“We’re not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?” one character asks another in Samuel Beckett’s 1958 play “Endgame.” It turns out to be a well-warranted concern. Beckett’s writings constitute probably the most significant body of work produced by a twentieth-century author, in that they’re taken to signify the greatest number of things. “You might call Beckett the ultimate realist,” one eminent critic says, while the title of Anthony Cronin’s fine 1997 biography calls him “the last modernist,” and, equally, thanks to his spiralling self-referentiality, he’s often accounted the first postmodernist. Emptying his books of plot, descriptions, scene, and character, Beckett is said to have killed off the novel—or else, by showing how it could thrive on self-sabotage, insured its future. A contemporary playwright suggests that Beckett will remain relevant “as long as people still die.” Introducing Beckett’s later novels in a new Grove edition of the writer’s work issued to mark his centenary this year, Salman Rushdie takes the opposite—or, life being what it is, perhaps the identical—view: “These books, whose ostensible subject is death, are in fact books about life.” One of the most purposely obscure writers of the last century has become all things to all people. On my bookshelf I also have a volume that I picked up as a nineteen-year-old trekker in Kathmandu: “Beckett and Zen.” Since Beckett got from Schopenhauer what Schopenhauer had found in Buddhism, the connection is not far-fetched. And, come to think of it, a long practice of za-zen might be required before we could so empty our minds as to open up one of Beckett’s texts and hear simply the words that are there.
Why does every literary cause want to recruit Beckett? What is the eagerness, among all parties, to claim as their own the author of the following not at all unrepresentative passage from “Molloy,” the first book of the famous trilogy on which Beckett’s high reputation as a novelist rests? Here—and if it seems a bit long, consider the paragraph of some eighty pages in which it occurs—the ancient, decrepit Molloy reminisces over the creature who first acquainted him with love:She went by the peaceful name of Ruth, I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all? She too was an eminently flat woman and she moved with short stiff steps, leaning on an ebony stick. Perhaps she too was a man, yet another of them. But in that case surely our testicles would have collided, while we writhed. Perhaps she held hers tight in her hand, on purpose to avoid it.
This is fun to read, but what nasty fun! On the following page, Molloy recalls “the indifference with which I learnt of her death.” Granted, it was “an indifference softened indeed by the pain of losing a source of revenue.” The Beckett of the novels is not a very efficient writer—exhaustion is his method—but he can probably condense more cackling blasphemies onto a single page than anyone else. The tributes swirling around him this year rightly place his work in the context of debts to Joyce, Proust, and Dante. They tend to overlook the fact that reading Beckett is frequently like watching the Western canon stick its fingers down its throat.
His aggressiveness toward the reader notwithstanding, Beckett is the most prestigious writer around. A number of factors converge to make this so. There is his long residency in Paris during the years that it was still the world capital of literature. There is his association with the preëminent modernists in two languages: he’d assisted Joyce during the composition of “Finnegans Wake” and published a monograph on Proust, in 1930. Translating himself from French into English and sometimes from English into French, Beckett became a great writer in both languages, and seemed lifted clear of nationality at a time when nationality appeared the besetting sin of belligerent humanity.
After the worldwide success of “Waiting for Godot,” in the fifties, Beckett became what he remains today: an icon not only in the pop-cultural sense but in the original meaning of a picture of a saint. “The human condition” is the constantly, rather emptily tolling phrase in postwar discussion of his work, which was taken to depict a humanity martyred by memories of war, atomic dread, the death of God. Beckett’s small but noble role in the French Resistance authenticated the impression of an existentialist saint, as did his widely attested kindness and remarkable (not to say masklike) courtesy as a person. He disliked publicity, gave away his Nobel Prize money, and lived in spartan rooms across a courtyard from a prison whose inmates he could hear howl. It didn’t hurt that he took a good picture. A beautiful man, tall and thin, his face incised with eloquent suffering, peering at the camera with cold, unwavering eyes, he looked as if his friend Giacometti had fashioned him out of skin and bones.
Easy on the eyes, Beckett is, however, a hard read. His plays continue to be performed, but as a novelist—and he considered playwriting “mainly a recreation from working on the novel”—he is increasingly more honored than read. This is too bad, because Beckett’s fiction, whether or not it is the summit of his achievement, is its heart. Meanwhile, vague and grand ideas about Beckett flourish because he goes unread. “A voice comes to one in the dark”: this, the first line of the late novella “Company,” also describes the ideal situation of his contemporary reader, as innocent and as apprehensive as that, as ready to be startled. Strange stuff, this work, that life.
