No time for proper blogging as I have a pressing deadline. Instead, I've decided to post the transcript of a conversation I had last May with Jonathan Coe, just before the publication of his splendid biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. The transcript was the basis for a much shorter feature that appeared in Time Out London (not available online).
JD: I have two lines of questioning. One concerns your understanding of Johnson’s project. So, for example, I’m interested in your understanding of Johnson’s conception of tradition, the tradition, from Sterne to Beckett, that he locates himself in. I’m interested, too, in what you think he means by the ‘Victorian novel’, which he excoriates so violently. And I’m interested in the coincidence between your own theory of narrative and Johnson’s. And then the other line of questioning concerns your conception of biography. This book is partly a reflection of the impossibility of literary biography. Let’s start with Johnson’s project. I had a look at Zachary Leader’s collection in which there is one reference to Johnson in an essay by Valentine Cunningham. Now the implication there is that Johnson’s was an extreme and essentially failed experiment. He mentions Robbe-Grillet somewhere. Now you say somewhere that you think the affinities between Johnson’s work and the ‘nouveau roman’ are essentially superficial.
JC: I think so. I don’t find any real confluence of sensibility between Johnson and Robbe-Grillet, or Sarraute, or any of those people. One of the first readers of the book was a French friend of mine –a very well-read French friend of mine- who had never heard of Johnson, and he groaned when I told him this was an English novelist who was trying to re-write the ‘nouveau roman’. He said, you know, most French readers hate this stuff. And when he read the extracts from Johnson which I quote in the book, he said this is completely different; this is a passionate writer, a writer of feeling. And this, to him, was at a complete remove from what the ‘nouveau roman’ was about. Johnson’s experiments were in some ways less extreme than those people. To take the direct example, which I talk about in the book, Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1. This is an entirely loose-leaved book, with no beginning and no end. And The Unfortunates is not. It has a section marked ‘First’ and a section marked ‘Last’. So, I think Johnson was very torn in literary allegiances, and there were aspects of his sensibility that were a lot more conventional.
JD: There’s a moment when you say, actually, at bottom, Johnson was an intensely ‘conservative’ writer.
JC: I think that’s true. Take away the games with form, the experiments with form – neither of those words is quite right; the kind of formal innovations, and you find a highly confessional writer really. A writer who is not ... who had a kind of radical scepticism about the novel and its impostures. But it’s all done in the name of a very grounded and a very accessible desire to communicate the truth about his feelings to the reader. That’s all he wanted to do really.
JD: It struck me that you would agree with Cunningham, you would agree that the, as it were, ‘official’ project was a failure.
JC: Hang on, what do you mean by his ‘project’? To move the English novel forward by modernist means?
JD: Yes, continuing the innovations of Joyce and the early Beckett. Let’s put it another way: there’s a sense that what you admire most was not the realised, finished novels, but Johnson’s strength of will. It’s more a moral identification than an aesthetic one. And that resonates, in quite an interesting way, with the arresting fervour of your introduction – which you yourself seem surprised by.
JC: We keep coming back to the fundamental point that Johnson’s ‘project’, if that’s what you want to call it, was curtailed – violently and prematurely curtailed. I think I say in the book that he was, like all writers probably, prone to self-dramatization. My sense is that Johnson was only just getting going really with See the Old Lady Decently and the trilogy and what that might have thrown up. What he was engaged upon there was both more personally revelatory and harrowing, and also he expanding his canvas; massively so, actually, to take in politics and spirituality as well. And who knows where that might have led him; whether that might have opened new doors for him, or whether it might have proved an impossibility and he might have scuttled back into his shell – we don’t know. My sense is that within the seven novels that we’ve got, he massively hemmed himself in theoretically. One of the things that gives the novels their energy is the sense that he’s pushing all the time against these crazy limits that he’s set himself.
JD: Do you think he was massively self-deluding?
JC: I don’t know if it’s self-deluding ...
JD: Well there was that extraordinary lucidity of self-questioning, which is the thing you admire. And on the other hand, there was something his closest friends complained about: these self-imposed limits.
