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on 29 June 2004
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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on 29 June 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.
Like 'The Unfortunates', Coe's book left me feeling strangely uplifted in spite of the tragedy. It must be something to do with the human spirit - that dignity, honesty and integrity in the face of the inevitable. I came away from it all with a much clearer vision of Johnson's failings as a man, but also a lot more respect for his integrity and determination - artistically as in life, he was a man who was not afraid to stand up for the things he believed in.
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on 20 April 2006
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. But the form he adopts is not conventional: starting with an overview of the seven published novels, he then bases a generally chronological account around 160 fragments, taken from the novels, but also from letters to agents, publishers, friends, poems published and unpublished...

Then comes a collage of brief extracts from interviews conducted nearly thirty years after Johnson's death. These are arranged so as to cover different aspects of Johnson's personality, and, more signifcantly, to juxtapose clear differences of opinion.

Finally, the coda: what would chronologically have constituted fragment 46 is held back until the end of the biography, the reason for this being that the fragment in question was, Coe explains, "almost the last thing that I found while going through Johnson's archive". This fragment, in Coe's interpretation of it, throws a radically new light on Johnson's life and on the circumstances leading up to his suicide. Coe explicitly points out the possibilty that "this tells you more about me than it does about him".

It would spoil the biography as a whole to reveal the nature of Coe's contention in his analysis of this final fragment. But here is surely the clearest indication there could be of the role of subjective interpretation. In Johnson's provocative words, this subjectivity implied that "telling stories is telling lies"; in slightly less provocative terms, it clearly means that all meaningful fiction can only arise from the balance which is to be sought between general human experience and what is specific to one person. Between truths universally acknowledged and the doubts and speculations which each writer and reader brings to the writing/reading experience which characterises the novel.

Which brings us to the contention of one interviewee, Anthony Smith, that "we are driven (by a sense of identity/dignity) to make stories of whatever happens, like Greek myths". This is clearly an opinion that Jonathan Coe adopts as his own in this fascinating book: that the very notion of "real life" (and consequently books and films based on so-called "true stories") is a dubious one. Rather, we construct our understanding of what it means to be alive, and that fiction is one of the ways in which we attempt to communicate life's joys and despairs.
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on 26 June 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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on 4 April 2011
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 obscure, tormented, experimental poet. Obscure, tormented, I thought? Let me at it! Who's the poet? I asked. I'm not telling you, J replied. The thing is, he went on, you might know them, and what I'm enjoying most is that I still can't work out whether this person ever really existed or not.

B. S. Johnson (it was partly the initials that had led J to think the book might be a spoof) was certainly both of those things; but also both self-pitying and compellingly entertaining; a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Tony Hancock. Irascible, pedantic and demanding - much of the book describes his frustrating dealings with a variety of agents (all of which end in tears of course) and film projects that never come to fruition. In fact, Coe does talk about the problem here: since what writers DO is write, their lives may not actually be all that interesting - and B S Johnson was a writer whose life was everything to his art. Since he doesn't generate any particularly salacious gossip in his life, it is the parade of frustrations and his increasingly embattled character that really make the book. And it is an engaging and enjoyable book.

Coe is perhaps an indulgent biographer; he stays with Johnson through his increasingly boorish and erratic behaviour because he is clearly a fan of the writing. I'm not, personally; the book is liberally peppered with quotes and extracts from Johnson: I feel not the slightest inclination to read anything else by him. But I'd recommend this book to anyone.
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on 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. Often representing letters, diary entries, scribbled notes on novel idea and interviews transcripts in their unedited state. [Although at the same time recognising the editing decisions being made during the process of choosing which extracts to include.] Where there are gaps, Coe makes it clear there is a gap in knowledge; Coe challenges the genre of biography (as Johnson did with fiction); and manages to capture the spirit of Johnson - or, at least, convey a spirit that seems to belong to Johnson.
When I finished "Like A Fiery Elephant" I couldn't stop there. I'm now making my way through Johnsons' novels. Both "Albert Angelo" and "Trawl" have met all expectations. I'm convinced that if I didn't know Johnson as well as I do the novels wouldn't be as *meaningful*. I'm itching to reach for that loose leaf novel (which is sitting patiently on my bookshelf) but I'm determined to make my way through the novels chronologically. Perhaps when I'm done with Johnson I'll turn to Coe: I hear his novels are ok too.
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on 28 June 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.
Like 'The Unfortunates', Coe's book left me feeling strangely uplifted in spite of the tragedy. It must be something to do with the human spirit - that dignity, honesty and integrity in the face of the inevitable. I came away from it all with a much clearer vision of Johnson's failings as a man, but also a lot more respect for his integrity and determination - artistically as in life, he was a man who was not afraid to stand up for the things he believed in.
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on 21 June 2004
[typos corrected!- Please delete the erroneous version and replace with this one, deleting this message! VT]
In this book a novelist investigates the complicated and sometimes contradictory inner lives and work of the controversial writer, poet, film maker, playwright and critic B.S.Johnson. Johnson is famous for his rejection of fiction: 'telling stories is lies', yet this didn't stop him from producing at least three major novels. Johnson championed a kind of experimental modernism - radical effects like holes in books, pages shading to black, books made of unbound sections, multiple narrative voices etc. yet in many ways remained a conservative figure. This is a fascinating portrait of a writer in conflict with the times in which he lives, and despite the tragic circumstances of Johnson's life - he died by his own hand in 1973 - this book manages to be uplifting. A very rewarding book, essential reading for anyone interested in modern literature and in the biographer's art.
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on 8 August 2009
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 bewildered
I read Fiery Elephant very quickly and then lent it to someone.
got another copy and then it dawned on me Fat Man on the beach
and a Fiery Elephant are the same person... B. S. Johnson !
This is a fascinating biography written in innovative manner befitting
the complex character.
Writing 'as if it mattered' a phrase often used by B.S. Johnson
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on 2 August 2014
A fascinating insight to an author and his life, wriitten by an obvious admirer, himself a gifted writer.
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