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B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates: Revisiting the Elegy

The Unfortunates de B.S. Johnson: l’élégie revisitée
Vanessa Guignery
p. 119-134


The Unfortunates, le « roman dans la boîte » de B.S. Johnson, est une élégie originale et émouvante à la mémoire de son meilleur ami fauché par le cancer à l’âge de 29 ans, mais certains critiques ont considéré que l’absence de reliure et l’utilisation inhabituelle des blancs se limitaient à un simple jeu et ils les ont donc relégués au rang de gadgets. Cet article propose de démontrer que les techniques employées par Johnson, loin d’exclure l’affectivité et la dimension éthique, offrent de nouveaux modes d’expression de l’émotion et permettent de donner une représentation fidèle des sentiments de douleur, de perte et de deuil. D’un côté, le narrateur veille à ne jamais verser dans un excès de sentimentalité et fait donc preuve d’ironie auto-réflexive, de moquerie et de dérision pour maintenir à distance tout effet de pathos. D’un autre côté, cette chronique d’une mort annoncée est un hommage profond et sincère qui implique le narrateur et le lecteur dans une rencontre éthique avec l’Autre absent.

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1When B.S. Johnson (1933–1973) published his first novel, Travelling People, in 1963, he broke new ground on the British literary scene at a time when writers such as Kingsley Amis, John Wain and William Cooper were producing novels which relied on traditional narrative techniques and indulged in social realism. Johnson for his part was awed by the daring innovations of modernist writers such as Joyce and Beckett, interested in the emergence of the French Nouveau Roman as advocated by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, which was to free itself from the constraints of exhausted conventions, and admiring of the formal experimentations of such contemporaries as Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Eva Figes or Ann Quin. On the other hand, he denounced the anachronistic and irrelevant attitude of writers who went on imitating the nineteenth century narrative novel ‘as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened’ (Johnson 1973a, 15). Johnson took that revolution into account and forcefully departed from convention, developing formal devices which all had ‘a literary rationale and a technical justification’ (Johnson 1973a, 15). His innovations include a multiplicity of narrative modes and styles in Travelling People and his posthumous novel, See the Old Lady Decently (1975), proleptic holes cut through pages so as to glimpse a future event in Albert Angelo (1964) as well as pages with double columns—one for thoughts, one for direct speech. One could also refer to the original use of typography and disposition of pages in Trawl (1966), the insertion of facsimile balance sheets with debits and credits in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), and the lack of binding in the famous novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates (1969), composed of twenty-seven unbound sections which the reader could shuffle and read in any order apart from the first and last, marked as such.

2Such innovation, though original, was often dismissed by critics as superficial and facetious, as a collection of mere tricks or gimmicks, a manifestation of playfulness which limited the novel to a mere vehicle for formal experimentation. It is certainly exact that Johnson was constantly looking for new forms and patterns to try and reinvent the novel as a genre since he believed that some of its techniques were outmoded or exhausted. But his purpose was also to explore the depths of his own self, to convey the truth of his experiences and emotions through first-person narrations that revealed the extent of his sometimes painful and traumatic involvement with his own past. The guiding principle of his work is pronounced in the fourth part of Albert Angelo: ‘telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth about my truth to reality’ (167), and that programme includes giving a truthful account of his feelings of pain, loss, betrayal and mourning. Therefore, contrary to what some critics have contended, the experimental and playful component in his books but also, during the same period, in novels by Brigid Brophy, John Fowles or Christine Brooke-Rose, does not preclude emotions but, on the contrary, often provides an original means of problematising the emotional and ethical dimension of writing, while at the same time refusing to give way to either pathos, sentimentality or consolation.

3Even if Johnson’s concept of truth is highly debatable and controversial (Guignery 2009, 49–69), one may assert with N. H. Reeve that ‘for Johnson, the search for the expression of truth is an ethical duty’ (124). His dedication to this goal certainly marks an ethical change of direction in the novel. As Paul M. D’Eath explains, ‘the unspoken and unacknowledged intention of the traditional novel, particularly in its twentieth-century manifestations, has been to comfort and console its middle-class audience,’ while, by contrast, Johnson refused to ‘comply with the reader’s wish to be comforted with falsehoods’ and attempted instead to convey raw truth, no matter how disturbing and painful this truth might be (77). My aim in this paper will be to show how the innovative formal devices in Johnson’s The Unfortunates should not be read as pertaining only to playfulness and gimmickry. Far from excluding affectivity and ethics, such techniques offer new ways of expressing emotion and open up new ethical dimensions, in particular an ethics of alterity. I will first examine the original format of the book as a manifestation of Johnson’s commitment to truth rather than a mere formal game. I will then show how the author is always careful never to over-sentimentalise his discourse, which is why his books sometimes display instances of self-reflexive irony, mockery or derision to keep pathos at bay. I will finally consider to what extent The Unfortunates was the result of an attempt on the writer’s part to pay a truthful and deeply-felt homage to his dead friend through an original form of elegy that involved the narrator and the reader in an ethical encounter with the absent Other.

