N.Y. Times Book Review

Samuel Beckett
By A. Alvarez
148 pp. New York: The Viking Press
Cloth, $5.95. Paper, $2.25.

A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett
By Hugh Kenner
208 pp. New York
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Cloth, $7.95. Paper, $2.95.


November 25, 1973

So deep is Samuel Beckett's depression, so great his gloom, that next to him the various absurdists, chroniclers of the dismal, and cosmic comedians seem so many Rotarians. He is the wastelander of all wastelanders. After journeying through Beckett country, the land of Eliot — with its lidless eyes, picked bones, stony places and rats slithering through vegetation — seems almost a resort, a Cannes, a White Sulphur Springs of literary vision. Beckett offers perhaps the narrowest range in modern literature and the most unrelieved landscape. To him, only a single human datum appears of real interest — that we are born to die. "They give birth astride of a grave," as Pozzo says in "Waiting for Godot," "the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." From his earliest work through his most recent, Beckett has viewed life as a terminal illness.

Along with being the poet of despair, Beckett is also the satirist of intellection. "The loss of consciousness," remarks Malone in Beckett's novel "Malone Dies," "was for me never any great loss." If life is essentially terrifying, it is also essentially comical. To be dire yet witty has often been Beckett's way — tossing off one-liners as the quicksand gathers about his mouth. One might as well appreciate the comedy inherent in the situation. "We may reason to out heart's content," announces another Beckett character [The Expelled], "the fog won't lift."

Beckett, the tragi-comedian, writes out of a split personality — part Irish, part French. The French side appears to provide his interest in intellectual arguments; the Irish side seasons and leavens the lumpiness of these arguments. "Argument," singular, is more accurate, for Beckett finally has only one argument and that, as Nigel Dennis once cleverly pointed out, is with the Book of Genesis. His squawk is with creation. Finding man in the baleful situation of having been born to die, with a paucity of means to while away the time in between, Beckett, as A. Alvarez rightly says, has been obsessed with "the sheer ill-luck of existence." It is important to keep in mind the level of Beckett's argument. He is not an alienationist or a farceur of the absurd or a critic of modern life. Beckett is equally without rancor or hope. He sees man as the butt of some awful and unalterable planetary joke. If he has a message, it is, in a word, "misdeal."

Beckett's despair does not derive in any obvious way from personal biography. Sixty-seven years ago he was born, in Foxrock, near Dublin, into a family that was liberal, cultured, Protestant and upper-middle-class. John Calder, his friend and one of his publishers, speaks of Beckett's home as even "being affectionate to an unusual degree." Initially, Beckett set out on a rather conventional academic career. He read Modern Languages at Trinity College, where he took an M.A., and later lectured in French at that school and in English at the Ecole Normale Supιrieure in Paris.

He was part of the circle around James Joyce in Paris, though not, as has often been erroneously reported, his secretary. He was in France during the Occupation and was connected, in a manner he never chose to amplify upon, with the Resistance. The brief portraits of him that have been set down by friends and colleagues in the theater portray Beckett as gentle, precise and reclusive. When awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966 [sic], he neither submitted to interviews at home in Paris nor traveled to Stockholm to speechify, as literature laureates are expected to do, upon the human condition. He seems to have the gift of perpetual apathy.

Maria Jones, widow of the Parisian editor Eugene Jolas, has said of Beckett that he "seems to bridge the gap . . . between now and Joyce." A perceptive comment. Both in his person and in his work, Beckett is one of the last living links with the modernist movement in literature. He brings to his writing the same concentration, purity and obliviousness to his audience that, among other qualities, marked the earlier modernist masters. Yet it now needs to be asked to what extent was the exhaustion explicit in Beckett's writing implicit in the great modernist works all along? Have the avenues opened up by Pound, Eliot, Joyce and the rest found their logical end in the dustbins, ashcans and mud of Samuel Beckett? The modernists were interested in the revolution not of the world but of the word. Beckett, in a composition entitled "From an Abandoned Work," remarks: "Over, over, there is a soft place in my heart for all that is over, no, for the being over, I love the word, words have my only loves, not many."

