Like a Fiery Elephant: the story of BS Johnson by Jonathan Coe

Days in the life of a lost hero
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Literary biographies, on the whole, suffer from two weaknesses. As most biographers structure their books in a linear fashion, from birth to death, the first hundred pages are usually the least interesting, as few great men or women do anything of note at five years old. The second problem is the essentially parasitic relationship between biographer and subject. Spending several years polishing someone else's star can be hard for the ego to handle. The most ex- treme example of a biographer turning feral in recent years is Roger Lewis's extraordinary book on Anthony Burgess which, while hilarious and brilliantly written, was less an accurate description of a life than a shriek of deep existential anguish.

Although Lewis gets a name-check in the acknowledgements of Jonathan Coe's long-awaited biography of BS Johnson, it is clear that Coe has a very different approach to making his biography unique. For a start, Coe is an unusual biographer in that he is, at present, more famous than his subject. As he points out in his introduction, "Many of the people picking up this book will not (regrettably) have read anything by BS Johnson before. Revered though he is by a few, he is unknown nowadays to most British readers under forty".

Although this statement would no doubt anger those few, it could be said that Coe is performing an act of kindness, rescuing an author from premature obscurity and attempting to win him a new audience. Of course, Johnson is not entirely forgotten, and it is only a year ago that a film was made from one of his most celebrated novels, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry.

While Coe is too polite to talk about his own literary success, he does, in a fascinating introduction, explain how he follows a different tradition to Johnson. Coe writes essentially social-realist novels (with, recently, a dash of Johnson-esque experimentalism) rather than believing, as Johnson did, that literature should be "a relay race, the baton of innovation passing from one generation to another" and that the novel would survive through "making it new" with ever more radical attempts at formal innovation.

Coe is, I think, absolutely right when he says the British novel has reinvigorated itself in other ways: by recognising the multi-ethnicity of modern Britain and opening itself to influences from other cultures; by tapping into the energies of popular film, music and television; by turning its back on modernist elitism and rediscovering the pleasures of humour, storytelling, the demotic, and so on.

Given that he feels this way, why has Coe chosen to write at such length on Johnson? Because, it seems, he is less interested in Johnson's influence than his achievements. As Coe admits, "there are few bodies of work as compelling, as coherent, as intelligent and deeply felt as BS Johnson's".

Born in Hammersmith to a working-class family in 1933, Johnson studied at King's College, London and worked sporadically as a journalist, including a stint as a sports reporter covering football matches. He wrote poetry, drama and TV scripts, with varying degrees of success, while publishing seven increasingly adventurous novels, from Travelling People in 1963 to the posthumous See the Old Lady Decently in 1975; he committed suicide in 1973.

It is clear that Coe is sceptical of the literary biography as a genre. A third of the way through his book, he takes one date from Johnson's life; 17 August 1965. He points out that although this day was a boring one for a biographer to study, as Johnson failed to get involved in a literary bust-up, have a secret tryst with a beautiful journalist or get drunk with a fellow author, it was a triumphant one for Johnson as an author, as he managed to sit at his desk for six and a quarter hours and produce 1,700 words of his third novel. Trawl. Coe can be specific about the hours and words because Johnson produced graphs in which he meticulously recorded this information.

While Coe admits that, as a biographer, the one thing he cannot do is make the actual process of writing interesting, as a fellow novelist he understands the feelings of contentment that can go along with a successful day's. work. It is his empathy with Johnson's writing life that gives the book much of its charm. Rather than resenting his subject, Coe manages to make Johnson seem sympathetic even when he is at his most exasperating. And just as a novelist makes the most understanding biographer for a novelist, so Coe's account of Johnson's life will probably be most interesting to other writers.

It is certainly entertaining to see the letters Johnson fired off to agents, printers and American publishers which express sentiments that most authors would be too timid (and too concerned about their career prospects) to express. Johnson believed that "a serious novel must not be a work of fiction, it must tell the truth". But rather than simply writing disguised autobiography, Johnson got to this truth through his experimentation - although, given his dislike of this word, perhaps "innovation" is better - with structure.

His second novel, Albert Angelo (1964), begins as a fictionalised version of his real life situation but is interrupted towards the end by the declaration "OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING", before collapsing into a straight account of his current condition. In order to get to the truth of Johnson's life, Coe applies a similarly experimental structure, telling his story through 160 fragments of Johnson's prose. A second section offers 44 different voices speaking about their experiences of Johnson, and a coda puts forward Coe's own "highly personal thoughts about the forces that may have been driving him in his last few days and hours".

The first part of the book is more conventional than it first appears, as Coe uses the extracts to intersperse a familiar story of the ups and downs of a writer's life. If Coe seems to rush through Johnson's last few days, this is because, as he explains, his feelings of affinity with the author make it hard for him to comprehend his suicide in 1973.

The 44 voices are enjoyable to read but add little to the book beyond light relief before the most compelling section: a coda structured around a fragment that Coe has saved for the end of the book, consisting of a deleted episode from Albert Angelo that Coe believes concerns a possibly homosexual friendship with a man who may have played a more important role in Johnson's life than others have realised.

While the secrets he reveals here are exactly the sort of thing biographers use to give their work spice, Coe is careful not to make too much of these possibilities. He presents his observations as a story that would intrigue a novelist, and therefore speculative. But it is a beautiful piece of prose that raises this book beyond mere biography and makes it the kind of "truthful fiction" that Johnson admired above all else.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Child Star' (Phoenix)