JC: I think he had the kind of sensibility where, having identified the tradition that he felt comfortable in -and we all comfortable in different bits of the English novel, the European novel-, he had to claim a special kind of validity for it. Which leads him to this really rather crazy position where Sterne is a greater novelist than Dickens, or the early Beckett is far better than the whole of George Eliot. Which is, basically, an untenable position! But you can understand why he picked them up and adopted them so fiercely. He didn’t have the kind of mind that would enable him to break out of that kind of thing theoretically. So many of his friends said to me that they had argument after argument and he wouldn’t shift from the positions he took up. But artistically he might have broken out of those constraints. And there was a very different side to his artistic personality, and that was why the stuff about Graves
JD: What was that to do with?
JC: I think it was to do with the fact that he was a natural writer and that the fount of inspiration in him ran very deeply. And, at some level, he was aware of that. Also, because of his background, it was so difficult for him to find an outlet for that, so difficult for him to believe that he was ever going to find an outlet for that. I think he had to fence himself in with this other ironic, self-questioning apparatus. And the two are constantly tugging against each other. That’s the thing that makes Johnson’s novels nowadays seem more alive than those of Christine Brooke-Rose, or someone like that.
JD: The most striking thing is a what a short period of time we’re talking about here. The salient period is 10-12 years at the most.
JC: Incredible really, given that he was writing his novels, writing poems, making films, writing football reports, all of that time he was writing book reviews, he was writing full-length plays, he was giving lectures, and he was being very sociable. Having endlessly in private complained to people about how literary biographies are always far too long, I found that I was dealing with someone with a writing life of about twelve years. And yet the book just got bigger and bigger. And one of the technical challenges was to convey a sense of the simultaneity of what he was doing. He was doing all of these things at once. Too much, actually. And his books would probably have been better if he’d allowed himself more time. This business of meeting deadlines is both heroic and admirable, and foolish in a way. For example, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry was written in an amazing rush. It was written in about three or four weeks. But that was also part of the professional mentality he had. And that was one of the things that so shocked him about the culture of literary London
And he himself, as a young reader, had an enormous respect, bordering on awe for writers, especially for his early literary heroes, like Marlowe or Oscar Wilde. When he decided, or felt he’d been chosen, to be a writer, he expected that that respect would be transferred onto him as a matter of course. But of course writers aren’t really respected in this country in the way that they are in continental Europe
JD: Would it be an overreading to say that the writing of this biography coincided with a kind of sceptical crisis on your part about the novel?
JC: I don’t know whether it’s exactly coincided with a crisis, but it has provided me with a forum in which to air some of that scepticism. Johnson, if you read him closely and seriously enough, does stimulate that kind of crisis in you. Because the implication behind his work ... all the time he’s tetering on this precipice of – writing this book is a waste of time and you should be out there fighting political battles, or doing something else altogether. And if you’re living alongside him for a number of years and reading him intensely during that time it’d be strange if none of that rubbed off on you. I don’t know, doesn’t everybody, whatever they do, exist in a state of crisis, I always assume they do. Don’t teachers get up every morning and think what I’m doing is a waste of time?
JD: But there’s an implication in your introduction that there’s a kind of complacency abroad about the vocation of the novelist. And the quality you seem most to admire in Johnson is his self-doubt which lurks beneath the much-remarked carapace of self-certainty.
JC: Most of the writers who have become my closest friends have similar sorts of self-doubt. That seems to me a good and healthy position from which to approach the business of novel writing. In fact, the crisis about form is less present in my mind than it used to be. When I first discovered Johnson in the 1980s I was sucked in by his theories, and felt that formal experimentation was an absolute prerequisite. And that’s certainly reflected in my first novel The Accidental Woman, which has an eighteenth-century style intrusive narrator. And this coincided with my writing a thesis about Fielding – and I thought I was getting it from him, but I see now I was also getting it from Christie Malry and Johnson. And Johnson was reading Fielding when he wrote Christie Malry, so it’s a kind of two-way process of identification. My second novel, which interleaves short stories within the narrative of the novel, has a kind of experimental note to it as well. Probably they all do up too ... certainly The House of Sleep is experimental in the way it alternates between two time frames. But these are very small experiments compared to what Johnson was doing.
JD: You’ve retained your interest in polyphony though ...
JC: Yes, which is what it is. What I’m trying to do in all of my novels is to find some kind of equivalent of the nineteenth century omniscient voice, which I think has been lost. And I think that to be able to write on a broad canvass you have to find some sort of equivalent of that – not locking yourself into one character’s viewpoint, which is what I find most restricting about contemporary novels.
