I’m back from my venture-funded hiatus, and I’m currently mulling over the impending “bankruptcy” of my events list — and also deciding which of the things I’ve read over the past few months are worth sharing here.
Here’s a start. I bought the new New Directions edition of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates a couple weeks ago and I’m slowly making my very enjoyable way through it. (Caustic Cover Critic has some good photos here.)
As you may know, this is the famous 1969 novel that consists of 27 unbound chapters, sorted randomly and packaged in a box. More precisely, as the author says in a note that accompanies the book:
This novel has twenty-seven sections, temporarily held together by a removable wrapper.
Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such) the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order.
If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.
One more thing to know – the chapters are each numbered uniquely starting with 1.
I decided to re-order the sections, but just a few moments before shuffling them I had a thought: once I shuffle these chapters, I will no longer be able to restore the original random order of the sections as they were ordered by the author. Why would I want do that? Well, I don’t know – maybe I’d like to read that original order after I read my re-ordered version. At any rate, I realized I was just moments away from losing that original order forever (short of buying a second copy).
So I took a pencil and marked the chapters from 1 to 27 to reflect the original random order.
Then I shuffled away and began to read.
But as soon as I did, I had a second thought – if these chapters ever fall out of order, how would I recreate the book I am now reading? So I realized that I needed to number the chapters a second time – to reflect my own random order.
Anyhow, just thought I’d let you know, so you don’t lose your original or personal versions of The Unfortunates.
A final word: in Jonathan Coe’s 1999 forward to the book, he notes that when the book was published in Hungary, the publisher couldn’t afford the added expense of creating an unbound volume. And so Johnson added an extra element to his book, which he explained in an introduction:
Another device has occurred to me which goes some little way towards achieving an effect simular to that of the English edition. Each of the twenty-five sections in between those labelled First and Last has a symbol printed at its head. And on the last page, all the symbols so used are printed again, but together. The really interested Hungarian reader is invited to remove the last page (or, of he has been brought up never to defile a book, to trace of copy it in some way) and to cut up and therefore separate the twenty-five symbols. He or she should then place these symbols in a suitable recepticle, shake them vigorously to ensure they are thoroughly mixed, and then, with the eyes closed, draw them out one after another. The symbols should then be numbered one to twenty-five in the order they came out. The receptacle employed is a matter left to the reader: a hat is traditionally used for such drawing of lots in England, though please understand that I would hope that no headgear of a military character might be employed for so literary a purpose. Many items commonly in domestic use and therefore conveniently to hand suggest themselves: bowls, saucepans, eggboxes, wastebins, cups even; and do not think I would be offended if you selected that old-fashioned, still-to-be-found piece known in English as a po, jerry, or pisspot.
But whatever receptacle the reader uses from which to draw his lots, he ends up with his very own random order corresponding to the twenty-five sections of the book between First and Last. He now (or after an appropriate interval for refreshment if he is exhausted) proceeds to read the First section, and then refers to his cut-out symbols in order to identify the next section in his own order, and reads that. And so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, until number twenty-five has been identified and read, whereupon the reader can sigh with relief and read the Last section.
The procedure does, of course, involve a certain amount of clerical and administrative work on the part of the reader. But the amount is surely not excessive, and the lazy reader may of course proceed in his normal manner and accept the binder’s order. if he does choose not to join in on the fun in this way that is of course, his inalienable right; but he will, however, be missing an experience not commonly (if at all) to be had; and perhaps the point, too. Which is also his inalienable right.
What all Hungarian readers cannot help but miss is the physical feel, disintegrative, frail, of this novel in its original format; the tangible metaphor for the random way the mind works, as I have said.
I love the tone of this piece, which gives you a flavor of Johnson’s disarming directness and humor.
Now here’s the interesting part (you were looking for this, I know): at the head of each section of the New Directions edition, you’ll find what I would guess are the symbols from the Hungarian edition. Look for yourself:
Symbol-free page from the original 1969 English edition (scroll down)
Same page from the new New Directions edition.
Each section has a unique symbol. KInd of neat, huh?