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.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad