Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Load of B.S.

What makes a man with a perfectly all right name like Bryan Stanley Johnson go and abbreviate it to B.S. Johnson? I suppose I will never know having failed to finish (indeed barely start) Jonathan Coe's biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. The answer is probably stuffed away in the back somewhere, but I can't be bothered searching it out. Coe's book is dull, dull, dull, which is a shame given a) how interesting a writer Johnson was, and b) how excellent the title Like a Fiery Elephant is.

Johnson, in case you don't know (oh, how I'm looking down my nose at you!) was British literature's "one-man avant-garde", to use one of Coe's few memorable lines, during the 60s and early 70s. Johnson started out by questioning the basic assumptions of the realist tradition, and ended up undermining just about all of them in a series of innovative novels that utilised every device from a constantly interupting omniscient author to holes cut in the pages so the reader could see ahead. Johnson himself was a fascinating figure: passionate, single-minded, and, well, fiery and elephantine. Good bio material, you might think. So what went wrong?

Coe's problem is that he thinks he is cleverer than his subject. His initial method is to provide a fragment of Johnson's writing (from a published work, or otherwise a letter, note, etc) then do the bio thing, then another fragment, then more bio. It's too much Coe, not enough Johnson. A couple of hundred pages in and I'd had enough. As much as I'd like to know more about Johnson's life and (more importantly) his thought and work, I just couldn't face any more of Coe's nonsense. I also started resenting the $30 I'd spent on Like a Fiery Elephant. It could have been put to better use buying a B.S. Johnson Omnibus from Abebooks. Or indeed a couple of six packs.

My question is, are there any good literary biographies? (Fair warning: if somebody says the words Life of Johnson I will have an attack of the beserkers.) Actually, I can answer my own question, as Richard Ellman's Yeats: The Man and the Masks is about as good a mix of biography and criticism as anybody could ask for, particularly with a poet as complex as Yeats. The same author's books on Joyce and Wilde are reported to be excellent, but surely there must be others. Any suggestions?

(And yes, I know this started out being a kind of review of Like a Fiery Elephant before trailing off into ask-the-reader rubbish, but in my defence I am really, really tired, and like whatever I don't care man.)

4 Comments:

At 11:19 AM, Blogger JPW said...

P.P. Howe's 'The Life Of William Hazlitt' is probably the best (indeed, one of the only) literary biography I have ever read.

 
At 12:18 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

I don't care about literary biography too much (except Ezra Pound's, whose have all been written by people with one axe or other to grind about the man), but what I want to know is if you've read Brian Castro's novel Drift, something about a bloke in Tasmania who starts getting letters from B.S.J. for no apparent reason? I haven't, and want to know if it's sufficiently Johnsonny before I get hold of it.

ocaji

 
At 9:20 AM, Blogger Tim said...

No I haven't but I see my local library has a copy so I'll check it out asap and let you know.

 
At 8:48 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

Yay! I finally found someone to read books for me. Thanks.

nyofrk

 

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