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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Albert Angelo


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To purchase Albert Angelo

Title: Albert Angelo
Author: B.S.Johnson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964
Length: 180 pages
Availability: Albert Angelo - US
Albert Angelo - UK
Albert Angelo - Canada
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Our Assessment:

A- : a small, fine book, very well crafted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 17/7/2004 Nicholas Lezard
London Rev. of Books . 5/8/2004 Frank Kermode
NZZ . 22/5/2003 Angela Schader
TLS B 6/8/1964 .
Die Welt . 15/2/2003 Wieland Freund

  From the Reviews:
  • "Albert Angelo may be a bleak story, for it is about an architect who has to make ends meet as a supply teacher (which is also how he meets his end), but it has moments of comedy as good as anything produced in the past 50 years." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "In its scattered, episodic way it tells the tale of a young architect forced to work as a supply teacher while lamenting the loss of -- or, as he prefers to put it, his betrayal by -- a girlfriend: an obsessively recurring theme in Johnson's work." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Dem Formprinzip gemäss fusioniert, erweitert und variiert die Durchführung diese Themen; doch wird enttäuscht, wer konsequenterweise von der Auflösung -- die sich schon gegen Schluss des vorhergehenden Teils in scharfen und hässlichen Dissonanzen abzuzeichnen scheint -- ein graduelles Auslaufen der Romanhandlung erwartet hätte." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "There is a danger, which his defensive passages emphasize, that this sort of writing, far from making for greater honesty, sets up the author as an additional barrier between the reader and the book's subject." - Times Literary Supplement

  • "Gelegentlich steckt B.S. Johnson fest im Korsett seines eigenen Konzepts, das Modernität garantieren soll und darüber Selbstzweck geworden ist." - Wieland Freund< Die Welt

  • "Albert Angelo is, I think, the funniest of his novels, as well as being a superb, and scrupulously realistic, account of what it was like to be in a tough London school in the 1960s." - Jonathan Coe, The Spectator (24/8/1991)

  • "What a load of rubbish ! No story about it. Boring." - Ivy Nicholls, a character in House Mother Normal (see our review)

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:

       Albert Angelo is a surprising text, and a remarkable one. It tells the story of twenty-eight year old Albert Angelo, who wishes to be an architect -- who is one, but can't earn a living at it -- and who works, in the meantime, as a supply (or substitute) teacher.
       The novel is presented in five parts: Prologue, Exposition, Development, Disintegration, and Coda. A variety of styles are employed: Johnson begins the prologue with a dialogue, while in the exposition he switches to a first-person narrative. In the development other voices are heard as well, in some school essays and in a number of short pieces about Mr. Albert by his students. Some of the dialogue also comes with Albert's thoughts aligned with it. Disintegration brings with it the intrusion of the booming authorial voice, while the brief coda puts a fitting end to things.
       It is -- dreaded expression ! -- experimental fiction. In fact, it is amazing how much Johnson tries and does in such a short space. Yet it is also all very grounded: it is straightforward, approachable and robust fiction. None of Johsnon's games should scare any reader off -- even the holes cut in the pages. Forget "experimental" -- the fact that it is is incidental, almost irrelevant. This is simply good fiction. It reads well. And it is well worth reading.
       Johnson shows remarkable control over his material. In the main his focus is on Albert's life as a teacher. Albert's dream of being an architect is significant too, as are his friendships and love-interest, but the focus is on teaching. And To Sir with Love it ain't. Though it shouldn't be seen as the central point of this far-reaching book there is a great deal of social commentary here, specifically about the difficulties of what are essentially inner-city schools. It dates the book somewhat, with Cypriots and Greeks and the occasional Indian as the foreign contingent of the day, but on the whole the problems and issues sound much the same as they do at present. Albert Angelo is an indictment of the system:

"If we go on half-educating these kids any more," he said suddenly to Terry, "then the violence will out. I'm sure they know they're being cheated, that they're being treated as subhuman beings. And the school is a microcosm of society as a whole."
       And he is proved right in the end.
       Albert is a frustrated teacher. He means fairly well and he tries fairly hard. There are small successes, but overall it seems one large defeat. Even the classroom budgie won't learn the obscenities he tries to teach it. And his heart isn't completely in it:
They sit, large and awkward at the aluminium-framed tables and chairs, men and women, physically, whom you are for today trying to help to teach to take places in a society you do not believe in, in which their values already prevail, not yours.
       There's more to Albert: the absence of his former love, Jenny, weighs on him. And his architectural dreams give him a goal and ambition. He doesn't care what people call him, even toying with the idea of having "a different name for each pub round here, or a different identity". The name is inconsequential:
But I should always want to be known as an architect, to preserve this essential myself, my identity, my character.
       For architect one could, in fact, read: writer (as Johnson admits later). The novel is an autobiographical one -- Johnson was a supply teacher, and instead of an architect manqué he was a struggling writer. Architecture is, ultimately, also incidental, a convenient art form masking the true one. Albert Angelo is a writer's book -- and a book about writing.
       Albert says:
Jazz was, when I think of it, the first understanding I had of what art meant, what it was all about. Those incredibly subtle voices from the worn surfaces
       It seems what Johnson himself wants to recreate. Jazz on the page: subtlety, repetition, surprising starts and stops, some technical dazzle, whatever it takes to create that same feeling as jazz music can. The varied styles in the book, the experimentation, the substitutions (architecture for literature, then literature for architecture) are all reminiscent of jazz.
       Development, the longest section in the book, gives way to Disintegration. Pretense is gone, the authorial presence leaps out. Johnson acknowledges "what im really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture". The section is a short tour de force, the writer's howl of frustration at trying to convey something and the limitations of his words, his ability, his audience, and fiction itself. He explains what he is after, and why he made certain choices -- formal, stylistic, etc.
       The brief coda returns to Albert, finishing him off. It's all that can be done with him.

       A remarkable and clever fiction, Albert Angelo works wonderfully on many levels. Johnson stretches the bounds of fiction, but he does so carefully, almost gently. Unlike most modernist (and pomo) authors he reaches out to his audience, instead of pushing it away. Despite all Johnson's shenanigans, Albert Angelo is a very straightforward novel. Certainly recommended.

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Albert Angelo: Reviews: B. S. Johnson: Other books by B. S. Johnson under review: Books about B.S.Johnson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Works by fellow innovative writer, Ann Quin
  • See also Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author B. S. (Bryan Stanley) Johnson (1933-73) studied at King's College, London. He wrote several highly acclaimed novels, as well as a play and poetry. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1967.

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