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The future of the novel depends on people like B. S. Johnson.

—Anthony Burgess

B.S. Johnson

B.S. Johnson was an English experimental novelist, poet, and critic.

B.S. Johnson (1933–1973) was born in Hammersmith, England, and aside from World War II, during which he was an evacuee, lived in London for most of his life. His first novel, Travelling People, won the Gregory Award for 1963. In a preface to the book, he wrote, "I decided that one style for one novel was a convention I resented most strongly: it was perhaps comparable to eating a meal in which each course had been cooked in the same manner. The style of each chapter should spring naturally from its subject matter." Thus Travelling People employs eight separate styles for its nine chapters, including a letter, journal extracts, and a film script. One chapter contains the interior monologue of an old man prone to heart attacks. First the author uses a random grey pattern to indicate sleep or recuperative unconsciousness, and then later, black, when the old man dies. (Most obvious is Johnson’s acknowledged debt to an eighteenth-century predecessor, Laurence Sterne, whose celebrated Tristam Shandy also contained black pages.)

Albert Angelo (1964) employs unusual devices to draw attention to physical descriptions which Johnson felt tended ordinarily to be missed. At one point, the thoughts of a teacher are given on the right hand side of the page in italics, while his pupils’ speech is placed on the left in roman. Albert finds a fortune teller’s card on the street, and the card is not described, but simply reproduced. When a future event is to be revealed, a rectangular hole several lines in length is simply cut through those pages intervening between the prophesy and its fulfillment, so that the event is read in place before the reader actually reaches that point, several pages later in the narrative. (Australian Customs seized Albert Angelo refusing to release the novel until they had been shown the obscenities which, they were convinced, had been excised by the rectangular hole in the text.) 

"In some ways," says Johnson, "the history of the novel in the twentieth century has seen large areas of the old territory of the novelist increasingly taken over by other media, until the only thing the novelist can with any certainty call exclusively his own is the inside of his own skull: and that is what he should be exploring." Trawl (1966), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, is an extended interior monologue where, in order to compensate for an absence of paragraph breaks, the line length is deliberately shortened, giving the book a long narrow format. "The moment at which The Unfortunates (1969) occurred," tells Johnson, "was on the main railway station at Nottingham. I had been sent there to report a soccer match for The Observer [where Johnson was a long-time sports reporter] … I had hardly thought about where I was going, but when I came up the stairs from the platform into the entrance hail, it hit me: I knew this city … It was the city in which a very great friend of mine had lived until his tragic early death from cancer two years before." Throughout the afternoon, the dead past (memories of the friend) and the living present (routine soccer reporting) interact and transpose themselves in a random manner in the author’s mind, as Johnson set out to re-create as nearly as possible a transcript of how his mind worked during that day. The various sections of The Unfortunates were unbound and packed loosely in a box. The sections were of different lengths––some only a third of a page long, others as long as twelve pages. The longer ones were bound into signatures, but each section in itself arrived in the reader’s hands in random order and could be read in any order he liked, thus reflecting the randomness of the material: a tangible metaphor for the randomness and the nature of cancer.

Along with novel writing and sports reporting, B.S. Johnson was the author of two volumes of poetry; one of short stories; Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoir, a collection of nonfiction; the text for a series of photographs; a play, B S Johnson v. God, produced in 1971. He was poetry editor for Transatlantic Review and a Fellow at the University of Wales. Johnson was also a television and film director; his You’re Human Like The Rest Of Them won the Grand Prix at Tours and Melbourne in 1968. At the time of his suicide in 1973, he was at work on a trilogy, the full title of which was to be read across the spine of the three books: See The Old Lady Decently/Buried Although/Amongst Those Left Are You. Only one volume was actually completed.


House Mother Normal

Fiction by B.S. Johnson


House Mother Normal, subtitled “A Geriatric Comedy,” is the English writer B. S. Johnson’s fifth novel. Unusual in both its subject and structure, this novel is a remarkable study of old age, stripped of sentimentality and spiked with bizarre language and perceptions. Made up of eight monologues describing a single day at a nursing home, House Mother Normal explores the failing minds of the elderly with precision, humor, and unflagging compassion, and Johnson achieves, with inventiveness and escalating absurdity, a vivid multidimensional effect.



The Unfortunates

Fiction by B.S. Johnson


Now back in print in a limited quantity, B.S. Johnson’s lost classic has been showered with praise: New York Magazine named The Unfortunates one of their Ten Best Books of 2008, listed in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2008, and The L.A. Times declared it to be “his most daring work.” A legendary 1960s experiment in form, The Unfortunates is B. S. Johnson’s famous “book in a box,” in which the chapters are presented unbound, to be read in any order the reader chooses. A sportswriter, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds himself confronted by ghosts from the past when he disembarks at the train station. Memories of one of his best, most trusted friends, a tragically young victim of cancer, begin to flood through his mind as he attempts to go about the routine business of reporting a soccer match.



Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

Fiction by B.S. Johnson


In a brief but productive career, B.S. Johnson (1933-73) was recognized as the most original of the English experimental writers of his generation. Combining a bellicose avant-gardism with pointed social concerns, he won the praise of critics and fellow writers as well as a readership not usually gained by a literary maverick. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is Johnson’s most broadly humorous book, though as readers will discover, his humor has a bite. Christie is a simple man. His job in a bank puts him next to but not in possession of money. He encounters the principles of Double-Entry Bookkeeping and adapts them in his own dramatic fashion to settle his account with society. Under the column headed "Aggravation" for offenses received from society (the unpleasantness of the bank manager is the first on an ever-growing list), debit Christie; under "Recompense," for offenses given back (scratching the façade of an office block), credit Christie. All accounts are to be settled in full, and they are — in the most alarming way.


Available: May 01 1987


Albert Angelo

Fiction by B.S. Johnson


Why don’t you take a permanent job, Albert? You’re twenty-eight now, you know," his mother remarks when he goes on his weekend duty visit home. Albert Angelo is by vocation an architect and only by economic necessity working as a substitute teacher. He had thought he was, if not dedicated, at least competent. But now, on temporary assignments in schools located in the tough neighborhoods of London, Albert feels ineffectual. He is failing as a teacher and failing to fulfill himself as an architect. And then, too, he is pained by the memory of a failed love affair. "I’m trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth," Johnson insists in the penultimate section of the book when his authorial voice intervenes. Or, as Johan Thielman writes in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, "Johnson is trying to use fiction to reproduce life as closely as possible and, in his inevitable failure to succeed, he extends our notion of the possibilities of the novel...he made a body of work which remains fascinating, not in the least because he achieved one of his main ambitions: to be totally honest...His novels are the moving traces of a passionate devotion to and pursuit of his truth."


Available: May 01 1987