Pentonville Modernism: The Fate of Resentment in B. S. Johnson's Albert Angelo

Robert Bond

'Oh, and there were some pretty parallels to be drawn between built-on-the-skew, tatty, half-complete, comically-called Percy Circus, and Albert, and London, and England, and the human condition.'

<1> Commentators on B. S. Johnson's semi-autobiographical 1964 novel Albert Angelo have returned repeatedly to Johnson's investigation into the tension between lived urban experience and fictional constructions. Philip Tew, in his B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading (2001), notes that the competing claims of autobiographical 'authenticity' and fictional 'artifice' are raised most explicitly, and explosively, within the novel's fourth section, 'Disintegration'. Here the London writer intrudes into the narrative in vivid vernacular, asserting 'im my hero' even whilst metafictionally 'trying to say something about writing'.

--fuck all this lying look what im really trying to write about is writing not all this stuff about architecture trying to say something about writing about my writing im my hero though what a useless appellation my first character then im trying to say something about me through him albert an architect when whats the point in covering up covering up covering over pretending pretending.

The fictive conversion of Bryan Johnson into Albert Angelo is held up as a depersonalizing veil; a mirage of 'lies' soon rent, further on in 'Disintegration', by the inclusion of personal family detail: 'my parents used to live in Hammersmith but now live in Barnes'. Johnson's demand that 'the novel must be a vehicle for conveying truth' -- the truth of his own Londoner's experience -- can be seen to raise up the biography of the native Londoner as a kind of fate: this is how things are, Johnson maintains, as if in defence against contingency or change. Fictional constructs are accused of re-shaping given biographical detail -- 'truth' -- into an 'arbitrary pattern', falsity:

Faced with the enormous detail, vitality, size, of this complexity, of life, there is a great temptation for a writer to impose his own pattern, an arbitrary pattern which must falsify, cannot do anything other than falsify; or he invents, which is pure lying. Looking back and imposing a pattern to come to terms with the past must avoided. Lies, lies, lies.

<2> Interestingly, for Johnson fictional form is inauthentic because it supplies us with a contingent or arbitrary means of coming to terms with our past experience. An arbitrary fictional 'pattern' is suggested to be a lie precisely insofar as it reconciles us to the past, and stills ongoing conflicts and tensions within a pristine aesthetic form. The traditional novel, Johnson argues, must be avoided because it legitimizes acceptance of the past, and pretends that we can grasp its significance confidently. Hence even whilst it holds up 'authentic' London experience as a form of fate, Johnson's novel, in its modernist experimentalism, also echoes Theodor Adorno's critique of the traditional realist novel's submission to fate -- to the 'epic precept of objectivity or material concreteness' -- in his talk on 'The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel' (1954).

Nowadays, anyone who continued to dwell on concrete reality the way [Adalbert] Stifter, for instance, did, and wanted to derive his impact from the fullness and plasticity of a material reality contemplated and humbly accepted, would be forced into an imitative stance that would smack of arts and crafts. He would be guilty of a lie: the lie of delivering himself over to the world with a love that presupposes that the world is meaningful; and he would end up with insufferable kitsch along the lines of a local-colour commercialism.

Johnson's wariness of a lying fictional 'arbitrary pattern' hence backs up Adorno's wariness of a realist novel's lying 'artistic treatment of mere existence', which would deliver us to an unquestioned capitalist reality. Adorno proposed that because the modernist novel's 'new reflection takes a stand against the lie of representation', it can refuse to accept the seeming fatedness of commercialized existence. Modernist subjectivism is the crucial element: Adorno's talk lauds that 'subjectivism that leaves no material untransformed and thereby undermines the epic precept of objectivity or material concreteness'. In this article I want to look more closely at the modernist subjectivism of Albert Angelo, and show how Johnson's foregrounding of Angelo's north Londoner's resentment, in particular, is closely related to the way in which his novel questions the seeming fatedness of our capitalist experience.

Resentment as fate?