As if to tease the symbol-hunter, Beckett was born on Good Friday; he died, eighty-three years later, on the second day of winter. The earlier event took place in 1906, in Foxrock, a well-to-do Protestant enclave just south of Dublin. Beckett’s feelings for his good-natured and indulgent father, the proprietor of a land-surveying business, seem to have been fairly uncomplicated. Things were different with his mother, a tall, angular lady of notable severity and reserve. Similar temperaments made mother and son very close and also, these temperaments being what they were, far apart. But Beckett seems to have been telling the truth when he said he had a happy childhood. Undoubtedly he was a good student and a gifted athlete: at Portora Royal School, a mostly Protestant boarding school that counted Oscar Wilde among its alumni, he excelled at Latin and cricket. (Beckett remained a sports fan all his life, watching a lot of tennis on TV, and speculating that had James Joyce been a rugby player he would have made “a very nippy scrum-half.”)
At Trinity College, Dublin, Beckett began to frequent playhouses and pubs. Irish variety theatre—a sort of indigenous vaudeville in which, according to Anthony Cronin, actors were given to bantering cross talk and to “borrowing each other’s hats, boots and even trousers”—clearly influenced Beckett’s own stagecraft. Nor did his taste for Irish whiskey ever leave him, despite half a century spent in France.
Beckett first lived in Paris between 1928 and 1930, studying at the École Normale Supérieure. His real occupation during these years, however, seems to have been reading according to his inclinations and writing avant-garde poetry. He also became one of Joyce’s friends and helpers and a reader of Proust, having been commissioned to write a short introduction to his work. The influence of both writers on him may have been exaggerated. For now, Joyce’s influence was most evident in Beckett’s decision to emulate his taste in white wine and to squeeze his feet into shoes the same style and size as those of the Master. Meanwhile, Beckett found much of Proust “offensively fastidious, artificial and almost dishonest.” The short study that he wrote—rehearsing, in a youthful tone of violent preciosity, his Schopenhauerian themes of the impossibility of satisfaction and the incoherence of the self—serves as a better introduction to his own work than to “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.”
Beckett seems to have had none of the usual collegiate or Parisian preoccupation with politics. Critics have credibly detected traces of the Irish famine, fears of nuclear war, and instances of the master-slave dialectic in Beckett’s work, but he rarely mentioned politics and is known to have exercised the franchise only once, when he sold his vote to his father for one pound and voted for the Conservatives. Touring Germany in 1936 to look at Old Masters, he was unmoved by what he called, in a letter, “all the usual sentimental bunk about the Nazi persecutions.” In a diary kept at the time, he is more concerned to be “without purpose alone and pathologically indolent.”
For something had gone wrong with Beckett as a young man. In 1930, he returned to Dublin, where his French and Italian had won him a position as a junior lecturer at Trinity, but he walked away from the job the next year, disappointing his parents in a way that evidently afflicted him throughout his life: “I always felt guilty at letting him down,” he says of his father in an interview granted in the last year of his long life and excerpted in “Beckett Remembering / Remembering Beckett” (Arcade; $27.95), one of several volumes marking his centenary.
Beckett was still living at home, lethargic and unhappy, when his father died, in 1933. The next four years were largely divided between the family estate and London, where he submitted to the care of the British psychoanalyst W. R. Bion. In both locations, Beckett suffered from night terrors—he would wake in the dark with a racing heart, in a sort of frozen panic—and from a fearsome array of psychosomatic ailments, including stomach trouble, pleurisy, and recurrent cysts on the neck and anus. The insomniac dread of Beckett’s narrators (“I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot. . . . So I’ll tell myself a story”), as well as their revulsion at the human body, probably owes something to the memory of these afflictions.
It was with Bion that Beckett heard a lecture in which Carl Gustav Jung made a cryptic remark about a young girl who “had never really been born.” To Beckett, the idea was an illumination, and in spite of his otherwise considerable discretion he was willing to confide to people throughout his life that he considered himself a similar case. The notion of an incomplete birth seemed to explain something of his feeling of unreality—many a Beckett character seems uncertain whether he really exists. An extremely intelligent, well-educated, and skeptical man, Beckett nevertheless made more use of this dubious idea than perhaps any other.
