B.S. Johnson, Zulfikar Ghose, Vanessa Guignery (ed.), The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, cloth hb, 457pp + xxiv pp, ISBN 978 1 4438 7266 9
Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) and Zulfikar Ghose (b. 1935) were fellow writers who achieved success in the London literary scene of the 1960s. They came into contact with each other in 1959, while still English undergraduates. They entered into a correspondence about the editing of Ghose’s university literary journal, a dialogue that developed into a close alliance, partly epistolary because although they both lived in London at the same time, they also lived apart for periods. This volume collects all the surviving letters, cards and telegrams between the pair, covering the years 1959 to 1973.
B.S. Johnson is once again fairly well known. He achieved professional respect, modest sales and occasional (brief) notoriety as a writer of mildly avant-garde fiction, verse and drama. His first novel was published in 1963 and in the following decade he produced a substantial amount of fiction, drama and prose (much of sports journalism and literary criticism). He covered the 1966 football World Cup for The Observer and The Times of India. He wrote and directed a number of short films and television programmes. His most notable works are novels employing avant-garde techniques, such as text in parallel columns, holes cut into pages and blank and patterned pages. The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of 27 loose sections in a box, to be read – aside from sections marked “first” and “last” – in any order.
Johnson was vociferous in his advocacy of Modernism and experimental techniques in preference to more traditional narrative plot and ostensible realism. He compared the novelist’s position to that of an architect’s, saying that it was dishonest to work as if Modernist innovations had never taken place. It was the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to embody the intellectual developments of his era in formal characteristics of prose. Johnson could be dogmatic and intemperate on this matter, though he could also be generous to fellow writers and his left-wing principles steered him towards occasional collective action and attempts to better the lot of authors who made their living from their work. It is clear from the progression of the novels, as well as from various letters and articles, that at least by the 1972 Johnson felt he had reached a point of exhaustion in his pursuit of technical novelty. Indeed, it seemed clear that his rigid view that “telling stories is telling lies” had left him with only his own life to mine for material, which he had exhausted by the time he finished his last novel.
See the Old Lady Decently (posthumously published in 1975) was an admission of Johnson’s exhaustion It was a reconstruction of his mother’s life, drawn partially from interviews. He had reached the limits of usable material from his own life and struggled to assemble a disjointed assemblage of aspects from his own life and that of his mother. He interpolated fragments of his experience writing the book into the book and thereby became drawn into a web of self-reference and self-absorption that was denser than ever. Writing about writing is dull stuff, largely. As a chronicler of ordinary life, Johnson could see that the subject of See the Old Lady Decently was writing itself, an arid area destined to become ever more self-regarding. The novel was to be part of a trilogy but Johnson understood the line he was pursuing was exhausted, not least because he had already quarried his own life for material in previous novels. He did not write the subsequent two books planned and died shortly after delivering the manuscript of the first to his publisher; See the Old Lady Decently has never been republished.
It could be argued that technical novelty was actually impeding Johnson. He was in danger of being known – when he was known at all by the reading public – as a producer of literary gimmicks. It is the case that some of his novels were very slight in terms of narrative substance. More substantial characters, denser stories, more complete back stories to indicate motivation – all of these would have made Johnson’s novels more satisfying. It is possible that Johnson’s devices would have proved even more taxing to readers if the books had been longer. Johnson was often writing under the pressure of deadlines because of his contracts and he was hamstrung by his ideological position resisting pure invention. Seven novels, two collections of poems and a number of play and film scripts written in the curse of a decade was a relatively demanding production rate for an author who had additionally to write a fair quantity of journalism and who involved himself in the life of his young family.
