Yesterday I went to the second floor room of the bookshop Librairie Kleber looking out over the square, Place Kleber, named after the same Strasbourg born commander of Revolutionary French forces under Napoleon, Jean Baptiste Kleber. The reason was to hear one of my favourite modern writers, Jonathan Coe, talk to promote his biography of B S Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, which has just been translated into French. The window promoting the talk can be seen on the left. The book won the Samuel Johnson award and Jonathan Coe writes about his reason for writing a book about B S Johnson here.
We started a bit late and I was pleased to see the room was practically full. Joining Jonathan at the top table were the publisher’s editor who asked some questions and translated sometimes, but even with my intermediate French I could understand he translated too little and gave too much of his own opinion, someone in the picture next to Jonathan who started off translating and an expert on B S Johnson who also helped out with the translation and asked some questions, she is on the right of the picture. There was a discussion about the work on the biography, which has taken some time and Jonathan was able to make full use of B S Johnson’s papers and almost lived at his house for periods. He also talked about finding B S Johnson via a TV programme ‘Fat Man on a Beach’ (see it here) when he was 13 and then again when buying one of Johnson’s book when Jonathan was a 23 year old student. I found it interesting to learn more about B S Johnson and will be reading the biography, to learn more about this period in English literature and also about Jonathan’s writing process. The need for translation meant things took almost twice as long so there was little time for questions. JTO asked the first question, why, when the earlier novels were full of gaiety, like pantomime, were the last couple full of darkness? This revealed that he had been working on the biography whilst writing the last two novels and it might be that some of the melancholy of B S Johnson had affected the two books. Also, there is a new book due out which we were promised is a return to more of the gaiety. I didn’t ask a question but followed JTO, who got one of the darker books ‘The Rain Before it Falls‘, in getting a book signed. I got ‘The Rotters Club‘ signed, a book about someone growing up and at school in the seventies. We talked about how it was one of the few books about growing up in the seventies and I like it because, to me, it was like back being there, I could smell it, taste it and see the colours whilst reading the book, and that’s not because I want to particularly remember the seventies or growing up and did not do so in Birmingham, where it was set. Jonathan revealed he did not have good memories of Reading as a girlfriend had come from the town and it had not ended happily for him. He recommended another book to me, Black Swan Dream, and I will get it and read it. Though whatever I think of it I will not button-hole Jonathan next time I see him and tell him as he told us someone else had dome at a previous signing. A very good evening shared with a writer I liked whose company I enjoyed leaving me thirsting for more both about B S Johnson, books by Jonathan and to read the book by David Mitchell recommended to me.