B.S. Johnson at 80

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© The B. S. Johnson Society

This behaving as though an audience were watching has become a part of me, is my character, is me

(Albert Angelo)

It is perhaps fitting in some vague and nameless way that I should finally have read B.S. Johnson (1933-1973) in what would have been his 80th year.  Like so many authors Johnson has been hovering in the periphery of my awareness as ‘A Writer I Ought To Read’. Fortunately for me Picador have reissued four novels and a selection of Johnson’s prose and drama to mark the counterfactual octogenarian’s anniversary. It has been something of a revelation.

  • Albert Angelo (1964)
  • Trawl (1966)
  • House Mother Normal (1971)
  • Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973)
  • Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson Edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew, and Julia Jordan.

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To which…I want to reply: There is no experiment without uncertainty. (Toby Litt, in his excellent Introduction to Albert Angelo)

In a world where aspiring writers are still warned against ‘author intrusion’ B.S. Johnson comes as something of a shock. I have read Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry so far – the beginning and the end, if you will. (Although the former was preceded by one novel Travelling People suppressed by Johnson and the latter followed by the posthumous publication of See the Old Lady Decently). What follow are thus my early thoughts on each novel. Both involve Johnson’s voice in a striking way. The vaunted page 163 of Albert Angelo is remarkable if not entirely unexpected if one read Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry first as I did, and so has some idea of where Johnson was heading.

But I really discovered what I should be doing with Alberto Angelo (1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and hear my own small voice. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

Is Albert Angelo a supply-teacher or an architect? He struggles between the two, refusing to commit to teaching, trying to work on plans of buildings that will never be constructed. Throughout – well, nearly throughout – Johnson plays the architectural relationship between façade and fabric off that of appearance and character in those Albert meets: ‘There is an art which can tell something of the mind’s construction in the face.’ Albert wants to believe this, for ‘form should be honestly expressed’ he thinks during one of the passages where Johnson seeks to represent both the outward appearance of a lesson as well as the teacher’s mental state by having two columns running alongside one another on the page. Johnson uses several different typographical and formal devices to explore the representation of thought, conversation, and narrative – none of which are easy to reproduce here. At one point square holes are cut through the pages to bring a later event into an odd dialogue with the pages into which it intrudes.

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Johnson’s passion and anger generates a restless, searching, comic, chaotic, and angry novel: Albert Angelo doesn’t know what it should be. That ‘should’ is a problem. Where does it come from, this ‘should’? A ‘should’ and its associated certainty require an ‘is’; but, Johnson insists, we do not even know what the novel is, what it is for, what it ought to do. The novel and fiction are different, he insists. Truth and honesty are aimed for, even if the novel cannot do them justice. Thus, for all its typographic, formal, and prose variety – or perhaps because of it – Albert Angelo feels like the ragged beginning of something; or perhaps the insistence that something else – the ante-Joycean novel – should have ended long before.

Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this means falsification. Telling stories is really telling lines. (Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?)

(This reminds me of one of my favourite novels of last year: Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, in which narrative and emotional resolution are fiercely resisted to great effect).

If Johnson began something with Alberto Angelo in 1964, then Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry was a major development. It is as passionate and tormented as ever, but Johnson had reached a level of control which makes for a novel whose discontinuous and challenging nature is somehow more cohesive. Christie Malry feels hard done by; he feels that his account with society, with Them is in Credit. He thus creates his own accounting system: Moral Double-Entry, wherein he seeks to balance perceived Aggravation with Recompense in several Reckonings which appear in the novel as tables. The increasing distance between Christie’s assessment of his aggravations and their recompense leads to an absurd escalation of his Debiting activity.

Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader’s eye in what might otherwise have been a daunting mass of type.

