- Hardcover: 496 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic; y First American edition edition (May 15, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0826417353
- ISBN-13: 978-0826417350
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,048,907 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson y First American edition Edition
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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.
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
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Top customer reviews
genius turns a fairly obscure, abrasive avant-garde suicide into a truly
fascinating subject for a book. I wouldn't want to be anywhere near Johnson,
but, like the similarly disturbed Ian Curtis, he was not a boring guy. At this
point, my interest has been piqued for Coe's other books.
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. He grapples with the act of writing biography, how to get at 'the truth', how to write honestly about someone you never knew, and he freely admits when he's guessing or extrapolating. He talks personally about his experience of Johnson, as a teenager, a student, a biographer, a fan, but also as a successful novelist, standing in direct opposition to Johnson, not just because Coe is admired by the literary establishment but because he creates fantastic stories/'lies'(although is it just coincidence that Coe's novel The Rotters Club, written at the same time as this biography, is more strongly rooted in his own past than any before?). And then, having collected all his biographical evidence, Coe creates a narrative out of it by using whatever form works best to 'tell the story' - usually directly quoting from a friend, an irate letter of Johnson's, one of his poems, screenplays or novels. This is done most evocatively towards the end of the biography in one section that consists solely of recollections from friends and Johnson's widow.
BS Johnson himself, of course, is the only person who could ever reveal the real truth behind the truth, what really went on 'inside his skull', but Coe manages to reveal the heart of the man. While Johnson could dismiss Coe's tentative Coda suggesting what might have led up to his suicide, BSJ and the rest of us can only admire this honest, passionate, playful portrayal of a troubled, confused man, a single-minded writer, and writing itself.
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
Most recent customer reviews
B S Johnson, like me, knew he'd be a great writer without having written a word.Read more