Friday, March 01, 2013

B S Johnson: 'Britain's one-man literary avant-garde'

Forty years after his suicide, the radical work of British novelist B S Johnson retains its power to unsettle and entertain in equal measure, argues Tim Martin.

B S Johnson
B S Johnson: Writing is lying.  Photo: Paul Jackson
‘I shall be much more famous when I’m dead,” BS Johnson told his agent the day before he committed suicide in 1973. Four decades on, in a year that marks both the 80th anniversary of his birth and the 40th of his death, it’s still hard to tell whether history has proved him right.

Despite a revival of interest after Jonathan Coe’s superbly perceptive and compassionate biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), Johnson’s work remains overshadowed by its novelty value. Beyond a loyal cult readership and a hover of interested academics, he’s likely to be known, if at all, as the man who cut holes in the pages of his novel Albert Angelo to give the reader a glimpse of a forthcoming chapter, or as the writer of The Unfortunates, a box of unbound signatures (sections of the novel) intended to be shuffled and read in any order.

These and other techniques have led Johnson to be tagged as an “experimental” novelist, one of a group of Sixties authors providing a British riposte to the nouveau roman that Duras and Robbe-Grillet were exploring across the Channel. But though he admired the spirit of the British experimentalists, he considered himself to be from a more exalted tradition: as far as he was concerned, he was carrying the baton of Modernist technique that passed from Joyce, “the Einstein of English fiction”, onwards to Beckett. Critics who called him an experimentalist received stinging replies. “Certainly I make experiments,” he once wrote, “but the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is in my terms successful… Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say.”

So what did B S Johnson have to say, and what have we been missing? This month is a good time to find out, as five of Johnson’s seven novels are being reprinted by Picador alongside a collection of journalism, plays and short stories. Meanwhile, the BFI is releasing You’re Human Like the Rest of Them, a disc collecting his several contributions to film and TV.

It adds up to the fullest picture in years of a man who at the peak of his career was, as Coe put it, “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde”: a vigorously public poet, novelist, film-maker, playwright, sportswriter, editor and critic who turned out formally daring work at a remarkable rate and backed it with fanfares of unselfconscious boasting. It also reveals that the strengths of Johnson’s writing exist beyond – and often quite apart from – the technical gimmickry that has become his legacy. 
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