B. S. Johnson
|Born||Bryan Stanley William Johnson|
5 February 1933
Hammersmith, London, England
|Died||13 November 1973 (aged 40)|
Islington, London, England
|Occupation||Novelist, poet and director|
|Alma mater||King's College London|
|Period||Early 1960s to early 1970s|
|Notable works||Albert Angelo (1964), Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973)|
Bryan Stanley William Johnson (5 February 1933 – 13 November 1973) was an English experimental novelist, poet and literary critic. He also produced television programmes and made films.
Johnson was born into a working-class family, the only child of a bookseller's stock-keeper, Stanley Wilfred Johnson (1908–1973), and a waitress-cum-barmaid, Emily Jane (1908–1971, née Lambird), of Hammersmith, London. During the Second World War they moved to nearby Barnes.
Johnson was evacuated from London twice during the war. Having been educated at Flora Gardens Primary School, Hammersmith, he and his mother were moved to Chobham, Surrey in 1939 for two years, and he attended the village school. After a brief return to Hammersmith, he was sent alone in 1941 to High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where he attended a local school. Having failed the eleven plus examination, he was unable to enter Latymer School at Hammersmith and spent the last year of the war at Highfields Secondary Modern School. On his return home, he attended Barnes County Secondary Modern School, before "passing some sort of simple examination" allowing him to transfer to Kingston Day Commercial School, where "they taught me shorthand, typing, and bookkeeping. Useful."
Johnson left school when he was 16 years old to work variously as an accounting clerk for a building company and for a baker, as a bank junior and as a clerk at Standard Oil, but taught himself Latin in the evenings, attended a year's pre-university course at Birkbeck College, and with this preparation, managed to pass the university entrance exam for King's College London in 1956.
After graduating with a 2:2 degree in 1959, he worked as a private tutor and supply teacher in Surrey, while writing increasingly experimental and often acutely personal novels. In his early years he collaborated on several projects with a close friend and fellow writer, Zulfikar Ghose, with whom he produced a joint collection of stories, Statement Against Corpses. Like Johnson's early stories, at least superficially, his first two novels, Travelling People (1963) and Albert Angelo (1964) initially appear relatively conventional in plot terms. However, the first uses several innovative devices and includes a section set out as a film script. The second includes famously cut-through pages to enable the reader to skip forward. His work became progressively even more experimental. The Unfortunates (1969) was published in a box with no binding (readers could assemble the book any way they liked, apart from the chapters marked "First" and "Last", which indicated preferred terminal points. BBC producer Lorna Pegram employed him to talk about this creation for the TV series Release. With barely any negotiation, the interview was complete months before the book was ready for publication. House Mother Normal (1971) was written in purely chronological order such that various characters' thoughts and experiences would cross each other and intertwine, not just page by page, but sentence by sentence. He won the Eric Gregory Award in 1962 and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1967.
Johnson led and associated with a loose circle of experimental authors in 1960s Britain, who included Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, Ann Quin, Stefan Themerson, Wilson Harris and others. Many contributed to London Consequences, a novel consisting of a palimpsest of chapters passed between a range of participating authors, edited by Margaret Drabble and Johnson. Johnson also made numerous experimental films, published poetry, and wrote reviews, short stories and plays. For some years he was poetry editor of Transatlantic Review.
Death and legacy
Johnson became depressed by his failure to succeed commercially and by mounting family problems. On 13 November 1973, aged 40, he took his own life by slitting his wrists at 9, Dagmar Terrace, Islington N1. He left an estate valued at £9,621. The day before his death he had told his agent: "I shall be much more famous once I'm dead."
Johnson's following at the time of his death was small, but enthusiastic; he quickly acquired a posthumous cult following, helped by a critically acclaimed film adaptation in 2000 of the last novel of his to appear in his lifetime, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973). Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice paid tribute to Johnson on the 2006 Pernice Brothers album Live a Little. Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant (winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize) again led to a renewal of interest in Johnson's work. Coe himself is now a president of the B. S. Johnson Society, which aims "to bring closer Johnson scholars, readers and aficionados alike in their various approaches to the author's life and work."