The Loose Format: A Quest for Truthfulness

  • 1 For each quotation, the first words of the section where it appears will be reproduced as well as t (...)

4Published in 1969, The Unfortunates is the result of Johnson’s promise to his friend Tony when they saw each other for the last time, one week before the latter’s death of cancer at the age of 29, in November 1964. The writer’s promise was: ‘I’ll get it all down, mate’, to which Tony replied: ‘It’ll be very little’ (‘So he came’ 5).1 When Tony’s widow asked Johnson for an epitaph as a memorial, the writer found himself at a loss for words and indeed came up with ‘very little’: ‘the best I could do, in the time, ah, were the three words: He gave freely. In the end she used nothing, gave him no memorials, in words’ (‘Last’ 3). It is only several years later that Johnson managed to ‘liberate speech’ (Picard 31) and write this autobiographical novel, as he himself called it (Burns 84), an original elegy, a memento mori or long epitaph to the memory of a man to whom he had dedicated his very first novel. The Unfortunates could be compared to a short piece published in 1973, ‘Everyone Knows Somebody Who’s Dead,’ in which the narrator evokes his memories of Robin, a friend who committed suicide, and regularly interrupts his narrative with metafictional remarks as if to ward off any effect of pathos. In the foreword, Johnson explains that the thirteen-page piece was written over a period of four years and adds: ‘Being about a friend, it was distressing to write and a relief to finish’ (1). In both cases, it appears that the narrator needed a period of latency before being able to pay homage to his friends. As Ann E. Kaplan argues in her analysis of trauma, a certain period of time ‘must lapse before . . . an individual finds the right time to return to trauma’ (86).

5In the opening lines of The Unfortunates, the first-person narrator remembers that Tony lived in a town in the Midlands which he travels to in order to report on a football match. On the very first page, the instauration of a dislocated narrative mode, in the image of how the mind works, is heralded through the movement back and forth between the description of the city and Tony’s disease-ridden body, between the present of the description and the retrospective vision, between the sobering metafictional remarks of the narrator and the painful summoning of the memory of Tony, as well as through the typographical blanks that create a pause in the meandering thoughts and illustrate the gap left by the loss of a loved one. The narrator comments on his own activity by saying: ‘The mind circles, at random, does not remember, from one moment to another, other things interpose themselves, the mind’s’ (‘First’ 1). This reflexive disengagement offers clues for penetrating deeper into the text: the progression will be spiralling, random, discontinued, incomplete and digressive, rather than linear, exhaustive, ordered and coherent. The final aposiopesis that prevents the sentence from ending and leaves it suspended illustrates the brutal breaks in thought and their unexpected changes of direction.

  • 2 On 17 October 2010, BBC3 broadcast a radio adaptation of The Unfortunates and proposed an equivalen (...)

6When writing The Unfortunates, Johnson set off on a search for a format which would truthfully reflect the chaotic and non-chronological workings of his memory and thoughts, the random progression of the football match, as well as the degenerative progression of Tony’s disease. He tried to do so by proposing ‘as nearly as possible a re-created transcript of how [his own] mind worked during eight hours on this particular Saturday’ (Johnson 1973a, 25). In so doing, he refused to rearrange facts nicely in a neat structure or to hide approximations, confusions or lapses. Johnson realised that the traditional forms of novels were inadequate to reproduce such thought processes: ‘This randomness was directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the material’ (1973a, 25). He therefore rejected ‘the enforced consecutivity of the bound book format as being a falsifying element in the psychological presentation of character’ (McCaffery 86) and chose to not bind the pages of the book. This mimetic solution was not completely new and was probably inspired from French writer Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (1961), composed of 149 single loose leaves that the reader was invited to shuffle and read in any order, as well as from the combinatory experimentations of Dadaists and the Oulipo in France, such as those of Tristan Zara or Raymond Queneau in Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961) and ‘Un Conte à votre façon’ (1967).2

