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 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.

 

B S Johnson.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism