Sunday, April 07, 2013

Reading 'The Unfortunates' by B.S. Johnson

I am sure you are all familiar with Johnson's experimental book project of putting 27 sections unbound in a box. They are written as memories in an attempt to reconstruct the mind in the abitrary and random way that memories are dealt with. Johnson's friend Tony has recently died – struck down in the prime of life and this makes it all the more poignant. There are a lot of events, places and times that seem to be familiar and the 'event' of the book is a trip to report on a football match in Nottingham. In contrast to the solidity and straightforwardness of sport reporting, the writing of the novel is a stark and self revealing, almost brutally self revealing at times, all for the sake of literature.

I thought I would chart out my thoughts whilst reading a few sections to give you an example of what the novel is like.

The first section I pull out is a memory of a trip to Brighton. Johnson had been asked to lecture on his work to some foreign students and Tony and another friend joined in. The lecture was relatively simple, a re-telling of his methods and debates, much debated, going over old arguments. He is not sure if the students get anything but he certainly enjoys it. Afterwards they return to the house and have a makeshift game of cricket. They then go out for a few drinks and Johnson is mindful that Tony had just been diagnosed with cancer – even though he doesn't really look ill, he could tell something was wrong because he didn't seem able to concentrate:

“Yet I could see he was very - ill at ease, in his mind, he no longer concentrated on ideas, thought, arguments, with the same dedication.”

With this quote the page ends, as if trying to imitate the lack of concentration, trying to illustrate how all of life suffers when concentration suffers.

As I move on to the next section, I stop to question my method of reading. I purposefully put the sections I have read to one side because, otherwise I would never finish the book, but is this authentic? Is this the way the book is supposed to be read, surely memories are repetitive and they work by re-appearing and adding new meaning.
It is strange that I am so concerned about this because normally it doesn't even cause me a second of concern to read a book from start to finish. I now realise how imposing, how prescriptive a writer can be to dictate the order of the way the book is read.

New section:-

Just as things are going well for Tony, after seven years he has finished his Ph.D. and has received a university position. His wife is pregnant again in anticipation of prosperity and he receives the diagnosis of cancer. How can this be? When he visits Tony, they discuss if there could be a reason, but they don't come up with anything. Johnson is frustrated and annoyed because at the launch party for his new book, Tony is too ill to come down. This new book has been dedicated to Tony and instead of being concerned he writes with great self-honesty about how annoyed this makes him, perhaps Tony has really decided not to appear because he doesn't like the book.

When Johnson goes to visit Tony in hospital, it doesn't get any better. He doesn't know what to talk about and suggests he now has plenty of time to read. This does not go down well. Johnson does not understand why he does not want to read but the environment, the stress of the situation would make it appear that Tony does not see the 'need' to read. It is strikingly honest that he writes about this.

New section:-

Journalism is about meeting deadlines, word limits, about delivering but it is not about the content, or quality of writing. As proud as Johnson is of his ability to deliver, he know what happens to the content – it is changed beyond all recognition, normally not to the better. This section rambles on about associations, places.

Perhaps this is what Johnson is about – the content, rather than volume and discipline.

New section:-

The town hall in this city has dull architecture, it doesn't seem to reflect anything other than 'solidity'. Johnson describes these thought as old arguments. I quote:

“My mind passes over the familiar ground of my prejudices, so much of thought is repetition, is dullness, is sameness.”

I must admit when you look honestly at your life, your conversations, a lot is repetition. Then he goes on to be 'ultra- realist / honest'. He writes about wanting to go to the toilet. He can't think about doing anything else without finding a toilet and with that the section ends. I must admit as shocking as this is, when was the last time I read about a writer going to the toilet? I'm not sure, even Koestler in 'Darkness at Noon' about a prisoner in almost solitary confinement – I can't remember him writing about the toilet. Time to finish, section ends.


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