Friday, August 02, 2013

`Against the Spleen!'

Picador has lately reissued paperback editions of four novels by the English writer, polemicist and suicide B.S. Johnson -- Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), House Mother Normal (1971) and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) – and a new 480-page hardcover, Well Done God!: Selected Prose and Drama of B.S. Johnson. This year is a double anniversary of sorts. Johnson was born eighty years ago and ended his life forty years ago. He was a youthful enthusiasm of mine. I discovered his earliest books in the university library a year or two before his death and proselytized for them for years afterward without a single convert. Today, it’s easy to understand why, but I was young and militant. 

There’s a class of writer, often Irish but not exclusively, deeply suspicious of the novel, literature, even language itself, who simultaneously write and subvert what they’ve written. Think of Swift, Sterne, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien and, at a less lofty perch, the fittingly initialed (for Bryan Stanley) B.S. Johnson. “Experimental” and “avant-garde,"in most cases, mean pretentious and boring, but the Irish crew at their best remain connected to something approximating the real, human world. They are cerebral, yes, but not merely cerebral. Most importantly, all are extravagantly funny. Johnson’s besetting sin is that he blunts his comic sense with angry earnestness. As a young man he trained as an accountant, and it shows (though his funniest book, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, is rooted in double-entry bookkeeping). Too often he compromises his jokes with didacticism. See Jonathan Coe’s fine biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), for the particulars. 

The differences between Johnson and Sterne are illuminating. Johnson is deadly serious about the challenge posed by translating human experience into that feeblest and most intoxicating of human creations, language. For Sterne, it was an opportunity to revel in nonsense (though Sterne is never nonsensical).  Johnson’s most explicitly Sternean book is his final one, published posthumously,See the Old Lady Decently (1975).  Late in the novel, Johnson begins an argument among hypothetical readers of his novel, one of whom says: “– What, does the fellow know what he is about?” And another answers: “– Competing with Sterne, indeed!” Contrast Johnson and his fumbles after humor with this grand, indefatigably digressive, one-sentence set-piece on humor from Book 4, Chapter 22, of Tristram Shandy: 

“Albeit, gentle reader, I have lusted earnestly, and endeavoured carefully (according to the measure of such a slender skill as God has vouchsafed me, and as convenient leisure from other occasions of needful profit and healthful pastime have permitted) that these little books which I here put into thy hands, might stand instead of many bigger books—yet have I carried myself towards thee in such fanciful guise of careless disport, that right sore am I ashamed now to intreat thy lenity seriously—in beseeching thee to believe it of me, that in the story of my father and his christian-names—I have no thoughts of treading upon Francis the First—nor in the affair of the nose—upon Francis the Ninth—nor in the character of my uncle Toby—of characterizing the militiating spirits of my country—the wound upon his groin, is a wound to every comparison of that kind—nor by Trim—that I meant the duke of Ormond—or that my book is wrote against predestination, or free-will, or taxes—If ’tis wrote against any thing,—'tis wrote, an' please your worships, against the spleen! in order, by a more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm, and the succussations of the intercostal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall-bladder, liver, and sweet-bread of his majesty's subjects, with all the inimicitious passions which belong to them, down into their duodenums.” 

Read in context, the passage is both riotously funny and makes perfect sense, a combination Johnson was seldom able to achieve.

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