Writing What You Know

Simon Hammond in The White Review:

BS-JohnsonIn the summer of 1959, a headstrong but lovesick English graduate took a trip to the hometown of his favourite writers, to mark the end of his degree and to help him forget his sorrows. En route to Dublin via the Welsh Coast he hitched a lift with the owner of an upscale holiday resort, who offered him a job for the summer, an offer he took up after walking in the footsteps of Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien. Travelling People, which BS Johnson wrote in fits and starts over the next two years, is the story of a young man who takes a job at a Welsh holiday resort. It has the brisk outlines of a familiar English comedy, but presented with an incongruous trickery more in keeping with Johnson’s Irish heroes. Plenty of direct experience made it into the novel (Johnson even incorporated letters that he had written that summer) but names were changed and elements added to provide excitement, perhaps even as wish-fulfilment. Henry has a passionate affair and gets a first in his degree, while Johnson wasn’t so fortunate; the heart attack that afflicts the owner, with whom Johnson fell out, never happened. But the translation of experience is uneasy: rogue autobiographical elements – Johnson’s romantic hysteria, his odd superstitions – crop up without explanation.

Published after a string of rejections to muted applause, with some copies returned in the belief that the typographical experimentation was a printing error, Johnson was nevertheless pleased with what he saw as the novel’s ingenuity, even claiming that in some respects it had improved on Joyce’s Ulysses. But behind the bravado lay a nagging dissatisfaction. He began to feel embarrassed by the fictional additions, to believe that the novel would have been better if it had been more honest, if he hadn’t compromised the truth for the sake of a good story. Increasingly Johnson dismissed it as an apprentice work, and was later reluctant to have it republished. Never again would he be so blasé with the facts of his life. The six novels that followed would be the work of a writer at war with the imagination.

More here.