What a Carve-Up!‘s reputation seems to have grown and grown in the years since its publication. When writing the book, did you have any sense of the impact it would go on to have?
“You would go mad if you began to speculate about the impact your novel might have while you were still writing it. I had no sense of any reputation that What a Carve Up! might acquire – at the time I didn’t even have a publisher, so my main worry was whether it was even going to see the light of day or not. Of course, I knew that it was an ambitious book, and the kind of book that nobody else at the time was writing. But I didn’t nurture any fantasies that it was going to change the world, or establish my reputation. I was mainly in a state of nervousness while I wrote it – nervousness that it was far bigger and more complicated than anything I’d attempted before, and that maybe my talent just wasn’t up to it and the book would have to be abandoned, or would turn out not to work at all when it was finished. Also I had financial worries because it took four years to write and we were living off my wife’s income all that time, which wasn’t very great. So no, I’m pleased if it’s been influential for many readers, but at the time I didn’t even know that it was going to have any readers.”
The only recent biography whose approach I could compare with your B.S. Johnson biography was Roger Lewis’ The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. That, however, seemed to be written with a bizarre kind of spite, while yours seemed to be written with real affection and the heartfelt belief that Johnson’s work had not been given the status it deserves. Do you think a biographer can ever get too emotionally close to his subject?
“I’m a great fan of Roger’s work, and formally his Peter Sellers biography – which for me is a masterpiece, the best biography I read in the 1990s – was a big influence on my approach to B.S. Johnson. But you’re right, there is a big difference in tone. Roger is a much more combative writer, much more ruthless. Maybe the difference is that Peter Sellers is big enough to take it – and deserved it, in many ways; whereas B S Johnson came to seem such a vulnerable, easily-hurt figure to me, that I ended up wanting to protect him, in a way, from my own intrusiveness and hostility as a biographer. A biographer has to get as emotionally close to his/her subject as possible: otherwise the writing won’t come to life at all. But yes, there is a danger in that. Johnson’s depression and extreme pessimism about the human condition really took me over at times, especially towards the end when I was writing about his suicide. It was all the more alarming because it made me realise we are very similar people (though quite different writers!) which perhaps hadn’t occurred to me before. The process of writing the book showed me parts of myself I hadn’t seen before, or had chosen to ignore.”
I felt there was something strangely Tony Hancock-like about the arc of B S Johnson’s life. Do you see a similar tragicomedy in the manner in which they both ultimately painted themselves into a corner?
“Yes, it’s a good comparison. I love Tony Hancock, and so did Johnson himself – they were absolutely of the same era and background, 1950s men with intellectual and social aspirations which took them outside their own class. Physically they were quite similar too. And they were both lovable and infuriating at the same time (I’m talking about Hancock’s screen persona here). In a way Johnson’s brief sojourn in Paris, wanting to meet Beckett and the noveau roman writers and so on, is like Hancock going to Paris to reinvent himself as an artist in the film The Rebel. There is something tragi-comic about it – the sense that you can never really be taken seriously as a European intellectual when you are hidebound by insular British attitudes. Johnson would probably have been fine if he’d been born in France or Hungary, countries that he loved – countries where he was welcomed, too, and his 'Britishness' (like my own) was regarded with affection and respect but also made fun of a little.”
I was surprised to see in your bibliography biographies of both Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. Were they in any sense as consuming as that for B S Johnson?
“Not at all. They were written in the early ’90s when I was strapped for cash. As I said, I had no publisher for What a Carve Up! while I was writing it, so all we had to live off was my wife’s money and little bits I was picking up for journalism. For those books I was given what seemed (at the time) quite meaty lump sums, and I wrote them simultaneously with What a Carve Up!. I never look at them now because there’s nothing of myself in them, none of that personal engagement I was talking about which brings biographies to life. My only regret is that I signed away the world rights and in America they’ve been far and away my most successful books, but I never saw a cent from any of it. They’re being reissued in France and Italy now and I’m slightly ambivalent about that, because I don’t rate them very highly. It would be nice to write a proper non-fiction book about the cinema, though, about the films I really do love: Billy Wilder, Lindsay Anderson, Ealing Comedy, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Jacques Demy … Maybe I’ll find the time one day.”
Now you have some distance from the biography, what kind of effect do you think B S Johnson’s beliefs regarding the ‘falseness’ of much of modern literature and of ‘story-telling’ (“what happens next..”) have had upon your own fiction? Could you tell us any more about what you are working on next?
“I became quite taken over by Johnson’s personality at some points while writing the biography, and since I went straight on to The Closed Circle afterwards, I did sometimes feel I could hear him whispering in my ear while I was working on it. That might be one of the reasons I felt that this was the last time (for now) that I could write in this particular vein – social realism, a mixture of tragedy and farce, a lot of contemporary politics, all the things I’ve been doing for the last decade or so. But then I always thought of The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle as one, continuous, 800-page novel, so maybe it was just my sense of being on the ‘home stretch’ of that project (which had occupied me for seven years) that made me feel quite restless while I was writing it, already keen to move on to something a little more formally … I won’t say adventurous, but different at least. However, I still have no sense of what that’s going to be. I have two ideas for novels at the moment, neither of them all that conventional, but I’m not ready to choose between them yet, let alone settle down to the process of writing.”