How close can fiction come to describing reality? The British author BS Johnson embarked on a quest for absolute literary naturalism which ended in his suicide.by Jonathan Coe / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
A cultural organisation recently asked me to take part in a debate on the question: “Is a true literary naturalism possible or even desirable?” The debate took place in France, where they like abstract ideas as much as the British dislike them. And sure enough, true to my national character, I found myself unable to get a handle on the topic unless I resorted to specific examples. I discovered that I could only make sense of the question by telling a story to illustrate it; thereby confirming-no doubt to the audience’s quiet satisfaction-that the British remain a nation of narrators rather than thinkers.
Never mind. It is because we’re good at narration that, whenever you go abroad, people tell you how healthy the novel seems to be in Britain, compared to other European countries. Perhaps this has itself got something to do with naturalism, with our instinct for the texture of ordinary life. Yet if this instinct becomes too dominant, it can lead to a refusal to trust the imagination; and it was an extreme example of this which inspired the story I told in France.
It is a true story. At least, the person who is its subject once lived, and there will be facts in it which can be verified. It is a story about a British author called BS Johnson, who wrote novels in the 1960s and 1970s and was a very unhappy person. At the time, his novels were not widely translated and that was one of the reasons he was unhappy. Another reason for his unhappiness was that he believed that a true literary naturalism was both possible and desirable. Partly as a result of holding this belief, he went mad and killed himself when he was 40 years old.
I know quite a lot about BS Johnson because I have almost finished writing a book about him. He and I are very different people, born into different times, and we are also very different writers. But one of the things we have in common is the similarity between our first novels. His was called “Travelling People” and was published in 1963; mine was called “The Sunset Bell” and has never been published. Both were about university graduates who had been disappointed in love. Both, surprisingly enough, were written by university graduates who had been disappointed in love. In other words, we had both fallen into the classic trap of the first-time novelist: unable to see beyond the boundaries of our own tiny emotional universe, we had wanted to write only about ourselves but, aware that novels were supposed to do something more than that, we had attempted to disguise our insignificant narratives as universal paradigms of the human condition, projecting our own triumphs and disasters onto a hero who was, of course, no more than a thinly disguised version of ourselves.