I recently reread Jonathan Coe’s richly rewarding biography of BS Johnson, the English experimental writer who committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 40. Johnson is largely forgotten today beyond a cult following, but if there’s one thing people know about him it’s that he believed fiction is lying. How can one write authentically about something that one hasn’t personally experienced? he asks. ‘Telling stories is telling lies.’ In other words, autobiography in one form or another is the only legitimate way forward for the novel. Memory is king and imagination fundamentally dishonest.
The problem with this view is twofold. First, psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that memory doesn’t supply us with a faithful or accurate representation of events – in fact every time we access a memory we change it slightly. If this is the case, then the distinction between memory and imagination already begins to dissolve. And second, as Nabokov pointed out in an interview, ‘Imagination is a form of memory.’ He goes on: ‘An image depends on the power of association, and association is supplied and prompted by memory. When we speak of a vivid individual recollection we are paying a compliment not to our capacity of retention but to Mnemosyne’s mysterious foresight in having stored up this or that element which creative imagination may want to use when combining it with later recollections and inventions.’ QED.
I’m not a fan of Johnson’s novels. They contain moments of virtuosic brilliance but overall they seem to me gimmicky and experimental only in name. One novel has holes cut in the pages so the reader can see through to a later scene. Towards the end of this same novel the author interrupts the fairly conventional narrative about an architect to declare. ‘OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING’, and continues in this vein right through to the end of the book. The chapters of another novel come in separate signatures inside a box, allowing the reader to shuffle them any way he or she wishes (something that had already been done in a more radical way in a novel called Composition No. 1 by French writer Marc Saporta, which Coe shows that Johnson must have known about).
There are other problems with Johnson’s view. Apart from anything else, what does his distrust of the imagination imply about the great novels of the past? Were they all dishonest and therefore somehow unworthy? And doesn’t such an attitude also entail that once a writer has used up his stock of autobiographical material his career must be at an end? That can’t be right, surely, especially as most writers’ lives, once they’ve begun to be published, are extremely dull and mostly consist of sitting at a desk.
There’s another thing that troubles me too. How autobiographical are Johnson’s own novels? After all, they contain fictional characters. Albert Angelo and Christie Malry even appear in the titles of their respective books. And even if these characters are modelled on real people, or on Johnson himself, the fact remains that they’re inventions, they don’t exist. It’s still a kind of lying. In fact Johnson is doing precisely what Nabokov describes above: recombining memories and bits of memories to create something new, something imaginary.
Nor does Johnson compare well with his contemporaries. When one thinks of the sophisticated metafictional games being played by Nabokov or Italo Calvino or John Barth at around the same time — or even somewhat later by Philip Roth, another autobiographical writer, in The Counterlife — Johnson’s experiments begin to seem very tame and obvious and, well, English.
Having said all that, Johnson’s letters to agents and editors and others involved in the literary or publishing scenes, which Coe reproduces at length, are great fun to read. Arrogant, bumptious, overbearing, pompous, self-important – he believed himself to be the equal of his great heroes Joyce and Beckett – Johnson was certainly a colourful character who shook up the world of letters for a while. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to see another Johnson come along today.