COVER:A conversation between contemporaries

Published December 7, 2015
The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence 

Edited by Vanessa Guignery
The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence Edited by Vanessa Guignery
Portrait of Zulfikar Ghose by B.S. Johnson taken in his flat in London in 1963.
Portrait of Zulfikar Ghose by B.S. Johnson taken in his flat in London in 1963.
A portrait of B.S. Johnson taken by Zulfikar Ghose in Blauvac, France, in 1965.
A portrait of B.S. Johnson taken by Zulfikar Ghose in Blauvac, France, in 1965.

ZULFIKAR Ghose is one of the most significant English language writers of Pakistani origin today. The recent publication of The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence edited by Vanessa Guignery, the French scholar, is an immensely important book.

This unexpurgated collection of letters written over 14 years from 1959-1973 between Ghose and his close friend, the British novelist B.S. Johnson, provides important insights into both writers and their work from literary gestation to the discovery and assertion of their distinct voices. In this critical period, Ghose was the first to give Pakistani English literature a new modern dimension in several genres.

In 1964 he published the first contemporary Pakistani English poetry collection (The Loss of India) and a short story collection (Statement Against Corpses, co-authored with Johnson). In 1965, his autobiography Confessions of a Native Alien marked a new direction in Pakistani letters, because hitherto English-language life writing by Pakistanis had remained the domain of political or public figures: instead Ghose tells of his family’s pre-Partition migration from Sialkot to Bombay, and in 1951 their emigration and adjustment to Britain.

In 1967, The Murder of Aziz Khan, set in rural Punjab, became the first cohesive Pakistani English-language novel to employ a modern voice. Ghose went on to write about Brazil — his wife’s homeland. In the 1970s his trilogy The Incredible Brazilian was the first in Pakistani English literature to be translated into 20 languages.

The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence reveals that for years, almost all the poetry or prose that Ghose and Johnson wrote was sent to the other for assessment and criticism. Both also met frequently when Ghose lived in London, took walks together, played squash together, got married in 1964 within a month of each other, and went on holidays with their wives together. They continued to write to each other regularly, after Ghose migrated to the United States. But in 1973, Johnson committed suicide. For years, Ghose could not bear to look at Johnson’s books again and he gave their correspondence to the University of Texas archives.

Johnson (1933-1973) was a profound influence on Ghose. He had a meteoric career with his early experimental novels in the 1960s — he published seven altogether. He was also a poet, playwright and filmmaker, and in 2004 the subject of an award-winning biography Like a Fiery Elephant by Jonathan Coe.

In her informative introduction, ‘Keep writing, mate’ Guignery says that Johnson greatly admired “the daring innovations of modernist writers such as Joyce and Beckett” and his fiction “forcefully departed from convention”. In 1963, his first novel Travelling People “broke new ground on the British literary scene” and “his innovations include a multiplicity of narrative modes and styles.” In 1964, his second novel Albert Angelo employed “proleptic holes, so as to glimpse a future event … as well as pages with double columns — one transcribing the protagonist’s thoughts, the other reproducing direct speech.”

Ghose too was interested in exploring new forms but the two men were very different as writers. In his evocative memoir essay ‘Bryan’, Ghose says that Johnson’s approach to the novel was “to have a subject matter, investigate the formal problem particular to it then find a solution to that problem”. Johnson asserted that he “wrote novels not fiction, which in his mind was synonymous within stories”. While Ghose regarded language and style as paramount and “never had a programme but fooled around with images until they went somewhere”.

Ghose’s essay provides an important context to the book as do Guignery’s extensive footnotes, her introduction and her interview with Ghose. She has also included a poem by each about their friendship. In ‘Poem’ Ghose writes:

Brought together by chance , in ’59, we were both essentially timid

at the time; arrogant of course, but no more than

any poet just turned twenty five.

In ‘Sonnet for Zulfikar Ghose’, Johnson writes:

Your restive people paused to see you born

upon the Indus plain in Sialkot:

my mother bore me where the Thames, as in

pain, hunches in the posture of a stoat.

So disparate we both called London home.

Johnson and Ghose first met shortly after they had graduated. Before this, while still at Keele University, Ghose had become the editor of its annual anthology Universities’ Poetry. He wanted contributions from older British universities too and he invited Johnson to King’s College, London, to become an editor. They brought out several successive issues and references to Universities’ Poetry and related matters — contributions, sponsorship, and a writer’s conference — run through their correspondence for some years. At the heart of it all, is a passion for literature and writing, art and form.