One of the striking elements of the novel is the careful way in which Johnson makes it clear how much greater is the knowledge of the author than his characters. This gentle destabilisation is at its clearest when a character uses a term so incongruous as to jolt the reader. In doing so, Johnson emphasises the artifice of the novel. Elsewhere his intervention is far more pronounced. For example, after Christie is stopped by a policeman with potentially awkward questions, Johnson remarks: ‘I am told one has to put incidents like that in; for the suspense, you know.’ His characters seem to know they are in a novel, his mother dying when she perceives her narrative function to be at an end, several others suggest their function is to provide some much-needed comic relief.

Aspects of both novels are undoubtedly somewhat dated, especially the social commentary; but that is often the case and is mitigated here by the urgency of the conscience behind it, as well as by the enduring concern for the relationship between authority and the individual. Both novels retain their urgency when the narrative conventions and concerns which Johnson so resisted are still widespread. One doesn’t have to agree with him to see the importance of his insistence of contingency and the tendency to disorder. Neither novel ends with anything like a traditional resolution; such an ending would have defeated Johnson’s aims.

‘In any case,’ he said, almost to himself, not looking at me, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’

So, I’ve seen where Johnson started and where he (almost) ended up. Now I need to see how he got from one to the other. I’m going to read Trawl and House Mother Normal whilst dipping in and out of the Selected Prose and Drama, before moving on to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which has been strongly recommended to me by a few people. And speaking of recommendations, the novelist and critic Lee Rourke and Ian Curtin have both recommended that I follow Johnson with Anna Kavan and Ann Quin. Lee advised me to start with Berg by Quin and Ice or Mercury for Kavan. I’m looking forward to both.

My thanks to Picador for these review copies.

‘Take me north’ Orkney – Amy Sackville

Orkney

 She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

‘Take me north’, she says, to Orkney and the sea. The sixty-year old academic and his elfin twenty-something wife, the professor and his student, travelling to the hyperborean, timeless archipelago: ‘Where the waves rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.’  Once on their island they occupy a cottage above the beach, from which she can emerge each day to contemplate the sea, before her dreams are filled with grasping waves and drowning. The Professor watches her from a window, framed against sea, beach, and sky:  ‘Just as she is – luminous, obscure. There she stands.’ He is writing ‘a book of enchantment’, of strange, terrible, otherworldly, doomed women; of myth and poetry, of dreaming and folk-tales; of Keats, Tennyson, and Coleridge, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Lady of Shalott, Vivien, Melusine, Undine, and the folk of the ocean. Sackville has written her own rich and rhythmic book of enchantment, a book possessed and of possession, sharing themes with A.S. Byatt, although stylistically the novelists are worlds apart.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

(La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

This silver-haired, wild-eyed girl is running from the ‘unhaunted place’ of her childhood to an island freighted with myth, to the island of her father, a mysterious presence throughout, about whom the Professor can learn little other than that he left when she was very young, claimed, perhaps by the sea. Throughout this sea is clasping, grasping, sucking, in her dreams and when she finally enters the water, having conquered her fear in a macabre fashion. Those poems of enchantment, disappearance, a prefigured and figurative death, threaten dissolution in the hungry sea. Permeating the consciousness of Sackville’s characters is the Nineteenth Century femme fatale inherited from the Greeks and transformed by the tales of Selkie and Finmen, emerging from the cold sea to seduce and to claim their children, webbed toes and all.

‘O did you never lie upon the shore,

And watch the curl’d white of the coming wave

Glass’d in the slippery sand before it breaks?’

(Merlin, ‘Vivien’, Idylls of the King)

Sackville’s writing approaches prose-poetry as her sentences flow on through semi-colons, commas, and dashes: receding and returning, becoming stormy, languid, open and claustrophobic as the mood shifts with the sea, with a young woman’s yearning, and her husband’s imagination, incomprehension, impatience, and jealousy.