In 2015, the Nottingham Five Leaves Bookshop held an event called "But I Know This City!" focused on Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, which is set there. It took participants round the city to listen to live readings of the novel's sections in whatever order they chose. Meanwhile, Indie pop band Los Campesinos! cited the literature of B. S. Johnson among their non-musical influences.
- Travelling People (1963)
- Albert Angelo (1964)
- Trawl (1966)
- The Unfortunates (1969)
- House Mother Normal (1971)
- Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973)
- See the Old Lady Decently (1975)
Poetry and anthologies, including those edited by Johnson
- Poems (1964)
- The Evacuees (1968)
- London Consequences: A Novel (1972). A novel with each chapter composed by a different author including Johnson, Margaret Drabble, Paul Ableman and others
- All Bull: The National Servicemen (1973)
- Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973). A collection of Johnson's shorter prose written between 1960 and 1973
- You Always Remember the First Time (1975)
- Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B.S.Johnson (2013). A collection edited by Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew and Julia Jordan.
- You're Human Like the Rest of Them (1967)
- The Unfortunates (1969)
- The Smithsons on Housing (1970)
- Paradigm (1969)
- B. S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1971)
- Unfair! (1970)
- Fat Man On A Beach (1973)
- Jonathan Coe. (2004) Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. Picador
- Philip Tew (2001), B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-0719056260
- Krystyna Stamirowska (2006), B. S. Johnson's Novels: A Paradigm of Truth. Kraków: Universitas, ISBN 8324207457
- Philip Tew and Glyn White (2007), Re-reading B. S. Johnson. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230524927
- Vanessa Guignery (2009), Ceci n’est pas une fiction. Les romans vrais de B.S. Johnson. Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, ISBN 978-2840506430
- Nicolas Tredell (2010), Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B. S. Johnson. Paupers' Press, ISBN 978-0946650996
- Vanessa Guignery, ed. (2015), The B.S. Johnson / Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, ISBN 978-1443872669
- Sebastian Groes (2016), "English Anti-Novels", in: British Fictions of the Sixties. New York and London: Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0826495570
- Baker, Phil (24 May 2012). "Johnson, Bryan Stanley William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
- Baker, Phil (24 May 2012). "Johnson, Bryan Stanley William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- G. White, Re-reading B. S. Johnson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 14.
- Coe, Jonathan. "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde". New Directions website/blog. New Directions Publishing. Retrieved 5 May 2021.
- The Free Library. Retrieved 1 February 2020.
- Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of B. S. Johnson, ed. Jonathan Coe, Philip Tew, Julia Jordan, Picador, 2013, "The Happiest Days?", B. S. Johnson, published (abridged) in Education and Training, March 1973.
- Coe, Jonathan (2005). Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. Pan Macmillan. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-330-35049-5.
- Cleary, Ken. "MC 1422 | Inventory to the Transatlantic Review Records". Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University. Retrieved 19 October 2022.
- Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents.
- Coe, Jonathan (2004). Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. London: Picador. p. 480. ISBN 033035048X.
- "JOHNSON Bryan Stanley William of 9 Dagmar Terr London N1 died 13 November 1973" in Wills and Administrations 1974 (England and Wales) (1975), p. 4861.
- Martin, Tim (28 February 2013). "B S Johnson: 'Britain's one-man literary avant-garde'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
- "Reviews of 'Christie Malry's Own Double Entry'". Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2007.
- "About | The B. S. Johnson Society". Retrieved 1 March 2019.
- See also List of fiction set in Nottingham.
- "Los Campesinos!". Myspace.
- B. S. Johnson Archive, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 12 May 2020.
- Sandhu, Sukhdev (16 June 2009), "You're Human Like The Rest Of Them – the NFT's celebration of BS Johnson", telegraph.co.uk.