Johnson’s novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) are rewarding and memorable novels, which are largely successful as literature. What stands out in these books is not so much the technical experimentation – which is often quite modest and to a degree peripheral to the overall experience of reading the novels – but the clarity of writing, the author’s intelligence and sensitivity, the memorable images and humour. The formal innovations do not distract from the substance of the novels. Other nouvelle roman novelists could be much more ambitious than Johnson, whose attachment to radical formalism was tempered by a desire to reach a mass audience. Johnson wanted to have a readership comparable to that for the novels of James Joyce and the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett. Johnson was always ready to promote his books and to be interviewed. He frequently made suggestions to his publishers and agents about how to market his books. He wanted to be a respected novelist, earn a living from royalties and advances alone and also maintain intellectual credibility. That he managed to sustain all of these three to a degree (however erratically or uncertainly) is a measure of Johnson’s skill and tenacity. However, depressed by the death of his mother and marital difficulties and anxious about the relative commercial failure of his books and – most importantly – frustrated by the apparent dead-end he had reached in his literary work, Johnson took his own life in November 1973. His reputation ebbed over the following decades, with most of books out of print, and it was only with the republication of some of his novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Johnson reached a new generation. It seems unlikely that the revival of Johnson’s reputation will extend to his poetry. This minor revival was aided by an intelligent and sympathetic biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), by Jonathan Coe.
Zulfikar Ghose is less known to general British readers, though he was a highly regarded young poet in the 1960s, frequently anthologised and widely published. Many readers while approach this volume of correspondence knowing some of Johnson’s novels and perhaps nothing at all of Ghose’s writings. Ghose was born in Sialkot, India (later Pakistan) and moved to London in the late 1940s. He later read English at the Keele University. His poems were published from the late 1950s onwards and his first novel (The Contradictions) appeared in 1966. His writing style displays greater diversity than Johnson’s, ranging from formally experimental Modernism to more traditional narrative realism. Ghose has rejected the label as a diaspora or post-colonial writer, although some of his early subjects included topics related to his country of origin.
Ghose was more successful as a poet than Johnson was, though no jealousy is apparent in the correspondence. After earning a living as a teacher, Ghose was offered a position in the English department of the University of Texas at Austin, where he moved in 1969. He has been resident in Texas since then. Like Johnson, Ghose wrote sports journalism, including cricket reports for The Observer. He visited Brazil with his Brazilian wife and wrote three novels based on his experiences there (The Incredible Brazilian (1972-8)). His extensive literary friendships generated a large body of correspondence, some of which is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the British Library. His relocation to Texas has probably contributed to the decline of Ghose’s current profile in Britain.
Johnson and Ghose collaborated a number of times: first on Ghose’s university literary review, later on some pieces of journalism, a book of short stories (Statement Against Corpses (1964)), an unpublished book of social satire and some unrealised projects. Johnson and Ghose’s poetry was published together alongside the poems of Gavin Ewart in the Penguin Modern Poets series (1975). These projects form many of the subjects the pair discussed by letter.
One of the pleasures of this collection of correspondence is discovering Ghose as a writer. Any reader of Johnson’s novels and biography already knows his topics, prosodic rhythm and idioms, which are to be found in abundance in these letters. The biography has mined this correspondence so thoroughly that one recognises many passages word for word. What one discovers in Ghose’s letters is an opinionated and vigorous commentator on literature – especially of his time – who is struggling to make a living as a writer. The publication of this correspondence may stimulate Johnson fans to read Ghose’s books.
This collection consists of all surviving letters from Ghose to Johnson present in the Johnson archive at the British Library (donated by Johnson’s widow, Virginia) and letters from Johnson to Ghose present in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas (donated by Ghose). In addition to the letters and cards, there are poems by Johnson and Ghose about each other, a statement about Ghose’s writing by Johnson dating from 1967, Ghose’s memoir entitled “Bryan” (originally published in 1985) and an interview with Ghose by this volume’s editor (originally published in 2013). There are extensive indices.
The letters are organised chronologically. The first letter is from Ghose to Johnson, dated 6 March 1959. Johnson’s letters from January 1961 to late 1962 are missing. The letters divide roughly equally in terms of proportion per writer. Most were typed, with a number of postcards being handwritten. No item is reproduced in facsimile except the telegram of 17 November 1973 notifying Ghose of Johnson’s death, which concludes the correspondence.