The dismal years between the death of his father and the final move to Paris, in 1937, produced “Murphy,” the story of an impecunious Irishman living in London—Beckett’s first published novel and also his funniest. The halfhearted plot concerns the efforts of Murphy’s girlfriend, Celia, to get him to find work so that she can stop turning tricks. The book’s comedy comes from Beckett’s parading a preposterous collection of lowlife beneath the high arch of his diction: for example, “Cooper’s only visible humane characteristic was a morbid craving for alcoholic depressant,” or “For an Irish girl Miss Counihan was quite exceptionally anthropoid.” Murphy indulges Celia in sex and his philosophical friends in conversation, and ultimately rouses himself to work as an attendant in a mental institution. He prefers, however, to strip naked in his apartment, bind himself into a rocking chair, slow his heart nearly to stopping, and, without quite losing consciousness, forgo all awareness of his body and the world. A final episode of deliberate oblivion causes Murphy to perish in a gas explosion that a more attentive person would have avoided, but he is hardly the last of Beckett’s protagonists to pursue the ideal of a mind sealed off from the incidental universe.
Not long after moving permanently to Paris, Beckett had an altercation on the street with a pimp, who stabbed him in the chest. It points to the complexity of Beckett’s erotic life at the time that this was not his first encounter with the pimp, and that much of his convalescence was spent trying to decide whether to favor as his regular girlfriend Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress, or Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, his tennis partner. Ultimately, he chose Suzanne, a Frenchwoman six years his senior, whose influence seems to have promoted more work and less carousing. Biographers know little about Suzanne other than that she had austere habits, avant-garde tastes, and left-wing politics. Because people who live under the same roof don’t usually exchange letters, marriage is a silence at the heart of many biographies, and this is especially so in the case of Beckett and Suzanne, who, for more than fifty years, maintained separate social circles—she didn’t like Irish whiskey or English conversation—and similar codes of discretion.
Suzanne’s politics may have encouraged Beckett to take part in the Resistance, though he was mainly motivated by simple outraged decency, particularly over the Nazi treatment of Jews. He allowed a group called Gloria to use his apartment as an information drop, and he translated and typed up reports on the occupying forces. This was a risky activity. When a member of Gloria, Beckett’s friend (and a French Jew) Alfred Péron, was arrested, in August, 1942, Beckett and Suzanne fled south, to Roussillon, where they waited out the course of the war. In the evenings, Beckett wrote “Watt,” the last novel that he composed in English.
In light of the grim circumstances of its production, “Watt” seems a remarkable and even desperate instance of pure fiction. What comfort an attitude like Watt’s, if one were possible, would have provided during the war: “Watt did not know what had happened. He did not care, to do him justice, what had happened.” Watt, the dutiful servant of Mr. Knott, whom he never encounters any more than Vladimir and Estragon ever meet Godot, is a creature—perhaps unique in the history of the novel—of pure, relentless logic. Watt considers the range of possibilities in a given situation and tries to determine what, if anything, duty requires of him. Beckett’s third-person narrator flaunts the same indiscriminate facticity. Thus Watt’s surmise on the activities of Mr. Knott:
Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door . . .
Think Beckett can’t go on? He can go on. In this case, for another thirty lines. Hilarious by the page, sometimes thanks to wit and frequently due to exhaustion, “Watt” is on the whole a chore to read, though it remains a memorable fantasy of a world where, to human ears, as one character imagines, the sounds of life would “demand nothing, ordain nothing, explain nothing, propound nothing.” Beckett and Zen.
In 1946, Beckett returned to Ireland for the first time in six years. Joyce had died five years earlier, Beckett’s mother was now old and infirm, “Watt” had been deemed unpublishable by everyone who saw it, Ireland was no longer quite his country, and English not quite his language—and perhaps all these changed circumstances conspired to clear space for the momentous revelation that Beckett experienced. The epiphany came in his mother’s bedroom, a recently discovered fact that sheds new light on the first line of the trilogy that forms the core of his achievement in prose: “Je suis dans la chambre de ma mère.” The revelation, as Beckett later described it to a biographer, was this:
I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding.
