An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Monday, January 16, 2006

A review of the B S Johnson Omnibus by Picador

No sociopaths - no an-empaths today. I'm having a rest from the wierdoes.

The publication of the Omnibus edition of B S Johnson marks yet another attempt to revive the fortunes of one of the finest English novelists of the 20th century. Since his death by suicide in 1973 Johnson has been out of print for longer than in. Acknowledged but unread. Admired but unread. The fate, I fear, of too many really brilliant modern novelists.

Johnson was part of a movement in the UK that produced a crop of novelists all of whom understood what Joyce and Beckett had done to the novel: its form and matter and attempted to pick up the challenge that these two wonders handed down to writers and readers alike: not in some cold academic way but in an almost experimental manner. In some literary criticism they are actually known as "the experimentalists". And while not all of their playful yet earnest pushings of the envelope of the novel were, in and of themselves, entirely successful all of those works have influenced literature thereafter.

The Omnibus contains three of Johnson's novels: Trawl; Albert Angelo and; House Mother Normal. They are probably not the three that I would have chosen but it is possible that Picador do not have rights to all of Johnson's work and stuck with these three for that reason. I might have nominated the novels Travelling People and Christie Malry's Own Double Entry but if there is ever a volume 2 ... His poems and Essays would make a good companion volume, so possibly a 3 volume set? Please Picador! None of Johnson's work should ever be out of print again.

Starting with Trawl we have here a novel, or is it, written by a writer sailing as a "pleasure tripper" on a working North Sea trawler. The Trawl of the title? - is it the Trawl that the boat is on and the constant interruption that the act of trawling imposes on the structure of the writer's work in progress? or the Trawl of his own that the writer is attempting casting deep into his memory for the reasons for his current situation and hoping to pull up enough catch to identify his futute? Is it the verb Trawl or the noun Trawl? Johnson is not a scholar of Joyce for nothing! Is the Trawl a trawl into Beckett's existential abyss? All of these questions are implicit in the first rough chapter. Thereafter we follow the progress of the personal Trawl set alongside, and paralleling, the fishing Trawl, within which it is set. We work the nets with Johnson and his writer and examine and gut his catch with him, consigning great chunks of his sad and cold history to the liver boiler and the ice in his holds, while the writer can only watch the crew of the real trawler work. Or are we also only onlookers? Does Johnson deny us our participation in the work?

Trawl is the last of Johnson's novels that Beckett leaks out of. Listen closely and you can hear Sam here at times whispering in Johnson's writer's ear ventriloquially at times. Trawl is where Johnson finds his own voice and by the end it is a strong, individual voice. Perhaps, among these gobbets of childhood and wartime evacuation, among these regurgitations of adolescent fumblings and perceived betrayals by girls that he thinks of as women, perhaps in net after net of deep dwelling creatures this is what he was trawling for all along? His own voice. His muse.

Albert Angelo is another novel of awakening for Johnson the writer but not one set in the deep seas. Unless East End school yards can be drawn as deep seas to a trained architect working as a supply teacher. This is the basic conceit of the majority of this novel: an architect is working as a supply teacher in the rough East End of London among the bombed ruins. An architectural aesthetic moves among the rubble of fine buildings. An intelligent and educated professional moves among the husks of children from varied ethnic backgrounds and families, children who do not wish to learn, or rather who would prefer to choose what they learn. They learn on their own terms: frustrating and yet still drawing admiration from this would be fount of knowledge; this teacher manque who wishes to teach what he knows.

The grind of teaching, the sheer, exhausting effort of it, drains our hero so far that even in his holidays when his drawing board calls him he has nothing left. He drifts around the East End and the grisly suburbs to the west of London looking at buildings - the bad as well as the good, with his friend who, like him has been betrayed by a woman. They commiserate in Greek and West Indian cafes.

Johnson draws us delicately into his webs of fiction in this work, crafting characters and narrative lines that remain long after the true shock of Albert Angelo has worn off. His writing is tight and beautiful with not a word wasted, not an idea irrelevant. And then Johnson drops his bombshell and his authorial mask. At what would for any other author be the end of the novel the writer behind the writing steps forward and reveals the sham: Our hero is not an architect - he is a poet. He is not a character he is a puppet. It seems that Johnson has lost faith in what he now seems to see as a deception. Johnson the wirter steps forward and argues against the deception, examines the points at which his "fiction" is untrue. It is clearly here that Johnson had his "Saul of Tarsus" moment if not in fact then certainly in the novel. From here on Johnson;s mantra was to be that fiction has to be true and that "telling stories is telling lies". This obsession, as it became, with "truth in fiction" is probably what eventually led him to slit his wrists in a warm bath. He had. I think run out of truth; of experience, and so he had nothing left that he could honestly write. With amazing presence of mind however, after this astounding revelation, Johnson goes back into the novel and finishes it off as Albert Angelo (or is it Angelo Albert? it is never made clear).

Albert Angelo is the first (I think but cannot be bothered to check) of Johnson's novels where his experimentation with things typographical surfaces (there are holes cut in some of the pages for example to allow a forward glimpse into the novel). This typographical exactitude is one of the reasons that Johnson sometimes drops out of print now and then and again and again. It is a striking and well crafted novel that deserves a place in the modern canon as much for its extreme economy and beautiful writing as for its formal innovations.

Finally we come to House Mother Normal which is in terms of form Johnson's most extreme and most successful novels witht the arguable exception of Xtie Malry's Own Double Entry. House Mother Normal is a novel that does not really bear review for the simple reason that any review would expose too much of the work. It is not exposure of the narrative that would spoil the work but the exposure of the form. Suffice to say that House Mother Normal displays multiple subjective views of a set of events in an old peoples' home. All of the points of view are defective. We know in advance that they are defective and in what way they are defective. There is no objective description of the events. The form is stunning and novel. The content is unusual and fascinating. How what is examined in this novel is examined is as fascinating and finely wrought as is that examined. A beautiful and intellectually tough work where form and content are treated with the same exacting sense of perfection that Johnson became renowned for in his short and bright career.

The rest is silence.

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