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the complete review - biography
Like a Fiery Elephant
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A : excellent and very enjoyable writer-biography
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally enjoyed it, some very impressed
From the Reviews:
- "In Coe's "Coda", bringing together many clues about the elusive and tantalising Bannard, there is a marvellous conclusion to a biographical study which is much more impressive than anything produced by Johnson himself." - Anthony Thwaite, Daily Telegraph
- "Jonathan Coe has produced a lively, important and very thorough biography of a man who once loomed large on London's literary horizon (.....) Coe's approach to Johnson is just right: endlessly patient with a mass of material, affectionate, humorous, making no attempt to idealise his subject, whose flaws of character were all too obvious to everyone who knew him." - Eva Figes, The Guardian
- "He presents his observations as a story that would intrigue a novelist, and therefore speculative. But it is a beautiful piece of prose that raises this book beyond mere biography and makes it the kind of "truthful fiction" that Johnson admired above all else." - Matt Thorne, The Independent
- "The novelty of this approach makes it invigorating. But despite Coe's twists and turns, the core of his book, and what makes it a moving and engrossing study of a convention-defying writer, lies precisely in its conventional progress from cradle to grave." - Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday
- "Coe is a devoted biographer though not entirely happy in his work, wishing he was not telling the truth about Johnson but writing his own lying novels. He departs agreeably from the normal procedures of the biographer, sometimes a little in the manner of The Quest for Corvo." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
- "(A)rmed with the modern taste for cross-fertilisation, Coe has produced a glorious hybrid: a gripping and absorbing novel posing (for appearance's sake) as a life. (...) Coe leaves the door open to all the available explanations, and throws in a top-class essay on the relationship between literature and life for good measure. The result is a model exercise in biography. (...) It might even be possible that this biography is the book B S Johnson was born to write -- the vindication of his life and the climax of his career. It is earnest, dazzling, elegant, full of perceptions and, most important of all, true (especially when it comes to acknowledging the limits of what we can ever know)." - Robert Winder, New Statesman
- "After I had finished reading Like A Fiery Elephant (the work of three days), I was so paralysed with admiration I wondered whether I would actually be able to write a review. I even considered, by way of a somewhat feeble tribute, submitting a blank page - a sheet of brilliant white that would perfectly encapsulate my inarticulate reverence (.....) But above all, it is Coe's determination to do right by Johnson that makes Like A Fiery Elephant so special. It is a book about a man who really cares about novels, by a man who really cares about novels. If you care too, you will rush out and buy it." - Rachel Cooke, The Observer
- "Almost 10 years in the writing, he has not only resuscitated the reputation of Britain's leading avant-garde novelist from near-obscurity (to the extent that Johnson's books have been reprinted and can now be found in the three-for-two offers in Waterstone's), but, in the process, he has also redefined the reach of literary biography and issued an impassioned challenge to an increasingly commercial and lazy literary culture." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer
- "What he does do, in the best tradition of the novel -- or in Johnsonís preferred tradition of the novel -- is take chances with form and style and invent new modes for the particular situations and persons he describes. And Johnson, as unusual as he was, certainly requires such inventiveness." - Theodore Louis McDermott, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "He brilliantly brings Johnson to life but cannot, finally, answer the question -- why ? Why did this man with so much talent, a loving family and friends, kill himself ? In an epilogue to the biography, though, he combines close reading together with a novelistic eye and a detectiveís instinct to offer a brilliantly persuasive account of the writerís last hours. (...) This biography is a fine tribute to a complex and hugely talented author." - John McTernan, Scotland on Sunday
- "He is not a biographer; indeed he dislikes biography, as he frequently tells us. Given that, heís done a damn good job. Poor B. S. Johnson leaps off these pages: pathologically morbid and clinically depressed, wildly superstitious and self-dramatising. requiring perfect love and devotion from everyone -- women, publishers, agents, even critics -- and becoming suicidal and violently vengeful when they canít provide them (.....) Still I am left with the sense that, like Johnson again, despite making special claims to the truth Coe doesnít really tell it. He makes B. S. Johnsonís life sound comically painful; the true dark, mysterious story isnít here." - Carole Angier, The Spectator
- "The book that emerges, then, is not simply a biography, but a disquisition on the possibility of biography. From time to time, Coe's interrogation of the form, the droll footnotes and the agonising about whether he's got Johnson right become a little wearing: he should have more faith in the natural scepticism of readers. (...) Coe's sympathetic and witty book makes a plausible case for the proposition that, whether we knew it or not, a biography of BS Johnson was just what we were waiting for." - Robert Hanks, Sunday Telegraph
- "(Q)uite the most exciting, impassioned and generous literary biography I think I have ever read." - Giles Coren, The Times
- "What Coe is really trying to write about is writing, too. (...) The life that emerges from these pages is hardly full of incident. (...) But most of the time, Johnson is writing, or wrestling with the frustrations of writing. This is what matters most, and Coe compensates for the impossibility of writing about the writing by quoting it generously" - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement
- "Let me say -- flat out and without any of the usual reviewer's cavils -- that this is a wonderful biography." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
B.S.Johnson likely remains best-remembered for what might be considered gimmicks: cutting holes in one of his novels (Albert Angelo) and presenting another unbound in a box, so that the chapters could be read in any order (The Unfortunates).
