Like a Fiery Elephant

by Jonathan Coe

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Like a Fiery Elephant

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1677

Jonathan Coe is a novelist who has written an unconventional biography of an unconventional writer. B. S. Johnson believed in novels that did not lie. In his view, a novel was a form of writing, not a made-up story. In other words, the novelist’s duty was to stick to the facts of his life as he understood them. Nothing was real unless the novelist had experienced it. When Johnson wrote about a sea voyage in his novel Trawl (1966) he actually went to sea in order to present an authentic account.

Furthermore, Johnson thought that, because life did not present itself as a neat plot, novels should not tidy up events and human characters in order to present pleasing fiction. The chaos of lifeits randomnesshad to be reflected in novels. In one instance, Johnson presented his readers with a novel unbound in a box, with the instruction that the novel should be read in any order whatsoever.

Samuel Beckett and the practitioners of the French new novel, who rejected conventional narrative and focused on the writer’s interior life, heavily influenced Johnson. This is why Johnson, as Coe points out, so often favored the interior monologue. Only that form of writing could be true to the writer’s personal experience.

With Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson, Coe has attempted something like Johnson’s approach to the novel by producing a biography that begins with the biographer’s first glimpse of his subject on television. This occurs long before Coe becomes one of Johnson’s readers, and long before Coe even begins to think about writing Johnson’s biography. Johnson did a good deal of work for television and the theater, and Coe, like many of Johnson’s audience, confesses that his first encounter with the writer was mystifying.

Indeed, although mainstream publishers distributed Johnson’s work, he had a small audience in Britain, and most of his work was not published in the United States because it was deemed too British (one of Johnson’s favorite topics was the rigidity of the British class system) and esoteric. His kind of experimental prose hardly appealed to a mass audience. Johnson, a truculent author, blamed his publishers for not making his work better known.

Coe surmounts the difficulties of getting to know Johnson and his work by making the reader a kind of collaborator or interlocutor. The biography reads like a chatty conversationor a story by Henry James, with the “industrious biographer” recounting how he foraged through his subject’s papers. Coe jocularly refers to “our hero,” who, “you will be pleased to learn,” after a period of struggle achieved literary, if not popular, recognition.

At certain points Coe confesses he is “bored” with Johnson, especially with his subject’s intense but narrowminded definition of the novel, which, the biographer notes, Johnson is not always able to fulfill in practice. In other words, Johnson does sometime fictionalize. Trawl, for example, while based on an actual sea voyage, was in all likelihood written mostly in Johnson’s London flat, as Johnson was very seasick for most of his time aboard ship. Still Coe tempers his skepticism about Johnson’s literary theories and provides fascinating detail on how they actually work out in the fiction. He also admires his subject’s independence and tenacity.

A heavyset manmany figures in the book call him fatJohnson was a rather awkward, if persistent, lover and a combative writer whose outspoken work got him into trouble with printers who objected to his use of profanity. During his early twenties, he supplemented his income by becoming a substitute teacher (a supply teacher in English terms). One of his students called him a “firy [sic] elephant,” a phrase that captures both the majestic and the blundering aspect of Johnson’s persona.

Like a good novelist, Coe provides vivid portraits of the important people in Johnson’s life: his energetic mother, who coddled her only son; his shy, retiring father whose love of sports seems to have been the one bond with his son (who became quite a talented sportswriter); Johnson’s wise and tolerant lover, Joyce Yates, almost twenty years his senior, who remained a mainstay of his life even after their affair ended; his beautiful wife, Virginia, an executive’s daughter who was at first charmed by her working-class husband but then baffled by him; the novelist Zulfikar Ghose, who collaborated with Johnson on many projects and shared his ambition to shake up the world of British fiction; and friends such as Tony Tillinghast and Anthony Smith, who often tried to get Johnson to lighten up and not take himself quite so seriously.

Johnson was happy for a time with Virginia and their child, but his heart belonged to literature in a rather shocking way. Early on, he thought of himself as a captive of the “White Goddess,” the term Robert Grave used in a book by the same title that described the poet as enthralled by his muse. Although Johnson sought realism in his fiction and his poetry, his view of the writer was romantic. He claimed to have had a vision of the White Goddess (although Coe is hard put to pin down exactly what this experience of the muse entailed) and a premonition that he would die at thirty. Johnson lived to forty, but there is plenty of evidence in his writing and from Coe’s interviews with his friends that Johnson was often suicidal and that he believed the writer’s lot was grim, even when his career was going well.

