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Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  244 Ratings  ·  23 Reviews
In his heyday, during the 1960s and early 1970s, B. S. Johnson was one of the best-known young novelists in Britain. A passionate advocate for the avant-garde in both literature and film, he became famous -- not to say notorious -- both for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his idiosyncratic ways of putting them into practice. But in November 1973 Joh ...more
Paperback, 486 pages
Published June 17th 2005 by Picador (first published 2004)
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Paul Bryant
The Painful and Instructive Case of B S Johnson, who never saw a Garde he didn't want to Avant

There's a very interesting strand of literary biography emerging these days and this is a great example. Another of this type would be Roger Lewis' crazy Anthony Burgess and Norman Sherry's three-part, 2251-page bio of Graham Greene. In these biographies the biographer himself appears on the page, he shows you around, he moans about the lack of information about those crucial months in 1951, he tells yo
MJ Nicholls
As writers, we are overly conscious of our foibles and traits: where we see ourselves on the great graph of dysfunction. On the page, I have walked the perilous road of selfconscious indulgence, of postmodern pretention. I have written dozens of stories, and two novels, that collapse into self-referential revelation: pure spits of Johnson’s own plea: FUCK ALL THIS LYING! I have stepped onto the stage like a shy schoolboy and told my embarrassed audience: “I have nothing to say except how much I ...more
Jan 10, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Unlucky (early) in love and unlucky in career (minor fame, piss-poor book sales), B. S. Johnson was lucky, very lucky, in biographer. Jonathan Coe’s justly acclaimed biography is a wonderful, insightful, measured, respectful, yet unflinching look at the life of England’s experimental novelist and gadfly of the 60s and very early 70s. Johnson was more than a bit of a paradox, a reactionary member of the avant garde, conservative in many things but not in politics or art. He lived with a chip on h ...more
Robert Ronsson
Jun 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, top-ten
Before I read this book I had never heard of BS Johnson. I vaguely remember something about ‘a book in a box’ where the chapters where bound separately and could be read in any order but I didn’t know the author’s name.
I am a fan of Jonathan Coe’s novels. My first experience of his work was ‘What a Carve Up!’ and I recognised several elements in its structure and plotline that made me regard the author as a soulmate. His other novels: House of Sleep, Rotters Club, The Closed Circle and The Rain
Jan 27, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
It's a bit strange reading a biography of a writer whose work you have never read. In fact if it wasn't for Jonathan Coe being one of my favourite writers, I'd never even have heard of BSJ.

This is an intriguing biography, as unconventional as its subject. It took Coe years to write, and he became quite enmeshed in Johnson's strange life. He was an odd man. Staggeringly rude to publishers who failed to recognise his self-evident genius, he often started on projects only to have them rejected. As
Apr 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Bryan Stanley Johnson did not write ordinary novels so it’s fitting that this is no ordinary biography. Jonathan Coe unfurls the life of BS Johnson through summaries of his work, extracts from the author’s novels, poems, articles and correspondence and selected interview statements from people close to our Bryan.Despite publishing seven novels the term “fiction” must be used with caution where Johnson is concerned. His mantra was “telling stories is telling lies” and his attempts to present the ...more
Steph Bennion
Apr 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This is best biography I've read to date. B.S. Johnson comes across as a man full of inner conflicts (even if he did come across as a bit arrogant at times) and as an important yet sadly overlooked literary icon who worked hard at pushing the novel into new forms. Jonathan Coe is also one of my favourite writers and this biography is a fitting tribute and a well-researched book about the man. This is highly recommended for anyone who likes writer biographies.
Apr 16, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Amazingly, this biography was so good that I was gripped all the way through, even though Johnson wasn't that great a writer and didn't seem like a particularly nice man. It's his high ambitions and his failures to achieve them that are so touching and compelling, both as a writer and as a person. And that's Coe's focus - this isn't a hagiography, but a study of the goals that Johnson set himself and the extent to which he did or didn't achieve them.
An interesting style in biography, seemingly bridging the formal gap between literary criticism and literary biography, as well as rich in authorial interaction with the subject. Coe, however, seems to fall short in a few places, leaving much of Johnson's biography untouched, and much criticism of his works unrefined. The product is, as Johnson himself despised as a label for his work, experimental, albeit interesting.
James Smythe
Apr 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My favourite biography of all time.
Deniz Erol
Dec 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The is literally the perfect book.
Mar 04, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: didntfinish
didn't finish it. but it did make me think a bit about johnson and the life of an experimental novelist... and, like pound sd to williams: "you don't have to finish everything--don't tell people i said so."

