B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Johnson, B(ryan) S(tanley) (Vol. 6)

Johnson, B(ryan) S(tanley) 1933–1973

Johnson, a British novelist and poet, was the master of "a precise and clean cutting prose style" which enabled him to "carry off his remarkable experiments with … panache." Although better known for his novels—Travelling People and Trawl are two—Johnson considered himself primarily a poet and his fiction as extended prose-poems. Amongst his abiding themes were decay, unrequited love, and solipsism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)

The idea that fiction is lying, and in other respects undesirable, has been propagated by [the] English novelist, B. S. Johnson, whose considerable talents seem to me unnecessarily limited by his doctrinaire attitudes. For an English writer Johnson is remarkably conscious and theoretical in his ideas about what he wants to do. (p. 204)

Travelling People is an extremely entertaining novel with an obvious debt to Sterne in its typographical eccentricities: as, for instance, when one character has a heart-attack and Johnson illustrates its effect with a blank page printed entirely in black. The novel contains a lively parade of stylistic improvisations, including passages printed as letters, a television script, extracts from obscure early writers, and interpolated digressions by the author. If its manner is fairly dazzling, the matter tends to be thin: in essence Travelling People is a familiar kind of first novel about a young man's picaresque adventures, in this case set in a shady country club in North Wales. There is a lack of conviction about the more conventionally narrative section, and it is evident that much of Johnson's energy went into the stylistic innovations. Yet this novel showed that Johnson had unusual talents and some disconcerting and provocative ideas about the novel; unlike most young English writers he had learnt a great deal from Joyce and Beckett and was trying to move beyond the conventions of realism. In his stress on the formal and artificial elements in fiction, and his preoccupation with eighteenth-century models, Johnson has something in common with John Barth, although he comes nowhere near Barth in intellectual stamina and obsessive power. Johnson's second novel, Albert Angelo, also showed a wealth of stylistic variety, and a high degree of comic inventiveness. (p. 205)

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.

That elementary macabre streak in Mr. Johnson's work which gave us, for example, a page of black to represent the death of one character in Travelling People, is winning out. [In House Mother Normal: A Geriatric Comedy, the] House Mother is most unlike the schoolmaster in his short film You're human like the rest of them (still in some ways his most original and lively experiment) who exhorted his young pupils in vain to seize the best of life quickly, and "be bloody hard to kill". House Mother Normal can only summon up obscene and grisly resources to divert the dying….

Unfortunately, the ingenuity of the technique precludes depth of treatment—in a way only too characteristic of this author's experiments, where gimmicks easily seem a substitute for hard toil and genuine involvement. Here, in fact, the gimmick is particularly clever: the nine sections [each a separate monologue] could almost be fitted physically on to one another, with exact simultaneity of events.

A good device has been achieved. But it serves material of disquieting thinness. One or two, at most, of the monologues come to life with a sense of achieved characterization—no more. There are funny and touching moments; but more resort to a crudity and cruelty which is beside the point, not a valid contribution to it. The blurb claim of "unflagging compassion" is protesting too much: there hasn't been time or space in the book to move much beyond stereotypes. For a writer who is capable of far better things (in Trawl, for example) when he is truly extending himself, this is no more than marking time in an ingenious way.

"Marking Time," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 11, 1971, p. 667.

The construction of House Mother Normal is an attempt to make the reader register the experience of nine persons as nearly as possible simultaneously. The past-turning thoughts and a few spoken words of each of eight old men and women are presented in turn, as each lives through an evening in an old people's home; finally their heartless and obscene housemother has her say. As thought becomes fragmented so do the words on the page (in one case Welsh fragments), and where sleep or total mental confusion supervene, the pages become blank. B. S. Johnson used techniques like this in his first novel, and I should have thought used them up. There was once some point to be made about what can be done with typography and the physical page in relation to ideas, but it's been made, and wasn't too profound to start with. The coherent parts of this novel are ample evidence that B. S. Johnson isn't hiding a lack of talent behind stylistic antics, and I'm sure those antics are sincere. But they have the opposite effect to the one he intends: the fact is that a succession of blank pages shed their symbolism in a moment; the mind abruptly returns from the mysterious place of imagination which the writer creates with words, where reader and writer meet, and finds itself gazing on a foolish empty page.

