Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2010

The Unfortunates (1969) #2, by B.S. Johnson

Well, today I finally took the plunge and read The Unfortunates.  Some readers may remember that when I first received this book-in-a-box I decided that it needed to be read with some ceremony.  (Click here to see my introductory post about it). For some reason I was determined that I would unpack the 27 separate sections of the book out in the garden – and because today is such a glorious day and the last day of the Easter break, voila! today’s the day.

I dithered a bit, but in the end the plan was to read the 27 sections in the random order as sent by the publisher, but lo! a gust of light wind put paid to that in no time.

Some of the sections are only one page and they were especially unruly in the occasional breeze, so I abandoned myself to randomness.  I gathered the pages up again into the box any-old-how, and sat back to read – with a pleasing coincidence of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the radio as background music (and an Easter egg to sustain me).

It’s an amazing book!  It says in the introduction that Johnson was a bit peeved that this experimental fiction is thought difficult and now that I’ve read it I can see why.  It isn’t difficult, it’s just like eavesdropping on a conversation – we all know how talk twists and turns, digresses and returns to topic, – well, that’s just what happens in The Unfortunates.  There are qualifications, repetitions, misremembrances and then corrections, moments of painful honesty and moments of covering up the embarrassment. Chatter and trivia mixed up with what’s important, a jumble of memories and thoughts about his dead friend.  

If you think of a man explaining – over a cup of tea or a beer to a sympathetic listener – how he went to a city to report on a football match for the newspaper he works for, and was suddenly, painfully, reminded of his best mate Tony’s death from cancer, you will understand – and cherish – this book.   He writes also about his conflicted relationship with a woman called Wendy, but what strikes me is that he is able to make sense of her ‘betrayal’  as one of those things that happen in relationships, whereas he cannot come to terms with the death of his friend.

I grow weak at the pity of it, the self-interestedness, probably, that it could happen to me, that his death was gratuitous, at this point, so young, as twenty-nine as to be senseless, pointless, why?

When everything was moving for him, just when he had achieved everything he wanted to do, so I believe, the rotting, the whole of a man’s rotting telescoped into two years, to what end, ah, with what point?

Sometimes what he writes is cruelly prescient.  Johnson committed suicide when he was only 40 and one can sense the frailty of his mental state in some passages.  This friendship meant so much to him, that he tries to diminish his anguish by dismissing it as sentimentality – only to admit that that’s a ruse to protect his fragile sanity.

I sentimentalize again, the past is always to be sentimentalized, inevitably everything about him I see now in the light of what happened later, his slow disintegration, his death.  The waves of the past batter at the sea defences of my sandy sanity, need to be safely pictured, romanticised, prettified. 

For obvious reasons I’m not able to cite page numbers for these quotations, but I don’t think that matters anyway – it’s a very short book and it doesn’t take long to read.  Johnson was recording a state of mind and a jumble of memories, as disordered as most thoughts and conversations are.  I can see now that it doesn’t matter at all what order the sections are read in.

There was one bit that mystified me a bit until I realised that back in the 1960s reporters phoned their copy in:

City seemed to believe that comma               surviving this comma        they could survive anything comma                     and gradually came out of defence full point

Clever, eh?

Most of the time, though, I found myself overwhelmed by the pity of Tony’s death.  It’s very rare to be so moved by such raw grief in a man; and Johnson is writing about a death some years ago yet it’s painfully immediate.  We can see his guilt about being angry with Tony for skipping his ‘publication party’ (celebrating his first work in print) – he didn’t know just how ill Tony was and thought he was making more of a fuss than he should.  This guilt is palpable when he realises that even though Tony looks the same, he is a very sick man.  His shock when the illness causes ghastly physical changes is pitiful.

We can almost feel his disorientation as he stumbles around the city on the way to the match, his mind flooded with memories of this man who meant so much to him. We can see him struggling to remember, to tell the truth of this, his truth, but it is too hard.

It is so easy to invent, by mistake, not remember what was there, what is truly remembered?

Johnson intended that the book’s sections should be read in random order but allowed that they be book-ended by the sections marked First, and Last.  So there are final words, which are truly memorable [1}:

Not how he died, nor what he died of, even less so why he died, are of concern, to me, only the fact that he did die, he is dead, is important: the loss to me, to us

There is more information about B.S. Johnson at The Complete Review and at Wikipedia.

Thanks for blogging about this very special book, Trevor  at the Mookse and the Gripes!

Author: B.S. Johnson
Title: The Unfortunates
Publisher: New Directions 2007
ISBN: 9780811217439
Source: Personal Library

[1] It really is just coincidence that I chose the same last lines to conclude as Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes did, which I discovered when I visited his blog to link the URL above.


  1. It is great, isn’t it? Not many books can be so quirky with form and yet still the subject matter remains in focus. Thanks for your review for helping me remember the book a bit more!


  2. I think I’m going to become a fan of B.S. Johnson. I’ve got all his books and his bio on my wishlist at the Book Depository and I’m going to buy them all when I come back from my trip. What a tragedy that he took his own life…


  3. […] to a review by Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes I was enticed to read The Unfortunates, (see my thoughts here) but I haven’t read the book that was the inspiration for Drift.  According to the […]


  4. […] than authors of previous eras.  B.S. Johnson’s famous The Unfortunates written on cards (which I reviewed here) gets a mention, and the political/ethical aspects of postmodernism get a workout in novels like […]


  5. […] Update: see my adventures in reading it here. […]


  6. […] like to think I’m adventurous: I’ve tackled Finnegans Wake and Ulysses; I love reading B.S. Johnson and Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane; I’ve shared my adventures with Mud Map, Australian […]


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