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
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The Independent Culture

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.

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