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Giving Up the 'Glorious Ego Trip' -- A Novelist Turns to Biography

A fiction writer discovers his prickly affinity for the richness of a real life.

June 28, 2005|Jonathan Coe | Jonathan Coe is the author of seven novels and three biographies. His new novel, "The Closed Circle," was just published by Knopf and his biography of B.S. Johnson, "Like a Fiery Elephant," is recently out from Continuum International.

What on Earth could make a novelist turn to biography? There are years of research to be carried out, hours of interview tapes to be transcribed, and at the end of it, your own authorial personality has to be ruthlessly subsumed to your subject's: the precise opposite of the novel's glorious ego trip, where the writer can be absolute master of his own domain and there is no need to be faithful to those tiresome things called facts.

These are all points I wish someone had put to me 10 years ago, when I began work on a book about the troubled life of a fascinating and neglected novelist by the name of B.S. Johnson.

B.S. who? I can hear the incredulous chorus going up around me already. But this was a man who had been, in the 1960s, Britain's foremost experimental writer, an artist who combined extreme formal innovation with a shocking emotional honesty. It seemed unjust and inexplicable that he had been almost forgotten.

I first encountered B.S. Johnson when I was only 13, after watching a program he had made for British television. Candidly titled "Fat Man on a Beach" (he was very self-conscious about his weight), it consisted of precisely that: 40 minutes of Johnson sitting on a Welsh beach, reciting poetry, philosophizing, telling jokes -- a dazzling fireworks display of ruminative improvisation. A celebration of life, among other things. And yet, two weeks after making it, Johnson killed himself. How was it possible not to be intrigued?

Perversely, however, it was not this paradox that drew me to write about Johnson. As a student, 10 years after seeing that film, I came across a paperback edition of one of his later novels and found myself (at the time) entirely in sympathy with his theory and practice. Here was a man who believed that after Joyce and Beckett, it was impossible any longer to write conventional, character-driven, realist novels. Instead, he did things such as cut holes through the pages (as he did in his book, "Albert Angelo") so that readers could "see through" to a future event, and present the chapters unbound in a box (as he did in "The Unfortunates") so that readers could shuffle them and read them in any order they wanted, to replicate the chaotic reminiscences of the central character.

This was all grist to my solemn, postgraduate mill in the mid-1980s. And for some years after that, I would tell any editor who cared to listen that I wanted to write a book about Johnson: not a biography, but a serious, analytical book about the modernist revolution and how it had changed the novel forever. Curiously, I never got any takers.

When Peter Straus at Picador first suggested that the way to revive Johnson's reputation was by writing a biography, the puritan in me balked at the idea. Interest in the personal details of writers' lives was, I believed, prurient and also misguided. As Milan Kundera wrote: "The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist's biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid. All their labors cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks."

So when I set to work, my intention was to write that semi-academic book after all, while disguising it as a literary biography and hoping that nobody would notice the difference.

Naively, I thought the whole thing would take a couple of years. I hadn't taken into account that, even in a relatively short life (Johnson was 40 when he committed suicide), a man can accumulate a vast network of friends and leave behind a labyrinthine trail of stories. Nor that those stories would be so rich in human detail. Nor that my theories of literature would have diverged in subsequent years from Johnson's so radically. Nor that the affinity I would discover with him was temperamental, rather than aesthetic. I hadn't anticipated that the relationship I would forge with him would be so close, intense and prickly; that his dogmatism and refusal to concede ground would begin to irritate me.

So what did my biography turn out to be in the end? A romantic comedy about me and my subject, for one thing; a tragedy too; and a story that happens (I hope) to convey the truth about somebody. In other words -- a novel. It seems you can't escape your vocation after all.

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