The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence provides a detailed and important record of Johnson and Ghose’s work; their comments on the other’s writing are filled with rare insights. Their early discussions include poems by Ghose such as ‘Sialkot’ and ‘The Body’s Independence’ (originally titled ‘Bombay’), ‘This Landscape, These People’, ‘Getting to Know Fish’, and ‘To My Ancestors’ which were written between 1959-1960. These poems were included in Ghose’s collection The Loss of India and the 1965 anthology First Voices edited by Shahid Hosain, and pioneered a new kind of contemporary Pakistani English poetry.

The letters between Johnson and Ghose also tell of early struggles: the search for an interested publisher or literary journal, disappointments and rejection slips, the financial stress and the need to supplement income by taking up teaching or journalism. In 1961, Ghose was sent by The Observer as a cricket correspondent to India and Pakistan to cover the MCC tour. He writes to Johnson from Lahore: “Not only are there guava trees here, mate, but also squirrels that go running up them. The five rivers are fairly dry but I only saw them from the air.”

The trip would inspire Ghose’s novel The Murder of Aziz Khan, though there is no mention of this. Instead while travelling with the cricket team to Bombay, Kanpur, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras, he refers to the book he is writing about the tour but “Eyre and Spotts” (the publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode) are not too enthusiastic. His new poems about India are rejected by The Illustrated Weekly of India. He has started a prose piece ‘Confessions of a Native-Alien’ (which would develop into his autobiography). In April 1962, back in London, he receives more rejection slips. He writes to Johnson: “The question, mate, is not where it is all going to end, but what’s the point of going on?”

Johnson’s first novel and Ghose’s debut poetry collection were published in 1963 and 1964 respectively. Other books followed in rapid succession, including their co-authored story collection. By 1966, Johnson had brought out a poetry collection and two more novels; Ghose had published his autobiography and his first novel The Contradictions. The latter was an experimental and somewhat convoluted work, largely set in colonial India. Ghose turned to a linear narrative and more traditional framework for his next novel about Pakistan, The Murder of Aziz Khan, where it was, and is, greatly admired.

As such, it is fascinating to read Johnson’s assessment. He praises the lyrical passages, characterisations and attention to details but adds “From a purely literary point of view, I do not think The Murder of Aziz Khan is an improvement on The Contradictions […] I can see the point in writing so traditional a novel, understand your reasons, even though (as you guessed I would be) I am very disappointed that you have not tried to do something new”.

A few months later by which time Ghose had published both the novel and his poetry collection Jets from Orange, Johnson wrote a critical assessment which focuses mostly on The Contradictions but begins “This autumn has seen the Pakistani writer, Zulfikar Ghose, become firmly established as part of the English literary scene”.

In 1966 Ghose made his first trip to Brazil with his wife, the artist Helena de la Fontaine. His vivid letters to Johnson including his descriptions of her father’s property which “had two rivers flowing through it and three mountains guarding it”, capture a landscape which would be interwoven into his ‘South American novels’ including The Incredible Brazilian trilogy and A New History of Torments. In 1969 Ghose left England permanently and joined the English faculty at University of Texas at Austin.

He writes to Johnson “The weather is blissful — sun every day and 80+ — which you would probably find trying, but for me it’s the bloody Punjab; in fact Austin looks like Lahore”. His letters describing America provide a context to the new poems in his third collection The Violent West, which also included several poems that Ghose had discussed with Johnson such as ‘Old Ragged Claws’ and ‘The Poet at Lake Travis’.

Throughout there are references to writers that Johnson and Ghose admire ranging from Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Graves to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. There are also comments on the poetry discourses of The Movement poets and their ideas which were challenged by The Group consisting of younger poets where Johnson and Ghose were quite active. There is mention of contemporaries such as the poets Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Gavin Ewart, and in particular Ghose’s good friend, Thomas Berger, the American novelist.

Berger’s novel Little Big Man would influence Ghose’s sophisticated and critically acclaimed The Incredible Brazilian trilogy; its first book appeared in 1972. Johnson reports from London (where it was published) that it has been widely and favourably reviewed. He adds that though Ghose had “warned” him that it was “something of an attempt at a commercial novel” he enjoyed it greatly and “it seems to have worked”. Shortly afterwards Ghose is delighted to receive Johnson’s new work, Poems Two. Johnson’s last letter is dated Oct 7, 1973. He praises Ghose’s poem ‘On Owning Property in the USA’ and says he has finished his new novel. There is nothing to indicate he will commit suicide within a few weeks.

This is truly an invaluable book, particularly for scholars; a correspondence which throws a new light on Johnson and Ghose, illuminates their literary concerns and indeed those of an entire era: it should evoke new studies on both.

The reviewer is a writer and a critic.

The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence


Edited by Vanessa Guignery

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK

ISBN 978-1443872669




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