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Part the First: Albert Angelo,
This review is from: Omnibus: Albert Angelo, House Mother Normal & Trawl (3 titles) (Paperback)
I was surprised to get through the first book in the B.S. Johnson omnibus, his second novel Albert Angelo (1964), in a day. But then it is only 180 pages long, and his liking for typographical idiosyncracy means that pages are sometimes half-filled - or less - with text; and the writing is clear and clean for the most part; and it's not like there's any complexity of plot.
Albert - despite the title of the book it's never clear if that's his forename or surname or both - is an architect in the same way that Dawn from The Office is a children's illustrator. At 28 years old, he is making ends meet while he designs buildings ("Sounds a bit useless to me, mate. What's the use of designing buildings if no-one's ever going to build them?") by working as a supply teacher in a series of rough London schools - in his current stint he is replacing a teacher who committed suicide. The book describes a series of toiling lessons at the school, where the emphasis is more on crowd control than filling young minds with golden nuggets of knowledge, while Albert dwells on his lost love, Jenny (Johnson in an authorial intervention tells us later: "a name I rather like even though I intended it originally to be involved in a rather coarse pun, Jenny Taylor, Jenny Taylor") and the one happy memory he has of her, of a holiday in the west of Ireland.
And that's it. On page 167 Johnson breaks in: "f*** all this lying look what im really trying to write about is writing ... Im trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality about sitting here writing" and gives us about 10 pages of this before tying up the plot of the novel, such as it is, with a nasty, brutal and short coda. Albert, he tells us, is him, the writer who cannot survive by his writing - even the lost love and the rest of it is from memory with a few names changed.
It's hard to say whether this is a clever literary subversion or a crap cop-out. Did Johnson plan to have himself enter the novel at this stage all along, or did he just run out of things to say and want to end it suddenly? Would it have made any difference in any event, and how could we tell? It's a toss-up which side to come down on, because while a lot of the book engenders pleasure and sympathy with Johnson - the fine writing in the early stages, the genuine feel of reality in some of the classroom scenes (I particularly liked the roll call for some reason), some of the typographical trickery like splitting the page into two columns and putting the exterior dialogue down the left hand side of the page and simultaneously Albert's inner thoughts down the right hand side - other elements are more likely to bring out a 'tch!' than an 'ahh!', like Johnson's showy determination to get in every form of narrative, from first-, third- and even second-person ("A boy comes running through the door up to you and says that someone is hurt") through dialogue and interior monologue to poetry and Molesworth-style unreconstructed kids' speech - to some of the more novel typographics like cutting a hole in two of the pages to enable the reader to see through to a future event ("To dismiss such techniques as gimmicks, or to refuse to take them seriously, is crassly to miss the point," Johnson tells us primly).
All in all though it's a breeze to read for the most part - unlike Johnson's heroes Beckett and Joyce - and the prose, when he lets it settle down in one place for long enough, is supple and memorable. So although it's not surprising that Albert Angelo had until now been out of print for decades, it was, I think, worth getting back.
(Oh, and it's from this book that the title of Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson comes, when one of the pupils in the school writes in an essay "What I think of Mr Albert", He walks like a firy elephant [sic].)