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Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson Paperback – February 15, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0826418463 ISBN-10: 0826418465 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (February 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826418465
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826418463
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,628,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this quirky biography, British novelist Coe (The Winshaw Legacy, etc.) tackles the gloomy life of his one-time literary hero, the British working-class experimental writer B.S. Johnson, who published seven novels during the 1960s and '70s before taking his own life in 1973, aged 40. Drawing on the testimony of Johnson's surviving wife, former girlfriends, friends and colleagues, Coe traces his melancholic subject's wartime childhood, undergraduate days at London University and determined efforts to launch himself as a writer. With at times overindulgent empathy, Coe charts Johnson's professional frustrations, uncovering a singular style of exasperation in Johnson's bemoaning of British literary traditionalism and stubborn defenses of his commitment to avant-garde formalism (his novels feature black pages, holes cut into pages, and unbound pages to be read in random order). Coe also traces the genesis of some of Johnson's bizarre superstitions, such as his narcissistic identification with Christopher Marlowe. Avoiding psychobabble, Coe discerns pathological tendencies in Johnson's deep attachment to his beautiful mother and in the peculiarly intense lifelong grudge he bore a college girlfriend who jilted him. Reproducing generous extracts from Johnson's novels and more autobiographical poems, Coe perhaps hopes to attract new readers to Johnson's work; as many readers will be repelled as will be intrigued. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Novelist Coe brings his own considerable creative skills to bear in this unusual biography of B. S. Johnson, British avant-garde novelist, poet, and playwright. Largely unfamiliar to American audiences, Johnson aspired to new ways of storytelling in the tradition of Joyce, and he fought convention in much the same manner as Samuel Beckett, Johnson's friend and mentor. Coe conveys the drama and agony of aesthetic pursuit, quoting heavily from Johnson's correspondence and contemporary interviews with Johnson. Coe presents evidence on both sides of the question of whether Johnson ever achieved the literary goals he set out for himself. By no means a facile read, the book rewards with intimate insight into a tragic life leading at last to Johnson's suicide. Anyone interested in the state of avant-garde literature in Britain at midcentury will relish the inside information Coe has assembled. American readers may find the heavy use of British vernacular occasionally frustrating, but this does not becloud Coe's unique gifts and achievement. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Jonathan Coe is the author of The Winshaw Legacy and nine other novels. His many prizes include the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Sarah Chatwin on June 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
You may love BS Johnson, you may never have heard of him, but if you're interested in writing - how to write, why to write, what does it all mean? - this book is wonderful: interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking, but most of all, somehow heartwarming, even though it is about a writer who killed himself.

In a way, this is the biography of BS Johnson that BSJ himself would have wanted (and then some). I'm not talking about the content particularly, although Johnson's life has been rigorously researched and then described in fascinating detail, but the tone and form of the biography. It holds a mirror up to what Johnson was trying to do with his own (mostly autobiographical) novels and reflects as much as it can back at you. Johnson had two strongly (passionately, belligerently) held beliefs about the novel. First was the idea that 'telling stories was telling lies' and he tried to make his writing as honest as possible (or did he? is there in fact as much artifice in the 'truth' he writes about as in any work of fiction?), writing mostly about himself and his experiences. He didn't believe in 'fiction' but he did believe in the 'novel' and his second strong belief was that James Joyce's Ulysess changed the novel so significantly that to act as if it had never happened was tantamount to treason, instead the novel must continue to evolve. An experimental writer (although Johnson himself disputed this term, claiming his experiments were just that and never submitted to publishers), his most common experiment was with form - using whatever form he felt best suited his material.

And that is exactly what Jonathan Coe has done.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on December 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Washington Post reviewer betrays his own mindset when he allows that Johnson's ALBERT ANGELO to be "an impressive novel, though redolent of 60s experimentalism," in which the word "though" stands out like a red flag. What does he mean, "though"? Read the sentence without "though" and it would represent my point of view. Oh well to each his own. But I say, what's wrong with 60s experimentalism? You'd think it was a taint of some kind.

The truth is that Bryan Johnson, ill read and ill served by his publishers (though he couldn't have been easy to handle) is a far more interesting author than Jonathan Coe, no matter how many awards the latter has received. The whole project had a quixotic tilt for Coe, who seems to have regarded himself very reflexively, for of course he is constantly having to defend his own bourgeois conception of the novel against the avant-garde of Johnson and, say Beckett, and constantly he is shading his generally well thought out exegeses on Johnson's books (a few of which I have not read) by citing their inhuman, formalist coldness, a quality he abhors, a quality that he believes contributes to the "deadness" of experimental writing.

So it's a funny book in many ways, and yet I am grateful to Coe for writing it, for it establishes a context, no matter how skewed, by which he might form a coherent view of BS Johnson's life and times. And surely we owe him a huge debt of gratitude if only for spending eight years interviewing many souls (and many who have since passed on) who knew Johnson and who otherwise would have let their knowledge go quietly into the grave of experimentalism in England. It is a rich turf, nearly unknown, terra incognita and nearly untouched by biographers.

All in all, a splendid book, a book you can lose yourself in, and perfect for long winter nights
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Austin Martin on August 18, 2010
Format: Paperback
Jonathan Coe writes great novels, and here he triumphs in non-fiction with a biography of the avant-garde English novelist B.S. Johnson. Johnson's boundary-pushing experiments with the novel form are probably more interesting to read about than to read themselves, but even without this assist Coe excels in a fascinating biography. Winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize in Non-fiction.
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By P. Sidoli on July 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This biographer wrote about a man whom 99% of readers have never read his books. And he does it well. Johnson wanted to push into the future and not repeat the linear exposition of novels that remain popular today. Johnson was a literary artist, not a bestselling author. Coe recognizes this and should be acclaimed for the honest and careful style he uses as a biographer to explain Johnson and his work. Johnson influences many writers today who seek the leading edge.
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