What Is A Book?

What is a book? I’m pretty sure you know what a book is – but I’m not sure how long the prevailing definition will hold. I’m not even thinking here of reading books on a screen or audiobooks. I am thinking about the format of the book, no matter what medium delivers it.

The book that set me down this path is called The Unfortunates. It was written in 1969. It is an experimental “book in a box” by English author B. S. Johnson, but it was only published in 2008.

It has 27 chapters but they are unbound, with only a first and last chapter specified, and you can read the other 25 in any order.

Quick plot summary: The story tells us about a sportswriter who travels to a town to report on a soccer match only to discover he’s been to the town several times before to visit an old school friend who has since died of cancer. Some of the separate sections of the book are recollections of the dead friend; others are memories of the past or describe the day of the soccer match.

B.S. Johnson in a 1968 publicity photo for The Unfortunates
B.S. Johnson in a 1968 publicity photo for The Unfortunates

The flashbacks are “random” in that the reader chooses what section to read next.  If that sounds annoying, think of how random memories pop up into our present consciousness.

In the book box, there is a stack of loose-leaf printed pages. Some are bound in groups, some are single sides, and some are double-sided pages.

The author? Bryan Stanley (B.S.) Johnson) was born in 1933 and died in 1973.  Depressed by his lack of commercial success and with family problems, he committed suicide. At the time he was basically unknown to the general reading public and was, at best, a cult favorite. A 2004 biography by Jonathan Coe, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson, led to a revival of interest in Johnson’s work.

From a review of Coe’s bio in The Village Voice: “His technical ingenuity peaks with The Unfortunates (1969), a narrative in 27 pamphlets, all but the first and last of which can be read in any order. The book is fungible, but not just for fun; instead it’s Johnson at his most searing—a grief-stricken remembrance of his friend Tony Tillinghast, an academic who died of cancer at 29. Narrator Johnson travels to report on a football match (one of his regular gigs) and realizes the city is one he knows well, his late friend’s home. The interchangeable format reproduces the random nature of memory, as Johnson intended, and also affects other resonances. The dwindling stack of pamphlets mirrors the wasting body; the box they come in is a casket. But the book memorializes his friend’s short life by having it power a nearly infinite story—billions of novels for the price of one. Here is the beautiful collision of possibility and rigor.”

You might say the book’s format is just a gimmick, but reviewers say that the quality of the writing and the story are very effective.

I don’t hear the term “avant-garde” much these days. It seems ironically old-fashioned. In college, I had a course where we read Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, William S Burroughs and other avant-garde writers. Is The Unfortunates a book for that reading list? Probably not. It is really a book about memory, friendship, and loss. Then again, the descriptions of some of Johnson’s other novels, such as House Mother Normal, make me think he does belong on that reading list.

100 Umbrellas on a Sunny Day

erik satie
“Before writing a work, I walk around it several times accompanied by myself.”

I find most of the piano music composed by Erik Satie to be very relaxing and perfect for writing, light meditation or as a prelude to an afternoon nap.

Would Satie be unhappy with those settings for his work? I don’t think so.

He was Alfred Eric Leslie Satie when born 17 May 1866 in France, but this composer and pianist signed all his compositions as Erik Satie.

He is best known for his simple piano pieces that often have exotic titles. Veritable Flabby Preludes (for a Dog) would be one of those odd titles. But even his simply titled pieces often are more difficult to explain. Why are they called Gymnopédies, for example? (more on that below)  Satie had a poetic sense for titles. They add another layer to your interpretation.

I’m going to suggest that you listen to his “Gnossienne 1” while reading this post to be in the proper mood. (The link will open another tab so you can continue reading.)

He called the music he wrote “furniture music,” a term that unfortunately might make a modern listener categorize it along with “elevator music.” Satie meant that it was made to be listened to in the background.  When he was criticized for writing music without form, he immediately composed a series of piano duets called Three Pear-shaped Pieces.

I actually discovered him when I was a teenager and not because I played the piano or listen to classical music. It was used on the 1968 jazz-rock second album by Blood Sweat & Tears. Their own “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie” was adapted from Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” and arranged by Dick Halligan, who played the flute in B,S &T.

That sent me to the local library to borrow an album of his work. Now, there are many interpretations of his work to choose from, but the one I found in the library (and eventually bought) is Satie’s Piano Music performed by Pascal Roge. Satie did not have a huge catalog – his complete piano works is only a 6 CD box set, but he also composed other types of works.

I was also taken with the avant garde-ness of his life. He was a friend of Picasso and collaborated with him to create the ballet Parade (1917), which included typewriters, pistols, factory sirens, and airplane engines in its orchestra. He was sometimes called “the velvet gentleman” because he owned 12 identical velvet costumes, 84 identical handkerchiefs, and nearly 100 umbrellas.

He walked several miles to a cabaret in Paris every evening, where he played all night before walking back with a hammer in his pocket for protection.

His eating habits (which I assume were at least somewhat true, but I’m not positive of that) were odd. he said that his “only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.”

Satie described himself as a “phonometrograph” or “phonometrician” meaning “someone who measures (and writes down) sounds”.

He also left us a lot of writing. Besides his personal writing, he published in magazines ranging from the dadaist 391 to the American Vanity Fair. (Sometimes using pseudonyms such as Virginie Lebeau and François de Paule.)

He is now often seen as a precursor to later artistic movements such as minimalism, repetitive music, ambient music and the Theatre of the Absurd.

calm satieTrois Gymnopédies is arguably his most known piano compositions.  The three pieces are in 3/4 time, with a common theme and structure. They are eccentric. I don’t know enough about music to understand what others say about the pieces, (“the first few bars feature a disjunct chordal theme in the bass – first, a G-major 7th in the bass, and then a B-minor chord, also in the lower register. Then comes the one-note theme in D major. Although the collection of chords at first seems too complex to be harmonious, the melody soon imbues the work with a soothing atmospheric quality) but. for me, they just work.

The title  Gymnopédies is intentionally open to some interpretation.  Satie claimed they were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô but
but critics have though it might be based upon the poetry of J.P. Contamine de Latour’s poem “Les Antiques” (“The Ancients”).

Contamine may have used the Greek word gymnopédie for the number of connotations it suggests. It could be a dance reference. It suggests “gymnastique” (gymnastics) and “gymnase” (gymnasium) based on the same Greek word for nudity (“gymnos”).  The  -ped refers to children (paed), so perhaps a dance by children.

Satie may have chosen it because it was exotic and open to interpretation.

I have been listening to his music as I write this, and now I feel light and heavy all at once and will need to take a little nap.