PICADOR £20 £18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Like a Fiery Elephant by Jonathan Coe

The experimental novelist B S Johnson didn't believe in tidy stories and tied-up ends. Mark Bostridge wonders where that leaves his biographer

A biography may not seem the obvious way in which to commemorate B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson, "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s", and a significant experimental presence in literature and film up to his suicide aged 40 in 1973. Johnson rejected all idea of linear narrative and turned his back on the use of plot in every one of his seven novels, from his first, Travelling People, published in 1963, to his final book, See the Old Lady Decently, originally conceived as part of a trilogy, which appeared posthumously, two years after his death.

A biography may not seem the obvious way in which to commemorate B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson, "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s", and a significant experimental presence in literature and film up to his suicide aged 40 in 1973. Johnson rejected all idea of linear narrative and turned his back on the use of plot in every one of his seven novels, from his first, Travelling People, published in 1963, to his final book, See the Old Lady Decently, originally conceived as part of a trilogy, which appeared posthumously, two years after his death.

"Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random," he once wrote. "It leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies." To underline his point, that the neo-Dickensian novel of story, characterisation and dialogue was dead, Johnson adopted a range of increasingly ingenious devices in his work to challenge and mystify the reader. In Albert Angelo (1964), he insisted that a rectangular hole be cut through two of the recto pages so the reader could see through to a future event on a later page (many booksellers sent the book back thinking they had been supplied with damaged copies); The Unfortunates (1969) consists of 27 separate sections which, apart from the first and last, may be read in any order.

As if to acknowledge the mismatch between Johnson and the modern literary biography, Jonathan Coe, his biographer, constantly interrogates the form and lays bare its inadequacies as a means of portraying any human being - but in particular of portraying a writer who, if he is to amount to anything, must spend hours of his working life sitting at a desk writing (like Trollope, Johnson was a meticulous recorder of the number of hours spent writing every day, and the number of words written). Coe breaks two other unspoken biographers' rules: never admit that you have preconceptions, and never come too clean about the fact that you haven't the faintest idea about what was going on at any period of your subject's life. In a brave departure from normal practice, Coe includes some of the raw data of his research in a penultimate chapter entitled "A Life in 44 Voices". Here, in a kind of construct-your-own-character parlour game, we are provided with snippets from the interviews that the author conducted in his search for Johnson: we learn that he was so enormous that he took up a whole room, that he was always clean, but exuded large amounts of sweat, that he couldn't stop shovelling food down his throat, that he struck one as an extraordinarily morose person, but also as someone who liked to guffaw. And so on.

The novelty of this approach makes it invigorating. But despite Coe's twists and turns, the core of his book, and what makes it a moving and engrossing study of a convention-defying writer, lies precisely in its conventional progress from cradle to grave. With the assistance of Johnson's widow Virginia, and his son and daughter, Coe has trawled - a Johnsonian word - through a vast archive of material: letters, jottings, journals and other manuscripts. And he illuminates the path that Johnson took from a working-class background, as the son of the stock-keeper of an SPCK bookseller and a devoted mother (formerly a domestic servant), who abandoned his work as a bank clerk to read English at King's College, London, and who set out to prove himself as a successor to Joyce and Beckett (who supported him financially in lean times). Coe clearly surprises himself with the conclusion that he reaches as biographer: although he considers Johnson to have got stuck in a theoretical cul-de-sac as a writer, he also applauds his "literary heresy", Johnson's faith in the novel's ability to reinvent itself.

Would Johnson have welcomed the biographer's attention? Probably, yes. He embodied that familiar mixture of overweening self-belief with crippling insecurities about the literary world's recognition of him as a writer. He badgered publishers and agents to give him a better cut of the deal (after Penguin refused to publish his second novel in paperback, he wrote to Allen Lane: "Who the hell are you and your colleagues to determine the order in which my work reaches the paperback public?") Picador is currently reissuing some of Johnson's novels. Perhaps they and this enjoyable biography will give this fiery elephant a new lease of life and ensure that he isn't forgotten.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, say DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin