Like a Fiery Elephant, by Jonathan Coe

The biography of Bryan Johnson, written by the impossible-to-dislike Jonathan Coe.

Never, to my knowledge, having heard of B.S. Johnson, I wasn't altogether rushing to read this book, but the fact that it's written by Coe is reason enough. And I'm glad I did.

Johnson worked as a poet and novelist (and film maker, and journalist, and editor, and teacher...) in the 60s and 70s, creating work which was critically well received but that failed to achieve popular success. He committed suicide when in 1973, when he was 40. Coe remembers seeing Johnson on the TV when he (Coe) was 13. I'm not sure I fully understand what it is about Johnson that Coe finds so interesting that he wanted to embark on this work, but he evidently admires him very much.

I don't read biographies as a rule, but I don't think this is a particularly conventional one: Coe tells Johnson's story in a very chatty way, moving in a more or less chronological fashion and interspersing his text with extracts from Johnson's own work or correspondence. He has interviewed many of the people who Johnson dealt with, and so is able to comment, with the benefit of hindsight, on episodes which Johnson himself writes about.

One thing that did strike me when reading this was the way in which Coe seemed to want to find a "root cause" or "answer" to Johnson's life. Rather like Coe's own novels, e.g. What a Carve Up, there is a feeling that some underlying reason is waiting to be discovered that will explain much of what's gone before. A theme which recurs is of Johnson's seemingly obsessive interest with "The White Godess" - a kind of occult muse who has some sort of power over him.

Now as it happens, there is a twist at the end of the book, where Coe, after describing the end of Johnson's life, tells how he did some more research and came across some unpublished work which does throw light on Johnson's final days and perhaps on the events of his youth which cast a shadow over the rest of his life. But while this was fascinating stuff, and seems almost too good to be true (so far as an biographer is concerned), I did have a nagging feeling sometimes that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", and that it may not be valid to look for hidden meaning in things which aren't easily explained.

That is a very minor criticism though. On the whole, this was a great read: interesting, sad, and funny. I remember about half-way through the book I was reading one of Johnson's letters, and thinking "yes, that's exactly the sort of thing I'd expect him to write", which I think goes to show what a good job Coe had done at describing Johnson's character, and how well I'd come to know him as a result.

Coe describes how, after working so long on this project, he would often have dreams in which he met Johnson, and discussed the project with him. Just after finishing it, I dreamed I went to interview Jonathan Coe. And he was just as nice as you'd imagine.

I think it would be interesting to read some of Johnson's work, but I'm not sure it's exactly my sort of thing: Johnson saw himself as an experimental novelist, and so his work sounds like it is more technically impressive than aesthetically pleasing. But I've got "House Mother Normal" on order anyway.

A worthwhile read. Although... good though it was, I think I prefer Coe's fiction, so I hope that he'll do some more soon.

Completed : 18-Jan-2007

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