Monday, 22 July 2013

two Johnsons and Coe

In a recent London Review of Books piece, that excellent and entertaining writer Jonathan Coe examines a recent compilation, The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. It's as perceptive an analysis as one might expect from Coe, whose fascinating 2004 biography of Bryan (B.S.) Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, I've only belatedly caught up with.

I was struck by some nice parallels and contrasts between Coe's devastating brief critique of Boris the right-wing, uppercrust Bullingdon bullyboy, and the admirable, if overly admiring, 500-page volume Coe devoted to the socialist, workingclass Bryan S. Both subjects, though, amply demonstrate Coe's own wit, wisdom and facility with words. He seems cleverer, as astute yet unassuming, and in many ways more interesting, than either of the Johnsons he's writing about. Coe's flawed if rather larger-than-life protagonists share/d considerable charm, however, alongside their own mightily inflated ambitions.

Boris lacks weight and intellectual and moral seriousness but masks his High Tory arrogance with a superficially attractive, no-bullshit, faux-naif comical persona. By contrast, Bryan, who regarded himself (in every sense) as a heavyweight novelist, had a rather ponderous and over-schematic approach toward Literature – at least in respect of his own work, which he considered trail-blazing experimentalism. Unfortunately, such self-conscious avant-gardery, however well-intentioned, can soon enough slide into unreadable and unrewarding failures of style, desperately humourless dead ends. Bryan's lifelong desire for ever-broader recognition plus great reviews, increased sales and the big money, all resulted in disappointments, depression, alcoholism, gross over-eating and furious arguments with everyone you could imagine or he could confront. It all ended desperately, with his suicide in 1973.

Coe points out that like one of his characters, B.S.Johnson was "prone to belligerence when drunk", but he could also be bluntly and aggressively opinionated when sober. It's true that in addition to his own personal and professional struggles – with just about anyone he ever had contact with in the whole English-speaking bookworld! – he also crusaded energetically on behalf of literary freelances, from the early 1960s until his untimely if seemingly inevitable death. Part of the trouble was, he spread himself much too thin in all sorts of forms and communication media – prose, poetry, plays, films, TV scripts, documentaries, radio, editing, articles, reviewing, teaching, anthologising – although some of these directions he felt he had to pursue, in order to support his wife and two children. Coe cites the author Gordon Williams, Bryan's friend and contemporary, who thought him "simply a gifted writer with a somewhat inflated opinion of himself and a baffling compulsion to insult and offend the very people who were most in a position to help him". This personal view seems to confirm a general impression and perception of him from the time.

Over a dozen years or so, Johnson and I found ourselves on and off the lists of several of the same publishers. Whatever the particular circumstances – too many premature moves, too many different editors –  changing your publisher generally proves questionable, especially in regard to aspiring younger writers. Publishers and agents aren't so keen to promote you, unless they feel they own you; you're their discovery and/or property, and will therefore contribute both to their eventual backlist and their reputation – continuing testimony to their critical acumen, not to mention the hope of longterm potential profit! You must 'belong' to them exclusively or at least let them think so. This was part of the problem, and things haven't changed that much over the years. Yet Johnson did come across as never satisfied, despite (for the time) some quite generous fellowships, grants, awards, arts council tours and so on. He made a lot of noise, kicking up quite a fuss, one way or another generating a lot of publicity from his more boorish behaviour. Johnson's bullish, sometimes clowning, always intransigent, nature, may well have cloaked the desperate loneliness and insecurity all decent writers feel: indeed it proved disastrous in the end.

I recall various writer friends and contemporaries at that time joking about his self-aggrandising, would-be experimentalism and major league ambitions; it was suggested that the use of the initials B.S. accurately implied Bull Shit. This may have been a bit harsh: Coe very diligently and in perhaps over-exhaustive detail, describes BSJ's extreme, ultimately deadly earnestness towards his fame and reputation. But there's a qualitative difference between self-belief, pretension, and innate talent. Of course as Browning had it, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?" (Now there was an early experimentalist!) Johnson, with all his authorial dogmas, now seems sadly dated if not derrière-garde. Imagining he could emulate his hero Beckett – who was kind and indulgent to him, as to so many others scribbling in his shadow – whom did he approve of, as genuine contemporary British experimentalists? Well, there were a very few chums – Ann Quin, Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Z. Ghose and G. Gordon and the like, none much read now…

Apart from his adoration of Joyce and Beckett, he seems not to have digested or admired other excellent Irish stylists of the time, the experimenters Flann O'Brien and Aidan Higgins and (naturally!) more traditional storytellers like William Trevor and John McGahern. His critical judgements and development narrowed through neurosis and dogma, and if this sounds like a generalisation via hindsight, what about his silly and ill-informed pontification, in an article for the Film and Television Technician (the ACTT house journal): "There is not one British film which could scrape into the world's top hundred… No, there is not one British film [i.e.1918-71] which can compare with our high achievement in all the other arts". This may have been calculated to provoke and affront his specialised and far more experienced readers; was it arrogance or ignorance? Otherwise, why not a single mention of Hitchcock, Humphrey Jennings, Michael Powell and other classic names?

BS had a streak of buffoonery, just like Boris J these days, but a deadly combination of thwarted hopes and ambitions, and of beating one's head against a wall of largely self-created hostility and confronting the largely reactionary conservative attitudes of the time, misled him into thinking he was an isolated and misunderstood genius. Even more sadly, with some late and despairing intimations that an artist's premature violent end would help ensure their immortality, his energy ran out and he felt his time would never come, except posthumously. Not a happy conclusion for a confused, often agreeable and gregarious man.

Ironically, he was right, though much good it did him: however, since his death forty years ago, he has been 'rediscovered', written about (especially well and expansively in Coe's biography – and Coe has also just edited a selection of BSJ's shorter writings), and will now doubtless be hailed as the master wordsmith he thought he was. Well, I suppose the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. I did meet Bryan Johnson in the early sixties a couple of times; he was drunk and argumentative and we had little in common; I also contributed to Transatlantic Review in 1962 when he was Poetry Editor: there, that's declared my interest, in so far as it goes! But he's still worth far more than his namesake – the current, shallower, more privileged but less substantial, 'other' Johnson, Boris the Tory Pretender.

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