B(ryan) S(tanley) Johnson

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3,354 words.)