Warding off Pathos

7According to David Lodge, the innovative device imagined by Johnson for his book provokes a perverse paradoxical effect as it distances emotion and tends to fictionalise the real, a process Johnson precisely wanted to avoid: ‘the puzzle or game element thus introduced into the reading experience has the effect . . . of putting the painful, personal, ‘real’ experience of the book at an aesthetic distance, making it read more like fiction than autobiography’ (13–14). Lodge’s response to the book may actually be the result of Johnson’s regular metafictional interruptions of the flow of his narration, more than the form of the unbound book itself. Indeed, in his whole work, Johnson is always wary of not giving in to pathos and not misrepresenting emotions by appealing to feelings of pity. In The Unfortunates, his quest for truth and his rejection of fictionalising processes mean that he often self-reflexively interrupts particularly moving recollections of his dead friend to denounce potential sources of deceit.

8For instance, through metafictional remarks, Johnson does not hesitate to question the truthful transcription of his memories when they seem to depart from his self-imposed rule of absolute truth and to misrepresent his past and present emotions. He remarks for instance: ‘his death changes the past: yet it should not’ (‘Up there’ 1). He wonders: ‘[D]o I invent? . . . It is so easy to invent, by mistake, not remember what was there, what is truly remembered?’ (‘For recuperation’ 5). It seems that the narrator’s affection for Tony, tinged with nostalgia, incites him to embellish or dramatise the past and thus betray it and the emotions associated with it. Baring the device, he comments: ‘I am probably romanticising again’ (‘Up there’ 5); ‘I am overdramatising this, his death, this place, these occasions’ (‘Away from the ground’ 2). The narrator is thus constantly fighting against any sentimentalising process to try and remain true to the original emotion, and therefore is systematically questioning his own rendering of the past. For example, when he recalls a banal domestic scene with Tony getting up from the couch to wash the breakfast dishes, he interrupts his description to denounce an excessive affective overload:

I sentimentalise again, the past is always to be sentimentalised, 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, still, romanticized, prettified (‘I had a lovely flat’ 2).

9Johnson realises that he has misrepresented the past, probably because his friend’s illness and death are too painful to face and relate, but he immediately defamiliarises the fictionalising and deceiving process by revealing the strategies of embellishment.

10Johnson thus refuses to take refuge behind standardised formulas, metaphors, images or clichés which could betray the truth of emotions, and rejects easy nostalgia, complacency and the deceiving veil of finer feelings: ‘it’s meaningless, though, it all is, this wallowing in recollection, stupid even, as well, I mean where does it lead’ (‘Away from the ground’ 3). These reflexive interruptions, that some may find untimely and disturbing, reveal the author’s determination not to give in to pathos or the artefacts of feelings.

11Johnson actually avoids that pitfall by proposing a blunt and truthful portrait of his agonising friend, which would later find an echo in the non-euphemised description of physical and mental degeneration of the inmates of the elderly people’s house in House Mother Normal (1971), or on the last page of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry where the narrator offers a series of macabre details to describe the agony of the main character. In The Unfortunates, the narrative voice never spares the reader in his meticulous description of the destructive effects of illness. He more particularly concentrates on Tony’s disfigured face and as early as the first page of the first section but also in other sections, Johnson describes his friend’s physical disintegration unsparingly: ‘the mouth held open as 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, cauterized into deficiency’ (‘First’ 1). Adjectives, nouns and adverbs of a shocking and nauseating precision accumulate to point to Tony’s physical decrepitude and ‘jolt us out of pathos’ (Yaeger 44). As Paul M. D’Eath writes, ‘[t]here are none of the consolations of fiction’ (78) and the reader is certainly made uncomfortable by such anatomic dissections. According to Patricia Yaeger who writes about trauma, the risk of such striking images is that the writer is ‘taking a body already disfigured by [illness] and making a ‘figure’ out of it’ (32), thus drawing attention to the text as performance and confining the dead to the shadows.

12Tony Curtis argues for his part that the effects of such passages are double and paradoxical: ‘The brutally honest descriptions of death and rotting are, to a point, objective and detached, but are finally poignant and disturbing because of the involvement of the writer in the events depicted’ (140). Rather than throw a modest veil over the marks of pathological disintegration, Johnson remains faithful to his demand for truth and gives a hyper-naturalistic tone to these endless descriptions, separated by commas but rarely by full stops, as though his mind got carried away and could not put a stop to these haunting and torturing memories. After such crude and disturbing passages, a typographical blank usually punctures the page, as if it were necessary for the narrator to get his breath back and for the reader to regain his or her self-control. Johnson thereby acknowledges the difficulty for anybody to accept such blunt truths, but also encourages the reader to face them without being tempted by any easy but useless feeling of pity: ‘It is difficult to think of these things without terror, the pity is easy to feel, easy to contain, but so useless’ (‘Then they had moved’ 3). The sincerity of emotion and the pressing necessity to stare at the truth without any attenuation or embellishment is what should prevail.

