Modernism’s suicide

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Jonathan Coe’s exemplary account of the life of experimentalist B S Johnson

Prospect, June 2004


As Britain’s most passionate and formally committed avant-garde novelist of the Sixties and early Seventies, B S Johnson bears a compelling resemblance to Wyndham Lewis, who occupied the same position in the Twenties and early Thirties. Both were talented, fiercely vocal modernists; modernism eventually stranded both (though Lewis’s fascist connections didn’t help). The novels that most coherently expressed B S Johnson’s formal beliefs – The Unfortunates, Trawl and House Mother Normal – made as little popular impact as Lewis’s The Childermass and The Apes of God had 40 years before. The great difference between them, of course, was that Lewis wrote two of his best books, Rotting Hill and Self Condemned, late in life and made it to old age, dying in 1957 in his derelict flat on Notting Hill Gate, whereas Bryan Johnson died by his own hand in November 1973, at the age of forty.

So Johnson’s work and life contain wider questions: why has modernism in British fiction so often alienated writers from their readers? Why does it seem to fail each time, in Johnson’s case taking down one of its best practitioners with it? (Few who have read, for example, the last novel he published in his lifetime, his Swiftian comedy of revenge Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry, can doubt that description of its author.) Modernism is above all a passionate vector, always for or against. Wyndham Lewis’s modernism (and that of his friends Pound and Eliot) detested the Victorians for their idealism and their blatantly selective romanticism. Later it switched its target to the Georgians and the Bloomsbury Group, who were economically as well as stylistically secure. It wanted new forms that would force words, under pressure, to acquire a hardness that conveyed their content and their era. Words had to be used to reveal new potentialities:


The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.


We forget how condemned Eliot’s lines were for his impersonal treatment of the clerk’s lust –


Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference


Yet that early modernism was an errant movement, a rebellion of the sort that rebels against everything, including itself. Booby-trapped by such contradictions, and by a weakness for highly formalised art that was prone to “smart-arse-orial” experimentation, it failed to live up to its promise – to the revelation of an authentic, assertively Anglo-Saxon genius.

So much of this pattern is repeated in the arc of B S Johnson’s troubled career that one wants to say, as one is reading Jonathan Coe’s account, “I could have warned you.” But as Coe himself says in this singular, superb biography, “One of the most bracing things for any reader coming face to face with Johnson’s work is that it immediately throws down gauntlets…, forces you to question your most fundamental assumptions about any kind of writing process. He is the most [ital] challenging [ital] of literary figures, in that respect.” As a sympathetic reader of Johnson, Coe’s own response to the challenge is several-fold. He recognises that Johnson’s unshakeable faith in his own theories – the chief one being that “Life does not tell stories” and that therefore the truthful writer must also avoid telling them – leaves him, as biographer, in a difficult position. “How, then,” he asks, “can a biography be anything other than one big lie?” He decides to perform a Virgilian role, leading the reader down, circle by circle, into the workings of Johnson’s life and mind. Beginning with “an exposition without which you may have felt unhappy”, he writes about his own enthusiasm for Johnson’s writing, rooted in seeing his documentary Fat Man on a Beach at the age of thirteen. He gently leads those who will not have read any of Johnson’s work through his seven novels, then through “A life in 160 fragments”, being a collection of refracted views of his subject through Johnson’s own writings. He makes no pretence at objectivity, inserting himself into the narrative, exposing all of the usually hidden biographer’s uncertainty to the reader.

Reaching the point where Johnson has finished filming Fat Man on a Beach, for example, seventeen days before his suicide, Coe pauses. It has taken him eight years of work to get so far, and he has been putting off this moment for some time – the moment when he has to write the narrative of a man’s death “in a few pages”. (One can feel here Coe’s sense of real tiredness and even anger that, having got so far in Johnson’s life, he still can’t save him.) He decides to take his cue from a letter, written by Johnson but never sent to Charles Clark, his editor, defending his latest novel See the Old Lady Decently. “He justified some of the more personal, dicursive elements in the book – the passages about being disturbed by his children, for instance – on the grounds (as usual) of honesty: ‘to be absolutely honest, the process of writing must enter into it, for that is the actual thing one is doing – the basic true thing.’” He then goes on to describe how he, Coe, has rented “for three days only” for the purpose of writing this part of the book, an eighteenth-century folly from the Landmark Trust. This autobiographising of Johnson’s death – Coe’s account not of the death but of his experience of the death – could have been a mawkish, look-at-me retelling, floundering in the biographer’s feelings. Mainly because of Coe’s talent as a novelist, it is instead one of the book’s many high points, a sane and sound tribute to a writer he loves.

Part critical work, part journey around his subject, part dialogue (one section, “A life in 44 voices”, is given to a slightly disturbing but highly effective arrangement of unmediated viewpoints of those whom Coe talked to in his research), Coe’s biography is a profound departure from the novels with which he has entertained us over the last decade. His passion for the writing of Johnson is, as he admits in the opening pages, a cuckoo in the nest of his own writing process. Those radical Johnsonian formal ventures – many who have never read him remember the stories of the pages with holes cut in them (Albert Angelo) and the notorious book in a box, its unbound chapters offered to the reader in any order (The Unfortunates) – sit oddly with Coe’s practice as a “realistic” novelist, committed to providing characters and a selective, metaphorical, fictional illusion of reality. The biographer’s admiration for his subject’s “command of language, his freshness” and the seriousness with which he approached his art, is not difficult to share, and one can only cheer when Coe writes that it is the dilettantes who pose the greatest threat to the novel as a form, “the resting actors and the bored journalists and the ubiquitous media people hungry for kudos” – but the two writers are worlds apart. (This is possibly exactly the secret of good literary colloquy.) The novel, Johnson said repeatedly, after the “almighty aposiopesis” towards the end of Albert Angelo – “Oh, fuck all this LYING” – must be drawn only from experience. “Telling stories really is telling lies.” A serious novel must tell the truth. Anything else was “both immoral and artistically contemptible”.