The initial subject of letters is literary editing. Both Johnson and Ghose edited student journals and anthologies and exchanged opinions or asked for recommendation. Some names which come up will be familiar while others are of writers now forgotten. The pair wrote about literature in general. There is a mutual aversion to Movement writers, a distrust of Eliot’s verse drama and scepticism towards many of the big literary names of the era. Ghose grew to admire contemporary American writers while Johnson was most attached to Joyce and Beckett.
Johnson greatly admired Beckett and frequently described him as the greatest living writer. When he had the chance, he contacted Beckett and became a correspondent and friendly acquaintance, visiting Beckett when he was in Paris. It is interesting that no letters from Beckett to Johnson are included in the four volumes of Beckett letters, though there are letters to others recommending Johnson as a worthy recipient of literary awards and prizes. Johnson credited Beckett’s intervention as instrumental in getting Christie Malry published in America. Upon learning of Johnson’s death, Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell, Johnson’s agent.
Thanks for yours of 14.
I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.
I have had a brief card from Virginia.
I missed T.C. in Paris.
It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.
(“T.C.” is “telephone call”, a reference to the fact that Johnson attempted (and failed) to contact Beckett by telephone several times in the days before his suicide.)
Johnson retained – and often seemed to nurture – a class-based resentment of successful middle-class writers. As the child of a working-class family, the first of his family to receive a university education, Johnson had the aspiration to be accepted by a literary class composed largely of middle-class writers and was quick to ascribe professional slights against him to class snobbery. Not that Johnson wasn’t a snob. He could be dismissive of people, books and social trends that did not conform with his views and his inflexibility on political and artistic matters seems very much the product of personal insecurity. Johnson simultaneously wanted to be accepted into a social set that he resented while experiencing a degree of guilt at his inevitable separation from his roots. One reason for Johnson’s idealisation of Wales, which he visited many times, must have been its apparent lack of class distinctions – not apparent to him at least.
Taking sides – even inventing sides if no clear distinction was visible – was a way of making social issues and art adversarial, a kind of moral dialectical football match between progressives and conservatives. It gave Johnson a purpose but it was an approach which inevitably isolated him and caused resentment among colleagues and people who potentially might have supported his writing. Johnson became belatedly politically involved when the Conservative party gained power in the general election of 1970. As a left-winger, he was ambivalent about Communism following visits to Eastern Bloc countries as part of cultural delegations. He found the systems of government oppressive and absurd but he admired the respect that literature was held in by the general public.
Johnson was resentful of the advantages graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had in the literary world and willing to bludgeon perceived enemies as relying on social ties to advance themselves beyond the levels their talents (or lack thereof) befitted them to. Ghose made few such comments. Ghose never mentions racial or religious prejudice in the letters, finding a lack of Oxfordian connections more of a hindrance than any resistance to his Pakistani heritage.
One of the most prominent characteristics of this correspondence is the humour. The writers shared a common mordant sense of humour and exchanged jokes and limericks they had encountered or invented. Upon learning that her husband would be receiving compensatory damages for libel, Virginia Johnson told him that she wanted to use the money to buy a freezer. “Freezer a jolly good fellow,” Johnson commented. On another occasion, school pupils were asked the meaning of “fructify”, to which one pupil muttered “Fructify I know”.
In the letters, the pair rate brands of typewriters (Olympia poor, Olivetti good) and pass on family news (they attended dinner parties at each other’s homes when they lived in London). There is relatively little literary gossip outside of tips and warnings regarding editors, publishers and agents that the pair dealt with professionally. Current affairs do not get much of a look in. Letters sent by Ghose from Brazil and India, and by Johnson from Paris, are richer in description and more informative about their daily lives than their usual letters.
We were almost killed in a car crash exactly a month ago in the wilderness of the state of Goias on our way back from Brasilia. We did the daft thing of going on a dirt road at night , were chased by a a lorry, misjudged a narrow wooden bridge, took it on two wheels and were going careering down into the river but were halted by a tree, which, saving us, made a concertina of the front of the car. I chipped a front tooth and that was all the personal damage.
Ghose to Johnson, 8 February 1967
Cars became a recurrent topic between them. They shared recommendations and comparisons of vehicles.