<3> Johnson himself was notoriously awkward, and among his novels Albert Angelo especially is packed with disaffection, disappointment and resent. Johnson's personal experience of working in north London schools coloured his presentations of a hopeless teaching environment, which anticipate James Kelman's in A Disaffection (1989):

They sit, large and awkward at the aluminium-framed tables and chairs, men and women, physically, whom you are for today trying to help to teach to take places in a society you do not believe in, in which their values already prevail rather than yours. Most will be wives and husbands, some will be whores and ponces: it's all the same; any who think will be unhappy, all who don't think will die.

In Albert Angelo, Tew notes, Johnson 'creates a collage of perspectives and forms surrounding his [Angelo's] career uncertainties, the vicissitudes of temporary teaching and Albert's feelings of isolation and betrayal'. Regular trips to the multi-ethnic allnight cafés of Cable Street offer intimations of hopeful rebellion, of change: 'in revolt, in desperation almost, we become like delinquent teachers in going to places like the Strasse and doing various other things (or thinking about doing them) which would blight our laughable teaching careers if they were known'. But the novel defuses such nocturnal potential freedoms, sparked by a sense of alliance with immigrant 'outcasts, misfits', with a day-time creed of conformism and acceptance. Long tracts of sub-Arendt post-Existentialism are washed over Angelo's resentment, as he attempts to convince himself that his misery is necessary and fated.

This is what is called the human predicament, or the human condition, or the human situation. 'Predicament', 'condition', and 'situation', in this case are all words which mean something like 'fix', 'jam', 'awkward position'. And being human as you all are means that you are in this 'awkward fix' of enjoying the good things whilst at the same time having to suffer the bad things, whether or not anyone or any God created it.

Angelo continues to ideologize on behalf of what Adorno called 'a material reality contemplated and humbly accepted', when he tells his class to 'face up to being human, to being in the human predicament, and accept with dignity everything, but everything, that happens to you in any way whatsoever'.

<4> Angelo's sermonizing to his pupils, I would suggest, couples an illusory dispersal of social resentment and disaffection -- through the application of an ethos of acceptance -- with a proto-Thatcherite emphasis on individual responsibility and self-reliance. Angelo advises his class that 'you can accept responsibility for everything, but absolutely everything, that happens to you: for who else is there to do so?'. This sort of individualist moralism, which works to abstract the subject from the social determinants of her resentment, is just one of the problematic effects of the novel's subjectivism. In this context we could consider too the post-Existentialist idea of authenticity which is promoted by the text's foregrounding of autobiographical material. In 'Disintegration' Johnson defines his writing as the authentic experiential expression of his own lived disappointment: 'It is about frustration. --The poetry comes from the suffering .... For the poetry any suffering is endurable.' But if his writing is conceived of as an expression of his lack of fulfilment, which represents for him 'truth' or authenticity, how could he continue to write if the frustration should stop? Johnson's commitment to relaying his London autobiography can thus work simply to assert the supposed fatedness of deprived experience. Indeed in Albert Angelo urban experience itself can be presented as a confirmation of fatedness, or of the belief (anticipating Iain Sinclair's) that there are 'no coincidences' in the city. Bus routes become provocations for numerological analysis and hence another confirmation of the diminishment of experience -- in this case to the number three:

I catch with my father a number twenty-seven bus several minutes after arriving at the bus-stop in Hammersmith Road at the end of North End Road .... We could have caught a number nine or a number seventy-three, to place them in numerical order, had either of these splendid numbers been opportune .... The numbers are related: the square root of nine, three, multiplied by nine gives you twenty-seven; and seven added to three brings you back to nine again, if you take one off. Furthermore, there is a three in seventy-three. The numbers of these three (again!) buses running along the Hammersmith Road are not related by accident, these things are no coincidences.

Vocationalism versus the 'economic accident'

<5> Angelo's local neo-Gothic architecture -- 'the pseudo-Gothic excrescences of Scott's St. Pancras' -- prompts some additional resentful self-commentary on his diminished experience, concerning his recently-failed relationship.

