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Reviewed: Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B S Johnson

A new volume remembers "experimental" author B S Johnson as far more than a novelist.

B S Johnson.
B S Johnson.

B S Johnson bristled at being called “experimental”. In his introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, a collection of short prose published shortly before Johnson’s death in 1973, he wrote that: “’Experimental’ to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for ‘unsuccessful’ … for every device I have used there is a literary rationale and a technical justification; anyone who cannot accept this has simply not understood the [textual] problem which had to be solved.”

This collection is reprinted in full in Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B S Johnson , newly issued by Picador to commemorate the 80th  anniversary of Johnson’s birth, edited by Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe and academics Philip Tew and Julia Jordan . Split into three parts, Jordan says that the volume aims to represent the “enormous totality” of Johnson’s work, representing him not just as a novelist, but also as a writer of plays for radio, TV and theatre, and as an incisive journalist who covered literature, film, politics, architecture and football, his work unified by the exploration of several key themes: the conservatism of British culture; the dishonesty of narrative fiction, and the difficulty that authors have in communicating with their readers; and the inescapability of death.

The introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young is a good place to start, falling between a manifesto and a justification for Johnson’s relentless opposition to formal convention, which formed a strong counterpoint to the “neo-Dickensian” styles favoured by post-war novelists and critics. Well known for works such as The Unfortunates , with its chapters presented unbound to be read in random order, Johnson insisted that “Life does not tell stories … Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification”. His assertion that literary writing should tell “the truth” of its author’s life is repeated several times throughout Well Done God! : even if the dramatic texts included contradict it through their invention of characters and scenarios

Johnson agreed with Nathalie Sarraute that the development of literature was a relay race in which the “baton of innovation” passed from one generation to the next, attempting to posit himself within a list of those “writing as though it mattered”, ranging from neglected contemporaries such as Christine Brooke-Rose , Rayner Heppenstall and Ann Quin to Angela Carter and Samuel Beckett , who remain widely read.

After several campaigns to rescue him from obscurity, and with most of his novels reissued in conjunction with this volume, Johnson falls between these two camps. Well Done God! shows a far wider range of influences upon Johnson’s writing than the well-known effects of Joyce, Beckett and Sterne, and that Johnson’s prose amounted to far more than a synthesis of their inventions: it was only his first novel, Travelling People which Johnson did not want reprinted) that borrowed techniques such as the black pages to indicate death in Tristram Shandy, or the construction of chapters in differing styles that characterised Ulysses .

That said, the most enjoyable entry in Aren’t You Rather Young is “Broad Thoughts from a Home”, a chapter excised from Travelling People. (Johnson’s re-writing of the novel after advice from agents and publishers is documented here, challenging the received wisdom that Johnson was inflexible in dealing with them.) Like Quin, Heppenstall and Beckett, Johnson was often dryly funny, his humour often deriving from his exposure of the artifice of fiction writing by inviting readers to invent their own endings, or by making explicit the subtexts of his characters’ dialogues.

This device worked well in Johnson’s literary prose but would not, he understood, translate well to the stage or screen. The second section of this volume, covering Johnson’s dramatic work, provides an intriguing insight into how Johnson transposed his preoccupations to another form, is only intermittently successful: one reason that Johnson’s plays are less renowned is that they frequently went unperformed, with Compressor, Woyzeck adaptation One Sodding Thing after Another and What is the Right Thing and Am I Doing It? appearing here in print for the first time. The strongest text, Down Red Lane, was a darkly amusing dialogue building tension between a diner who cannot stop eating and his belly, who feels that he really should – the inevitability of decay, hastened by an inability to resist harmful desires, is spelled out here with more economy and levity than in any other of Johnson’s dramas.

The “Short Prose” section that closes Well Done God! is particularly fascinating for anyone interested in Johnson. Offering plenty of information about his travails with the literary industry and his efforts to unionise its producers, his willingness to expose the poor conditions under which he worked is laudable: in “Writing and Publishing: or, Wickedness Reveal’d”, Johnson describes the pyramid of earnings from Travelling People in which he, the only indispensable participant in its publication, made the least, and not even a living wage: ‘Some publishers even trot out that old myth about people writing best whilst starving in garrets, too: and they believe it, despite never having heard an author agree.’

Elsewhere, a selection of reviews of Beckett’s texts shows Johnson unafraid to criticise one of his idols, whilst maintaining that Beckett’s investigations into literary minimalism are thoroughly necessary even when unsuccessful. Johnson’s indictment of British film, looking at the financial structures that mitigate against formal risk, is broadly fair but he knows the terrain less well than literature – his reduction of British cinema to “ Oh! Mr Porter and Carry On Puking” ignores the Ealing films , Powell and Pressburger and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative , with only passing reference to Britain’s strong documentary tradition.

Both the selection of short journalistic prose and the volume as a whole offer plenty to excite Johnson fans, but may not convert the uninitiated – his short novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry remains the best place to start. However, Well Done God! and the forthcoming BFI collection of his films, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them , may finally allow Johnson’s idiosyncratic talent to be appraised and enjoyed in something approaching its entirety.