Lumped together with a number of authors who are even less well-remembered as a member of the British avant-garde of the 1960s, and with much of his work long out of print (with two of his seven novels never re-issued since their original publication), Johnson never achieved great popular success and seems almost always to have been seen more as literary curiosity than a writer worth seeking out.
Johnson did, indeed, never achieve greatness, but he wrote some very good books and is a surprising, original, experimental (though not of the most intimidating sort), and almost always worthwhile writer.
A suicide in 1973, at age 40, his was also a fairly compelling (and too brief) life-story; it's taken a few decades for anyone to really try to tell it, but Jonathan Coe's long-anticipated Like a Fiery Elephant finally does some justice to the man and his work.
Coe's "Story of B S Johnson" is presented in three main parts and a coda.
After a brief introduction Coe summarizes Johnson's life in his seven novels, usefully introducing readers to the books (which many might not be familiar with).
The bulk of the biography then consists of "A Life in 160 Fragments" -- which actually consists of only 159; the 46th only surfaces in a coda, a longer attempt to figure out "Why did B.S.Johnson cut holes in the pages of Albert Angelo ?".
The last section consists of "A Life in 44 Voices", a sort of general portrait of the man put together solely from quotes from friends and acquaintances Coe interviewed and came in contact with in writing the biography.
The bulk of the biography, those 159 fragments (as well as the one in the coda), rely extensively on Johnson's own writing.
Coe takes some extract -- from Johnson's letters, novels, reviews, poems, etc. -- as a starting point in almost each fragment, firmly anchoring the biography in Johnson's own words.
Coe quotes extensively and often at considerable length, making for a quite convincing collage that ultimately gives a good impression of much of Johnson's life.
When there are blanks to be filed in he does his best as a conscientious biographer, but often admits to uncertainty.
Coe offers interpretation too, but is careful in how he introduces it, frequently reminding readers of what he is basing his opinions on and where he might be wrong.
All this makes for a superb writer-biography -- though with the focus centrally on Johnson-as-writer.
Given how Johnson's life did seem to revolve around his writing, this is perhaps only appropriate, but it is remarkable how much of his personal life remains in the background.
There's little sense of his marriage until his last days (and especially not of his relationship with his two children), for example.
Coe offers the large picture -- Johnson was close to his mother, he had been hurt in love -- but with few exceptions (such as the interesting coda) seems unable to connect these well with his larger story.
Fortunately, Johnson is a fascinating writer-figure.
His writing alone makes him worthy of attention, but his attitude and conviction (and his trouble with agents and publishers) make him a rich figure: he was quite the character.
Coe makes much of his working-class roots, and Johnson certainly didn't let people forget them either.
He came into the English literary world in a roundabout way.
His schooling failed him, he felt, and he was not able to go straight to university, but went to work and only qualified for university in his early twenties.
Very involved in some of the school activities (drama, literary magazines), he was disappointed by the course of study at King's College: "much of what I was obliged to read seemed, by any standards I had and was taught, bad, boring and irrelevant".
Johnson already had a good idea of what he believed a writer should do.
With Ulysses and Beckett as his ideals, he went very much his own way.
Central, always, was the idea that writing be based on reality:
The trouble is I don't like writing fiction: I like writing the truth.
Johnson made quite a big deal about terminology ("the novel is a form in which I may write truth or fiction") and his claim that he wrote truth (rather than offering invention).
(Coe demonstrates, however, that Johnson -- like many authors who make similar pronouncements -- was actually generally far from truthful in much of his writing.)
Coe follows the evolution of Johnson's writing (and posits that Johnson may have been close to giving up on the 'novel' at the time of his death), noting the connexions between Johnson's reality and his books.
Certainly, the novels were experience-based -- though Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry also qualifies as wildly imagined -- but most remarkable about Johnson was how he transformed reality.
He did not stick to one creative approach, but rather tried many (in true experimentalist fashion): the mix and match chapters of The Unfortunates were one attempt (and arguably among his less successful ones), while House Mother Normal, divided into ten sections of twenty-one pages each, is presented so that: " the same event (and the characters' differing responses to it) occurs not just on the same page but at the same point on that page", making it "a novel that can be read 'vertically' as well as 'horizontally'".
Johnson's programmatic-sounding approach to literature fascinates Coe (whose own approach to fiction is completely different), and makes him wonder about his own approach to biography-writing (and to writing this biography, in particular), the questions of authenticity, reliability, and authorial integrity thus doubled in the text (as Coe occasionally reminds the reader).
Johnson's relationships with his (many) publishers and agents is amusingly documented.