Who was this writer, who so ferociously took up and defended a view of the novel’s purpose that most of us would find problematic if not perverse? We ask “who”, because we also hope it will help us to answer “why”. Why did one of the most talented writers of the Sixties kill himself? “Value this man. His writing sings. He walks like a fiery elephant,” the poet Adrian Mitchell concluded his review in the Sunday Times of Albert Angelo, Johnson’s second novel. The elephant was an only child – overweight, fair-haired, devoted to his mother, and full of lively interest until he was abandoned in High Wycombe, unvalued as it must have seemed to him, as an evacuee during the second world war.

Johnson’s solitary, melancholy, observant personality seems to have started from here. As a late-entry English student at King’s College London, he was noticed for his outspokenness, his clumsiness and an intensity that drove girls away. One such alliance, rapidly ended by the girl in question, produced a lifelong bitterness. It was at about this time he also met the mysterious Michael Bannard, a homosexual and flamboyant, almost occult figure, whom Coe believes may have exerted, as a powerful opposite, a double’s hold over Johnson (though he married and, as Coe says, his family meant everything to him). The transformation in his creative life came from a reading of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess – a book that nailed him, more or less, to confrontation with his muse, leaving no room for art that was less than pure. He became possessed by what I can only call hysterical perfectionism; even one of his closest friends, Anthony Smith, who worked with him on a poetry magazine and later as literary editor of the Western Daily Press, conceded that he could be an “absolutely dogmatic bastard”.

Soon after he left King’s, he was on his way – poems in a PEN anthology, in the Spectator, and two chapters of a novel, Travelling People, under his belt. Relentlessly energetic and efficient, he felt slighted when agents and publishers did not respond with similar energy. After his first two novels he obtained a salaried contract from Secker & Warburg, practically unheard of at the time, but this was not enough for him, and childhood feelings of abandonment began evolving into a refusal to believe that the world could be on his side, and an inability to toss its darts aside when it was not. Emotional paranoia – the feeling that he was always about to be dumped – runs through this account like the threnody of a tragedy foretold.

The same paranoid tendency may account, too, for the tenacity with which Johnson stuck to his formalist guns. Coe remarks that many who knew B S Johnson felt that his “dogmatic insistence on high modernist innovation as the only way forward for the novel was not really a serious literary aesthetic at all – more of a defensive posture, adopted to mask his insecurities”. These were sexual, intellectual, class insecurities. To be better than the rest he had to be totally different, so that other writers were not just not as good as him, they were “not even writing [ital] the right kind of novel [ital]”. He succeeded in making friends with his hero Beckett in Paris – but this gesture of solidarity, mutual though it was, also emphasises how his idea of the avant-garde was already being superseded. He was, as Coe points out, actually an aesthetic elitist located in modernism’s previous chapter; he had, for example, no interest at all in the pop-art aspects of the Sixties avant-garde.

The “large, blonde [ital] maudlin [ital] man” continued to work with deep application at his fiction – as at his other ventures, his poetry, drama, film scripts and football reporting for the Observer and the Times of India. If he had a single quality that gradually unbalanced all the others, it was his ability to bear a grudge: against women, publishers, the very randomness of life which he sought to extol over the selectivity of the conventional novelist. Time and again as I read I found myself recalling that old piece of fortune-cookie maxim, “While you’re nursing a grudge, just remember the other guy’s out dancing.” Johnson claimed he possessed “an enormous protection of laughter”, but those he worked with – publishers, agents, editors, directors – though they admired his work, did not find it easy to locate his laughing side. Many found it easier not to work with him.

So what is the tragedy of B S Johnson? That he would have been a great – i.e. commercially and literarily successful – writer if he had been less depressed, more normal? Or that he was thirty years too early for an anger management course? Flippant though this sounds, Johnson’s story cries out for close psychoanalytical attention. In his destructive relations with the London cultural establishment – his professional adult “family” – you can, I think, identify the constant tantrums of a boy never given enough attention by his parents. In that respect, Like a Fiery Elephant is a very cautionary tale – there, but for some redeeming grace, goes many a writer “hurt into poetry” to use Auden’s phrase. But do writers ever listen to the lessons of their own autobiographies? Isn’t that why they write, to work these problems out in their writing? In his review of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in 1965 Johnson noted that “while to read Sylvia Plath’s book is a remarkable experience… I must yet question the [ital] value [ital] of these poems to me: after all, they did not save her, did they?” I wonder, if BSJ had been given himself to review, whether he would have approved of his own method. It didn’t save him, did it? And that is really the concern at the heart of Coe’s marvellous book. It is, beyond the formally ingenious and sad, unfailingly readable story of B S Johnson, beyond Coe’s underlying discussion of the value of any avant garde, a book about the limits of the novel’s ability to console us. Johnson, in his agonising way, shows us one answer. Is it the only answer? I don’t think so. But that’s for each of us, as readers, to decide.


© Julian Evans 2004

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