I wonder shall I come to accept St. Pancras station, living so near? Or even to like it? Perhaps it is fatal to live so near to St. Pancras for an architect? Certainly it would be to bring up children here: their aesthetic would be blighted. But it seems unlikely that I shall be allowed to bring up children here.

Again the novel's subjectivism -- here, the expression of the belief that he is forbidden to raise a family -- works to assert the supposed fatedness of reduced experience; Angelo is forbidding his own fatherhood, in order to assert his social marginality and singularity once again. The text later stresses that Angelo's disaffected marginal perspective is utterly singular: his very outcast's position is not identical to that of his friend Terry. 'I don't quite know what he [Terry] means by this, as with a number of his remarks: they, like himself, are sort of offset to reality, as mine are, too, but it's a different offset.' The novel also sustains Angelo's claim to singularity through its foregrounding of the specialized architectural knowledge in which he was trained, before he found himself unable to practice as an architect. Angelo is singular, the text asserts, because he (still) has a vocation. The novel's fragmentary presentation of Angelo's architectural expertise itself draws attention to precisely qualities of immanence and inwardness, and so to Angelo's own subjective specialization and individuation. Spliced into the 'Development' section of the novel is a lengthy extract from Paul Frankl's 1962 study Gothic Architecture, which opens with the section heading '"2. The Development of the Gothic Style seen as an Immanent Process."' As if also describing the subjectivism of Albert Angelo -- which on one (anti-modernist) level, I shall argue, offers simply an internal map of a given, supposedly fated subjectivity -- Frankl then defines Gothic architecture as an improvisational response to a building's immanent, existing condition:

The architects were intent simply upon making necessary improvements. As far as can be reconstructed, this was a process of trial and error which led to the replacement of diagonal, wooden centering arches by the stone cintre permanent, that is the rib.

<6> Frankl's account of the process of improvisational Gothic development -- '"an immanent, or an internal one"' -- grounds this architectural process in the specialization of labour: '"Just as master-masons did not determine the form of the liturgy or indulge in metaphysics, so the clergy did not build scaffolding"'. In 'Disintegration', Johnson similarly roots his novel's improvisational modernist subjectivism in its determination by the division of labour. 'So it's nothing to you that I am rabbeting on about being a poet and having to earn a living in other ways: but what about your own sector of the human condition then?'. Importantly, Johnson's own vocation as a poet or novelist is contrasted with the procedure of earning a living within a capitalist economy, just as is Angelo's architectural vocation:

Today I can spend at my board, working, how marvellous, a whole day free to work, to do real work, my work, real work, vocation. I can put in a really hard day on the arts centre design....
          ... but the real satisfaction, even with success, whatever that means, would be in the work itself, as it is now, the real satisfaction, in the work. When I've done something, hewn it from my mind, then when it's actually built does not seem to matter, really, it's an accident, a commercial or economic accident, quite beyond my control.

When Angelo feels he has really 'done something', fulfilled his vocation, he knows the self-realization achievable by free self-activity. His authentic product, his design, is alone that which he hews from his own mind. If it should be put on the market and built, his design becomes no longer his product but a commodity: accidental like any other commodity, subject to the vagaries of capitalist chance. The narrative's elevation of Angelo's vocationalism can hence enable Albert Angelo to interrogate the seeming fatedness of our experience under capitalism.