My own books get bigger and bigger in scale, and that’s a kind of reflection of a desire to move back towards that Victorian omniscience and all-encompassing perspective. [As for Johnson’s attitude towards the Victorian novel], I don’t believe Johnson was all that well-read in the Victorian novel. When he pours scorn on the Victorian novel, what he’s talking about is Dickens.
JD: What is he anathematising when he uses the phrase “neo-Victorian novel”?
JC: I think he’s talking about over-contrived plots, long sustained periods of the same narrative voice, protracted over hundreds and hundreds of pages.
JD: What about the question of character?
JC: I don’t think that was uppermost in his mind when he was writing. House Mother Normal is an interesting one, because he does do characterization in that book, and catches different voices quite compellingly. But he described that novel as a diagram of the inside of his own skull. And I think that that’s how he thought of all his novels. And he didn’t have invented characters inside his own skull; he only had the people he’d encountered and had been involved with in the past. And I think those were the people he wanted to bring on to the page. Even there, they’re nearly always seen through the prism of his own very perceptions and his own personality. Other characters in Johnson’s novels don’t get much autonomy really.
JD:You mentioned Johnson’s conviction that the novelist’s subject matter is what’s inside his own skull. And that’s a remark you return to when you’re reflecting on what one might call the epistemology of biography. And that’s precisely what we can’t have access to. You seem to have a quite austere, self-abnegating idea of what the biographer can do. And you mention Johnson’s own disdain for the genre of literary biography.
JC: He read literary biography himself, when it was someone that he was interested in. I am slightly austere about this, I suppose. It’s not because I don’t find literary biography interesting. If there’s one genre in which we do well in this country, it’s literary biography. I think it’s more a reflection of my anxities as a writer. Slowly but surely, I see the balance of interest among readers shifting, in a very Johnsonian way actually, away from fiction and onto truth. Which leaves we novelists high and dry. One aspect of this, I think, is that more and more people find writers’ lives more interesting than writers’ books – which is fine, in a way. But it’s only because of their books that writers’ lives are interesting and worth writing about in the first place. And as a novelist, my desire is to see this trend reversed. As a biographer, which is what I found myself being in the eight years I was writing this book, I realised that I’m a part of it. But of course you can’t write about Johnson’s books without writing about his life, because they’re the same thing.
I thought a book about Johnson at work, about how raw material [of his archive] got turned into books, would be an interesting thing to do. But I signed up for this [biography] without thinking the implications through as to what it was I was taking on. I certainly thought it could be a much shorter, much less of a tortured book than it is. Once I got going on it, it grew and grew, and all these different fed into it: thoughts about the nature of biography, thoughts about the nature of the novel, thoughts about Johnson’s writing, thoughts about my writing, his life and how it had ended. I realised that I was engaged on a big and rather complicated book – which I hadn’t been anticipating.
JD: The ‘Disintegration’ section is extraordinarily powerful and moving, but precisely because of that austerity we talked about earlier. You start from the assumption that Johnson’s suicide is essentially unreadable. That seems to me to give the section its power. It is, as it were, unvarnished by speculation, which is the stock in trade of most biographers.
JC: Again, I was caught up in a paradox: I was trying all the way through not to make it a book about his suicide – there’s so much more to him than that. But everybody I met who knew anything about B.S. Johnson, including people who knew him quite well, when they heard I’d been writing the book for some time, the first question they always asked was ‘why did he kill himself?’ And that was an interesting fact in itself. And the other interesting thing about it was that the more work I did on the book, and the more I thought about it, the less I could answer that question. I describe it in the book as a ‘matrix’ of reasons, and that’s the case for the majority of suicides I think. Yes, it is unreadable in the end. I think, in the end, that’s why also the book has a slightly triumphant ending, kind of against the odds. And the fact is that in the end I end up with this sense of unknowableness, a kind of unmanageable complexity of his feelings. But he was desperately trying to tidy up the chaos, in ways that more conventional novelists would never dare to do. He says he writes it’s to get the emotion out, to have it over there in a box or in a book, so that it’s not inside him any more, and so he’s not troubled by it any more. That’s a theory of the novel which implies that it has a great capacity to contain things. Whereas, in the end, my sense is that novels can’t actually contain this complexity and biographies can’t contain it, and you go mad if you think that they can.