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Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson [Unabridged] [Paperback]

Jonathan Coe
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
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Book Description

17 Jun 2005
In his heyday, during the 1960s and early 1970s, B. S. Johnson was one of the best-known young novelists in Britain. A passionate advocate for the avant-garde in both literature and film, he became famous -- not to say notorious -- both for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his idiosyncratic ways of putting them into practice. But in November 1973 Johnson's lifelong depression got the better of him, and he was found dead at his north London home. He had taken his own life at the age of forty. Jonathan Coe's biography is based upon unique access to the vast collection of papers Johnson left behind after his death, and upon dozens of interviews with those who knew him best. As unconventional in form as one of its subject's own novels, it paints a remarkable picture -- sometimes hilarious, often overwhelmingly sad -- of a tortured personality; a man whose writing tragically failed to keep at bay the demons that pursued him.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Unabridged edition (17 Jun 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330350498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330350495
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 348,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. His novels include The Rotters' Club, The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, The Dwarves of Death and What a Carve Up!, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. His latest novel is The Rain Before it Falls (Penguin, 2007).

The House of Sleep won the Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award for 1997.

Product Description


'Quite brilliant' -- Literary Review

...Illuminated not only the career of the irascible hero... but the art of fiction writing itself. -- D.J. Taylor in Spectator, November 2004

Coe's book is genuinely innovative... bring[s] relatively unknown characters convincingly to life. -- Rachel Cooke in New Statesman, November 2004

Compiled from a mass of tape-recorded conversation, letters and drafts for unfinished novels... it reads superbly. -- Ian Thomson in Evening Standard, November 2004

Marvellous... On the evidence of this work alone, it would be a grievous mistake to consign Johnson to oblivion. -- Sunday Times, 30 May 2004 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. An award-winning novelist, biographer and critic, his novels include What a Carve Up!, The House of Sleep, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. He lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Writer Meets Great Writer 29 Jun 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Most literary biographies are incredibly confident things, where the writer tells us everything about his subject that he knows, and fills in the gaps with supposition. Jonathan Coe doesn't; he's not even sure he likes BS Johnson, a man who comes over as arrogant, bad-tempered and insecure on every page. But Coe is sure that Johnson was a brilliant writer, one who put ideas and form before sales and dullness, and he creates a brilliant biography that's almost a conversation with himself, the reader and Johnson. If you have any love for books, and if you're not the reviewing child of a more talented adult, this is an essential purchase, both for fans of Johnson and Coe. Biog of the decade.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant study of a troubled genius 29 Jun 2004
BS Johnson was a wonderful writer. Whatever your opinion of his formal experimentation, he always managed to connect on a very deep and human level - so that you always come away from his books feeling like you've had a profound and intimate experience. Coe manages very much the same thing here. By teasing out the self-doubt and insecurities at the heart of this apparently bullish and didactic man, he brings out the human being from beneath the cloaks of theory and dogma.
As one expects from a novelist, Coe does not give away the goods too soon, playing his trump card only at the very end. But having read his conclusions, I now feel I'm as close as I'm ever likely to get to understanding the reasons behind Johnson's tragic suicide.
Yet Coe is careful to remind us that biography is not an exact science, and that this is just one view of the man. Though diligently researched, with access to primary documents and the people who knew him best, there must still be, of necessity, a fair amount of conjecture. It is clear that Coe has been engaged in a process of deep questioning about the nature of biography whilst writing this book - much as Johnson was when writing his (largely autobiographical) novels - and that is one of its great strengths.
My one reservation is that, for me at least, Coe comes down too much on the side of the conservatives regarding Johnson's experimentalism. I don't think that Johnson could have written 'The Unfortunates' in any other form than that which he chose. Though he claimed the loose-leaf format reflects the random workings of the brain, as much as anything I think it was probably a distancing device, necessary in order for him to confront this very painful material.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A highly literary biography 20 April 2006
By jfp2006
Not usually a reader of biographies of any kind, but being persistently fascinated by experimental fiction, I picked up this biography of B.S.Johnson not because of its subject [of whom I'd never previously heard] but because it was by Jonathan Coe, a novelist I admire for his combination of tradition and innovation, but also, and especially, for what he refers to on the final page of this biography as "our belief in the moral integrity of `fiction', our belief in the usefulness of storytelling."

