B.S. Johnson (1933-1973)
Born into a working class family, Johnson was evacuated from London during World War II and left school at sixteen to work variously as an accounting clerk, bank junior and clerk at Standard Oil Company. However, he taught himself Latin in the evenings, attended a year's pre-university course at Birkbeck College and, with this preparation, managed to pass the university entrance exam for King's College London.
After he graduated with a 2:2, Johnson wrote a series of increasingly experimental and often acutely personal novels that would now be considered visual writing. In his early years he collaborated on several projects with a close friend and fellow writer, Zulfikar Ghose, with whom he produced a joint collection of stories, Statement Against Corpses. Like Johnson's early stories (at least superficially) his first two novels, Travelling People (1963) and Albert Angelo (1964), at first appear relatively conventional in plot terms. However, the first novel uses several innovative devices and includes a section set out as a filmscript. The second includes famously cut-through pages to enable the reader to skip forward. His work became progressively even more experimental. The Unfortunates (1969) was published in a box with no binding (readers could assemble the book any way they liked, apart from the chapters marked 'First' and 'Last' which did indicate preferred terminal points) and House Mother Normal (1971) was written in purely chronological order such that the various characters' thoughts and experiences would cross each other and become intertwined, not just page by page, but sentence by sentence. He won the Eric Gregory literary award in 1962.
Johnson led and associated with a loosely constituted circle of 'experimental' authors in Sixties Britain, which included Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, Ann Quin, Stefan Themerson, and Wilson Harris among others. Many of these figures contributed to London Consequences, a novel consisting of a palimpsest of chapters passed between a range of participating authors and set in London, edited by Margaret Drabble and Johnson. Johnson also made numerous experimental films, published poetry, and wrote reviews, short stories and plays. For many years he was the poetry editor of Transatlantic Review.
He is mentioned several times in Paul Theroux's account of his friendship with V S Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow'.
At the age of 40, increasingly depressed by his failure to succeed commercially, and beset by family problems, Johnson committed suicide by slitting his wrists.
Johnson was largely unknown to the wider reading public at the time of his death, but has a growing cult following. A critically acclaimed film adaptation of the last of the novels published while he was alive, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973), was released in 2000. Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice paid tribute to Johnson on the 2006 Pernice Brothers album Live a Little. Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant (winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson prize) has already led to a renewal of interest in Johnson's work.