‘If anyone knows anything about BS Johnson these days, it is that he was – cue polite sniggers – avant-garde. Or, if that is too French for you, experimental. He cut holes into the pages! He put unbound sheets into a box and invited us to read them at random! He thought he had found a way forward for fiction after the seemingly unanswerable formal advances of Joyce and Beckett! He liked Joyce and Beckett!
‘It is, I suppose, just about possible to have some sympathy with such a middlebrow assessment. Joyce and Beckett’s advances weren’t just formal; they were linguistic. Language, not typography, was what they made dance to their command. For their self-proclaimed heir to use visual trickery may seem a cop-out, or a challenge whose rewards do not make it worth accepting.
‘That’s if you’ve only heard about the work, rather than held it in your hands. Just as it is a delight to see the black page and so on in Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne, more than anyone else, is Johnson’s true literary ancestor), so it is a delight to come across the page with a hole in it in Albert Angelo. But by that stage you will have noticed other attractions.
‘”If only they realised it was funny,” was Joyce’s complaint about those who complained about Ulysses . This is something that is regularly forgotten about so many of the notionally austere modernist writers: they are a hoot. It is the precise attention to detail and significance, and the profound acknowledgment of absurdity, that makes it so. And as Beckett, in particular, is funniest when writing about death, despair and futility, so is Johnson. Albert Angelo may be a bleak story, for it is about an architect who has to make ends meet as a supply teacher (which is also how he meets his end), but it has moments of comedy as good as anything produced in the past 50 years. The section devoted to the schoolchildren’s thoughts about their teacher (“the Boy’s including me just fuk about in class and take the mike out of him”) is Nigel Molesworth with menaces.
‘Trawl, too, is remarkable – easy on the modernist trickery, but a superb mesh of autobiography and farcical sex. (These two novels, first published in 1964 and 1966, give the lie to the idea of that decade as one full of easy sex. Sex in Johnson is a very frustrating business.) House Mother Normal, about the residents of an old people’s home, does make extraordinary use of blank space, random typography and the like – but that is Johnson’s way of representing minds disintegrating into nothingness.’ — Nicholas Lezard
The B. S. Johnson Society
B.S. Johnson @ New Directions
No More Lying: a Primer on the Novels of B.S. Johnson
B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates: Revisiting the Elegy
B. S. Johnson and the Big Stuff
B.S. Johnson Archive
. . . to B.S. Johnson
Book: Re-reading B. S. Johnson
Bloody Stupid Johnson
‘The Mind Has Fuses’: Detonating B. S. Johnson
B.S . Johnson @ The Complete Review
b.s. johnson, brutalist
Forgotten authors No.40: BS Johnson
I Fail To Remember: B.S. Johnson Thirty Years On
B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1971)
B.S. Johnson vs. Death
Hommage à B.S. Johnson
‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook
‘B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.’ — E&DB
B S Johnson: ‘Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde’
by Tim Martin
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.
In principle, at least, Johnson’s declared mission echoed the great Modernist cry to make it new. Politically socialist and from a working-class London background, he cultivated pithy distrust for the complacency of his novelist peers, “neo-Dickensian” writers, as he called them, who were using a 19th-century form to gratify the “primitive, vulgar and idle curiosity of the reader to know ‘what happens next’”. A truly modern novel would seek, in Beckett’s phrase, a form to accommodate the mess, stripping readers of their escapist illusions while remaining ruthlessly true to the writer’s experience.
This obsession with so-called narrative truth runs through Johnson’s work, accounting for its most unorthodox experiments as well as its greatest flaws. It fuelled the iconoclastic explosion near the end of his second novel, Albert Angelo, when in the middle of a paragraph Johnson hijacks his own narrative with an all-caps howl of “F— ALL THIS LYING!”, shelving the rest of the book in favour of an extended homily on the idea that “telling stories is telling lies”. It is everywhere in Trawl (1966), the third novel, which represented a quixotically dedicated attempt to “shoot the narrow trawl of my mind into the vasty sea of my past” by booking passage on a fishing boat to work and reflect (and, as it turned out, suffer ghastly seasickness) in elemental peace. This was the book that prompted Johnson’s publisher to ask him: “Aren’t you rather young to be writing your memoirs?” – a title he scathingly adopted for a later collection of stories.
