Book Review: The Unfortunates
by B. S. Johnson
Published by Secker & Warburg, 1969
£20, ISBN: 9780330353298
For our latest review, our regular guest contributor Russell George has provided his view on the novel that inspired this very website, B. S. Johnson’s magnum opus. Published in 1969, this classic example of experimental literature was out of print for any years before being re-released in the wake of Jonathan Coe’s magisterial biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. Johnson was a complicated character, fiercely devoted to the highest of intellectual standards and yet much tormented. Coe quotes an acquaintance of Johnson as possessing “Third Division South” levels of paranoia and how, on first being commissioned to report on a football match, he managed to get the names of both scorers wrong. He remains, however, a colossus of late twentieth century letters:
The first thing to say about The Unfortunates is that this isn’t a book about football. Although the setting is the narrator’s assignment to report on a first division football match, this is just the tableau for a series of half-recalled recollections on his relationship with a close friend who has recently died of cancer. But football doesn’t, generally, make good literature anyway. Writers and film-makers tend to accentuate or exaggerate aspects of reality to fit a particular narrative, but football – and sport generally in fact – already has its own dramatic tension. Football is a soap opera whose storylines we grow up with, and any tampering with that reality usually seems jarringly inauthentic. If you really wanted escapism, you wouldn’t bother being interested in the game in the first place. There’s not a lot of difference, for example, between watching Escape to Victory and Jossy’s Giants, despite the former being set in Nazi occupied France. Football fiction is for kids.
The football canon, therefore, is made up almost entirely of reportage, biography or autobiography, with the most successful books offering a new angle rather than a different voice. Fictionalising football, for an adult audience at least, is pointless.
But B.S. Johnson’s infamous 1969 novel is different because its stream of consciousness style allows football to take both a central and an incidental role. Our narrator is not concerned with the game he’s gone to see. A broadsheet football reporter who loathes his tabloid colleagues, as well as the formulaic constraints of writing 500 words of copy before dictating it down a crackly telephone line, he just wants to get the job done, avoiding clichés as much as possible. But the setting is both immaterial and fundamental. The match is in Nottingham, where his friend Tony once lived, and where he visited him with his ex-girlfriend Wendy. From the moment he arrives at the railway station, to finding a pub in town to have lunch, before finding his way to the ground (presumably the City Ground), the day stirs a series of reflections and memories. This is a deeply personal book, essentially autobiographical, about friendship, and its pathos is developed through descriptions of the everyday, and the seamless style by which recollections of the past are filtered through the mise-en-scène of a late 1960s English town on a Saturday afternoon.
But beneath the broader scope of the book, its nostalgic tone to love and friendship, lies, too, a somewhat weary love and knowledge of football itself. The tense eagerness in which Johnson finds out how his team, Chelsea, are doing at half-time will be familiar to anyone who watched football before internet-enabled mobile phones. And this simple aside, as Johnson walks towards the ground, is as effortlessly apt, and true today as 40 years ago.
These men on their way to football, they are the same in any city, seem so, generalisations are useless, on their way to any match, their raincoats, their favours, in some cases, the real fan does not need to show his favour by favours, but by his fervour, and so on, the feeling in the heart, for his team, the one team.
If you haven’t heard of it before, The Unfortunatesis notorious, too, as the ‘book in a box’. The novel comes in about 50 different stapled sections, held together by a piece of ribbon. The first and last sections are labelled, but the rest of the book can be read in any order you choose. That may sound intriguing innovative or frustratingly avant-garde, but whatever your preconceptions, it works very well. Like all diaries, the details of the life described are not as important, or as interesting, as the persona who writes it. Johnson is not writing a story here; the details of the day are not important, neither the result of the game nor who scores. But it’s compelling all the same. It has that rare combination of honestly and lyricism. Johnson’s voice is, in turns, hesitant, dogmatic, romantic, obnoxious and shy. Which is, in fact, all of us. It’s an incredible achievement, and deserves to be read and re-read, whether you enjoy football or not. If this blog only encourages more people to read this book, it will be worth all Rob and Lloyd’s efforts.