The shock of the everyday: B. S. Johnson's post-war cityscape.

Author:Seddon, Melanie
Position::Book review
 
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Abstract: "The Shock Of The Everyday: B. S. Johnson's Post-War Cityscape." At the beginning of the 1960s, British writer B. S. Johnson's embarked on a project to rework the novel to best serve his time. This essay outlines how, over the course of his first two novels, Johnson navigated his texts away from the internal, reflective and subjective mode of literary modernism to an external one that situated human experience in the shifting imperfect world around. His project is characterized by an unflinching engagement with a developing London, making use of the scarred post-war landscape a catalyst for new literary form. This form evolved by mirroring the practice of New Brutalism--a post-war architectural movement that celebrated the structures and quotidian functioning of a building through a new social-ethics of design. Although in his early novels, Johnson's frequent use of introspection acknowledged his debt to writers such as Joyce, this essay suggests that his geographical and literary explorations had a different intent--to steer the postwar novel out of modernism's "ambit." His characters ambulations recall those of the French Left's reappropriation of the city claiming it as "the space of new subjectivities and political identities." ii In Johnson, we see a reversal of the modernist writer's recoil from the organic city and an early embracing of the cityscape in social, political and material terms as an affective resource of creative inspiration.

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Writing from the late 50s onwards, British novelist B. S. Johnson was part of an in-between generation distanced from high modernism by the legacy of war and years away from the explosive youth movements of the 60s. The Second World War had created a hiatus in European arts and as a consequence, with the waning of the modernist project, the post-war period was pregnant with the possibility of new growth and artistic development. Unfortunately, in the eyes of Johnson the reverse was also true: the relatively recent horrors of war had also encouraged an increased conservatism (1) and protective nostalgia for the reassuring forms of the past. In response, Johnson exasperatedly questioned, "Why then do so many novelists still write as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened, still relying on the crutch of storytelling? Why more damningly for my case you might think, do hundreds of thousands of readers still gorge the stuff to surfeit?" (2) Finding little to inspire him in wider British post-war literary circles and unwilling to sate the appetites of the masses, Johnson embarked on an ambitious novelistic project to re-channel the literary innovation of modernism and prevent a return to the lacklustre conventions of nineteenth-century realism. His vision was of a novel that did not indulge in fiction (which he considered a synonym for 'lies') but contained instead the truth about post-war existence, or what he termed his "truth-to-reality." (3)

This paper outlines how, over the course of his first two novels, Johnson's quest for a literary truth that would best serve his time shifted from the internal, reflective and subjective mode of modernism to an external one that situated human experience in the shifting imperfect world around. Taking the biographical self as a point of origin, I suggest that his project came to be defined by an unflinching engagement with a developing London, making use of the scarred post-war landscape as a catalyst for new literary form. It shall be argued that this form evolved by mirroring the practice of New Brutalism a post-war architectural movement that sought to honestly present the structures and functions of a building through a new social-ethics of design that countered a divisive modernist aesthetic. Although in his early novels, Johnson's urban perspective and frequent use of introspection acknowledged his debt to writers such as Joyce, this essay suggests that Johnson's geographical and literary explorations had a different intent--to steer the post-war novel out of modernism's "ambit." His characters ambulations recall those of the French Left's reappropriation of the city as "the space of new subjectivities and political identities." (4) Finally, through Johnson, we see a reversal of the modernist writer's recoil from the city and an early embracing of the cityscape in social, political and material terms as an affective resource of creative inspiration.

Modernist Beginnings.