A Deep-felt Elegy

13Despite these efforts towards the distancing of any feeling of pathos, which, as we have seen, stem from the metafictional interruptions and the hyper-naturalistic style more than from the format of the book itself as Lodge suggested, the novel is teeming with affectivity, which testifies to the narrator’s deep emotional involvement but also engages the reader who witnesses Tony’s physical disintegration and can perceive the feeling of loss which overcomes the narrator, dislocates the narrative, punctuates it with blank holes and sometimes deprives the narrator of his very means of expression when words seem to have become useless and inadequate in the face of suffering. The novel, far from being a playful demonstration of formal ingenuity, thus engages with an ethics of alterity that involves both narrator and reader. On the one hand, the narrator momentarily escapes his solipsism and offers his friend an elegy that attempts to do justice to Tony’s life and personality, thus marking an ethical opening towards the alterity of the Other, as delineated by Levinas. On the other hand, the reader cannot but be moved if not overwhelmed by this chronicle of a death foretold.

14For Levinas, the domain of ethics is the relation of the one to the Other. As the acknowledgment of otherness, it is based on ‘social relationship, dialogue, disinterestedness’ (Gibson 25), all qualities that can be found in the narrator’s fond memories of moments shared with Tony. Thus, as Andrew Gibson argues, ‘[t]he will to know the other or to approach the other in terms of knowledge becomes responsiveness to and responsibility for the other’ (Gibson 25). In Narrative Ethics, Adam Zachary Newton, following Levinas, defines ethics as ‘intersubjective relation accomplished through story’, ‘narrative as relationship and human connectivity’ (7), and he draws attention to ‘the ethical consequences of narrating story and fictionalizing person, and the reciprocal claims binding teller, listener, witness, and reader in that process’ (11). In The Unfortunates, both narrator and reader engage in a face-to-face encounter with a subject who, though absent, gives rise to vivid memories of scenes from everyday life, banal or moving conversations, personal anecdotes and sometimes shocking physical details. Throughout the novel, the reader is implicitly summoned to react ethically to what is being described. This corresponds to what Newton calls ‘hermeneutic ethics’ (19) according to which the act of reading a book, reacting to it and interpreting it—either privately for oneself, or publicly while discussing or teaching it—entails some form of responsibility. For Newton, ‘opening a book automatically confers an ethical burden’ (297) on the reader. The Unfortunates (but also Johnson’s later novel House Mother Normal which charts the physical and mental disintegration of elderly people) places the reader in an uncomfortable position and compels him or her to confront the otherness of people facing decay and death. The novel’s ethical truth might very well reside in this violent and demanding confrontation of both narrator and reader with the concept of alterity beyond the grave.

15In contrast to Johnson’s comic novels where the death of some characters is presented in a grotesque mode (like that of the well-named Maurie Bunde in Travelling People, whose fatal heart attack while making love is marked by a black page, a reminiscence of Sterne’s similar device in Tristram Shandy), or in a distant, impersonal and cynical one (like that of the hero’s mother in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry), in The Unfortunates, the tone is intimate, personal and often grave. The short section in which the narrator remembers the phone call by Tony’s wife announcing her husband’s death is striking for its composition of a single eleven-line sentence ending on the brutal noun ‘death’, followed by a blank half-page, the graphic inscription of absence (‘June rang’). The palpable fragility of the thin piece of paper which the reader has to handle delicately reflects the evanescent dimension of the life that has just evaporated. In the original 1969 edition, the section opens on a series of little black squares which already seem to inscribe the process of mourning, echoing the black page in Tristram Shandy (I, 12, 61–62) but also in Travelling People (210–212). In the 1999 Picador edition, the black squares have oddly been replaced by a circular flower-shaped symbol which cannot foretell or commemorate the death of the character. However, in both cases, the predominance of the blank space and the void on the page are what draw the attention visually, and communicate the sense of loss. The unbound dimension of the book probably leads the reader to take a longer pause before moving on to the next section than he or she would with a bound book, thus giving him or her more time to assimilate the shock of the last word.

