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'Fiery Elephant' Profiles Writer B.S. Johnson


Time for DAY TO DAY's weekly book report. Critic David Kipen reviews a new biography of the late ornery and mostly forgotten British writer B.S. Johnson. His work is largely unread now, but David says this new bio, called "Like a Fiery Elephant," deserves better.

DAVID KIPEN reporting:

The `B.S.' in B.S. Johnson stood for Brian Stanley, but Brian Stanley Johnson didn't stand for any BS. This is the British writer who once began a letter to a stateside editor with the icebreaker, `You ignorant, unliterary Americans make me puke.' With diplomatic skills like that, it's no wonder Johnson's novels from the 1960s and early '70s remain all but unknown in America. They're barely remembered in his native England.

Yet the gifted British novelist Jonathan Coe has just published an admiring, if frequently exasperated, biography of Johnson called "Like a Fiery Elephant." The result in unforgettable, even for readers who, like me, couldn't have named one of Johnson's novels on a bet.

On the off chance you're ever faced with such a bet, you can always cite Johson's novel, "Trawl." "Trawl's" claim to fame is its narrative break about a dozen pages from the end, where Johnson interrupts his autobiographical story to interject--in capital letters--`OH, (censored) ALL THIS LYING!' What's fascinating here is that Johnson's biographer, Coe, would never do this sort of thing in one of his own books. Coe himself has a new novel out called "The Closed Circle," which is a fairly traditional social novel about old secondary school classmates dealing with middle age in contemporary Britain.

But when Coe was in college, he thought B.S. Johnson was the living end. Johnson's unshakeable conviction that the novel must evolve struck Coe as just the thing to set stodgy, bourgeois fiction on its ear. The difference between the two men is that Coe eventually changed his mind, while Johnson proved suicidally incapable of changing his. Johnson took his own life in 1973 at the age of 39.

In "Like a Fiery Elephant," Jonathan Coe combines the grace and style common to his own work with the formal daring that Johnson always swore by. He also shows himself to be a more than passable literary detective. He winds up locating a long-lost fragment of Johnson's work and, in the process, answers the riddle of where his subject spent his last night on Earth.

There aren't a lot of literary biographies where the biographer ranks as arguably the better writer, but "Like a Fiery Elephant"--which just won an English prize for biography of the year--belongs on that very short shelf of books where prior interest in, or even knowledge of, the subject is optional. What Coe calls the paradox of a novelist who loves traditional novels, writing a biography of a novelist who seemed to hate them is a spectacle that anyone who loves any sort of novels ought to enjoy. It's as if Paul McCartney wrote a song about John Cage that made you want to listen to them both all over again.

CHADWICK: The book is "Like a Fiery Elephant" by Jonathan Coe. David Kipen is book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and for DAY TO DAY.

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CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Kipen