Like a Fiery Elephant

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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.