zondag 12 oktober 2014

Literaire tip: B.S. Johnson

After reading Jonathan Coe's fascinating biography about the experimental novelist B.S. Johnson, called Like a Fiery Elephant, I had to get back to earth - not only because I had been carrying it with me in the streets of Reykjavik, through the lava fields and mossy wilderness of the Fjallabak, in the Icelandic Highlands, but also because I was so much absorbed in the terrible privacy of this remarkable writer and the enormous tragedy of his existence that I needed to sit down for a moment. It made me reflect on my own life, as most biographies tend to encourage the reader to do, but also on my own prose and the way I want to write about myself, to fictionalize my own life.

B.S. Johnson wasn't an easy man to live or work with, that much is clear from "A Life In 44 Voices", one of the last chapters in Coe's outstanding biography, unique in its form, its tone and its sense of portraying a writer the world simply seems to have forgotten. In his seven novels he has always tried to find new ways to express himself, to write about life as it is. According to him, novel writing could take two turns: fiction and non-fiction. He always claimed that his novels were telling the truth, whereas most other novels don't. He stated that "the novel is a form in the same sense that the sonnet is a form; within that form, one may write truth or fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel." (Coe in Johnson 1999: viii). He also claimed that most contemporary novelists kept writing as if Ulysses never happened, according to the same Dickensian rules. He wanted to be radically different.

Johnson only wrote seven novels in his rather short life, that is true, but apart from that he was constantly involved with other forms of expression, be it poetry, theatre, film, short stories, sports reporting or television. Deeply unsatisfied with both his love life and his career he took his own life in November 1973.

It was the beginning of summer when I finished the biography and all I wanted was to read some of Johnson's novels, to get a better idea of his fiction. Like a Fiery Elephant already contains several outtakes, fragments, synopses, even spoilers - and Coe is clearly the best person to promote Johnson's work - but I wanted more. It turned out that this writer had barely been famous in Belgium, even though he was a best-selling author and a well-known television personality in the UK in his time, and in Hungary was very popular in literary circles. It was not easy to find his novels in bookstores, but eventually I managed to order two of them from the general stockroom of the Antwerp libraries. They were his fourth and his sixth novel, The Unfortunates and Christie Own Double-Entry, and while they have some aspects in common, they are essentially very different. In order to encourage at least some people to discover the work of this forgotten writer, I would like to write my thoughts about these two novels.

The Unfortunates

Johnson's fourth novel is probably his most notorious one. It is a small, book-shaped box of twenty-seven unbound sections, of various lenghts, which the reader needs to shuffle and read in a random order. Only two of them are preceded by respectively the words FIRST and LAST, so in all the chaos of life that Johnson wanted to represent by the remarkable form of this novel, there are at least two certainties: the beginning and the end of the 'story'. It is no surprise that the twenty-eighth section of the collection is an introduction written by Jonathan Coe, of course.

The story is about Johnson's friendship with Tony Tillinghast, who in 1962 was diagnosed with cancer and died two years later at the very young age of 29, a loss that dramatically changed Johnson's life. The narrator, who in most of the sections expresses himself by means of an interior monologue, is trying to report on a football game (which is rendered in a formally experimental section), but is incessantly haunted by memories of Tony Tillinghast and the long agony that led him to the grave. Hence the form of the novel: a box with loose narrative sections. Since the mind randomly serves us memories, the novel would have to follow the same process to the reader. According to Johnson, the orthodox, classic medium of a bound book would not fit to portray this in any realistic way. In some of his other novels he used several other techniques to imitate reality, such as using black pages to represent the end of stream-of-consciousness, as the narrator has died, or cutting holes in some of the pages in order to provide a pure prolepsis to other passages.

For every reader there is for a novel, so many versions are there of that novel, as each reading is automatically influenced by who is imagining the story. This also goes for books being read over and again, as each time someone reads a novel, new experiences and insights have been added to that person's life, and let's not forget the memories the reader has of previous readings of that novel. In case of The Unfortunates, the range of possible readings is cut wide open and many what ifs impose themselves on the reader's mind. What if I had read this section before that one, and the other way around? What if the reader finishes the last section and then shuffles the sections again, in order to start anew? How completely different will his or her reading of The Unfortunates be? I was very much aware of this when I started reading the novel, which, as a rule, one has to do by the section that has been fixed at the beginning of the story: the 'FIRST' section.

