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Modernism’s suicide

Why is the realist novelist Jonathan Coe so taken by the life of experimentalist BS Johnson?

By Julian Evans   June 2004

Book: Like a Fiery Elephant Author: Jonathan Coe Price: (Picador, ?20)

As Britain’s most committed avant-garde novelist of the 1960s and early 1970s, BS Johnson bears a strong resemblance to Wyndham Lewis, who occupied the same position in the 1920s and early 1930s. Both were modernists who were left stranded by modernism. The novels that most coherently manifested BS Johnson’s formal beliefs – The Unfortunates, Trawl and House Mother Normal – made as little popular impact as Lewis’s The Childermass and The Apes of God had 40 years before. The big difference between them was that Lewis wrote two of…

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