Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A difficult subject

"The Mind Has Fuses": BS Johnson, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Nick Garrard.

The Burgess Foundation is bulging with a capacity crowd for this evening of talks, readings and films in celebration of the late novelist BS Johnson. They have to fish out spare seats from the wings and there are people lined against the back wall, huddled around coats and shopping bags. It would be hard to imagine something like this happening in Johnson’s lifetime: though Burgess himself was a rare supporter of his work, Johnson never quite achieved mainstream acceptance and, frustrated with his perceived lack of success, took his own life at 40. He quickly fell out of print but, since the publication of Jonathan Coe’s loving biography Like A Fiery Elephant in 2004, he has undergone something of a critical revival.

Johnson’s work is hard to define. He offers his readers a wonderful grab-bag: funny, sincere, experimental and heartbreaking all at once. He was a great acolyte of Joyce and Sterne, and seemed to be constantly at war with the form. As David Quantick will later remark, one of the most interesting things about him is that he was a novelist who apparently hated novels - "oh, fuck all this lying" was a favourite catchphrase. So, while the turnout tonight would seem to indicate that he has now been semi-canonised by the literati, a number of walkouts towards the end suggests that his work can still cut too close to the core. Not very English, all this sincerity.
What we get this evening is a wonderful jumble, curated by people who clearly love their subject matter. The actor James Quinn reads excerpts from Johnson’s second novel, Albert Angelo. Journalist and critic David Quantick is on hand to present a scattering of his film work, as well as an endearingly fudged talk which positively buzzes with nerdish enthusiasm. The second half is dedicated to a screening of The Future's Getting Old Like The Rest Of Us, Beatrice Gibson’s inventive filmic reworking of House, Mother, Normal, a key Johnson text.

This, for me, was the highlight. Like the book, it presents an overlapping series of dialogues drawn from the residents of an old people’s home. They bicker and talk over each other, sometimes speaking nonsense, sometimes with the clarity of old age. The whole piece is presented as a text and there are chapter breaks and interspersed scenes in which the actors address the camera and read out their character descriptions. The fourth wall lies in tatters, even before I distractingly notice that one of cast used to be in Desmonds. I try to convince myself it’s the sort of thing Johnson would have approved of. Probably I’ve just watched far too much television.

It makes for a wonderfully disorientating close and when the lights come up and we’re ushered out into the cold, I still can’t quite make sense of it all. There’s a marvellous synchronicity when, shortly after one of the first walkouts takes place, an actor turns to the camera and says "you don’t know what you’re missing". How very apt, I think.

Nick Garrard lives and works in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @havershambler.

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