Although some thirty years had passed since the heyday of high modernism in both literature and architecture, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe cast long shadows across the mid-century creative landscape. It seems that artists during Britain's post-war period had no choice but to be positioned within what David James terms modernism's "ambit," (5) however much the reality of everyday life was evolving. Life had obviously changed before and the modernist mode had constituted the most recent successful challenge to outmoded representation, rejecting the realist novel's bourgeois investment in clock time, its clutter of superficial external detail and exhaustive examination of social mores. Faced with a rapidly transforming and, at times, overwhelming society, the modernist projection of the world safely sequestered the twentieth-century individual within (in literature) a bubble of consciousness and (in architecture) modular form. With an eye to Jameson, such tactics are seen by Randall Stevenson as "compensatory"--modus operandae that neutralize the dehumanisation of technological advances and compensate "through deeper senses, formal shifts and subtler strategies, for the dehumanising, disintegral pressures of late capitalism on the self." (6) Looking back further, the Romantics had also sought compensation and consolation--but whereas modernists sought refuge in a contained internal world, the Romantics had found respite from the Industrial revolution in the simple life and rhythms of rural man. It was a tactic somewhat adapted by early twentieth-century writers feeling newly isolated in the city, James notes their "long-standing yet uneasy dialogue with the social spaces and struggles of daily life, allowing literary experiments to coincide with the mundane." (7) Here we should note the use of the permissive verb 'allow': elite Bloomsbury deigning to give space to the quotidian and the lowly within its works. The resulting modernist works can be said to "coincide" with the everyday in that they purposely occupy these spaces in order to throw more highly prized psychological explorations into relief. The impulse of modernism remained resolutely toward the interior and as such pre-war Active worlds became mediated by the perceptive filter of the individual consciousness, with style mimicking cerebral processes in streams of consciousness which aimed to '"seize upon' every thought or movement of characters' minds." (8) This compensatory drive was the legacy handed down to writers such as Johnson and we see him exploring its possibilities in his third novel Trawl.

Born in London in 1933, B. S. Johnson looked out on a different vista in which modernity's relentless onward thrust had been stalled by the horrors of two world wars and late capitalism's increasingly intrusive commodification of everyday life was transforming the individual's approach to a material world ripe for wholesale exploitation, be it financial or artistic. Nonetheless, Johnson clung to his literary heroes believing Joyce to be the "Einstein of the novel" but qualified this by noting Joyce's almost entrepreneurial talents in processing a "subject-matter in Ulysses [that] was available to anyone, the events of one day in one place; but by means of form, style and technique in language he made it into something very much more, a novel, not a story about anything?" (9) Here Johnson seems to suggest that Joyce skilfully elevated the novel above a restrictive singular function and enabled it to be re-launched to a new profitable end. Joyce had accessed the newly apparent plurality of a modern life premised on choice and the stylistic innovation of his work was born of the impossibility to convey the stuff of contemporary existence in one mode of production. Johnson claims,

What happens is nothing like as important as how it is written, as the medium of the words and form through which it is made to happen to the reader. And for style alone Ulysses would have been a revolution. Or, rather, styles. For Joyce saw that such a huge range of subject matter could not be conveyed in one style, and accordingly used many. Just in this one innovation (and there are many others) lie a great advance and freedom offered to subsequent generations of writers. (10) The legacy, then, received from this high modernist writer was that of the capitalist democracy--the foregrounding of production and the championing of choice. Joyce's work was seem as representing freedom and multiplicity; a starting point that would prove to be a catalyst for the further development of form. (11) At the same time, the post-war world was revealing that human consciousness was an inadequate refuge from a terrifying outside world that was calling to be remapped and rebuilt. Mid-century being-in-the-world must be honestly re-assessed and the emphasis shifted from a focus on the initial part of the phrase to the later. Consolation would be superseded by consolidation, reappropriation and resistance in an attempt to fuse together the fragmented external and internal world. Whereas both the romantic and modern literary modes engaged in a retreat from the modern urban world, new attempts could perhaps be made to reclaim the space of our being--the cityscapes around.

Travelling People and the recycling of literary form

A reading of Jonathan Coe's biography Like A Fiery Elephant, confirms that Johnson's early work is situated deeply in the autobiographical minutiae of his own...

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