B S Johnson’s second novel, published in 1964, was Albert Angelo [New York: New Directions, 1964]. It’s a novel for those who like something different from basic linear narratives, despite the fact that its chapters are called Prologue, Exposition, Development, Disintegration and Coda. Albert recounts his life; by vocation an architect but who earns his living as a supply teacher in the post-war London of austerity, bomb sites and general despondency. He isn’t much good as a supply teacher but, as a qualified teacher aged 28, is it surprising his parents think it is time he took on a permanent job?
Being B S Johnson, the author tries out a variety of narrative treatments. As the development gets underway, one column of the page recounts the Geology lesson he is trying to deliver to his class of recalcitrant 13-year-olds just marking time until they reach the school leaving age of fourteen. The other column lets us read, in parallel, his often angry and sometimes despairing thoughts as all this is going on. It is a very credible way of conveying how we all operate on more than one level of consciousness and awareness at the same time. Running through the story is Albert sadness at having lost the one love of his life who has run off with another man. Then he ‘reproduces’ the essays Albert has asked the children to write about what they really think of him. Grim reading if you are Albert.
In Disintegration, Johnson himself addresses the reader and discusses what he has been writing and how much of it might be autobiographical. A recurring theme in Johnson’s writing is that all fiction is made of lies and how all he really wants to write is the ‘truth’.
Very much an experimental writer, Johnson went on in The Unfortunates (1969) to devise a novel in the chapters were sold loose in a box so that, apart from the first and last, they could be read in any order the reader wanted. His biography, Like a Fiery Elephant, brilliantly written by Johnathan Coe, recounts his creative life and early self-inflicted death. You will find the phrase about the fiery elephant in Albert Angelo. Try Johnson; either this book or perhaps Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973). Let me know what you think.