Like a Fiery Elephant
By Jonathan Coe
Continuum, 477 pp., $29.95
B.S. Johnson was an English novelist of some renown in the small circle that was avant-garde London in the 1960s. He was also a number of other things: a poet, playwright, book reviewer, and filmmaker when he wasn't also working as an accountant, sports reporter, and grade school teacher to make ends meet. But in 1973, at the age of 40, with a wife and two young children, he met his end by taking his own life. English novelist Jonathan Coe's remarkable biography of the man, Like a Fiery Elephant, tries to answer what went wrong and rescue what went right.
Bryan Stanley William Johnson was born into a working-class household in London in 1933. His father was quiet, distant. His mother, whom Johnson adored, "betrayed" him when she sent her son to the countryside to escape the German bombings of World War II. He was a big-boned, athletic kid and not unpopular with his classmates. But he was also not in line to attend Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, he entered King's College London when he was in his mid-20s. A job in the offices of the Standard-Vacuum Oil Company came first.
How Johnson arrived at writing, first as a poet, then as a novelist, Coe never says, because Coe can't say. The diaries and letters he examined in his eight years of research are silent. One thing, however, is clear: By early adulthood, Johnson was an "allornothinger," a believer to a dogmatic degree in the high-modernism of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The traditional novel, he insisted to the delight or exasperation of his friends and woe to those who disagreed was dying or dead. Storytelling was itself nothing more than "telling lies." Johnson made his ongoing main character himself.
So in his first novel, Travelling People (1963), he opted for narrative experiments based on the autobiographical but not, he insisted, on strict autobiography. By Albert Angelo (1964), he was cutting holes in the page so readers could view some future action. By Trawl (1966), he was writing entirely by interior monologue, "a representation of the inside of my mind but at one stage removed," according to the author. And by The Unfortunates (1969), he was presenting chapters unbound in a box for readers to shuffle and read at will. Life is chaos, Johnson argued, a series of random events quite outside anyone's control. Art should be too. (That the artist's job might be to shape those events, including imagined ones, Johnson early in his career rarely, if ever, tolerated.)
A few influential critics were behind him. Many more were not. Beckett was behind him, then he was not. Agents and publishers, tired of Johnson's bullying and paranoia, came and went. Sales of his novels were disappointing.
So Johnson, imposing physically but "wracked by self-certainties," turned elsewhere plays, documentaries, TV, Europe and something of a living and reputation were made. But the money was never enough. Then, in 1973, his wife, Virginia, left him. But the "White Goddess" Robert Graves' moon goddess and muse, source of poetic inspiration, wellspring of the artistic, and enemy of the domestic never did. Or did she?
Johnson claims in a cryptic diary entry to have witnessed a physical manifestation of the White Goddess in 1955. But a psychiatrist whom Coe contacted calls that vision the possible product of "psychotic depression," with accompanying "delusions of punishment and mood-congruent hallucinations." Maybe so, but what Coe discovers with some certainty was Johnson's pivotal but ambiguous relationship with a man named Michael Bannard, a larger-than-life aesthete, unapologetic homosexual, and very possibly the last person to see Johnson alive.
Years before, Johnson told a writer friend, not half-a-crown between them, "We'll make it, mate." More than 20 years after Johnson's death, Coe asks if Johnson has "‘made it' now, now that someone has made it his business to retrace every one of his footsteps and memorialize him with a biography, a solid literary tombstone in 200,000 words."
"Solid" is the right word, and on June 14th, England's 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction went to Jonathan Coe for Like a Fiery Elephant. But a "literary tombstone"? Something says that, thanks to Coe, the novels of B.S. Johnson are going to be read as never before.