the industrious biographer

Jonathan Coe - Like a Fiery Elephant

Something worth reminding ourselves of: literary biography really doesn’t have to be the shabby exercise in academic body-snatching that has the purists and snobs grinding their teeth. Without the slightest whiff of formaldehyde and methanol to incriminate them, resurrectionists with spirits touched to finer issues have served the literary great and good to lasting acclaim. We’d be the worse off, as readers, without Holmes’s Coleridge, Holroyd’s Shaw and Ellmann’s Joyce.

It seems often to be assumed that the biographer has no more exalted a motive than prurience, some psychic kink that makes of the effort something no worthier than a stringer from the News of the Screws rifling through celebrity dustbins. If the trade-off is between perfection of the life or of the work, then it is nonetheless fairly legitimate to ask why anyone – any sane, integrated personality - should choose the latter.

Jonathan Coe is a reluctant detective in his biography of Bryan Stanley Johnson, in any case. A novelist by trade (and by instinct – the knotty problem of truth-telling is one that recurs) Coe wonders aloud at points throughout Like a Fiery Elephant: the Story of B.S. Johnson, whether, perhaps, taken all-in-all, he mightn’t have been better off writing a fictionalised account of Johnson’s life. He is also remarkably candid about these misgivings – the biography’s meta-thesis concerns itself with the essential absurdity of pinning down any life in 600 pages, and constant self-questioning accompanies Coe’s otherwise crisp annotations of the Johnson vita.

But how does he fare, our accidental biographer? Coe places great emphasis on – and an almost-allowable credence in – a supernatural encounter Johnson claimed to have had in his early twenties: delivered only obliquely in diary entries and a short story, it appears to have been a theophany of sorts, in which Johnson was in some sense bound to the White Goddess, an enslavement that was to compromise his sexual relations and, Coe suggests, displayed in the suicidal tendencies Johnson was periodically – and terminally – afflicted by. What are we to make of this? Johnson devoured and, one might say, internalised Robert Graves’ mythographical study The White Goddess, with its core conceit of the poet’s devotion to his Muse and his quasi-hieratic role as her suitor and chamberlain. Johnson’s unassailable self-belief in his literary powers clearly needed some basis. If Coe finds himself at a loss to discover it, he admits as much, at least.

I’m half-inclined to suspect that Johnson was fibbing about his brush with the Moon-goddess, the Mother of All Living. A working-class lad from Hammersmith without the bluechip sanction of an Oxbridge education, his eye would have lit on Graves’ remark, “I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independently recorded his experience of her.” A more authoritative imprimatur no writer could ever have asked for.

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