Coe's 'experimental' biography wins £30,000 prize

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A biography about an eccentric, forgotten author by the award-winning novelist Jonathan Coe has won a £30,000 prize. Coe has been awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction for Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B S Johnson.

A biography about an eccentric, forgotten author by the award-winning novelist Jonathan Coe has won a £30,000 prize. Coe has been awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction for Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B S Johnson.

Johnson was a popular, if tortured, author in the 1960s and 1970s before his suicide at the age of 39. He gained fame - and notoriety - for his forthright views on the future of the novel and his idiosyncratic ways of putting them into practice.

Having published only six novels in his lifetime and one posthumously, his innovations caused a stir, including a book with holes cut through the pages and a novel published in a box so the unbound chapters could be read in any order.

In 1973, Johnson's lifelong depression reached a crisis point and he was found dead in his north London home, after which his works and public persona faded into obscurity.

Coe has gained literary recognition for novels including What a Carve Up! for which he won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and The House of Sleep, which received the Writers' Guild best fiction prize in 1997. He wrote the biography in an experimental, fragmentary style, speaking directly to the reader.

Sue MacGregor, the chairwoman of the judges, praised Coe's engaging writing and his unconventional choice of subject, saying that the book was an example of a new form in the non-fiction genre.

"This is a good example of a non-fiction author bringing himself into his work quite frequently. He converses with the reader from time to time and has inserted his presence into the writing.

"It is a departure from the conventional big fat important biographies. Perhaps because he has chosen to write about an eccentric subject, he has not produced a conventional biography. It is remarkable how he has grabbed his subject and made him come to life," she said.

She added that it was stylistically innovative as well as a thoroughly researched and rigorous work. "It pushes the boundaries of how biographies can be treated. He is such a clever writer and obviously admires Johnson's experimental style and tried to be experimental himself. The material and how it is used changes from chapter to chapter," she said. The book is based on unique access to a vast collection of papers that Johnson left, and interviews with those who knew him best. He has included letters written by Johnson in his later years in the biography, as well as notes and a transcript of a recording of a dinner party which Johnson attended with friends.

"He uses Johnson's words, conversations and letters. The reader sees how he was earning less and less towards the end of his life and some of his letters were quite fierce and rude but always highly literate. He was a difficult, bad-tempered personality who was increasingly being chased by his creditors," said Ms MacGregor.

Coe, who was born in Birmingham and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, has written two previous biographies; of the Hollywood icons Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart.

He said that he began writing non-fiction first, aged 11, before turning to fiction at the age of 15.

The life of an avant-garde and eccentric writer

Bryan Stanley Johnson was born into a working-class family in Hammersmith in 1933. He failed his 11-plus exam, and went on to work in a bank, taking Latin classes at night, which helped gain him a place at university. He eventually achieved a degree in English at King's College in 1959.

Johnson married an upper middle-class woman, Virginia Kimpton, whose parents paid for their house, and they had a son and daughter. At university he was encouraged to write, and Johnson's debut novel Travelling People was published in 1963, followed by his first collection of poetry a year later. He also wrote radio and stage plays, which were largely unperformed, and films mostly for television. He was a sports reporter, and also wrote book reviews.

B S Johnson was a depressive, and committed suicide at the age of 39. But despite black periods he was regarded as a likeable man. Johnson gained a reputation as a leading avant-garde writer of the 1960s though his experimental style.

His novel Tristram Shandy offered black and shaded pages, and the pages of Albert Angelo, published in 1964, contained a hole giving readers a look into the future.

Elisa Bray

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