16Throughout the novel, the narrator’s pain due to Tony’s unbearable death is conveyed formally through the accumulation of typographical blanks on the page, for example after each question that cannot find any answer: ‘look at his death, why? Why not?’ (‘His Dog’ 3); ‘his death was quite gratuitous, at this point, so young, as twenty-nine, as to be useless, pointless, why? . . . to what end, ah, with what point?’ (‘Just as it seemed’ 1–2). These comments reveal the existential despair of a narrator faced with incomprehension. In the last section of the novel, Johnson not only questions the meaning (or meaninglessness) of his friend’s death, but also the meaning of words themselves: ‘Can any death be meaningful? Or meaningless? Are these terms one can use about death?’ (‘Last’ 4) These obsessive questions remain unanswered and the typographical blanks, the graphic materialisation of the void that death has left, mark not only the pauses in the narrator’s reflection but also his powerlessness faced with the unacceptable fact of Tony’s death. The narrator is here trying to deal with the trauma which is not that of the victims but the vicarious one of ‘those who suffer with, or through them, or for them’ according to Nancy K. Miller (2).

  • 3 In the poem ‘Image in Provence’ included in Poems Two, the same young woman who deserted Johnson is (...)

17Indeed, Johnson in The Unfortunates is not only commemorating his dear friend but also mourning him and sharing his loss with the reader, thereby pointing to his own suffering, for example through such a simple sentence as ‘I just feel the pain, the pain’ (‘Last’ 4), in which the monosyllabic stammering reveals the depth of the emotion. This muted lament recalls another deep wound which resurfaces in all of Johnson’s work, that of the break-up with the narrator’s girlfriend, viewed as a betrayal but also a form of death,3 about which Johnson complains in Trawl using a similar stylistic device: ‘Oh, the pain, the pain !’ (121); in that example however, the interjection ‘Oh’ and the exclamation suggest a form of lyricism tinged with pathos, which are absent from the more resigned and sober version in The Unfortunates.

18In the latter, the narrator’s pain or trauma also lies in the experience of having survived. Johnson was the one who was convinced he would die at the age of 29 (in Coe 125) and Tony’s death instead, at that same age, leads him to consider putting an end to his own life: ‘My death would be far easier than his in front of this train, not suicide, just death, this instrument of death, as it were, I do not want to die, no, but this uncommon way of dying presents itself to me as a preferable one to his’ (‘Last’ 2). The narrator is here trying to cope with the trauma of survival which, according to Cathy Caruth, paradoxically becomes ‘an endless testimony to the impossibility of living’ (62). Suicidal phantasms abound in Johnson’s novels and short stories as well as in his film Fat Man on a Beach (Guignery 2011), and they are often triggered off by the trauma of ‘the very incomprehensibility of one’s own survival’ (Caruth 64). In ‘Everyone Knows Somebody Who’s Dead,’ published in 1973, the year Johnson took his life, the narrator offers an unbearable litany of suicides, which interrogates his own status as a survivor: ‘I have recently become aware that an uncomfortable number of my contemporaries are dying before what I had imagined to be their times, simply jacking it all in, for one reason or another’ (9). In spite of various devices of distancing and playfulness (through humour, condensation, strategies of diversion, the use of a supposedly detached tone or of metaleptic remarks), the short story addresses the painful issue of premature death and implicitly probes the ‘enigma of survival’ (Caruth 58).

19The very last sentence of The Unfortunates confronts once again the scandal of death and relates it to the narrator’s own feelings: ‘Not how he died, not what he died of, even less 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.’ (‘Last’ 6) Johnson hammers out the verb ‘die’ in the preterit to constantly recall the essential truth of death without any detours, euphemisms or denials. More than four years after the event, the repeated inscription of Tony’s death on the blank page which has become a tombstone, might be a way for Johnson to ‘kill the dead’ to quote Daniel Lagache (in Picard 145), that is perform that liberating verbal murder which enables the survivor to come to terms with the loss and take the path of ‘dis-bereavement’ according to Picard (35). In the previous quote, the disjunction of auxiliary and verb, ‘did die’, which reinforces the alliteration in the plosive, seems to duplicate the death, while the insertion of the past participle ‘he is dead’, marks a shift of perspective. The aim from then on is to consider the consequences of that scandalous death on the present of the narrator: ‘the loss to me’, which marks a return to a form of solipsism and maybe a shift away from the ethics of alterity.

