Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson by Jonathan Coe

didn’t finish it. but it did make me think a bit about johnson and the life of an experimental novelist… and, like pound sd to williams: “you don’t have to finish everything–don’t tell people i said so.”

skimmed though. and did check the index and read all the entries where beckett comes up. (he comes off rather well.)

one of the main conflicts in the book, introduced in full self-awareness in an early chapter, is coe’s conflict, his torturedness even, about the traps and hypocrisies of writing a literary biography. as well, and this is simplifying it a bit, but it felt like coe was also conflicted about his own method and proclivities as a novelist and the more transgressive tradition that b.s. johnson represents. it’s almost as if coe doesn’t want to admit the avant-garde, when it succeeds, is the only game in town. (or maybe better said: the advanced guard, when it survives, gets farther into the interior.) he has a hard time reconciling this fact with the more regular enjoyments he gets out of traditional narratives. it’s a real dilemma and somewhat enjoyable/educating/painful to watch it get worked out as he writes his book.

he has a nice digression, near the end, when he hesitates before writing about johnson’s death. very human and sad and dignifying.

because of the bio i took another look at ALBERT ANGELO and i thought a few things… i think i remembered johnson as a major minor writer… but then, thinking about that categorization, i thought it a weasley and probably wrongheaded bureaucratic-minded ranking… or–if it stands–that i *like* major minors. something about their failures and/or their often slightly off but great ambitions… anyway, looking at albert angelo, i remembered what i liked about it: the idea of the artist-as-a-young-man, someone hopeful but uncertain how to see his daily humiliations–as stations of the cross or the amassing proof of his ultimate unworthiness. the contender slogging through his days. …also, his portrayal of a school seemed, fifty years after and taking place in a foreign nation, very familiar to me.

(there’s a nice review by kermode, in the london review of book, of the bio and johnson. in his review, kermode has a terrific digression about literary risk-takers like johnson: “Many have argued that a book’s defiance of contemporary opinion and convention is itself an index of virtue, that some element of ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarisation’ is a preservative, and that too easy a compliance with accepted norms is bound to result in oblivion. Literary transgressiveness, often reflecting radical social and political opposition, can thus be taken as a justification for rescue work. It may be, as Roman Jakobson believed, that its virtue lies in its power to protect us from ‘automatisation, from the rust threatening our formulae of love and hatred, of revolt and renunciation, of faith and negation’. Since the transgressive has this value it will be worth much effort to recover lost examples of it.”)

i love johnson for–this crystallized in the bio–his us versus them combative position. he called the majority of his contemporary novelists philistines for being mired in the techniques of the 19th century novel despite the examples of joyce and beckett. what can i say, even though this is kinduva schoolboy dichotomy of the barbarians and the keepers-of-the-flame, i sorta believe it. don’t tell anyone i said so.

…also i love him for his typographical rapscallionisms. prolly my favorite one is: in HOUSE MOTHER NORMAL, which takes place in an old folks’ home, he represents the senile with…blank pages! another, in albert angelo, he cut holes through several recto pages so a reader could, literally, see into the future. a human and very funny writer that b.s.

consume.

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