The main subject of their discussions is their writing. They exchanged newly written poems and stories and sent copies of books, expecting the other to comment honestly and constructively. Although they lived in London at the same time and met frequently, writing letters in privacy allowed them to set out clearly their responses to texts. Their comments are often technical, to do with metre or stress. Although many of the suggestions are minor, the writers did not shy away from criticising whole poems or books. The friendship relied upon candour and expertise depended on complete openness about the writer’s reservations regarding a piece of writing. Readers will often not have access to the poems analysed in these letters, though some poems are included in the body of the letters. Johnson’s novels are easily found, Ghose’s less so.
The pair were equally supportive and critical about each other’s writings, though generally in sympathy. Johnson was liable to be more dogmatic on literary questions.
Ghose’s savage criticism of Johnson’s script Whose Dog Are You Anyway? is a dispassionate dissection. The script was for an anti-clerical stage drama written by Johnson. The script was rejected and has never been performed complete, though extracts have been staged. Ghose’s comments bear quoting at length:
I did not like it. I thought the subject-matter merited a short essay but not a full-length play. It is certainly brave of you to try and write a play about a general idea and the play is probably new in this respect, having no story or character involvement; but such an attempt ought to be either wildly funny or devastatingly aggressive in its use of language, and it is neither; it ought to punch the audience in its stomach, but it does not do so. It is only mildly amusing, too often the humour seemed to be weak. At some points you say in your directions that the audience will laugh; I did not do so nor could imagine myself doing so given the performance. I noticed, too, that at one point you leave the actors to invent their own joke; I don’t trust that and it makes me suspect, maybe wrongly, that you couldn’t be bothered to invent one yourself. For I’ve never known you to leave the slightest detail to anyone else. […]
I don’t expect a PhD disputation, but I do expect lively writing and a really convincing refutation, a once-and-for-all balls to god. Instead the dialogue had a bored air about it, the feeling that we’ve-been-through-it-before; this may well be your intention, but to the theme of the play this situation is an important one and you should have dealt with it with fierce rhetoric. The argument is valid, but its statement is without force. […]
The whole thing is too loose. From the moment when the MC begins to talk about normal and abnormal to the Evangelist’s speeded up insanity, I get the impression that you’re not being tough enough with your language; and intellectually, it’s less than a satisfactory performance.
Ghose to Johnson, 19 July 1967
Johnson responded with a mixture of despondent acceptance and exculpatory defensiveness. To the comment about allowing actors to invent dialogue he replied: “You must accept that (a) actors will not do exactly as you intended”. This is an evasion Samuel Beckett would not have given a second’s consideration to. “The main thing that upset me was your pointing out that the language wasn’t up to my usual standards […]” He admitted he was bored by the writing and that “I don’t have the rhetoric it wants”, implying that the play was an ultimately futile endeavour, as subsequent commentators have agreed it to be. It is more than a little unfair that many readers – perhaps a majority – will be more familiar with an unpublished and unperformed minor play by Johnson than they will be with perhaps any published novel of Ghose’s.
As the correspondence reaches the early 1970s, Johnson’s frustration with the publishing world in general and his career in particular becomes evident.
Did you know they’ve turned down my SELECTED SHORTER PROSE? Irresponsible publishing, I called it, and he got very annoyed. They did not even bother to discuss the book with me – just turned it down.
Johnson to Ghose, 25 September 1970
I’ve just about surfaced after a long (well, four months) period of financial depression, which gave me other sorts of depression as well. I was cheated out of directing a film for which I’d done the script on the understanding I’d be seriously considered to direct it.
Johnson to Ghose, 31 October 1971
Increasingly concerned about supporting his family on his earnings from writing, Johnson considered returning to school teaching. Ghose attempted to arrange for Johnson to take a position of visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, a plan which fell through. We can witness Ghose’s concern for his friend and the equanimity with which he treated Johnson’s rare outbursts of rancour in these letters.
As for The Writing Centre of Great Britain, I shall be pleased to be made its head at £50,000 a year, since I am best qualified. But I shall give one lecture a year, if I think so, on a subject of my own choosing, to last no longer than three seconds. I’m a writer, not a teacher.