Self-negation of the vocational subject

<7> Why indeed should the products of intent human labour become the playthings of arbitrary mercantile whim, or of the irrational rationality of an inequitable market system? For Angelo, at least, it has become irrelevant when, or if, his designs should be fated to be economically thrown into the random category marked 'success'. Angelo is himself most appealing when he forgets his resentment, remembers his vocation, and lets us see that fundamentally he just doesn't care. But even then perhaps he still continues to care, about his vocation, too much. Angelo's alienated experience of the city has removed him from any notion of collective or collaborative labour. As we have seen, his vocationalism -- his attachment to the particular specialism of architecture -- is related to the novel's ideology of inwardness and individuation. On one, biographical level the subjectivism of Albert Angelo is anti-modernist, because Johnson clings to a concept of integral, authentic subjective experience. As Adorno noted, 'the identity of experience in the form of a life that is articulated and possesses internal continuity -- and that life was the only thing that made the narrator's stance possible - has disintegrated.' The modernist level of Albert Angelo's subjectivism registers this, and we have the section of the narrative explicitly titled 'Disintegration'. This is why the novel can challenge its own ideology of individuation, its own anti-modernism, which would set up Angelo's architectural vocation as another form of fate -- 'faith in a concept, in a particular virtue which must of absolute necessity be its own reward' -- a privatized fate which, Adorno hints, is no more than the mirror-image of the seeming fatedness of individualist capitalist experience.

The narrator's implicit claim that the course of the world is still essentially one of individuation, that the individual with his impulses and his feelings is still the equal of fate, that the inner person is still directly capable of something, is ideological in itself; the cheap biographical literature one finds everywhere is a byproduct of the disintegration of the novel form itself.

<8> Adorno's talk suggests that the resentful, critique-loaded London authenticity which Johnson's novel seeks so determinedly to relay, is best accommodated not within an outmoded, post-Existentialist biographical realism, but within modernist subjectivist technique. For Adorno, a traditional realist novel's lying 'artistic treatment of mere existence' delivers us to an unquestioned capitalist reality, because it fails to question the seeming fatedness of capitalism when it simply reproduces capitalism's own cover-up of material social relations. 'If the novel wants to remain true to its realistic heritage and tell how things really are, it must abandon a realism that only aids the façade in its work of camouflage by reproducing it.' To begin to dismantle the work of camouflage, or the lie that we are fated to fit in with, and to accept existing capitalist conditions, the 'true subject matter' of the novel now, Adorno argued, can become again 'the conflict between human beings and rigidified conditions. In this process, alienation itself becomes an aesthetic device for the novel.' Modernist subjectivist technique, such as Johnson's conveying the self-dissolution of the vocational subject, operates as social critique. This is why Johnson's foregrounding of Angelo's north Londoner's resentment is closely related to the way in which his novel questions the seeming fatedness of our capitalist experience. Albert Angelo shows that, as Adorno put it, the 'true subject matter' of the novel is now 'a society in which human beings have been torn from one another and from themselves': 'it hits very hard, very deeply, very basically, sexual betrayal does, strikes at the manroot, at the very integrity of a man's self.'

<9> Johnson's stress on the sheer tattiness of Angelo's Londoner's experience, his foregrounding of social disaffection and disappointment, invokes the modernist fictional principle of subjective self-negation. Adorno observed that the contemporary novel's practice of subjectivist 'dissonance and release', enables it to 'serve freedom' in that it bears witness to 'what has befallen the individual in the age of liberalism' - the destruction of individual character. Johnson's description of his novel's fragmentary subjectivism, in 'Disintegration', confirms Adorno's insight that 'the contemporary novels that count, those in which an unleashed subjectivity turns into its opposite through its own momentum, are negative epics.' For Johnson Albert Angelo:

Is about the fragmentariness of life, too, attempts to reproduce the moment-to-moment fragmentariness of life, my life, and to echo it in technique, the fragmentariness, a collage made of the fragments of my own life, the poor odds and sods, the bric-à-brac, a thing composed of, then.

Experimentally 'built-on-the-skew', and written both out of and for the poor odds and sods -- actual Londoners -- Johnson's fictional re-construction of the city self-consciously identifies its fragments of urban experience as concrete materials: 'the bric-à-brac'. As Adorno hinted, in itself asserting 'the superior power of reality', modernist narrative fragmentation also asserts our power to transform that 'reality that cannot be transfigured in an image but only altered concretely, in reality.'

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., 'The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel', in Adorno, Notes to Literature: Volume One, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 30-36

Johnson, B. S., Omnibus (London: Picador, 2004)

Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta Books, 1997)

Tew, Philip, B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)