in Frieze | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

The life of Bryan

Piecing together the B. S. Johnson story

in Frieze | 01 JAN 02

On Tuesday 13 November 1973 Bryan, a 40-year-old north London supply teacher with a passion for architecture and Chelsea Football Club, climbed into the bath in his Finsbury home. Bath time: a time for reflection. The last couple of years had been tough for Bryan: he had been devastated by the death of his mother; his wife, Virginia, had left him and taken the children; he felt he was once again losing his lifelong battle against obesity; his work was suffering.

The previous year Bryan had written a poem called
'Distance Piece':

I may reach a point

one reaches a point

where all I might have to say

where all that one has to say

would be that life is bloody awful

is that the human condition is intolerable

but that I would not end it

but one resolves to go on

despite everything

despite everything

Was Bryan just being brave? Certainly, at that point in his life things seemed to be getting harder. Artistic creation offered no comfort, no reward. His options seemed to be diminishing, his likely prospects becoming more unsavoury. And so Bryan lay there, the bathwater slowly going cold around him. And he drank the best part of a bottle of vodka. And he drew a razor blade along the length of his arm, from inside the elbow down to the wrist. And that was all.

Bryan Johnson was a novelist. Between 1963 and (posthumously) 1975 he published seven of the most remarkable novels in post-War English literature. Witness the testimonials: 'The future of the novel depends on people like B. S. Johnson' (Anthony Burgess); 'A most gifted writer and deserving of far more attention than he has received up to now' (Samuel Beckett); 'If I had any say in the matter he would probably win the Nobel Prize for Literature' (Auberon Waugh). Johnson was clearly a formidable writer, but he was largely ignored. His books went out of print for decades. And yet today publishers are reissuing his work; a film adaptation of one of his novels is on its way; the novelist Jonathan Coe is working on a full biography. It's time to reassess Johnson's curious oeuvre. It's also time to discuss his methods, because it was Johnson's approach to writing that made him unique - and made him so contentious.

Johnson rejected the standard Victorian narrative, condemning it as 'anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant and perverse'. 'The convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to say.' 2 For Johnson each new project needed to be a triumph over form, and required a framework that could not be achieved through conventional means. This decision led him to improvise a number of unusual techniques - literary devices that resulted in his being labelled an 'experimental novelist', a term he detested. His dialogue with form was not a gimmick; it was a direct solution to a specific problem.

The Unfortunates (1969) is a good example of this dialogue. Johnson wanted to combine a meditation on the nature of memory with an intensely personal account of a man slowly succumbing to cancer. His solution was to write a series of pamphlets and individual single pages, earmark two of them as 'First' and 'Last' (to provide a frame) and allow the reader to go through the rest in any order he or she liked. The result was a non-linear, non-chronological journey through Johnson's mind. The content explored memory, the object represented disease - '[the book] was itself a physical tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer.' 3 'I write especially to exorcise, to remove from myself, from my mind, the burden having to bear some pain, the hurt of some experience: in order that it may be over there, in a book, and not in here in my mind.' 4

Johnson didn't write fiction. He wrote the truth - in the form of the novel. His inspiration was his own life experience, his own hurt, his own pain. The major theme to which he returned time and time again was that of abandonment and betrayal. Such feelings already haunted him as a result of his evacuation from home during World War II. And then, at some point during his early twenties, Johnson experienced an emotional upheaval that he never got over and could not exorcise, even through his writing. It was to do with a girlfriend who left him for another man, an epileptic. Johnson was utterly devastated by her loss. He felt that she had betrayed him, and the disappointment 'transmuted solitude to glib and eyeless desolation'. 5

The impact that this relationship had on Johnson's life and work cannot be underestimated. He was utterly obsessed by it; it was a subject he simply could not leave alone. His work became gruesomely autobiographical, and the message was always the same: woman will betray you. Sometimes the mood is sardonic ('When Jenny left me, betrayed me for a cripple whom she imagined to need her more, my mother said never mind, perhaps he would die and then I could have her back again'); 6 more frequently it is dark and malicious ('In any case, I wish / her no good, whom I loved / as Brunel loved iron'). 7 When you read the novels and the poems in one sitting, the depth of Johnson's obsession is startling. It tells you all you need to know about the gradual diminution of his artistic range, and maybe provides a signpost to how things were likely to pan out in his 'private' life.

Many readers and critics found all of this rather self-indulgent. Wasn't Johnson confusing fiction with self-expression? Weren't his private anguish and his increasingly strange technique a bit, well, boring? Slowly Johnson's audience began to drift away. His readership was abandoning him, betraying him. The publishers began to get cold feet. Virginia walked out on him. Then the self-loathing and the self-disgust. Then unspeakable anguish. Then bath time.

We seem to be ready for Johnson now. We like meta-narrative and confessional literature a whole lot more than we did. We've been through post-Modernism and we love all that solipsism and self-examination. So the wheel turns, we breathe new life into his work, we celebrate this damaged man and his unique creations. We understand and we are enthralled.

1. 'Distance Piece', Poems Two, Trigram Press, London, 1972.

2. Aren't You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs?,
Hutchinson, London, 1973, p. 19.

3. Ibid., p. 25.

4. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

5. 'Cwm Pennant: A Sequence', Poems, Constable, London, 1964.

6. Albert Angelo, Constable, London, 1964, p. 27.

7. 'And Should She Die?', Poems, op. cit.