Mary Sullivan, "Old School Sighs," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of Mary Sullivan), June 17, 1971, p. 793.

B. S. Johnson is certainly a gifted novelist, who achieves an impudent wit in his control of narrative flow and tone. It is perhaps unfortunate for him that in order to categorize his genre of fictional experiment, one has to compare him with Nabokov, to do which is to 'place' him in quite a different, and disastrous, sense. This is so unfortunate that one might avoid doing it, were [Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry] a first novel. But Johnson has got very high praise, from many critics, and so he stands for something. One really has to say that he is not, in this novel, a novelist to take seriously at all. The story is an Ealing film-comedy plot, of a lovable rogue who revenges himself on society for every disappointment, by increasingly macabre acts of mayhem and vandalism. And the method is roughly that of Pnin, the narrator flirting the illusion of fiction at his readers like a bullfighter flirting his red cape at a bull. I'm not denying the skill with which this is done, or the pleasure it gives. Johnson has what you might call control of his form; but this is form in the sense in which you can say that Noel Coward and Beverly Nichols are masters of it. (p. 162)

Martin Green, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1973), April/May, 1973.

Any review of "Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry" chances being some few words longer than its subject. B. S. Johnson has provided blank pages enough to interpolate "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" as an extended marginalium. There is, however, no long division of pleasure: pages into purchase price. Johnson has invented a feisty, sweet delight. Even his vacant sheets have an implicit drollness more refreshing than the written-out efforts of too many authors.

Christie caricatures the stock fiction hero: rising, ruthless young man. His thesis is a burlesque of Benthamite pleasure-pain arithmetic. Christie uses the double-entry accounting system to box score his debit aggravations and credit recompenses in a one-on-one skirmish with Them. His appraisal inflates in a crazy upward spiral from "General diminution of Christie's life caused by advertising" (—L50) to "Socialism not given a chance" (—L311,398). Recompense, as you might expect, has been conveniently marked down…. Johnson satirizes the popular modern doctrine: man as victim of his environment (society, Them), always in debt. It's Julian Sorel with an adding machine.

Johnson is himself a caricature: of the classical novelist. He stomps around in his narrative, cranky and dour. Johnson sees through the fiction game and its weary conventions. For instance, no Benthamite principle can apply in character creation. "I could go on and on for pages and pages about Christie's young life, inventing and observing…. But why?… He is as he is, you are as you are." Since there is no discoverable algebra of personality in real life, why enforce a simplistic cause and effect logic in the novel? Characters die when they are no longer useful to the author, not before: an unpleasant truth, let's admit, but one that deserves better publicity. Christie employs mechanical devices which Johnson, out of spite, refuses to blueprint. Perhaps they are unworkable: does it matter? The book repudiates the bogus presumption that realism, psychological or physical, is a valid critical norm for art. Repudiates, at last, the very possibility of its existence in fiction.

Towards the end, Johnson quotes one Széll Zsuzsa, who may or may not exist. The novel "denies itself in parodistic form in order to be able to outgrow itself." "Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry" does precisely that. It's good; damned healthy. In the process Johnson furnishes 90 minutes worth (at my 250 w.p.m.) of the most relishable fiction you are likely to encounter this year. (pp. 6-7)

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973.

B. S. Johnson continues to tantalize his readers with the prospect of a novelist who commands very many of the old-fashioned virtues and yet resolutely strives to cast them out of his writings. Naturally they keep turning up, much against his conscious will: a considerable storyteller's skill, a talent for creating characters who tend to live beyond his control, an ability to write sustained and vigorous prose, a robust and inventive humour. It is all very inconvenient because Mr Johnson would not have it this way. He is against narrative, against fictions of all kinds, against novels which require effort to appreciate, and balefully serious about his conception of the way his medium should develop….

