His own worst enemy
LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT. THE STORY OF B. S. JOHNSON by Jonathan Coe Picador, £20, pp. 476, ISBN 033035048X sjonathan Coe is a novelist — a very good novelist. He is not a biographer; indeed he dislikes biography, as he frequently tells us. Given that, he's done a damn good job. Poor B. S. Johnson leaps off these pages: pathologically morbid and clinically depressed, wildly superstitious and selfdramatising. requiring perfect love and devotion from everyone — women, publishers, agents, even critics — and becoming suicidal and violently vengeful when they can't provide them; 'a large, blond, maudlin man', as a friend said; `unassuageable,' said another, tormented and absurd.
And that, as Coe would point out, is without mentioning the books, in which Johnson equally pursued the impossible, and blamed everyone else when they failed. He disliked the novel, and used his own novels to attack it — disdaining dialogue, character and plot, famously issuing one of his books in unbound sections in a box, and another with a hole cut through two pages so that readers could see through to a third. And yet, when he had done everything he could to alienate readers, he still expected them to love him, and to give him money and fame and prizes; which to an astonishing degree they did. But it wasn't enough, of course; and here too — here especially
he withdrew into a sense of wounded betrayal.
One of the best things Jonathan Coe does is to show what a mass of contradictions Johnson was, and above all how lacking in self-knowledge. He thought himself bravely humorous while taking himself intensely seriously; he thought himself egalitarian when he was in fact elitist; he was a passionate Labour man who only fell for 'posh birds'. In his novels he thought himself avant-garde while in fact he was an old-style modernist, wanting to turn the clock back rather than forward_ And in them he dedicated himself to an extreme principle of truth — no invention, no decoration, just telling the exact truth about the writer's experience. But (here Coe quotes Eva Figes) he never told this truth at all. He never touched his real inner life; if he had written about it, Figes says, he might not have been driven to suicide, as (at only 40) he was. But the hilarious thing is that, for all his understanding of Johnson's genius for shooting himself in the foot, Coe does just the same. Johnson, he tells us, was a fresh, humane writer with great narrative skill; but all these gifts he refused to use, and instead drove himself into a cul-de-sac of formal experimentation. And then Coe marches straight into the cul-de-sac himself. Because of his mistrust of biography, he will not trust himself as a writer, or us as readers, and simply get on with telling the story. No, we have to have four sections (though not in boxes, thankfully): one on the novels, one on the life, one a rag-bag of unused bits from his interviews, and a final Coda; all of which (except for the rag-bag, which is just lazy) are fine in themselves, but together produce a wearisome sense of repetition. Then within the sections we have to have alienating devices: each quotation, for instance, is numbered and dated, so that, as Coe says, the book looks more like a dossier than a biography. Predictably, therefore, it sometimes reads more like a dossier as well.
Even worse, in the same breath as criticising Johnson's model of authorial honesty, Coe not only adopts it, but reduces it still further. His laddish, waggish interjections produce, as Johnson's moves always did, the opposite effect from the one intended. 'Here we go, then', 'You guessed it', 'Sound familiar?' do not soothe but irritate; and 'half of this book is hunches — had you not realised this by now?' compels not my assent but my copy across the room.
In the end it's less the formal experiment itself that gets me down than this jokey, adolescent tone ('Johnson's frustration at not being able to get into somebody's pants', for instance, is too crude for me). And c'est le ton qui fait la musique: how you sound, or want to sound, affects what you can say. Coe fills up too many pages with Johnson's truly dreadful plays and boring British Council reports, and leaves some of the most difficult things to the end, when there's no time left to consider them: Johnson's compulsive eating, for example, or the question about his suppressed homosexuality. About this I know Coe lacks information, and the Coda, which does deal with it, is a gripping read. Still I am left with the sense that, like Johnson again, despite making special claims to the truth Coe doesn't really tell it. He makes B. S. Johnson's life sound comically painful; the true dark, mysterious story isn't here.