He was continually frustrated by the fact that he was well-regarded (some very good reviews, lots of awards and the like) but not very popular: his sales were relatively poor, and his agents were generally unable to place his books abroad.
He occasionally managed to make some good money -- including from his notorious three-year contract with Secker & Warburg paying him a tidy annual salary -- but between jumping from publisher to publisher, poor sales, and bookseller-confusion (predictably, many copies of Albert Angelo were returned because of the holes in the pages ...) he didn't do particularly well -- a source of great disappointment to him.
Johnson's frustrations offer an interesting insight into the publishing industry in Britain.
He was the rare author who stuck to his deadlines, almost always getting his books in exactly when they were due (meanwhile Coe notes in a footnote: "At the time of writing I am three years and 254 days late in delivering this biography"), but he also had high expectations of his publishers and agents, and these were rarely met, leading to letters that were always forthright (and generally rude) -- all of which does not seem to have helped his cause much.
Particularly disappointing was his agents' inability to place his books abroad.
Among the few places he had connexions was in Hungary, and The Unfortunates was published there in 1973 (albeit all bound up -- though readers were invited to rip out the pages, so that they too could read the books in the proper random order); it sold 9000 copies -- "far more than it ever sold in Britain !" Coe notes.
(Outrageously, Secker pulped the unsold copies of the English edition later that year.)
Coe quotes Hungarian István Bart as saying: "He would have been a natural figure in either France or Germany, where he would have got the right response."
The recent success of the German editions of Johnson's novels suggest this may be true, though it's astounding how long it has taken for his works to be published (the French are presumably still waiting) or re-published (the much-anticipated New Directions re-release of some of the Johnson titles for the US market hasn't materialised yet either).
Johnson's final months and days do make for depressing reading of a spiral towards the inevitable, but only here does Coe again focus more closely on Johnson's personal relationships.
And still it's hard to get a true sense of Johnson the man (as opposed to Johnson-as-writer).
Writing was an integral part of his being, yet Coe can't entirely move from the written words to the real-life being (a failure of biography in general that Coe acknowledges).
Even what he discusses often seems somehow separate: so, for example, Johnson's heavy drinking, a fact that is noted but whose consequences, on both his personal and professional life, aren't adequately discussed.
The coda does offer a bit more in this regard -- and is a decent mystery-story, as Coe finds out what may have happened in the last days of Johnson's life.
But a bit more of the man would have been welcome.
The title of the book comes from a bit in Albert Angelo, in which the students describe their teacher, one of them writing: "he walks like a firy elephant."
Coe points out:
Johnson himself always read this phrase as 'like a fiery elephant', but the more common expression, of course, is 'like a fairy elephant'.
The double meaning is, of course, appropriate when all is said and done by Coe.
Add to that also the glowing review of Albert Angelo by Adrian Mitchell in the Sunday Times from which Coe quotes at some length, including:
'Value this man,' Mitchell concluded, resoundingly.
'His writing sings.
He walks like a fiery elephant.'
Tragically, of course, Johnson's talent wasn't enough for him to be valued in this way.
He basked in the enthusiasm of such praise, and could never understand why it didn't translate into the popular success that it suggested he surely deserved.
Like a fiery elephant, he was too much larger-than-life and clumsy and unwieldy, stomping around, to be appreciated in the way he could have been; he wanted more, but worked in a world that couldn't offer that.
The disconnect between writing and life, the inability of writing to perhaps be that reality (reflection ? perhaps even substitute ?) that Johnson wanted it to be, is also already addressed in one of Johnson's earlier writings, a review of Sylvia Plath's Ariel:
But while to read Sylvia Plath's book is a remarkable experience, and one which (the only real function of this review) should be recommended to others, I must yet question the value of these poems to me and to them: after all, they did not save her, did they ?
Neither, of course, ultimately did Johnson's own writings save him -- making his suicide a stunning admission of failure for a man always so certain of the value of his work.
Coe suggests it's reality that got the better of Johnson, but one can't help but think that it's the failure of fiction that he couldn't be saved.
Jonathan Coe's biography is a wonderful book -- truly wonder-full.
Johnson seems to have been a charming if not always sympathetic man, torn by ambitions and overwork (he also worked as a journalist for years, dabbled extensively in film, and tried his hand at writing plays), and unable to adapt to publishing realities.
A considerable talent, he produced some remarkable work, and Coe offers much of the background and context of it.
A fascinating portrait.
Aside from some minor problems (a poor index, the footnote on p.64 that reads: "See below, p.742" -- in a 486 page book), and the (perfectly acceptable) limitations of his approach (writer-focussed as it is), this is a splendid book.
Certainly highly recommended.
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Like a Fiery Elephant:
B. S. Johnson:
Other books by Jonathan Coe under review:
Books by B. S. Johnson under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- The complete review's B.S.Johnson page
- B.S.Johnson site, with essays, links, extensive information -- highly recommended
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About the Author:
Born in 1961, Jonathan Coe attended Cambridge and Warwick universities.
He is the author of several novels.
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© 2004-2017 the complete review
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