Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Hammersmith Rabelais

Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Hammersmith Rabelais

Article excerpt

Well Done God! : Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson edited by Jonathan Coe Picador, £25, pp. 471, ISBN 9781447227106 B.S. Johnson railed intemperately at life, but in his fiction at least he found a lugubrious comedy in human failings. In 1973, aged 40, he killed himself by slashing his wrists in a bath while drunk. Today, in spite of his former high reputation as Britain's 'most subversive novelist', Johnson is pretty well forgotten.

On the evidence of the prose and plays collected in Well Done God! , however, it would be a mistake to consign him to the frivolous pastures of the literary bagatelle.

Samuel Beckett, for one, enjoyed the irreverent boisterousness of his writing, and the admiration was mutual. Included here are several articles for The Spectator in which Beckett is hailed as a theologian of doom, whose tramps, waifs and other crotchety moribunds display the compulsive talkativeness of the Irish bar-room virtuoso. ('You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on').

Like Beckett before him, Johnson was conspicuous among so-called 'modernists' for his refusal to be glum. At the same time he had a grimly puritanical dislike of the imagination and believed that storytelling was a euphemism for lying. 'How can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction?', he asks in one typically scolding essay. 'The two terms, truth and fiction are opposites.' Disturbed by this contradiction, Johnson set out to write a series of 'truth-telling' novels in which details from his life would provide a documentary authenticity. The best known of these, Albert Angelo, Trawl, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry and House Mother Normal, are republished by Picador with new (or newish) introductions by Toby Litt, Jon McGregor, John Lanchester and Andrew Motion.

In the name of literary 'truth', Johnson chose to put the most humdrum of autobiograpical details into these novels. Trawl, published in 1966, includes memories of his Edgeware Road sexual encounters and even the cremation of his Latin teacher in suburban Streatham. (The novel fetched up in the Angling section of Foyles. ) Albert Angelo, Johnson's second novel, concerns an aspirant architect who works as a supply teacher in a series of tough north-London schools. Johnson did much the same. But do we need to know about the frequency of his wet dreams and interest in 'Frenchie packets' (Durex)?

The obsessive re-creation of his past results in mere solipsistic spouting.

The son of a domestic servant, Johnson was born in Hammersmith in 1933 and lived for most of his life in London. At school he was known as 'Pork and Beans' (according to his biographer Jonathan Coe) for his podgy, bullish physique. …

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