Johnson to Ghose, 13 June 1972
With (infallible) hindsight we can see Johnson’s accelerating slide towards the point of extinction. Yet Johnson’s jocose morbidity takes on a suicidal cast only in retrospect and there is much here that – had Johnson’s career taken a slightly different turn and had he lived longer – would seem no more severe than Larkin’s pessimistic rationalisations in his letters.
Readers will be left with the impression of a close bond of friendship and a frank exchange of intellectual ideas between two accomplished writers, serious about not only their craft but also their subjects.
As a publication of literary correspondence, this volume has serious flaws.
The editing of the volume leaves a lot to be desired. Meaningless misspellings such as “libary” and “silverbich” are retained, as is “out [sic] magazine” instead of a silent correction to “our” or “[our]”. “BFI” is best altered to “BFI [British Film Institute]” or written as a footnote rather than the intrusive “B[ritish]F[ilm]I[nstitute]”. Famous figures are given footnotes but some obscure ones are missed. Some obvious and unimportant slips go unremarked upon while others merit footnotes or “[sic]” insertions. Readers will be puzzled to see authors’ handwritten notes made on typewritten letters printed as footnotes rather than as part of the main letter text itself. (Or included in the text – the editing is consistently inconsistent.)
This volume ought to have been either a reading edition (silent corrections or corrections in parenthesis) or a critical edition (transcribed verbatim). Instead, it is an awkward mixture. We don’t get the authors in a fluently readable form because we stumble across intrusive annotation; at the same time, we wonder about what might have been silently corrected. Annotations are inconsistent, sometimes being placed later in the text than the first appearance of that reference or abbreviation. Common abbreviations of titles of Johnson’s work go unaltered, expanded or subject to footnotes, apparently at random.
Every editor must decide his/her methodology dependent upon an assessment of whether the letters under consideration will be read sequentially or individually. It is reasonable – with a group as cohesive as this – that readers will read the Johnson-Ghose letters sequentially and subsequently consult letters in isolation while retaining some familiarity. The methodology should therefore have been formulated accordingly, which it has not been. What the exact methodology is is unclear. There is no editorial procedure described in this book. Contrast this with the exemplary methodologies in the Beckett and Hemingway volumes.
Aside from a flawed methodology – and the inconsistent application thereof – there are some obvious editorial errors. Residents of Ruthin, Denbighshire will be crestfallen to read of Johnson’s visit to “Ruthkin, Denbigshire” in the footnotes.
These matters could have been avoided had there been a firm hand on the editorial tiller – or a clearer and rationalised methodology – and the employment of a competent proof-reader. Do not take from these comments that the editing is terrible. It is not. It is adequate but illogical, suffering frequent lapses and has an unsettling inconsistency which gives the attentive reader a vague unease about what has been missed, omitted and silently changed. This is a common problem in editions of texts that fall between the reading edition and the critical edition. While the substance of the volume is of great interest and a satisfying read, it is not – despite the impression given by the commentary, annotation, indices and presentation – close to critical-edition standard.
Finally, the binding deserves comment. This collection of correspondence is a valuable source of information not only about the writers but British print journalism, poetry and author-agent-publisher relations in the period covered and as such will be a reference work consulted for many decades to come. The imprint is an academic one and care has been taken to make the volume as comprehensive as possible. This shows that the editor and publishers understand that the volume is intended as a lasting reference work. The book is priced highly, as academic books generally are. However, while the hardcovers and binding in cloth (a silky black cloth) are sturdy and attractive, the pages are perfect bound not signature bound. Perfect binding is much less durable than signature binding. Furthermore, perfect-bound pages are generally not repairable if the internal spine splits; signature-bound pages can easily be repaired and re-bound. For a reference work intended to last many decades (and priced commensurately), perfect binding is entirely inappropriate. It is a production decision made to cut costs, one that will disappoint purchasers.
19 January 2017
[i] Quoted by Alan Burns, “Two chapters from a book provisionally titled “Human Like the Rest of Us: A Life of B. S. Johnson”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997. Reproduced on www.bsjohnson.co.uk