Unlike Johnson’s unconventional novels, Coe’s unusual biography is not that daunting. After his chatty introduction, he provides a chapter with brief but lucid descriptions of Johnson’s novels and of how they related to his life. Only then does the biographer begin to provide a chronological account of his subject’s life.

The conversational tone continues, with the biographer pointing out when evidence is scarce. He also lets Johnson tell part of the story by including extracts from Johnson’s journals, fiction, and journalism. The result is a remarkable sense of intimacya bond that is formed not only between reader and subject but also between reader and biographer. Coe tosses in asides about his own career as a novelist, although in judicious fashion. He earns the reader’s confidence by sharing with the reader the difficulties of researching and writing a biography, including those first confusing days as the biographer begins to sift through his subject’s papers, seeking something that will make Johnson “come alive.”

Although Coe certainly interprets his subject’s life, he also knows that interpretation can obstruct events as much as it can illuminate them. Here, for example, is a passage on Johnson’s tormented relationship with Muriel Starkey: “Anyway, Johnson and Muriel went out for a while, and then they split up: let’s keep it as banal as that. She ’betrayed’ him, in his parlance, and from then on he would usually refer to her in melodramatic phrases such as his ’dead love.’” Not only does Coe provide his view of the subject and the subject’s view of himself, but by using the phrase “let’s keep it as banal as that,” he includes the reader as wellas if to say that Johnson can only come to life to the extent that the reader is willing to parley, so to speak, with the biographer. Biography, in Coe’s hands, is a kind of negotiable document, with the biographer always searching for the right word, even when it turns out to be “banal.”

A sense of doom hovers over Johnson, even though Coe does not belabor the point. One of Johnson’s friends tells him, for example, that if he means to pursue an aesthetic that requires him to write about only what he has experienced, then his literary career will be a short oneperhaps five years. The remark is prophetic. After seven novels in not much more than a decade, Johnson could not go on. No person can live enough, experience enough, his friend told him, to make a sustained literary career by relying simply on his autobiography.

At various times friends tried to shake Johnson out of his solipsism. He should get over Starkey, for example, whose memory continued to plague him after his marriage. Johnson simply could not let go of any hurt, and therefore he could not get a perspective on his own experience.

This is what Like a Fiery Elephant is able to do: provide a context for Johnson’s fraught life. The biography as conversation between reader and biographer is a kind of therapeutic exercise that illuminates Johnsonthat most autobiographical of writersin ways that he could not do for himself. This is an authorized biography. Coe thanks Johnson’s wife and two children for their help, but he emphasizes that all interpretations of Johnson’s life are his own. He has evidently had a free hand in creating an affectionate yet critical biography. That he dedicates his book to two of his sources, Joyce Yates and Julia Trevelyan Oman, suggests the kind of rapport he was able to establish with his interviewees. Yates and Oman become almost a kind of chorus in the book, commenting on the action and providing measured and memorable portraits of Johnson and his milieu.

With a writer such as Johnson, who is just coming back into print and who even in his heyday had a rather small following, it is also helpful to have Coe’s notes and extensive bibliography of his novels, his collected shorter prose, his uncollected and unpublished prose, his collected and uncollected poetry, special editions of his work, anthologies, his writing for the stage, radio, television, and cinema, his journalism, theater and book reviews, his sports reporting, a B. S. Johnson Web site, and published interviews as well as a section on books and articles about Johnson, including several important memoirs. Both in terms of scholarship and style, this is an impeccable biography.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Booklist 101, no. 18 (May 15, 2005): 1629.

Library Journal 130, no. 10 (June 1, 2005): 127-128.

London Review of Books 26, no. 15 (August 5, 2004): 11-13.

New Statesman 133 (June 21, 2004): 48-49.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 17 (April 25, 2005): 51.

The Spectator 295 (June 12, 2004): 46.

The Washington Post Book World, June 5, 2005, p. 15.

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