[He] is explicitly puzzled that he and others are still needing to fight James Joyce's battles. "I can only assume that just as there seem to be so many writers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century novelists, so there must be large numbers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century readers, too." Things clearly haven't developed as he would have liked: it still needs a good push to persuade writer or reader not to be vulgarly curious about what happens to whom, and how convincingly. Or so the reasoning goes. In fact, what Mr Johnson calls the "neo-Dickensian novel" is surprisingly healthy, and the enjoyable neo-Dickensian passages which have not been drained off by the author in his own Albert Angelo, Trawl, House Mother Normal and Christie Malry ironically undermine his pessimistic theorizing about the limited range of things the novel can still hope to achieve as an art form.

But taking Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? exactly as Mr Johnson would prefer: what we have is a small batch of pieces which strive, with varying degrees of success, to stake out their own new territory….

In all, very little in the book takes us much further into that area of opportunity for the novelist which Mr Johnson sees opening ahead with the forthcoming collapse of the old modes of observing, thinking and recording.

"Against Nature," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 9, 1973, p. 1361.

Just as accountants use the double-entry system to order wildly diverse assets and liabilities, so [Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry] draws up a balance sheet on everyday life. Its hero, Christie Malry, scratches the essential formula on a London wall: "Debit them, credit me! Account settled!"

Christie starts by assessing minor annoyances. Being "virtually forced to join" a union at his job is worth L60, for example. To get due recompense for that and other slights, he destroys an important business letter, an act he values at L6. His accounts soon grow more complicated, and Malry's figures mount accordingly. To help make up for "socialism not being given a chance" (debit: L311,398), he dumps cyanide into a local reservoir, killing 20,000 Londoners (credit: L26,622.7). As the plot progresses, Christie's ledgers carry forward an even larger debt that society owes him.

All this might sound grim in outline. But … Johnson balances it with compassion and a humor that is alternately wry and ribald. Christie's adventures, whether in a bank, confectionery factory, or bed, are all double-entries. Action and futility, joy and grief, pique and nobility—everything counts, everything matters. Debit boredom, credit Johnson! A remarkable little book. (p. 111)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 19, 1973.

Johnson's experimentalism, besides preventing his wider recognition as one of the funniest writers of his generation, was often in fact rather demure, and rarely the enemy of lucidity. The genial, bearish capering round traditional narrative technique, the tricksy layout, slashed pages and unjustified type, do not go very far beyond Sterne—'that great spunky unflincher', as Johnson called his Master….

Johnson's consistent aim in all his fiction was to tell it how it is. The paradox of fiction obsessed him: 'I am not interested in telling lies in my own novels,' he writes in the introduction to See the Old Lady Decently. Yet 'how can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction? The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically be impossible.' The only way Johnson can face this conundrum is by continually exposing the mechanics of writing as he goes along: rip out the false lining of the top hat, disembowel the stage rabbit to show that it was real and alive. Hence the cheeky backchat, the references to checking detail in Pevsner and Escoffier, even the intrusion into the text of Johnson's daughter bringing him food while he is writing. The trouble is, of course, that such moments of intended authenticity (and even the documents Johnson reproduces) become, in their turn, conceits, and honesty, despite the author's best endeavours, becomes self-defeating. It is the catch-22 of fiction. (p. 600)

Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 2, 1975.

I know that it's very fashionable to read and even to enjoy B. S. Johnson, and somehow he manages to please everybody. The more robust and Anglo-Saxon critics can forgive him his lamentably archaic 'experimentation' on the grounds that, deep down, he is yet another pawky humourist in the tradition of Sterne; the more effete but no less conventional experimentalists (although the English critics, to a man and woman, wouldn't know a modern novel if it got up and stuffed its words down their throats—which one day it will) can forgive him the earthy humour for the sake of his cut-ups, his word games and his preoccupation with the processes of his own invention. I do not myself think that these qualities are interesting or significant on their own terms, especially when they are exhibited—as they are in [See the Old Lady Decently, a] posthumous novel—without props, scenery or characters….

