Spent a very pleasurable hour in Ann Arbor last week in the Special Collections Room at the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, looking at a first edition of B. S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo.
Come to think of it, this was my first visit to this room since 1985, when I was in grad school and took a course in the “literature of exploration.” Back then, I stopped by Special Collections to look at their 1914 copy of the South Polar Times.
I sought out the 1964 Angelo because I recently made a disappointing discovery in the 1987 New Directions edition: no freakin’ hole.
Many people know only two things about Johnson: 1) that he published a novel consisting of unboundÂ chapters in a box, to be read in any order the reader wished (The Unfortunates), and 2) that he published a book with a hole cut through some of the pages so that the reader could see forward to a future event (Albert Angelo). Unfortunately, the cost of publishing such eccentric products is prohibitive, so we see editions without holes (or any mention of holes), and even (at least in one instance) bound editions of formerly unbound pages.
Johnson’s biographer Jonathan Coe refers to Albert Angelo’s famous feature as “a rectangular hole cut through two of the recto pages (pages 147 and 149) so that the reader can see through to a future event on page 151.” Later in the biography he writes:
For those readers who like me have always been slightly puzzled by the “future event” (which then turns out not to have been a future event) revealed by the holes cut through the pages of Albert Angelo, here at least is a partial explanation. It seems to be intended as a cryptic reference to Johnson’s identification with [Christopher] Marlowe (who was killed at the age of 29 in a tavern brawl) and belief in his own imminent death.
Maybe Coe, with his own cryptic talk about the “future event which turns out not to be a future event,” didn’t want to spoil the surprise. But I have no such scruples, and so following is my description of what the hole reveals, what it is intended to suggest, and why Coe gets so twisted around in talking about it.
In the book, Albert Angelo is a substitute teacher working in a tough school in a poor neighborhood in North London. Despite the book’s humor there is an atmosphere of menace appropriate to the setting, and by the time you get to page 147 you are wondering where the mutual antagonism between teacher and students will lead.
The hole occurs at the bottom of page 147, continues through 149 and 151, and reveals three lines from page 153 (not 151):
struggled to take back the knife, and inflicted on him a
mortal wound above his right eye (the blade penetrating
to a depth of two inches) from which he died instantly.
When we get to page 153 we see that this is actually a description of the death of Christopher Marlowe. But viewed through the hole from back on 147, it appears to reveal Albert’s future fate.
Now I’m going to spoil the rest of the book for you. Pages 154-163 are among the book’s funniest, presenting Albert’s students’ written descriptions of their teacher (”he walks like a firy elephant,” “very nice and fat he is,” etc.). Suddenly, on page 164 the author interrupts: “OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING.”
Pages 167 through 176 present the author’s ruminations on the art of fiction (”telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth”) and translation of events of the novel into the events of his own life (”I’ve had no girl called Jenny, whereas [her name] was Muriel”).
In the end, the author concludes that “even I (even I!) would not leave such a mess,” and in the last two pages of the book he returns to the story of his fictional hero. Albert meets some of his students on the street one night. They throw him in the canal and he drowns. The End.
Thanks to the great B. S. Johnson website for the cover image of Albert Angelo. See Flickr’s B. S. Johnson tag for pictures of a copy of a recent edition of The Unfortunates. And, of course, read Coe’s fantastic bio, Like A Fiery Elephant, which set me off on my current exploration of Johnson’s books.