Tag Archives: B S Johnson

Inspirational Holiday Reading

17 Sep

Apparently, we’re supposed to read ‘beach novels’ on our holidays. Well, I went swimming in the North Atlantic and read quite a lot over my summer break. But there the comparison  with such expectations ends, I think.

As a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring, I think, than reading a thoroughly researched and well written biography about one of your literary heroes. A few summers ago, I read David Bellos’s excellent biography of George Perec, ‘A Life in Words’. In Bellos’s book, the writer’s life becomes a fitting addition to his canon, a Rabelaisian tale about a unique individual. This summer, it was the turn of ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’, Jonathan Coe’s biography of another experimental writer, B S Johnson. Reading it, I was fired up again about fiction and its possibilities. Uncharacteristically, I even felt moved to thank the author on Twitter for spending eight years researching and writing the book… These days, the general reading public knows Johnson, if at all, as a writer of ‘difficult’ books who killed himself, in apparent despair, at the age of forty. In Coe’s words, Johnson comes across as a complex man, difficult but much loved by his friends. The insights into his creative processes and artistic aesthetic, and the barriers inherent in following such a path, are instructive for any writer seeking to work outside the mainstream. 


My favourite beach… 

One work mentioned in the biography was a collection of short stories by Johnson and Zulfikar Ghose, ‘Statement Against Corpses’, in which the two writers were supposed to reinvigorate the form. By all accounts, they managed no such thing – not that I can comment as the collection is long out of print and I don’t feel like spending over £100 for an old copy, only to have this view confirmed. Instead, I finished reading ‘Difficult Loves’ and ‘Laughable Loves’, early collections by Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, respectively, and was reminded of why I love the work of both writers. Calvino was already exploring worlds through minute and apparently mundane details, much as he would in his final, brilliant collection, ‘Mr Palomar’. Kundera’s comic stories expose the absurdities often found at the heart of human relationships. 


Which half-complete track to follow?

Unfortunately, though, since returning from continental Europe, the demands of my day job and other stresses and strains have sapped my creative energies and progress on my fiction has been slow. I’ve arrived at a time-consuming stage in my vast work-in-progress, tying up all of its loose ends and re-arranging sections within its complex architecture. I’ve also been thinking ahead to my next project, of which I’ll write more in a future post. I have to decide between three options that I’ve had kicking around for some years now: a part-finished novella, a half-completed sequel and an epistolary novel of which I’ve planned much but written  little. Whichever one I choose, though, the work of those who’ve gone before – Perec, Johnson, Calvino, Kundera – remains a guide and inspiration. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – Literary Consequences

16 Feb

Everyone knows that childhood game, ideal for frittering away the odd half an hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You fold a sheet of paper in three. The first player draws a head, connected to a neck. The second draws the body and the tops of the legs. The third adds the legs and reveals the resultant monster. Consequences. The concept has always interested me. I once used it to describe one of the animal narrators in my abandoned state-of-England novel, East: Notes from the Margin (the extract is spookily topical too!). It’s a principle that can be applied to collaborative fictional works. I first came across the idea in Finbar’s Hotel, a joint enterprise by a group of Irish novelists and edited by Dermot Bolger. The writers invented a character each, staying at the titular hotel on the night before its demolition. Much later, I would discover the true origins of the idea and they led back to a familiar source…

In any case, I liked the idea and stowed it away for possible future use. Several years later, the opportunity arose to put it into practice with a group of writers whom I knew. I devised the scenario and rules. An old and misanthropic recluse has died. Unexpectedly, the funeral turns out to be well attended. The contributors must explain why their character is there. The results, if I’m honest, were variable, not least my own contributions, but it was an interesting exercise nonetheless.


Funeral Directions – the rules for a game of literary consequences

The idea actually originates from a collaborative novel called London Consequences, edited by Margaret Drabble and inevitably, I suppose, B S Johnson. It was constructed in a manner closer to the true consequences aesthetic. Book-ended by Drabble’s and Johnson’s contributions, the remainder of the manuscript was passed from writer to writer until the finished novel emerged. In its purest form, of course, subsequent contributors should receive only the last sentence of the previous writer’s chapter. Hmm, now that’s got me thinking…

So here is the scenario as presented to the contributors. Do feel free to bring along your own funeral attendee…

From The Ravenshurst Gazette, Monday 27th November 1978:

“The funeral takes place today of Mr Henry Polonius Baxter Brownlow, who died last week at the age of eighty-nine. Mr Brownlow had lived alone at the same address in Rookery Lane for almost forty years. 