The narrator arrives in the station of the unnamed city (which you can tell is Nottingham) and suddenly remembers that he knows this city! It reminds him of his friend Tony, and of a woman named Wendy, whom the narrator feels has betrayed him years ago. While walking the streets, having lunch and reporting the game, he remembers human fingers in Chinese soup, his affair with an opera singer ("Can't remember even if I liked her" (Johnson 1999:'1'); muses about his visits with his wife Virginia to Tony and June and Tony's comments on the narrator's latest novel. He remembers Tony telling about the lump he had started to feel and the diagnosis he received: "merely a little bit of fatty tissue which would go as quickly as it came. But it did not"(Johnson 1999:'2'). It was the beginning of the end.

Then one Saturday June called him with the inevitable message that Tony had died. It is the shortest section of the novel that describes this painful memory in one long sentence, which ends by "but previously there had been the opposite of a relapse, three days when his mind had been virtually normal, for which she had been grateful, June, it had seemed like a miracle, though he still could not move, his mind had come back and they had talked very seriously about everything, for the first time had talked about death." (Johnson 1999:'1')

The novel does read like a truthful account of their friendship (albeit with the necessary gaps: "I fail to remember, the mind has fuses." (Johnson 1999:'5'), rendered in a way both beautiful and melancholic, in a style not unlike Joyce's, with long sentences that present images thrown up by the narrator's imposing memories. Whilst some of these musings are rather trivial and not always very interesting (for instance the part about the various ways to cut a ham is rather dull), overall the novel is a true pleasure to read, even though most of it dwells in sadness. It is a tragic, melancholic masterpiece.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry

Christie Malry, an accountant in a company selling cakes, conceives the Great Idea of applying the financial system of Double-Entry to life. In a stream-of-consciousness not unlike the style in which The Unfortunates is written, Johnson lets his hero reflect on this method, the interior monologue typed in italics: "Debit them, Credit me!                   Account settled!" (Johnson 1973:24) His mother, strangely aware of her role as a character in a novel, of a reader looking into their storyworld, tells him that there won't be any day of reckoning and that life is chaos, in which most injustices are never evened out. After this piece of advice, having become useless as a character in the novel, she dies.

In five reckonings Christie, in account with 'THEM', tries to keep his life in balance, making sure that each entry on the Recompense side compensates any symbolic loss on the Aggravation side. For instance, after the unpleasant experience of his supervisor being harsh to him, Christie destroys an important letter, which results in legal problems for the company. On the Debit side "Office Supervisor's lack of sympathy" (value 6,00) is compensated by "Destruction of lack of sympathy" (value 6,00) on the Credit Side (Johnson 1973:47).

Christie starts to see the company as the enemy and tries to find its weaknesses, so that should it ever cause a big loss on the Debit side, he would easily be able to compensate it on an equally large scale on the Credit side, by means of subtle sabotage. He goes on and starts including aggravations in the past (such as a general educational trauma) in his Moral Double-Entry, or unfortunate events that happened not to him, but to people he knows, leaving the possibilities of his Great Idea wide open. "Oh, the possibilities were endless!" (Johnson 1973:124) The consequences are enormous.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is a thoroughly funny, morally troubling and extremely self-conscious and self-questioning novel about the deliberate application of the theoretical justice in society to the chaos that it actually presents in daily life, and its highly immoral consequences. Several characters seem to be very aware of the fact that they exist only in paper, in the words and sentences of a novel. One of many examples is the mother of Christie's girlfriend The Shrike, who exclaims, "Aaaaer, it was worth it, all those years of sacrifice, just to get my daughter placed in a respectable novel like this, you know." (Johnson 1973:156) There are even passages in which Christie discusses the novel "so far" with its narrator. Johnson also explicitly experiments with lay-out and forms of representation. He includes the five "reckonings" in the body of the novel, the last one with the words "ACCOUNT CLOSED" written at the bottom of the page, the final Debit of 352,394.33 balanced by a recompense of "Bad Debt".

After several weeks of being involved in terrorist attacks merely for the sake of his System of Moral Entry, Christie finally gets ill, decides all is pointless, and dies of cancer. In the last but one chapter Christie, on his deathbed, accuses the narrator (or writer, if you want) that "you shouldn't be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it." (Johnson 1973:180) It is the last chapter that reminds us most of the gravity and pain that pervade The Unfortunates, as a brief description is giving of the dying Christie Malry.

"Xtie died." (Johnson 1973:183)

Coe, Jonathan. Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story Of B.S. Johnson, 2004, Picador, London.

Johnson, B.S. The Unfortunates, 1999, Picador, London, 1969.

Johnson, B.S. Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, 1973, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, London.

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