Forgotten authors No.40: BS Johnson
Sunday 18 October 2009
We had to reach him sooner or later. BS Johnson is the ultimate forgotten author, born in 1933, dead at 40, beloved by critics, overlooked by the public. He didn’t write much – seven slender novels of increasing peculiarity, a handful of plays and short stories – but enough to set him at the forefront of the British avant-garde. He was an unashamed experimentalist frustrated by linear storytelling, who rejected the Dickensian limitations of the novel, earning the gratitude of Anthony Burgess and the enmity of Peter Ayckroyd. Perhaps he was born too early; how he would have loved the playfulness of the internet.
I first encountered his work in my late teens, in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (with its gruesome cover of a man shaving a woman’s breasts). At just 115 pages, the 1973 novel was entrancing. Malry works in a bank and attempts to run his life according to a bookkeeping system, but soon discovers that life debits far more than it credits, and he must increasingly resort to acts of terrorism in order to keep his account in balance. To clear his debts, he poisons half of Hammersmith, but life takes revenge in the form of cancer. It was a high-concept idea to fall in love with, poorly served by a belated film version.
House Mother Normal (1971) described a bizarre social evening in an old people’s home from the perspectives of the eight inhabitants, in decreasing order of their lucidity. It’s still shocking and moving. The Unfortunates (1969) is the infamous “book in a box”, its chapters presented unbound so that the reader can choose them in any order. Beneath this, it’s a fairly straightforward meditation on death and friendship, told through memories. Albert Angelo (1964) has a hole cut in some pages, to reveal a future event in the book’s later pages.
As interested in typography and the |use of blank spaces as he was in words, Johnson is unique; a product of the self-indulgent 1960s, perhaps, but we need |to be tested by such writers. Johnson’s collection Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? is poetic, passionate and strangely conversational. He wrote about and filmed his own life, and, like Joe Orton, we will always wonder where he would have gone next. Four of his novels have been reprinted, but best of all is Jonathan Coe’s miraculous biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which replicates Johnson’s idiosyncratic style while illuminating his short life.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'