Home Forums General Discussion B.S. Johnson vs Coe

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    I finally managed to read Maxwell Sim in its entirety and re-reading Like a Fiery Elephant, so I am now in the position to better understand why Jonathan so much appreciated Ed Lake’s review on “The National”. It is indeed a good example of insightful literary criticism and I largely share his premises and conclusions. I, too, loved the novel and found the ending delicate, elegant and appropriate.
    So much for my general assessment, but I would like to add here some comments on the tacit dialogue with B.S. Johnson, that is clearly one of the hidden sources of the novel. By training I am a philosopher, so I am obviously drawn to the two main “theoretical” bones of contention between them: Johnson’s depressing and, on the long run, self-defeating idea that “telling stories is telling lies” and his no less stifling view that you cannot but jump into your self everywhere (“I .. always with I… one always starts with I”).
    Seen from a philosophical point of view, it is unsurprising that a novelist should be haunted by these two familiar ghosts. In modern philosophy, the first one goes under the appropriate name of the “Myth of the Given”, i.e. the insane but widely shared idea that we can somehow reach the core of reality by merely piling up empirical details about it (think of Johnson desperate need to tell the naked truth about the sheer squalor of the human condition). The other is the well-known solipsistic threat which is built into the modern culture of inwardness, selfhood, etc., and stems from the unnecessarily strict separation of the inner and the outside world.
    I do not want to glibly maintain that we can effortlessly get rid of these two “false” modern myths and go on with our lives as if nothing of import really happened. That things are not that simple can be easily argued from two trite remarks: firstly, that for a novelist the ancient virtue of parrhesia (truthtelling) is as crucial as it was at the beginnings of our literary culture; and secondly, that the invaluable treasure of modern novel is largely built upon the ability to capitalize on the richness and meaningfulness of the first-person view and experience.
    So I can easily understand why B.S. Johnson’s iconoclastic fury has ended up with becoming a sort of personal obsession for Jonathan. In his dogged, sometimes even obtuse modernist radicalism, Johnson managed to bring to the surface a deep tension in modern thought.
    Maxwell Sim is clearly also (even though not only) an attempt to (narratively) act in response to these potential deadlocks. In my view, Jonathan’s narrative reply to Johnson’s version of the Myth of the Given is indisputable and is wonderfully summarized by a renowned Hannah Arendt’s claim: “Reality is different from, and more than, the totality of facts and events, which, anyhow, is unascertainable. Who says what is – legei ta eonta – always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning” (in “Truth and Politics”). This seems to me to be the last word on the subject matter.
    The second brief point I would like to make has to do with the qualms of the modern self, the “terrible privacy” experienced by Maxwell Sim and a lot of our contemporaries. I start from a crucial consideration made by Clive at the end of his letter to Poppy: “So… why Donald Crowhurst? Or, to put it another way, what does it say about our own time, the time we are now living in, that we find it easier to identify, not with Robin Knox-Johnston – an almost comically stubborn, courageous, patriotic sportsman – but with a lesser figure entirely: a man who lied to himself and those around him, a little man in the throes of a desperate existential crisis, a tormented cheat?” (p. 64).
    This is an intriguing question, and one that also extends to Jonathan’s choice of B.S. Johnson as the subject of a maddeningly absorbing biographical research. Well, of course, the first answer coming to mind is that a generic (sometimes fiery) sense of frustration seems to be a very common experience of our time. Everybody seems unable to live up to his own (more or less) personal standards. The main danger for a storyteller, however, is to look for an explanation of this malaise in the wrong place, namely in the inner depths of people (like ourselves) where all that we can find are at best boring psychological universal dynamics and shortcomings. An usual way to bypass this typical modern dilemma (supported, as far as I can tell, by Jonathan) is offered, among others, by the comic stream of the Modern novel and consists in distributing the unbearable weight of the identity issue, shifting it from the psychological to the behavioral dimension, i.e. to the plot, to the web of events and words, where some sort of relevant, often quasi enchanted, if not overtly magic, meaning can be seen to emerge from their relations.
    Of course, I know that what I have just told is the old story of Fielding vs Richardson. However, my aim was just to conclude in a sort of Fieldingian tone, asking Jonathan if he does not think that part of the answer to Johnson’s challenge lie in a very minimal appeal to very basic life needs, I mean, in understanding storytelling as one of the possible ways of enjoying (or, why not?, celebrating) the sheer fact of being alive, of having the chance to participate in the “banquet” of human nature with its luxuriant and often baffling lavishness. Don’t you (at least) sometimes have this kind of experience when you write? And isn’t it at least as much real as our muddled and for ever throbbing inner selves?


    Paolo, this requires a lengthy and considered response, which I don’t have the time or energy to give at the moment. But I thank you sincerely for your analysis, which is certainly one of the most thought-provoking things I have read about this novel or indeed my writing in general.

    Incidentally, 30 people have read Paolo’s post, but I’m the first one to reply – did he stun everyone into silence? I hope this board can become a place where people exchange ideas and discuss among themselves – as well as just asking me questions. (Which I’m happy to answer, of course.)


    Well, speaking for myself, "stunned into silence", yes. I suppose "overwhelmed" would be another appropriate word… And a sense of inadequacy. The fact is, when I read (be it fiction or non-fiction) I can say whether I like the book or not (easy), possibly whether it agrees with the way I feel the world or whether it teaches me something I want to learn. But I do not have Paolo’s (and others’) ability to analyse it in depth and maybe compare it to the bulk of what I had read before. It may be due to my lack of memory, it may be due to my fragmentariness of interests. But most of all it’s just my lack of words … It’s like when I see something that strikes me as beautiful (like the lake from a hill today): it blows me away but I could never describe it either objectively or for the feelings it arouses. So, Jonathan, this is what happens when I read your books. I feel they agree with my world, I love the laughing and the crying and I always identify with one or more characters; there are the "wish I’d said that" moments, the sentences I just have to mark in pencil (though I may never read them again). But that’s almost as far as I can get. In fact, when I do try to go beyond (as I’ve have tried to do on this board) I feel silly on re-reading what I’ve written and comparing it to other posts. Oh, bother!


    Thank you, Jonathan (and Uppa) for the warm replies. I was worried to have "stunned everyone into silence", indeed. Philosophical musings can be intimidating, I know. But I sincerely thought that my points were shared by a lot of Jonathan’s readers. If not, why all of us feel so entertained, but also challenged by his insightful novels? And the B.S. Johnson biography (by the way a must-read for each of us) is there to remind us how deep are the sources of Jonathan’s writing. So I must confess that I am looking forward to hearing comments from everyone out there. 🙂

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