Jennifer Johnston Essay - Johnston, Jennifer (Vol. 7)

Johnston, Jennifer (Vol. 7)

Johnston, Jennifer 1930–

Ms Johnston is an Irish novelist.

For the most part, [The Gates] is coolly understated: a virtue, and one which supports the deliberately slight narrative, providing it with continuity and form where a more muscular handling would have left the impression of a series of isolated, sometimes unlikely, cameos. Because neither people nor events flag for attention, their casual appearances rarely seem unjustified, and the novel's quietly organized ellipses have no need of awkward chapter endings or rows of asterisks….

Minnie's … adolescent enthusiasms and uncertainties are cleverly used to provide us with an observer who has not yet become dulled by the hopeless monotony of what surrounds her….

The Americans are … a disappointment to the reader, who will recognize the caricature without standing much hope of believing in the characters. It's a fault which is all the more noticeable when set against the author's usually sensitive portrayal of people, places and atmosphere. Minnie's impatience, her confusion and her doomed plans; the violence born of poverty and boredom; the lethargy that comes of failure: these things add up to no great tragedy in The Gates because they are presented as parochial and commonplace; but the lack of any grand or shattering passion is just what lends the novel its ability to move the reader without assailing him. (p. 85)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 26, 1973.

To anyone who has not come across Jennifer Johnston's two earlier novels, her third will perhaps appear a simple, sad story of young men in the First World War. But it is clearly the author's intention that Alexander, the narrator of How Many Miles to Babylon?, should jog the reader's memory back to the Alexander whose gilded ghost so powerfully haunts his brother, old Mr Prendergast, in her first book, The Captains and the Kings….

The conscious similarities, and Miss Johnston's Proustian creative method, are worth stressing, because her special talent is to distil and refine the whole tragi-comic experience of Ireland and offer us, in remarkably spare, accurate little novels, a handful of people and scenes and smells that convey more about her country than volumes of analysis and documentation.

Not that these few recurring Irish faces—an old landowner retreating more and more into armchair memories and the consolation of the bottle, a beautiful petulant lady of the house, a tough engaging bog-Irish boy fighting to escape brutal poverty—are merely a rogues' gallery of recognizable types. Rather, Miss Johnston—who has, after all, produced three small masterly books in three years—is so far admirably content to explore her own chosen patch of territory and to give us, as it were, variations on a theme….

Miss Johnston is not cynical or despairing. This is still her same delicate mixture of pathos and caustic, loving observation, every sentence a tiny pleasure. She will doubtless be compared with Susan Hill, whose Strange Meeting offers an obvious parallel and who shares an ability to write about exclusively male experiences. Miss Johnston, in a smaller compass, seems already the more memorably gifted stylist, sure of her ability to leave much to the imagination. (p. 201)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 1, 1974.

Whether you should write about what you know rather than about what you don't is a matter of taste, not formal critical judgment. All the same it is a genuine consideration that may spoil one's enjoyment of Jennifer Johnston's new novel How Many Miles to Babylon? She tells us two stories for the price of one: the first about the turn-of-the-century Irish childhood of Alexander Moore, child of his village's great house, and a second about Moore's experience of evil on the Western front…. The descriptions of the Irish countryside, of horse-riding, pagan peasant frolicking, and the narrator's hatred of his mother are delightful. The scenes at the front, however, just don't work. Strewing the action with such mandatory pieces of sordid detail as stinking socks, mud and the screams of the wounded in Noman's-land, does not amount to an authentic imaginative reconstruction. Miss Johnston does not write well about the nature of cowardice or male friendship. As men Alexander and Jerry have a listless relationship, devoid of the physical warmth that might help explain Alexander's decision to shoot his friend. There is, of course, no compulsion to make anything 'realistic', and as a pattern of words the product is undeniably elegant. Can fiction be more than that? (p. 370)

Timothy Mo, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 15, 1974.

Anyone expecting an archeological Gothic will be disappointed [in "How Many Miles To Babylon?"]; others should be exhilarated by this short, elegiac novel from Ireland. It is a story about two boys growing up in the Irish countryside just before the outbreak of World War I….

Jennifer Johnston has taken a finely calculated risk in this, her third novel. Within the framework of a simple 150-page story she has written about friendship and courage, love and war and betrayal—all this with such unassuming poise that it seems natural. Her limpid, careful prose style, every word carrying its due weight, perfectly matches the character of her narrator, Alex, and his historical setting. Like L. P. Hartley she understands the peculiar isolation of the privileged child in those days when education was received at home from the curate or a governess, when parents were shadowy unpredictable figures to be encountered over a polite conversation. (p. 46)

[The narrator's] tight-lipped description of life at the front, with its agonizing chilblains, damp and exhaustion, is the more moving for its understatement.

But this very lack of excess or sentimentality has its problems…. [The book] stirs many sad memories and sighs, but no extravagant reactions. This is because Jennifer Johnston has delicately recreated a world which is already familiar, but familiar through the work of the other writers who discovered it and made it their own.

Her picture of prewar Ireland is hauntingly beautiful, but the swans on the lake and the foxes slipping through the fields will always belong to Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon…. Ironically, the better a book like this becomes, the more effectively it will evoke Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, [Rupert] Brooke and Sassoon.

It is unfortunate that Jennifer Johnston should have wandered into a landscape so alive with ghosts. Nevertheless, there are extraordinary moments which are quite her own: a moonlit scene of people dancing to a fiddler, a glimpse of Alex's mother feeding the swans with an unselfconscious gentleness she denied her husband and son. These are enough to indicate a powerful talent. Two earlier novels, "The Captains and the Kings" and "The Gates," have won her a good reputation in England. They should be available here. (p. 47)

Helen Rogan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.

More than most of her contemporaries, [Jennifer Johnston] allows her readers the luxury of sympathy with her central character [Alex, in How Many Miles to Babylon?]. Yet he, like the other "heroes" of recent fiction, is locked in neurosis, and the total meaninglessness of his crucial action defines its significance. (p. 593)

The tradition that maturity demands exploration of inner darkness, antedating Dante, finds rejuvenation in each generation: Freud and Eliot and Faulkner have testified to it in the recent past. By the time it reaches Alex, however, it can no longer be fully believed: he perceives it as a "misbegotten idea," his wish to accept it clashes with his memory of his parents' values and their polished mahogany, and he can achieve his manhood only by rushing upon disgraceful death.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is a powerful imaginative creation. (p. 594)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975.