Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates - B.S.Johnson
"How did I not realise when he said, Go and do City this week, that it was this city?                 Tony.    
      His cheeks sallowed and collapsed round the insinuated bones, the gums shrivelled, was it, or shrunken, his teeth now standing free of each other in the unnatural half yawn of his mouth, yes, the mouth that had been so full-fleshed, the whole face, too, now collapsed, derelict, the thick-framed glasses the only constant, the mouth held open in a controlled scream, but no sound, the head moving only slightly, the white dried and sticky saliva, the last secretions of those harassed glands, cauterised into deficiency, his mouth closing only when he took water from a glass by his bed, that double bed, in his parent's house, bungalow, water or lemon he had to take frequently, because of what the treatment had done to his saliva glands, how it had finished them.               Him"

When I initially heard of The Unfortunates it was more for the novelty value than as a book but when I read Christie Malry's Own Double Entry I knew I had to read everything by Johnson (at least until I encountered a dud). Even as a gimmick, I thought The Unfortunates sounded interesting but it's far more than that, as I expected.

Indeed, there is nothing gimmicky about the contents of this book at all. Johnson's belief that "The novel is a form in the same sense that the sonnet is a form; within that form, one may write truth or fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel" is clearly stamped right through this book, with it's strong basis in Johnson's life and the modesty and honesty of the narrator.

Why put a book in a box in the first place? Well Jonathan Coe answers that question in his introduction and rather than parroting his words why not quote him? The basis of the book is that B.S. Johnson is covering a football match and he realises after he arrives in the city where the match is to be played that he has been there before, visiting his friend Tony who died slowly and painfully of cancer at a young age. This Coe tells us reflected the actual genesis of the book and that "as Johnson went about the task of reporting his football match that Saturday afternoon" "Memories of Tony were unfolding" but not in a structured, linear way, and they were interrupted at random by the actions on the pitch and his attempts to write his match report. It was this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive impressions, that Johnson wanted to record with absolute integrity."

The accidental nature of life, and memory, is something that Johnson was interested in beyond the confines of The Unfortunates. In the film Fat Man on a Beach, where Johnson addresses a camera while on a beach he asks "Why can't film be a celebration of the accidental?" The fact that one chapter ends and the theme is taken up or counterpointed in the next chapter seems significant to how we understand a book. Here, however, the contrasts and parallels are somewhat accidental, although the book is thematically focussed so that there are many points at which different iterations of a particular theme will abut each other. Life is arbitrary and the very shaping of it makes it fiction, and fiction is after all, lies. The book doesn't just reflect the process of remembering, it reflects the process of writing, wherein the order a book is published in is often not the order it was written in, nor the order it was intended to be in.
The chapter headings. The blank circle in the bottom left is the
first chapter. The black circle in the top right is the final chapter.
They are crying out to be turned by some technically adept
person into a Dingbats type font. The Unfontunates, anybody?

I didn't appreciate how I would respond to the book. Unexpectedly I found it quite a sacerdotal object. The individual chapters, which range in size from one page to several were reminiscent of mass missals. It also encourages you to treat the book with care and reverence, as it is more delicate than a standard paperback. It is not a book to carry around in a backpack or in your pocket.  In Jonathan Coe's introduction he quotes Johnson's introduction to the Hungarian edition, which was printed in a single book with the symbols which act as chapter headings printed on a page at the back. These symbols can be cut up and shuffled so the reader can Hopscotch through the book as in Julio Cortazar's book. Johnson notes: "What all Hungarian readers cannot help but miss is the physical feel, disintegrative, frail, of this novel in its original format; the tangible metaphor for the way the mind works..." Disintegration is at the books core; the physical disintegration of Tony (and by extension, all humans), ("the rotting, the whole of a man's rotting telescoped into two years") and the ageing and disintegration of parts of the physical world such as the train station in the unnamed city which is Nottingham. "Over these worn platform flags, flaking slowly, would not think any station could be so old, would wear so much, so soon, would have so little life."

Yet another aspect of my reading was nothing to do with the actual book. After getting an elbow in the eye while playing football I almost got a detached retina and ended up with blood in my eye and instructions not to read or lie down for the next three to four weeks. This enforced break somewhat broke up the experience of reading. This would often lessen the impact of a book but I found it made little difference. The book stayed fresh in my mind until I could pick it up again. (I decided to read the book again halfway through writing this post. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.)

Part of the book's impact is the sense that here you have truth, just the patina of fiction. You get a sense that the author is really probing his own experience while also trying to find a way to make us apprehend it in something approaching the same way. Johnson has the courage to hack away at big ideas with the humdrum hammer of life. There is little or no showing off in this book. Indeed, it highlights how much many other authors like to display their education or throw around stylistic flourishes while moving little closer to any essential revelations. Johnson is the narrator of his fiction, he dispenses with the fiction that he is not. It is not just that he doesn't hide behind fiction. He is harder on himself than most writers are on their fictional narrators. He presents moments of selfishness, sexism and inadequacy. There is no polish when he describes himself. He seems far too fascinated with what IS (or WAS) to leave anything as what it might have been. He is constantly reminding us of the provisionality of thought, of memory, both in words and through the structure of the book. he uses gaps in the text, typographic pauses, to represent lacunae in his thoughts, or the silent whirring of a mind revising its thoughts. As a reader, we find that we too are asked to interrogate our response, and adjust the rhythm of our reading.

