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Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson Paperback – Unabridged, 17 Jun 2005
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'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.
The critically acclaimed biography of a man respected for his fierce commitment to truth and honesty, and his passionate belief in the avant-garde.See all Product description
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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.
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.