In an age where postmodernism is a buzzword, it may already be hard to feel the full force of this furious conviction that we need our ideas on novelistic truth exploded. What makes it even harder is the suspicion that Johnson’s heart wasn’t always in it. “I hate the partial livers. I’m an allornothinger,” says the narrator in Albert Angelo, and Johnson’s mid-Sixties work can often resemble a man cornered in the blind alley of his own principles. The obsession with so-called literal truth, and the conviction that a text could convey it – “To the extent that a reader can impose his own imagination on my words, then that piece of writing is a failure,” he wrote – stand in stark contrast to the work of Derrida and Barthes, who by 1967 were both well advanced in undermining assumptions behind truth and textuality.
All this, combined with the corrosive line Johnson took against critics, has led to a school of thought that sees him merely as a self-promoting aesthetic conservative: there to wag his dogma and damn the consequences. As Coe showed in his biography, though, this position takes no account of the strange contradictions in Johnson’s nature. He was, after all, a deeply superstitious writer, whose professed belief in the inflexibility of truth was ensnared with the kind of personal peculiarities – a troubled credence for supernatural experience, an obsession with Graves’s The White Goddess, a conviction that he’d die young – that hardly accord with the functional rigour of his propositions. Little of this shows up in the books, and his readers might have been amused to learn that the BS Johnson who so stoutly maintained that “I don’t like writing fiction, I like writing truth” did so at a desk with a candle burning in a special holder and a Byronic cup made from a skull.
Seen against this backdrop, Johnson’s pronouncements on realism acquire an edge of concern, as though a sufficiently austere focus on principle, on nailing truth to the wall, might work as a defence against the unknown. Despite repeated assertions throughout the novels that “all is chaos”, their secret impulse was always towards order: even in The Unfortunates, whose unbound structure clearly aims to reflect some of the violent disorder of Johnson’s grief at the death of a friend, is carefully designed to make sense in any arrangement.
Certainly Johnson’s finest novels sprang from a temporary relaxation in his principles. House Mother Normal (1971) channelled his formal ingenuity into creating a superb textual illusion: it consists of eight 21-page monologues, describing a single evening from the viewpoint of the escalatingly decrepit inhabitants of a nursing home and bracketed by the testimony of their vicious and abusive House Mother. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, meanwhile, is a book-long streak of brilliant comic contempt, following an accounts clerk who develops his own system of moral debit and credit. It’s Johnson’s funniest and most bitterly satirical work, as Christie pays off the vast debts accrued by Society (“general educational trauma”, “Socialism not given a chance”) with a cheery campaign of slaughter and public bombing.
What prompted this fictional interregnum is unclear, but these two novels succeed because of their broad-mindedness, their anarchic willingness to hold conflicting ideas in suspension. Here, satirical pronouncements on the deceptiveness of the text (“It is a diagram of certain aspects of the inside of his skull! What a laugh!” observes House Mother) alternate with an infectious joy in the possibilities of form.
B S Johnson Trawl
‘The novel describes, in the first-person, a three-week voyage aboard a deep-sea fishing trawler in the Barents Sea, not unlike the one Johnson undertook in preparation to write the book. Isolating himself from the world he knows, as well as from the ship’s crew, the narrator reflects on past events and relationships, hoping for some kind of redemption. This convincingly authentic and harrowing attempt to get to the heart of the human condition is one of Johnson’s finest novels.