  • 4 This resistance to closure contrasts with the brutal sentence near the end of ‘Everyone Knows Someb (...)

20That distressing acknowledgment finds an echo in See the Old Lady Decenthly when the novelist self-reflexively portrays himself in the process of writing his book and is being interrupted by his own daughter who plays for a few minutes in his office. But she then suddenly and wordlessly leaves the room, and the writer comments: ‘the loss is noticeable. I call her, she does not return. The loss is ’ (57). The typographical blanks, far from being playful, mimetically reproduce the void left by the girl as well as the feeling of helplessness of the writer figure who remains alone and powerless. Just like this passage from See the Old Lady Decently, the last section of The Unfortunates ends on the painful feeling of loss, graphically marked by the lack of a final full stop, as if it were impossible to close the lid of the literary coffin, and by a final blank that invades the rest of the page and transcribes both the terrible gap opened by Tony’s death and the limitations of language in its capacity to communicate the pain of the survivors. According to Johnson, life ‘leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily’ (1973a, 14), and one may interpret the lack of a final full stop but also the unfinished sentences and the proliferating blanks throughout the book as well as the lack of binding as the sign that the process of mourning, remembering and celebrating Tony can never be complete, that, to quote Kaye Mitchell, the ‘box/coffin is one which demands to be re-opened and its contents reread’ (in Tew 63).4

21Although The Unfortunates does not offer any of the consolations of fiction and refuses any sentimentalising or romanticising process in the commemoration of a dear friend, it nevertheless amounts to a deeply-felt elegy in which the narrator trades his usual solipsistic stance for an ethical encounter with the absent Other. Johnson’s originality in the experimental context of the 1960s lies in the fact that while he kept looking for formal strategies that would help him get closer to his ideal of truth, his innovations did not exclude the force of emotions. As Jonathan Coe remarks in his biography, Johnson ‘refused—or was unable—to sacrifice intensity of feeling on the altar of formal ingenuity’ (22). Faced with an overflow of emotions in The Unfortunates, a ‘sense of affective overload’ to quote Carol Watts (in Tew 80), the reader’s ethical response implies a sensitivity to the bare truth of feelings that emerges from a deeply disturbing and moving novel.

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1 For each quotation, the first words of the section where it appears will be reproduced as well as the page number of the quoted passage in that section.

2 On 17 October 2010, BBC3 broadcast a radio adaptation of The Unfortunates and proposed an equivalent of the absence of binding. The adaptation was divided into nineteen separate sections and randomised before its original transmission, with the order of sections decided by a draw. The programme remained available for three months on the BBC website and proposed a carousel of the separate sections, each bearing the name of one of the football players, except for the first and last sections marked as in the published text. Internet users could thus click on the illustrations to listen to each of the sections in the order they wanted to hear them.

3 In the poem ‘Image in Provence’ included in Poems Two, the same young woman who deserted Johnson is simply reduced to the acute feeling of pain: ‘she was an idea, an area of pain, a wound, a death’ (12).

4 This resistance to closure contrasts with the brutal sentence near the end of ‘Everyone Knows Somebody Who’s Dead’, in which the narrator alludes to his friend Robin’s very brief obituary which he read by chance in the paper: «that is all it said, all there was to say, his life summed up, the obituary, full point’ (13). The halting rhythm conveyed by the disjointed syntax and the commas reveals the failure of standardised language to evoke the memory of that man, the narrator’s emotion being reflected in the very sudden closure of the story.

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Vanessa Guignery, « B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates: Revisiting the Elegy »Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 119-134.

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Vanessa Guignery, « B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates: Revisiting the Elegy »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 16 juillet 2015, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vanessa Guignery

École normale supérieure de Lyon.
Vanessa Guignery is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École normale supérieure in Lyon. She is the author of several books and essays on the work of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Conversations with Julian Barnes (Mississippi Press, 2009). She has published articles on several British and Indian contemporary writers, as well as a monograph on B.S. Johnson, Ceci n’est pas une fiction (Sorbonne UP, 2009), and translated Jonathan Coe’s biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (Quidam, 2010). She is the editor of several collections of essays including (Re)mapping London (Publibook, 2008), Voices and Silence (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), Chasing Butterflies. Janet Frame’s The Lagoon and Other Stories (Publibook, 2011), as well as a special issue of the Journal of American, British and Canadian Studies on Julian Barnes (Sibiu, 2009). Her collection of interviews, Novelists in the New Millenium, Conversations with Writers, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.

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