And then all at once, a crack appeared in the cloud, a sun at one corner of it like a god’s eye, casting a piercing lancet against the sky; and then one after another, rods of silver broke through to announce his presence. Like some awful ruthless salvation, the sun burned the edge of the cloud-bank magnesium white, and shone brilliant on the still-tended, cleansed world; the rock pools transformed into blinding mirrors and the sea, so lately needled to fury, was lulled and banded with whispering silver as it approached the shore, and there was the terrible argent fire of the cloud’s lining after the storm; and ‘Let’s go out!’ she said. ‘In the sunshine…’ As if extinction had not threatened only an hour before.

The language is that of the Professor, immersed in poetry, in the near-heraldic and mythic tone of Keats, perhaps more Tennyson: the argent and the lancet. It is this immersion in poetry and stories which he fears drew his wife to him: ‘Would you love me at all if it weren’t for poetry, for stories? Do you take it so lightly to be my wife?’ he thinks. The suspension of time in those myths matches the hyperborean setting of their honeymoon. Their disparate ages mean their time together is intensified by its necessary brevity: a fact the Professor considers constantly, is threatened by. He becomes jealous of the years he will miss. Yet as the poetry is stripped away, the tone becomes harsher, laden with a less Arcadian fear.

Behind Orkney lies the luminous poetry of the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, whose retirement age love for the young Kenna Crawford presages the Professor’s.  One of Sackville’s two epigraphs is a passage from a poem for Kenna, ‘Gossip in Hamnavoe: About a Girl’,

‘O, she’ll be back. That dear one

Is gold of our corn,

She’s Orkney rain and spindrift…’

Apart from the clear allusion to the island father, perhaps Sackville is suggesting that the relationship she explores in Orkney should have remained like that of Brown and Crawford: close, deep, a meeting rather than the ‘marriage of minds’ upon which the Professor insists at every false paternal turn.

‘Now she has found a way

From Edinburgh, back to the hills and seas

Of her people, and discovered

Seals on the shore, waiting …’

                (Kenna’s Return to Orkney)

The culminating passage also features a passage of Brown writing about Crawford: they hover ghost-like behind Sackville’s writing, emerging every now and again, as the doomed lovers and otherworldly women of the Professor’s work intrude upon his thought and conversation with his wife. Brown’s love of Kenna generated poetry, the Professors immersion appropriates it. That contrast suggests the final sadness may be the departure of poetry after eleven days in Orkney.

Sackville’s other epigraph is a quotation from Hélène Cixous: ‘…the portrait of a story attacked from all sides, that attacks itself and in the end gets away.’ As the island is battered by storm Orkney is subjected to attacks from myth, dream, poetry, memory, and desire, and ultimately dissolves into the breaking wave of the Professor’s fears. The loss of a mediating language and the death of his ‘undergraduate ardor’ leave the Professor speechless and ‘palely loitering’.

We have been telling each other the tale of our great romance, as I suppose all newlyweds do; refining the details, spinning it out, combing and weaving the threads of it.

The novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has written of the working out of joint memories in relationships; how we author a shared narrative, part of the foundation and fabric of a marriage; and one of the first things to unravel when a relationship begins to falter, to hit the rocks. Their stories do not knit, the Professor impatient with ‘her nonsense about not wearing purple’ and who really kissed who first. ‘Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass/Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.’ (Lamia) The Professor is no god. Perhaps, it was never real – his voice quavers, quivers through the pages.  A lowering threat hovers behind every word and every wave. Brown knew this. Our Professor knew, but hoped.

Amy Sackville has written a rich and remarkable book, whose language and structure mirror the minds and surroundings of her central characters. It is a book about the enchantment of romance, the rhythms of marriage, and the tissues of language behind which lies either the substance of a shared life, or an empty space failed by Romance.

To have carved on the days of our vanity

A sun

A ship

A star

A cornstalk

Also a few marks

From an ancient forgotten time

A child may read

That not far from the stone

A well

Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets –

Carve the runes

Then be content with silence.

(A Work For Poets – George Mackay Brown)

Orkney is out today (7/2/13) from Granta.

My thanks to Granta for this review copy.