‘In his heyday, during the 1960s and early 1970s, B S Johnson was one of the best-known novelists in Britain. A passionate advocate for the avant-garde, he became famous for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his unique ways of putting them into practice. Convinced that ‘telling stories is telling lies’ and that he should write about ‘nothing else but what happens to me’, Johnson produced Trawl.’ — Picador
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Well, that’s a very different kind of bloody. Good bloody, though. The most I can imagine is kind of flipping through ‘Dhalgren’ to get a feel for how the prose works, which is what I do with novels that aren’t my thing a lot anyway. Gonna try to find a way to rewatch ‘Hallelujah the Hills’. It’s been forever enough that it’s mostly a blank. ** Tosh Berman, Yes, rarefilmm.com is a total treasure trove. Let me alert the others. Everyone, if you’re not already hooked up to rarefilmm.com, Tosh very wisely recommends it. It’s full of super interesting films from classic vintage stuff to obscure gems to charming artsy stuff, and it’ll help you with your lock-in, pretty much guaranteed. And it’s free! ** Dominik, Hi, Dominik!! Cool. You had a good day, it sure sounds like. I’m excited about it from over here at least. Yeah, do fight through the uncertainty with your drawings just as I’m doing with my GIF try-outs. Some of the best things start out rusty. My yesterday was odd. This is weird: Someone alerted me to these super far right, paranoid conspiracy people associated with that QAnon cult that have discovered my blog and are losing their shit and seem to think my blog is a just a cover for a child sex trafficking ring and other evil things, etc. So there was this whole thread on their Twitter going off about the evil of this place and that the deep state Illuminati are behind it and so on. Hilarious but very disturbing. I hadn’t investigated those types before, and, wow, they are seriously insane. Like they think the coronavirus is a hoax and conspiracy to cover for a massive child sex trafficking ring. They were going off about some tweet that Oprah Winfrey sent to a friend where OW told her friend she was sorry she didn’t send flowers on her friends birthday because the florists were closed, and the conspiracy freaks think ‘flowers’ was a code word for children and ‘florist’ was a code word for some organisation that sells children. It took a few hours to shake off the creeps those people gave me. So that happened. Took a walk. Macron extended our quarantine until May 11, fuck, so another month, and he says that on May 11 only schools and few businesses will open but that cafes, restaurants, museums, stores, etc. won’t open until mid-July! People are very pissed off, so I think/hope there’ll be enough pressure on the government that cafes, etc. will be allowed open a whole lot sooner. Ugh. And other than that I just fucked around with things, mostly. So not a hugely productive day, sadly. The very best of luck with maxing out all that yours has to offer. Ha ha. Love that is a secretly a code word for a vast conspiracy of feeling, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. I agree about the obviousness of Serrano’s photos. Never been into his stuff much. I included them in the post just because they looked kind of technically gross/dreamy in the post’s context. ** Bill, Ha ha, yeah, I was seriously chuffed when I found that splatter class thing. Kind of put the nail in the post’s coffin, that entry. I have in fact seen ‘Violet’. You finally didn’t stump me. I really liked it too. Nice streamed events. We aren’t having anywhere near as many here in France as you would think, or I mean of that kind of music event, I don’t know why. Just lots of old French actors and singers reading poems and blah blah. ** Misanthrope, I do believe I’ve had solid sex where no blood was involved. Yeah, like I told Dominick, or as you might have heard, our lockdown will only slightly start ending on May 11, basically re: schools, with the reopening of things that actually count and make life feel like life not until July. But, as I also said to D., I don’t think the French are going to stand for it taking that long, so we will see. Total fucking misery. Sleep is definitely weird these days. Mine too. For pretty much everyone I know. ** Steve Erickson, I’m guessing ‘Afternoon’ will have to be an online hunt down thing, which is fine. Wow, ‘The Spook Who Sat By the Door’. It’s been so long since I saw it that I don’t remember a damned thing. Huh, maybe I’ll chase it down. Thanks. We’re having unseasonably warm weather here, which is making being indoors harder, of course. ** Right. Do you know the UK writer B S Johnson? Well, you’ve started to now, if you don’t already. Very interesting writer and guy. Rather overlooked outside of the UK. ‘Trawl’ might be my favourite of his novels. Have a look, won’t you? See you tomorrow.