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Like a Fiery Elephant
     

Like a Fiery Elephant

by Jonathan Coe
 

The most critically acclaimed literary biography published in the UK in 2004, Like a Fiery Elephant tells the story of B.S. Johnson, one of Britain's most innovative, passionate, and controversial writers of the 1960s and 70s. Johnson was an unflinching advocate for the avant-garde in both literature and film, and held strong (some would say extreme) views on the

Overview

The most critically acclaimed literary biography published in the UK in 2004, Like a Fiery Elephant tells the story of B.S. Johnson, one of Britain's most innovative, passionate, and controversial writers of the 1960s and 70s. Johnson was an unflinching advocate for the avant-garde in both literature and film, and held strong (some would say extreme) views on the future of the novel. Working firmly in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett-the latter of whom became a friend and mentor of sorts to Johnson-he tormented his agents, editors, and publishers with innovations that included a book with holes cut throught the pages (Albert Angelo) and a novel published in a box so that its unbound chapters could be read in any order (The Unfortunates). Johnson committed suicide in 1973, at the age of forty.

The story of Johnson's life is fascinating enough-but what makes this biography truly extraordinary (even for those who have never heard of Johnson) is the intelligence and honesty that Jonathan Coe brings to the form itself. Coe is a novelist, not a biographer, and he enjoys telling stories. How, then, to write the biography of his one-time hero, whose whole career as a novelist was based around the belief that "telling stories is telling lies?"

The result is a brilliant, funny, and deeply moving book about what it means to be a writer, and about what it means to stick to your principles so doggedly that you end up with nowhere left to turn.

Read the Introduction

Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
Let me say -- flat out and without any of the usual reviewer's cavils -- that this is a wonderful biography. Jonathan Coe has spent seven years working on this "story" of the writer he describes as "Britain's one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s." He's studied B.S. Johnson's seven novels, watched the innovative films he made, read his poetry and polemics, talked to all of the important people in his life and gone through the 20 boxes of papers he left behind after his suicide at the age of 40. All this groundwork is important, but what finally matters is the sheer vitality of Coe's engagement with Bryan Stanley Johnson. He writes with passionate admiration but also with hesitation, uncertainty. How can anyone really know or explain another man's life?
Publishers Weekly
In this quirky biography, British novelist Coe (The Winshaw Legacy, etc.) tackles the gloomy life of his one-time literary hero, the British working-class experimental writer B.S. Johnson, who published seven novels during the 1960s and '70s before taking his own life in 1973, aged 40. Drawing on the testimony of Johnson's surviving wife, former girlfriends, friends and colleagues, Coe traces his melancholic subject's wartime childhood, undergraduate days at London University and determined efforts to launch himself as a writer. With at times overindulgent empathy, Coe charts Johnson's professional frustrations, uncovering a singular style of exasperation in Johnson's bemoaning of British literary traditionalism and stubborn defenses of his commitment to avant-garde formalism (his novels feature black pages, holes cut into pages, and unbound pages to be read in random order). Coe also traces the genesis of some of Johnson's bizarre superstitions, such as his narcissistic identification with Christopher Marlowe. Avoiding psychobabble, Coe discerns pathological tendencies in Johnson's deep attachment to his beautiful mother and in the peculiarly intense lifelong grudge he bore a college girlfriend who jilted him. Reproducing generous extracts from Johnson's novels and more autobiographical poems, Coe perhaps hopes to attract new readers to Johnson's work; as many readers will be repelled as will be intrigued. (May) FYI: Coe's new novel, The Closed Circle, will be published by Knopf in May. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Critical analysis varies regarding Bryan S. Johnson (1933-73), British novelist, poet, playwright, scriptwriter, and book reviewer. He was a connoisseur of language, often ingenious and certainly experimental, and his work was for the most part unattractive to the commercial market. He believed that "telling stories is telling lies," that novels should impart the truth, with no invented plots or characters. This thinking spurred such avant-garde projects as a book with holes cut through its pages and an unbound novel published in a box and intended to be read in no particular order. Such extremism also extended to the artist's personal life, in which he was contrary, inflexible, and largely tormented. In 1973, suffering from depression and alcohol abuse after his wife, Virginia, left with their two children, he took his own life. British novelist Coe (The House of Sleep) uses Johnson's letters, as well as extracts from his poems, articles, and screenplays, to deliver a finely detailed profile of the man and the writer. At long last, Johnson, an author of literary merit, receives well-deserved recognition. First published to critical acclaim in the United Kingdom in 2004, this is recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780826417350
Publisher:
Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date:
04/28/2005
Pages:
496
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.27(h) x 1.36(d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Coe is one of Britain's finest contemporary novelists. He is most well-known for What A Carve Up! (published in the US as The Winshaw Legacy), The House of Sleep, and The Rotters' Club. His seventh novel, The Closed Circle, will be published by Knopf in May 2005.

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