Who are the unfortunates of the title. The word is used in the text to refer to the denizens of some unmarked graves, their "small gravestones marked only with a number, was it, or initials: hanged men, I could not determine whether they were murderers, deserters, traitors, or unlucky, just unlucky, unfortunates." Is it referring to those whose lives are cut short like Tony's? Or the crowd watching second rate football in a third rate stadium? ("24,833 poor sods have paid good money to see this rubbish.") Johnson also uses unfortunate in his description of the two pub games being played in the next room at the pub he goes to after the match.
"Both are meaningless.
                     Unfortunately.                                All."
I have tried to replicate the spacing of Johnson here. The gaps are as important as the words. If all is meaningless, perhaps we are all the unfortunates.

Johnson's relationship with Tony had been largely a friendship based on ideas and intellectual "discourse". They share an admiration for Byron (visiting his house in one remembered episode) and Johnson looks to Tony to mirror Byron's refusal to "give in to the blandishments of religion". Johnson holds steady to his belief that life lacks meaning, "taking exception to the news that a Vicar had been visiting Tony". He leaves us to decide whether this is cruelty or loyalty: "And now I think about it I reacted in just the same way as Tony himself had to the religious funeral of his friend, what was his name, some years before, the man who hanged himself, as an experiment, was it an experiment?                                  Just the same, I was reproducing the reaction, in this case, it was rather upsetting, with him lying there, unable to talk really, wanting not to upset him, but not to let him go back on anything, either..."

He also finds Tony casting about for a reason why he has been struck by cancer, and speculating that it may have been caused by the convulsion of horror and despair he experienced at one point, fearing he was losing his pregnant wife when she became very ill. He seems to believe that he lost the will to live and that this had a profound impact on his physical being.  "For him it was too much to believe that there was no reason, not for me, it is all chaos, I accept that as the state of the world, of things, of the human condition, yes, meaningless it is, pointless, but for Tony? Perhaps he had to believe there was a cause, intellectually, he had to satisfy himself by ratiocination, not believe it was just random, arbitrary, gratuitous, or he could not have gone on..."

Johnson constantly returns to the search for meaning in everything, death and religion paralleled by football and architecture, literature and academicism. It is a book about many things, although death and writing predominate. Tony has clearly been an important figure in Johnson's writing career, although as his writing took off, so Tony began to wane: "That it was serious, the first thing that brought it home to me, was that he was too ill to come down to London for the publication party of my novel, in my flat, the novel which was so much better for his work on it, for his attention to it. It was dedicated to them! This shocked me, I was annoyed, angry even, that he, that both of them, should find any excuse whatsoever for missing something so important..." He is unable to contribute much to the editing of Johnson's second novel, mostly as a result of his physical deterioration although this doesn't stop Johnson wondering if he hasn't lost faith in him as a writer.

Asking Tony to read and critique his work was a challenge from Johnson to live up to his idea of what could make criticism valid: "To Tony, the criticism of literature was a study, a pursuit, a discipline of the highest kind in itself: to me, I told him, the only use of criticism was if it helped people to write better books." The fact that Tony's criticism did improve his novel seems to be the umbilical cord that fed this book. And it is perhaps the greatest gift that their relationship gave to literature, the subject of death being the perfect frame for Johnson's obstinate search for the TRUTH of life. (Of course until I read all Johnson's books this is pure supposition - other books may be more successful.)

The book, as well as it's debt to Tony, owes a debt to Johnson's favourite writers, who appear to have been the Irish holy trinity of Sterne, Joyce and Beckett. Sterne gets a mention ("the ideas were associated in his mind, ha, Sterne") and clearly the digressive, associative nature of the book had many parallels with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Joyce is also easy to see there with Johnson's stream of consciousness reminding me on a number of occasions of that of Leopold Bloom. This was partly the rhythm and partly the way his mind made associations and also the way he tells the story of one day but gives us the story of his life. Beckett, too, is easy to see in the way clauses interrogate each other and the constant search for truth without any belief that there is a truth. (There is also the use of a tape recording of Tony's voice as an aide memoire, which, even if based on life, reminded me of Krapp's Last Tape, which may have given Johnson the idea of making tapes.