skimmed though. and did check the index and read all the entries where beckett comes up. (he comes off rather well.)

one of the main conflicts in the book, introduced in full self-awareness in an early chapter, is coe's conflict, his torturedness even, about the traps and hypocrisies of writing
Aaron (Typographical Era)

“Like A Fiery Elephant” is the best biography ever written about the life of Bryan Stanley Johnson, but I immediately know what you’re thinking; who?

From the introduction, where Coe explains how he first encountered the work of B.S. Johnson and declares:

“It seems, nowadays, that literature is discussed more than ever before; but at the same time, it has never been less valued.”

to the chilling reveal in the closing chapter of the book titled “Coda,” Coe c
Sep 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
It's very hard to think of a more accomplished biography than this one and much of that is down to Coe, who proves to be a sensitive narrator of Johnson's life and legacy.

On the basis of my reading of The Unfortunates and Christie Malry's Own Double Entry alone, the author's obscure reputation is indeed undeserved and it's heartening to know that the publication of Coe's study a few years back led to a reappraisal of the man's literary standing - even if, as my friend Grace McInnes remarks,
Nov 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm still trying to get over this. I've been borderline obsessed w/ this book for the past 5 days and now that it's finished I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Well, that's not true, I need to read fuckin' Paradise Lost for uni, but then what?

Honestly, this has kind of revolutionised the way I think about writing. Not wholly thanks to BSJ himself, but J. Coe instead. LAFE is probably the best character study I've ever read (because it's true, I'm sure BSJ would be very quick to point out) and th
Derek Baldwin
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Apart from passing references, and having vaguely heard of the novel published loose-leaf in a box, I knew nothing of B S Johnson before reading this absorbing and very moving biography. By the time the text ended, with the sadly inevitable denouement followed by the deeply affecting "44 voices" memorial section and the lost fragments at the very end, I felt that I had really come to know him. Johnson is captured in great detail, humanely but honestly, his faults and foibles and paranoia are not ...more
As a biography it's structurally interesting (as are many of Coe's novels), but I'm not into B.S. Johnson. His life seems kind of interesting, but his work? Sounds like an old-fashioned schoolboy over his head in trying to impress everyone with his wit. Old-fashioned as in bordering on Monty Python-esque indifference to racism and sexism (the political issues of his day?).

I guess what I was interested in with this biography were the contradictions between his perception of himself/his work and
Aug 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A literary biography of experimental British writer B.S. Johnson in which the author mimics some of Johnson’s stylistic tricks and fragmented writing in telling his subject’s story. Entertaining and informative.
Jan 28, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fittingly for the subject a biography written in a completely different format. Has prompted me to get hold of some of his work and read them properly.
Feb 21, 2016 rated it liked it
I nearly gave up on this, but persevered. It was reasonably interesting, although a very dense read.
Gerry Vogel
Oct 30, 2008 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Strange man.
Stephen Bywater
Jan 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fantastic biography which switched me onto B S Johnson. Thank you.
Meisen Wong
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Kevin Biggers
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Chris Sawle
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James Barry
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Matthew Iles
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Thrown With Great Force
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Jonathan Coe, born 19 August 1961 in Birmingham, is a British novelist and writer. His work usually has an underlying preoccupation with political issues, although this serious engagement is often expressed comically in the form of satire. For example, What a Carve Up! rew
More about Jonathan Coe...

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