This was not a new way, exactly, for the author of “Watt,” but it gave him a new confidence and determination, allowing him to write out of confusion and contradiction with a paradoxical lucidity.
Beckett returned to France, and to his life’s work. The sequence of “Molloy,” “Malone Meurt,” and “L’Innommable,” written between 1947 and 1950, during what Beckett called his “siege in the room,” have in common a continual reference to their own artifice; they’re what we now call metafictions. But they also express something that Beckett called, simply, “what I feel.” And for this purpose French seemed a better, because blunter, instrument than English. In French he found it easier to write, he said, “without style”—that is, free from the influence of Joyce and, more important, from his own vast English lexicon, deep lyrical inheritance, and Irish penchant for rhetoric.
The trilogy proceeds by way of collapse. Beckett’s successive monologuists, confined to a series of small rooms, try and fail to tell their stories; and each narrator is then revealed to be the alias, and each story the alibi, of its successor, until, pulling all of Beckett’s earlier creations down upon its nonexistent head, there is only the disembodied voice of the Unnamable: “I am neither, I needn’t say, Murphy, nor Watt, nor Mercier, nor—no I can’t even bring myself to name them, nor any of the others whose very names I forget, who told me I was they, who I must have tried to be.” And what is the Unnamable? A blind need for words, plus the abiding sense that words name nothing, are only words.
The bare idea of the trilogy is a large part of its power. Here, it seems, is the novelistic equivalent of abstract painting; indeed, another of this year’s tribute volumes, “Beckett After Beckett” (University Press of Florida; $59.95), translates for the first time a letter in which Beckett proclaims, “I can not write about.” The trilogy has become famous in the history of fiction because of what is left out: the usual novelistic apparatus of plot, scenes, and characters. Here, if you want to think of saintliness, is a vow of poverty. And now and then the books do illustrate Beckett’s dictum that “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” But “obligation” is a moral term, applicable only in a world of other beings. The trilogy is so solipsistically self-enclosed that a better term would be compulsion.
And the issue of psychology returns us to what’s often overlooked in the trilogy, which is what Beckett chose to or could not help but leave in. Why, when Malone wants to tell himself a story on his deathbed, does he dream up a massacre of mental patients? Why, when the Unnamable is in similar straits, does he devise the story of a household laid waste by a tin of “fatal corned-beef,” contaminated with botulism, so that when a man comes home he finds himself “stamping under foot the unrecognizable remains of my family, here a face, there a stomach, as the case might be, and sinking into them with the ends of my crutches”? Perhaps the successive narrators are lured into unburdening themselves of their lives by the promise of that worldless emptiness that Murphy sought to enjoy, only to discover that this is like entering a sensory-deprivation tank: instead of peace, the subject experiences wild terrors. But, faced with the nasty fantasies thronging the trilogy, we might do better just to admit bewilderment.
Beckett’s themes of solitude and death are universal, but he remains a tremendously peculiar writer. “Malone Dies” contains surely one of the most horrifying moments in modern literature:
What if I started to scream? Not that I wish to draw attention to myself, simply to try and find out if there is someone about. But I don’t like screaming. I have spoken softly, gone my ways softly, all my days, as behoves one who has nothing to say, nowhere to go, and so nothing to gain by being seen or heard. Not to mention the possibility of there being not a living soul within a radius of one hundred yards and then such multitudes of people that they are walking on top of one another. . . . I shall try all the same. I have tried. I heard nothing out of the ordinary.
This quarantined solitude, those compacted pedestrians, that stillborn scream—there, it seems, is a nightmare version of modern life. But Beckett more likely had in mind his strange Jungian notion of an incomplete birth. He claimed that he had memories of being trapped inside the womb, “crying to be let out, but no one could hear.”
After completing “L’Innommable,” in 1953, Beckett set about translating himself back into English, as he did with almost all his plays. It’s telling that his flattish French often comes into English with a snarl: the plain “Depuis ma naissance” becomes “Ever since I was whelped.” By 1958, the heroic labor of Englishing the trilogy had concluded on the ringing, ironical note of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Famous last words, since Beckett did continue writing fiction, notably “the grisly afterbirth” of the trilogy collected in the fragmentary “Texts for Nothing,” and then, in the eighties, a beautiful sequence of short prose works: “Company,” “Ill Seen Ill Said,” and “Worstward Ho.” The tenderness and the soft, sweeping rhythms of these late pieces show some of the gentleness and compassion that Beckett is said to have displayed as a person. But as a novelist proper he was finished by the late fifties, unless you count the unpunctuated and, for the first time, unfunny prose of “How It Is” (1961). Anthony Cronin suggests that the “aesthetic satisfactions” of the text, which concerns humanoid creatures victimizing one another while crawling across a plain of mud, insufficiently repay “the pains and difficulties” imposed upon the reader, and most people will be inclined to take his word for it.
