Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson

English fiction of the post-war period is a series of roads not so much less-travelled as roadblocked off. Quite a few of those roads exist in the ever inventive work of B.S. Johnson. Periodically, we are encouraged to read Johnson, but I wonder if more than a few people actually do? Yet, if you pick up Jonathan Coe's biography, "Like a Fiery Elephant" (a description given to the Albert character by one of the schoolchildren in "Albert Angelo"), you need also to read the work.

"Albert Angelo" was his second novel and deconstructs the very form. Published in 1964, Johnson uses the (many) tools in his arsenal to tell a simple story in a multi-dimensional way. For Johnson all fiction is a version of a lie, but rather than leave it at that, he both gives us a conventional narrative (albeit seen from a number of different angles) and then exposes the lie. Yet, this is no mere gimmick. We've surely got over the idea that novelty in fiction "doesn't last", after all, Tristram Shandy is still with us, and the contemporary novel can sometimes seem to deserve every adjective other than "novel." Albert is an architect manque struggling with his designs for buildings that never get built, whilst affording a cheap lifestyle through the horrors of being a supply teacher. Recovering (or not recovering) from rejection by a girlfriend who Johnson has punningly called Jenny Taylor, (get it?), Albert (Mr. Albert, or Albert Albert, we are never entirely sure), resents visiting his parents, resents the education system that sends him from one underwhelming Secondary Modern to another, and most of all resents his own misery.

Of course, an architect should find work, but there's a clever humour in the chosen profession that he cannot quite follow, for Albert is a poet of architectural design. He tours a begotten post-war London looking for gems of Georgian, Victorian or later architecture, whilst despairing at the awfulness of the new Sadlers' Wells. In his classes he struggles with a worsening disorder amongst unruly pupils that could almost have been written today in the aftermath of the riots - students who can't write, and don't care that they can't; teachers who have given up; and an education system that seems to deliberately want it that way. The late 50s/early 60s of Johnson's imagination is carefully wrought, and puts into perspective contemporary writers who write about the period through a tinge of nostalgia.

Like Burgess, he takes after Joyce in wanting to show all of life, and only wishes he could not just describe but let you experience life. It is the paradox of "Ulysses", that by showing us our "reality", we look away, not recognising the methods that are needed to tell it. Yet, Johnson's world is nothing if not plainly wrought. A visit to see Chelsea (then as now, a mix of the tawdry and the talented) is described as minutely as the tortures of his school life. It's perhaps worth saying that we're further away now from my school days, than they were from the world Johnson depicts. The failed relationship with Jenny is the pain that keeps hurting for Albert, and stops him from moving on, even as he romanticises the relationship. Faced with an unruly class, he's daydreaming of an idyllic camping trip where they were at their best together. As he pulls himself together the pupils notice his erection under his trousers. But Johnson wants to not only write about sex, but about semen, about menstruation. Why, he seems to be asking, can't these experiences make the page, as well as others? Aren't they what makes us human?

Trawling round London late at night, sex seems infinitely possible, and love impossibly so; this is the world of Dennis Potter's "Lipstick on Your Collar". Like Burgess;s Droogs in "A Clockwork Orange" his teenage scoundrels are both demons and potent symbols of what the writer can no longer be; yet the pupils are drawn with some warmth. Johnson, one feels, was a good teacher, even if the litany of descriptions that Albert's pupils give his fictional surrogate say otherwise. School then was a mixture of sadism and crowd control, leavened on occasion by the passions of the odd teacher, or the attentiveness of a rare pupil.

This part of the novel (called "Development" - another part of Johnson's deconstruction) is a carnival of different styles and perspectives trying - and in many way succeeding - in giving a genuine picture of the somewhat tawdry world he's describing. There are some parts which haven't travelled; a joke about a tramp being asked by a prostitute if he has a (French) "letter" for protection uses a phrase that's now forty years out of common currency; black characters have "negroid features". Yet, there's a strange modernity to it all. Johnson is of our age, after all, the Beatles were already moving on from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." His pupil's most frequent criticism of Albert is that he should "cut his hair." Here is the small town FE lecturer of "Lucky Jim", but in world that is far from as comic as Kingsley Amis made out. The techniques that are most radically realised, are probably not the infamous hole cut through a page, but in the new openness that "art" could embrace at that period. The sixties may have been good for Johnson, if he'd been a decade younger. Like Potter, or Burgess, there's the regret of sexual opportunities not readily available. The book is explicit, sweary, ribald; it's after all, after the Chatterley ban, even if the Lord Chamberlain is still censoring the theatre.

For Johnson, for Albert, we have a world that has no room for dreamers, no room for romantics, and the answer seems to be to just "accept." If the format of the contemporary English novel was complicit in that acceptance, then Johnson's stylistic experiments make so much sense. Telling us what his lies actually are("she wasn't called Jenny", "that story was my fathers",) seems not so much another layer of artifice as technique to make us question all stories, even the ones we make up ourselves. How rosey are our spectacles? Reading "Albert Angelo" seems to take us back to a recognisable world, not too different than our own. It's owning up to its poetic licence, gives it a veracity. Like Lee Rourke's recent "The Canal", the distinct place names of a village-y London transplant us firmly to a place and time. To be read in our time, a novel doesn't need to have been read in its time, and Johnson had a tiny audience, a tiny influence; yet it reads - not so much as a period piece - but as an important document. Without being explicitly a "youth" novel like "The Outsider", Johnson is an angry enough young man, and, from this distance, seems far less compromised than Kingsley Amis, for instance. We don't revere our cult books in the same way as we do American writers, yet Johnson's mundane supply teacher is not so far removed from Bukowski's post office worker, after all.

Why read B.S. Johnson? Well, I was looking for a palliative after some of the recent contemporary-historical novels I've read, and it proved an efficacious one.
Also, there's a must-attend Johnson retrospective as part of this year's Manchester literature festival. Though his life and character are interesting, it is what he does in his books, and that's the writing as much as the parlour tricks, that makes him so vital, the best part of three decades after his death.

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