The problem with the whole book … is that it is actually an anachronism masquerading as something different and new.

A great many tricks have been employed to that end. There are a number of disparate sections à la carte; extracts from a thesis, fictional dialogue, autobiography are all labelled with a series of letters to denote their status: "The extracts from Neumann are marked by the sign N…" and so on. I shall mark my own copy of the book with VBW, which may mean Very Bad Writing, and also with IOHHAOI, which will mean If Only He Had An Original Idea. The central problem is that Mr Johnson has set himself a 'serious theme,' and there is no easier way of ruining the language than to write about something which already exists as a complete idea. Here, in what was meant to be the first of a trilogy, Mr Johnson intended to interweave the death of his mother, who had recently died of cancer, with the history of our nation which is, presumably, meant to be suffering a less painful but no less inevitable death.

So there are passages of documentary history, in which for some reason the nouns have been misplaced (the way John Ashbery used to do back in 1962), there are celebrations of 'place' (the way Carlos Williams did it in 1951), there are letters, straight biography and even passages of personal reminiscence—these last, incidentally, written with a sort of innocent inventiveness which suggests that Mr Johnson is more capable than he appears—"I shall take this pad with me. The next sentence you read will have been written on location in Chester Square." But once the dazzling fact has been established that different types of language—whether history, biography or historiography—are merely different types of fiction there is not much else for Mr Johnson to do. He aspired to being a modern and became merely contemporary.

Peter Ackroyd, "Fads," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 3, 1975, p. 545.

Johnson committed suicide, "in a moment of despair," before he was 40 and just some weeks after completing "See the Old Lady Decently." It's a substantial setback for fiction….

The "old lady" is Johnson's mother, Emily or Em, who died in 1971. The novel, book one of a projected trilogy, assembles her life from eyewitness accounts, letters, news clippings—all grouted together by Johnson's sharp imagination. The narrative concludes with his own conception and birth, a modestly spectacular piece of writing. "From Em, Me." This is not merely palindromic fooling, for cyclicality, uroboros with its tail in its mouth, rebirth, appears to have been Johnson's one riposte against a sordid, disappointing world….

A unique tension has nerved Johnson's work; you never know when he'll simply give it up and stop writing. The odds are about even on any page. Pauses, typeset in haphazard ways, hesitate, hesitate; the text misses like an engine. Johnson has acknowledged Laurence Sterne in his dedication but this is a different literary strategy. Sterne couldn't get on with it because new subject matter, in geometric progression, distracted him. Johnson just doesn't trust the efficacy of words. There have been so many, and the world is unimproved….

The novel is about mother, mother country, great earth mother; and it's as much about the possibilities inherent in fiction.

This is an extraordinary novel, full of agonized, half-articulate emotions. B. S. Johnson could not have confronted himself with a more harrowing challenge. May he rest in peace. (p. 6)

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 10, 1975.

In 1971, B. S. Johnson's mother died, and he resolved to write a trilogy of experimental novels on her life. "See the Old Lady Decently," which concerns her early years, up to his own birth, was to be the first volume. (The next two were to be titled "Buried Although" and "Amongst Those Left Are You," and the titles were to be read as one sentence across the spines of the books.) To judge from this book, Johnson, who committed suicide a few weeks after completing it, became interested in the historical and philosophical background of his mother's story, and found himself writing about the motherland (Great Britain) and motherhood. Mother, motherland, motherhood: these three themes are pursued in documents, imaginings, fragments, concrete poems—enough verbal games to fill a compact volume. There are frequent passages of a peculiar elliptical gibberish that is often evocative or amusing. ("Suddenly the and were illuminated by fairy, as well as some, and on the highest portion of the there was a display of.") The book is clever, playful, and spirited—qualities that make the writer's untimely death all the more difficult to understand. (p. 131)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 22, 1975.