Beckett had taken a break between “Malone Meurt” and “L’Innommable” to write a play, “En Attendant Godot”—a five-finger exercise that turned out to be a masterpiece. In spite of the formlessness of the trilogy and Beckett’s inexperience as a playwright, “Godot” is all but perfect in its formal balance and economy: two acts; two evenings; two tramps, hopeful Vladimir and forgetful Estragon; the promise of Godot’s arrival the next day, set against the consolation of “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow”; the opposition, the alternation, the occasional unity of hope and despair. As long ago as the essay on Proust, Beckett had launched these themes: “We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other.” But none of his previous work approaches the play’s lucidity and grace.
Beckett had written his play with little hope of seeing it produced, but a grant from the French government enabled Roger Blin to put the play up at the Théâtre de Babylone, in Paris, in 1953. And in a matter of a few years this Parisian succès de scandale (in which, in the famous synopsis of the critic Vivian Mercier, “nothing happens, twice”) became, in spite of some continuing jeers, an international succès d’estime. With its metaphor of endlessly postponed deliverance, it became a contemporary myth and proverb. Beckett was particularly delighted to learn that a troupe of Swedish prisoners, scheduled to put on the play in Göteborg, had slipped away from a sold-out house and gone on the lam.
In Beckett’s early plays—including “All That Fall” (1956) and “Happy Days” (1961)—a social, and therefore moral, life is conjured as nowhere else in his work. Vladimir and Estragon’s fed-up familiarity and minimal gallantry feel like real interaction, and the same is true, in “Endgame,” of Hamm and Clov’s sterile dependency and ritualized tragicomic bickering. (One wonders whether Beckett, as solitary as he seems to us, may not have written much of his best work out of the experience of marriage.) But before long his development as dramatist recapitulated the inward turn of the fiction. From the sixties through the eighties, his dramaticules and his novellas alike present the haunting of minds by memories, often a man’s inner interplay of “time and grief and self and second self his own.” This plunge within does not deprive the late plays of power any more than it does the fiction—and yet this is power without heat. To witness a public presentation, as a staged play must be, of such bottomlessly private experience as seems expressed in, say, “Ohio Impromptu” (1981)—in which a white-haired, black-clad Reader reads a story to a silent Listener of identical appearance—can be a very chilly experience, making that other listener, the spectator, feel almost as if he is not there.
Beckett’s work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn’t have a Godot? Still, when it comes to exegesis, we are mostly putting words into a mouth constantly engaged in spitting them out. The bizarre horror in Beckett provokes such glib formulations as that of the Nobel Prize committee: Beckett “has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation.” But much of the forlornness of the frightening spaces in Beckett—the little rooms, the blasted heaths, the madhouses, the ditch in the rain, the country road with its one tree, the little glass jar near the slaughterhouse, and all the sequestered, jesting minds—is that these are sites forsaken by meaning, bereft of sense. For agoraphobes, there is, in Beckett, the wide vacancy of the universe; for claustrophobes, there’s the bounded nutshell of the self, plied with bad dreams. It’s Beckett’s trick to allow you to feel the terrors of both emptinesses at once. And yet meaning always returns to the hole it has been torn from; interpretation probes the bareness of these works as insistently as a tongue returning to where the tooth was.
“I do not know this author,” Beckett said when he looked at “The Unnamable” a few years before his death, an admission from which critics could learn something. Take an idea to a page of Beckett, and usually the page will reject it. It will, however, give forth abundant mirth, fascination, fear, and pleasure. There is a moment in “Molloy” when Moran is attempting to drag himself home, where he hopes to see again his bees dancing near their hive. He describes at length the mysterious buzzing dance of the bees, controlled by “determinants of which I had not the slightest idea.” It may be the happiest, most fruitful moment in Beckett: “And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.”
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