Jonathan Coe alludes several times to a metaphor, borrowed from the seminally innovative French writer Nathalie Sarraute, and quoted by Johnson, according to which literature is to be conceived as "a relay race, the baton of innovation passing from one generation to another" - but a relay race at which most British novelists seemed, to Johnson, singularly inept.

Coe's biography enables us to witness a lap in the race that many fiction-readers must have missed when it was run: B.S.Johnson [1933-1973] was an experimental writer, a fervent disciple of Joyce and Beckett, whose innovations in both subject-matter and form he set out to emulate, and even extend, to the point of publishing his second novel with a hole cut through two pages, enabling the reader to know in advance what was theoretically still to come, and of having his fourth novel, "The Unfortunates", presented in a box with twenty-seven sections to be shuffled and read in a random order, thus simulating the essential randomness of all human experience.

Jonathan Coe has refrained from being quite so radically experimental in his own presentation of this relatively unknown writer.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful! 26 Jun 2004
Funny, poignant, impressive, thoroughly-researched, beautifully written- I run out of superlatives! The key must be that Coe himself is a marvellous and witty novelist who brings Johnson to vivid life. You laugh out loud, you cheer, and- when you finish the final section- you shiver a little! Anoraks like me will be praying that the work of the great BSJ comes back into fashion as a result of Coe's labours. Buy it- I cannot recommend it too highly!
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Johnson would have approved... 20 July 2005
Coe paints a true and honest portrait of Johnson. As I read the biography, I couldn't help but feel that Johnson would approve Coe work.
[I actually have no idea if this is true and honest portrait as "Like A Fiery Elephant" is the only material I've read about Johnson. But it certainly feels true, and it certainly feels honest. Life is stranger than fiction - Coe couldn't have made up a man like Johnson: could he?]
I first became aware of the biography from a review in a newspaper - the idea of an author writing a novel where you could read chapters in any order felt was completely amazing. [I nearly wrote the word awesome, but exercised some self control.] Whenever I went into a bookshop I half-heartedly looked for the biography, but didn't find a copy. I ended up buying a copy when I found a pile of them in paperback.
I've never read any of Coes' or Johnsons' novels - my only hook into this biography was the idea of someone writing a loose-leaf novel that had to be shuffled before being read: I needed to know more! However, as I started reading I was completely hooked - both on Johnson as a person, and on Coe's writing. Although an interesting person doesn't necessarily make for an interesting biography, Johnson is certainly blessed with a wonderful subject. Johnson is ingenious, bold, arrogant, passionate and highly creative. I loved reading his letters, and reading about how he challenges the establishment - he seemed to get through agents quite quickly. I secretly want to be like Johnson: he died 2 weeks after I was born, I feel I should be carrying the baton...
Coe tackles this amazing character quite superbly. Presenting the facts and accounts of episodes in Johnson's life as he believed them to be.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A fascinating insight to an author and his life, wriitten by an obvious admirer, himself a gifted writer.
Published 1 month ago by Gordon Burnside
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a Great Read
Time shows he was less important to literary progress than he tried to be, and not that interesting a man in retrospect except to fans like the author of this turgid book.
Published 2 months ago by Mrs Juliet Wilkinson
3.0 out of 5 stars nice writing but a bit boring
I am a big fan of Jonathan Coe and that was the reason buying this book. Nice writing as always from Coe but a bit boring for me.
Published on 26 Sep 2011 by eleni
4.0 out of 5 stars Possibly better than reading B S Johnson...
My friend J unwittingly recommended this book to me about a year ago: he told me he'd borrowed a book from the library by Jonathan Coe (two of whose novels I love) all about some... Read more
Published on 4 April 2011 by Geoff Sawers
B S Johnson, like me, knew he'd be a great writer without having written a word. When as a young man he read in Robert Graves' "The White Goddess", of a real presence, that would... Read more
Published on 31 Aug 2009 by TOM THUMB
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book
Many years ago Is saw a film Fat Man on a Beach. I didn't know who the Fat Man was, the whole experience of watching this random and mad thing on a telly left me completely... Read more
Published on 8 Aug 2009 by J. B. Lautman
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant piece of literary biography
BS Johnson was a wonderful writer. Whatever your opinion of his formal experimentation, he always managed to connect on a very deep and human level - so that you always come away... Read more
Published on 28 Jun 2004 by Ersatz Coffee
5.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a heretic
[typos corrected!- Please delete the erroneous version and replace with this one, deleting this message! Read more
Published on 21 Jun 2004 by Mr. V. Thurgood
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