The process of writing plays a big part in the novel as Johnson tries to put together his match report, while watching the match. The key to the report is that he must hit the right word count and phone it in as soon as possible after the match. And although he doesn't take the job seriously as 'writing' he seems to have many of the same concerns he has as a novelist, such as his disgust at any kind of dishonesty: "Even if it's a bad match, they tell you, disguise it, write as though it were a good match. Bollocks to that, bollocks to this stinking match." He talks of other reporters coming with their notebooks already full of stock phrases and ready clichés. Perhaps that's all there is: "everything is reducible to a cliché."

His efforts to improve his report reflect the relationship he had with Tony, although he works with the knowledge that if he breaks the rules his report will be tidied up by the sub-editors. The final report is printed on the inside of the box. As well as paralleling his more serious writing, Johnson's thoughts on football parallel his thoughts on honesty, the disintegration of our physical beings and our memories: "Yet these buildings show them up for what they are, the directors and profiteers of the clubs, there is yet honesty in this: the buildings proclaim that they are cheapjacks, charlatans, who might as if pack their bags overnight and leave, because in the buildings they would be leaving behind them the bare minimum that could possibly be left, which would, which does, corrode, disintegrate, rot to pieces every few years."

Johnson's socialism (he was a political activist) comes through in observations like this. He also presents himself as a consumer, wondering what to eat, where to eat, how he decides on one place over another. Here as elsewhere he is a champion of honesty and repelled by fakery. He also has an eye for the stock phrases of selling, no less than those of writing.

Indeed, eating plays a big role in the book, and Johnson regular thinks about his own weight and eating habits: "my response to insecurity is to eat, this is why I am overweight, no, fat, or so I persuade myself, again." Tony, too, is described as a trencherman. It is made clear that some of Johnson's fascination with Tony's fate comes from the fact that he sees so many parallels between himself and Tony. A remembered scene of Tony fighting with the pain of knowing he won't get to see his son grow up plays off the narrator's knowledge that he can look in on his own son after he gets home. At the time Tony was dying Johnson was in a failed relationship and its aftermath, a time when he felt wounded. The solidity of Tony's relationship was a contrast to his situation but it turned out that Tony was the one who wouldn't get to see his family grow up.

There is a real sense of the distastefulness of illness running through the book. You get a sense of Johnson not wanting to know too much, perhaps unconsciously refusing to take the illness seriously at first. He is clearly made uncomfortable by hospitals and doctors, and does not subscribe to the old "the doctors are wonderful and are doing their best" worldview. "I could not see the hospital as very efficient, hated its atmosphere, of an army camp, even of a concentration camp." It is never clear whether he is made uncomfortable by illness or doctors, however. A bit of both, I imagine.

He also raises the ethics of how we deal with approaching death. Who do we tell and who do we leave in the dark? Tony keeps the seriousness of his illness from his parents until late in the day: "he had successfully kept from them what it was, until then, although they knew it was very serious, but not that serious, he had kept it from them, what nature of deception is that, I wonder, what are the morals of that?                  I should try to work that out some time, I should try to understand.            " It is clearly Johnson's aim to ask the right questions rather than provide answers. This engages the reader in a process within which they can bring their own memories and experience to bear on the moral questions that are being posed.

He is always questioning his own impulses, even the desire to remember. When taking photographs and recording Tony's voice Johnson is aware of the fact that Tony knows "that we were taking photographs that would be the last", and wonders if "perhaps I was too ghoulish, in wanting to have his voice". But now he seems glad he did this, the voice recording in particular: "I" .. "have played it enough times, his voice, or the last vestiges of it, it's not that clear, a new slur, too, but his voice, his voice I still have, yes, and what he said, what he was."

This has helped him to keep his promise to Tony, to write their story: "...I said, it was all I had, what else could I do, I said, I'll get it all down, mate.       It'll be very little, he said, after a while, slowly, still those eyes.                                   That's all anyone has done, very little, I said."

Here is a short film with images of Nottingham with Johnson reading excerpts from The Unfortunates. The BFI have released a compilation of the films of B.S.Johnson called You're Human Like the Rest of Them which is well worth chasing down for anyone interested in Johnson. It includes this film and the above mentioned Fat Man on a Beach, among others.


  1. A very thoughtful review, Seamus - I really enjoyed reading it. My father was a Johnson fan, so I guess he would have read The Unfortunates around the time of its publication. I like what you say about the author's style, the way he probes his own experience while also trying to find a way for the reader to comprehend it in a similar way. It suggests a sense of honesty.

    I'm glad it held up in your memory when you had to take a break for a month. (Not a bad thing in some respects as it sounds like a book that would benefit from a period of reflection.)

    1. Thanks Jacqui, glad you enjoyed it. It's been written over a very long period for a blog post so I'm just glad it doesn't descend into incoherence.I remember you saying before that your father was a Johnson fan. One thing I didn't mention in the post was the design of the original box, which had a blown up image of cancerous cells on it. It's a shame in some ways that the reissue didn't stick with that design, although it is a handsome 'book'. (I must take a better picture, the one above doesn't do it any justice. The colour is all wrong.)