Mr Brownlow was the archetypal recluse. The grounds of his detached Victorian villa (price and particulars available from Mr Jonathan Pumfrey at Parfitt & Pumfrey Estates) were surrounded by tall trees and an eight-foot high wall. A sign on the gate forbade entry to ‘hawkers and callers’. Blackout curtains were drawn across the windows in 1940. They never opened again. 

Mr Brownlow gained a reputation locally as a misanthrope and miser. On a number of occasions, police were called to the property after Mr Brownlow had loosed his foxhounds upon charity collectors or carol singers.  For all that, he was a man of independent means and reputedly kept a fleet of Rolls-Royce motor-cars in a converted stable block in his garden. 

Little is known about Mr Brownlow before his arrival in Ravenshurst. As a consequence rumour flourished.  He was a Black Shirt lieutenant evading internment. He was a literary genius working on his magnum opus.  He was a retired spymaster… 

Details of his early life are equally sketchy. He is believed to have gained a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University and to have served with the Royal Signals in the Great War. A contemporary photograph shows a tall young man with fine features and raven-coloured hair.  After this, he vanished from public view. 

It is believed that Mr Brownlow never married and leaves no heirs. Any person possessing information to the contrary should contact his executors, Messrs Maypole, Merriman and Maunderer. 

The service is at Ravenshurst Cemetery and commences at two o’clock.”

And finally, to enable anyone who might so wish to be an art critic, my children and I have laboured collaboratively through the creative process to produce the remarkable works below, which you are invited to judge.


Exhibit A


Exhibit B


Exhibit C

All text and images © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Johnsonian Box

11 Feb

And so here is the second post in my series on experimental fiction. That part three has been published before part two should come as no surprise. The post is, after all, about structural games…

One Saturday evening, some years ago, my friend, Gavin McIntosh and I were sitting in our favourite pub in Lincoln. Gavin is, of course, the author of the stupendous children’s/adult crossover adventure, Thunderbus, illustrated by his equally talented wife, Dahlia Lee. Back then, that pub was pretty much the hub in the city for artistic types and would-be Bohemians, ourselves included. You’ll know, the sort of place, I’m sure. I used it as the model for the pub in my novella, The Great English Novel, where my protagonist wastes his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band drinking accomplices, talking interminably about their artistic pursuits rather than actually pursuing them (see Extract 3 from ‘The Great English Novel’). Anyway, so there we were, riffing – as one does – about writing, when we hit upon the idea for a brilliant literary experiment. What if you were to write a novel, consisting of a series of loose pages inside a box, that might be re-assembled in any order? The possibilities seemed endless. Over the next hour or so, we elaborated on the idea with a series of breath-taking refinements, none of which I now remember. I do remember firing off an excited e-mail about the idea to a friend in Finland.

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices...

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices…

It was a couple of years later that I discovered the writing of the neglected 1960s/1970s experimental novelist, B S Johnson. I began with Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry and that led me onto The Unfortunates and to a further discovery. Our remarkable idea had already been conceived of and carried out, three decades before. Undeterred, I gave the method a try (see Johnsonian Box Experiment for the results – it’s pretty poor, but it gives you the idea!). Johnson has been ‘rediscovered’ in recent times, due – in no small part – to Jonathan Coe’s lovingly assembled biography of the novelist, Like a Fiery Elephant. Tragically, he would share the fate of another literary maverick, John Kennedy Toole. Both novelists killed themselves – at least, in part – in despair at the world’s indifference to their work. Johnson’s name also became the inspiration for that of the mythical fantasist, Bullshit Johansson in my recently completed war novel, but that’s – quite literally, in this case – another story.

Try it out for yourself. The main challenge, it seems to me, is in producing a sequence of chapter beginnings and endings that can dovetail in any order. And then you’ll have your very own random novel generator, a book that changes every time you read it. Need you ever write anything else?

All text and images © PSR 2013