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Beckett's brightness on dark days

By Askold Melnyczuk, 06/30/96

Anyone worrying about the death of the novel should call to mind the image of 10-year-old Sam Beckett watching Dublin in flames during the Easter Rising of 1916. Thirty years later, this same person, having spent much of the war working for the Resistance in the South of France, returns to a humiliated, postwar Paris. Surely any witness to such devastations would have every right to question the value of fiction. Instead, Beckett begins what he calls his "siege of the room,'' and over the next half-decade produces some of the century's most important works of imaginative prose, a feat the Swedish Academy recognizes by honoring him with a Nobel Prize in 1969. In keeping faith with his creations, Beckett refuses to go to Stockholm to receive it.

In Beckett's world, the cardinal sin is hope. "The Complete Short Prose'' reads like a psalter, an anthology of prayers for relief from the burden of being. Born in an upper-middle-class suburb of Dublin on April 13, 1906, of Protestant-Huguenot stock, Beckett almost sounds like a doctrinaire Buddhist: "There never was anything, never can be, life and death all nothing, that kind of thing.'' Beckett's career doesn't merely span the distance between modernism and its aftermath; his work is itself the bridge. The traditional novel as it developed in the West may be summed up with the phrase: "Action is character and character is action.'' But Beckett's characters mainly refuse to act. Someone once described "Waiting for Godot'' as a play in which nothing happens, twice. Occasionally action is out of the question because the parties have no bodies. Personality has been replaced by attitude. His figures scorn all attempts at ferreting meaning from the infernal circumstances of their lives.

It wasn't always this way in Beckett's fiction. His earliest stories and novels ("More Pricks than Kicks'' and "Murphy,'' published in 1934 and 1938 respectively) could claim recognizable actors. Stiff and overstylized, they were the apprentice work of a linguistically fertile talent. That "Murphy'' was rejected by 42 publishers seems an understandable mistake. Soon after the war, however, even these stick figures disappeared, giving way to voices, some with names (Molloy, Malone) and others without even that much external identity.

At this point readers unfamiliar with Beckett's work might fairly wonder why he creates voices who speak about wishing to be silent, along the way rejecting the tricks by which most writers labor to hold readers near their wallets. And, more important, why should we listen?

A partial answer to the first question is easily summarized: James Joyce and war.

Beckett's stint as a secretary to the master of maximalism -- he copied parts of "Finnegans Wake'' from his fellow Irishman's dictation, and he had already written about Proust -- must have left him wondering what achievements remained for prose. Moreover, the surrealists, who dominated the Parisian literary scene, had proposed that the literary artist's job was no longer communication but expression.

This was not a retreat into aestheticism. By 1918 any European with half a mind must have brooded about the value of a canon synthesizing thousands of years of a civilization whose fruits seemed to be mustard gas and trench warfare. "Communication'' had degenerated into public relations and audience manipulation. An artist with integrity needed to express his own content without worrying about the reactions of an anonymous public. It was a position born of anger and disgust rather than boredom and privilege. As Beckett himself put it: "A story is not compulsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.'' Moreover, Beckett's deliberate deracination of his characters is surely in part a response to the sort of grounding and detailing of identity along patriotic and jingoistic lines rehearsed by all the tribes of Europe, from Ireland to Serbia. To further this process, Beckett began writing in French. (For those interested in learning more about the context out of which Beckett sprung, Yale University Press has just published Lois Gordon's splendid "The Broken World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946.'')

The present volume, admirably edited by S. E. Gontarski, omits Beckett's first book of stories, "More Pricks Than Kicks,'' as well as a few other works that might have qualified as short prose. But the selection offers any reader unacquainted with Beckett as much as he will need to decide for himself if he wants more. And indeed he should. Beckett's place in the history of European prose -- both in the novel and in theater -- is seminal, and the appearance of this brief book, which encapsulates the whole of his writing life, is a cause for celebration.

My favorite story here, from Beckett's "siege of the room'' period, is titled "First Love,'' an allusion to Turgenev's famously romantic novella. In Beckett's version, a young man, thrown out of his house following his father's death, meets a young woman who sits down beside him on a park bench. They enjoy a peculiar sexual interlude, which our young rogue describes this way: "She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her. . . . But man is still today, at the age of twenty-five, at the mercy of an erection, physically too, from time to time, it's the common lot, even I was not immune, if that may be called an erection. It did not escape her naturally, women smell a rigid phallus ten miles away and wonder, How on earth did he spot me from there?''

Here are Beckett's characteristic rhythms, the rough humor, the misanthropy (which mustn't be mistaken for its condensed version, misogyny), the stark and startling remark. No one had ever gone on record with a mind such as this before. The voice sounds like W. C. Fields played by Ralph Richardson, with a script by Sartre. Elsewhere, the solemn grace of his rhythms, with their fluent stuttering, are as ravishing in their own way as the verse of that other great Irish isolato, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, while the tone evokes Jonathan Swift, who once wrote: "I have hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is for individuals.''

The rest of "First Love'' is equally mordant. The young man becomes smitten with the girl. He knows it's love when he catches himself inscribing the pet name he has bestowed on her inside a steaming cow patty. They cohabit briefly. While he is nonplussed to learn she supports the two of them through prostitution, when she has a child he finds the noises made by young life too much to bear, and off he goes.

Beckett's later prose, though difficult, puts me in mind of Pound's remark: "Slowness is beauty.'' You do not race through these pieces, even though they are often only a couple of pages long. Instead, you walk carefully among them as you might across a craggy glacier in sunlight, dazzled by the glistening. Here the pages are as it were riveted into the language with a mallet: "Bright at last close of a dark day the sun shines out at last and goes down.''


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