke down and, despite having published 7 novels, he found it increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer. Then there was – right at the end – his mother’s death from cancer. The death of a beloved parent is often like a ladder kicked away. There’s a qualitative difference between teen and adult angst (not to belittle the former); at a certain point in life the death of others becomes as intolerable as one’s own: a parting forever, a door that cannot be opened.

“A Life in 44 Voices” is made up of a series of quotes by people, friends and acquaintances both, who knew Johnson. One remark, made by his friend Bill Holdsworth, stood out for me: “He didn’t seem to have enough defences. That’s all I can say really.” Anyway, the fact is that on 13 November 1973, after writing what Coe describes as a concrete poem (the self-referential “This is my last / word”, written neatly on a card), Bryan Stanley Johnson took his own life. He was 40 years old.
Coe traces out the tragic logic of Johnson’s life and he is also an impassioned advocate of the work, as this final summary makes clear:

Like all heresies, his novels challenge our most fundamental beliefs: our belief in the moral integrity of ‘fiction’, our belief in the usefulness of storytelling when the daily truths thrown up by our misbegotten world cry out for immediate, practical attention. The challenge is posed not just by his work as a whole, but by each novel individually. We could ask ourselves whether we are `writing as though it mattered’ or we could be more specific and ask ourselves: Is my first novel as adventurous, as risk-taking, as Travelling People? … Have I ever memorialized any of my own friendships as movingly as The Unfortunates does? … Do I have it in me to write a comedy as black and unsentimental as Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry? Could I walk right to the very edge of the novel’s possibilities, and even put one foot suicidally over the precipice, as Johnson dared to do in See the Old Lady Decently? These are the questions that B. S. Johnson’s novels should be forcing subsequent generations of writers to ask themselves. … Here is the baton: do we have the courage to run with it? (p.454)

Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson is an admirable biography that also has much of interest to say about the novel as a form. It gives due and just testimony to the work of the most radically experimental English novelist of the 20th century.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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