Neither Mr. Alvarez nor Hugh Kenner touch upon such points in their new books. Writing, respectively, a "Modern Master" and a "Reader's Guide," they have come less to question than to praise Beckett, and, as it sometimes seems, to bury him in interpretation. (A task Mr. Kenner, taking more space, accomplishes more efficaciously than Mr. Alvarez.) As critics, both men have been writing long enough to have established literary personae of their own. Mr. Alvarez is noted as a man with a low tolerance for nonsense, as befits the author of a book entitled "Beyond All This Fiddle"; yet, as the author of "The Savage God: A Study of Suicide," he also is not put off by apocalyptic thinking. Mr. Kenner's persona is that of the advocate. A Poundian, a Fullerian (Buckminster, that is), a Beckettian, his tendency is to take sides as a critic and press his case.

Both men are adding to an already immense literature, in French and English, on their subject. John Calder notes that, should the current outpouring of books on Beckett continue on anything like the same scale, by the year 2000 he figures to rank fourth after Christ, Napoleon and Wagner among the world's most written-about men. Mr. Alvarez complains about this phenomenon in the act of contributing to it. Mr. Kenner, ignoring the competition, bulls on through; this is his second book on Beckett. The less Beckett himself writes, it appears, the more is written about him. There is a fine Beckett-like joke in that.

Part of the joke is that reading about Beckett at any length tends to induce a gloom nearly as great as Beckett himself induces. While Messrs. Alvarez and Kenner have their own special insights and points of erudition to contribute, another part of the joke is how easily their sentences fall into the nattering dialogue one finds in a Beckett play. Here is Mr. Kenner talking: "Gaber is a 'messenger.' The Greek for 'messenger' is angelos, and the name of a well- known angel is Gabriel. We shall do well to make little of this." Here is Mr. Alvarez talking: "If an author devotes a lifetime to writing about deprivation in all its forms . . . then, if he is consistent, he finishes with a work of art deprived of art." Vladimir Kenner and Estragon Alvarez . . . Waiting for Whom?

Some writers seem less susceptible to the Guides and Masters treatment than others, and Beckett seems among the least susceptible of all. "No symbols where none intended" is the line Beckett tagged onto the end of his novel, "Watt," and it is a reminder that, hermetic though he might seem, he has always been conscious of literary criticism. Yet Beckett is a writer who is most serious when he is most comic — heaviest, so to say, when he is lightest. Among other effects, criticism has tended to inflate him, to push him in the direction of the portentous and the symbolically heavy-handed. Without the press of criticism, would Beckett have bothered to create such knick-knacks as "Breath," a black-out skit about just that, a breath, or "Not I," a play in which the major presence on stage is a spotlighted mouth? This, clearly, is the work of an author feeding an audience of critics hungry for major statements.

Mr. Kenner and Mr. Alvarez are part of that audience. For a sampler, we have Mr. Kenner remarking of a sentence in a Beckett novel that "Vergil has no finer cadence." After a lengthy summary of another Beckett novel, "The Unnamable," Mr. Alvarez remarks what is perfectly true, that it "gets perilously close to being the Unreadable." Nonetheless, it is summarized at length; every little driblet from the master needs scrutiny. Of some short pieces Mr. Kenner writes: "They exact a new order of attention, entailing as they do the reconstruction of whole worlds out of minimal fragments. We examine one as a geologist might the sole piece of some exploded planet." One small step for Beckett, one giant step for mankind.

A sharper perspective on Beckett might be gained if the lit. crit. blitz were let up. As things stand now, though, Mr. Kenner's notion that — in what he calls a "useful hyperbole" — there are "no minor works" in Beckett is the reigning one. Thus all the attention to the minutiae of Beckett's development. Yet, as E. M. Forster once commented, "the longer one lives, the less important does 'development' appear" in writers. What remains important are solid works, and of these Beckett, by rough consensus, has produced four: two plays, "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame," and, though they are less well known, two novels, "Murphy" and "Malone Dies." Whether this qualifies him as a — let alone the — major artist of our time still seems very much a point at issue.

For Mr. Kenner there is no issue at all: the case is closed. Mr. Alvarez ends his book on that old horse's rump of literary criticism, the artist's predicament. Beckett's play "Not I," he writes, is, among other things, "a dramatization of the artist's even more profound predicament." More interesting, if not so profound, is the predicament, illustrated by these two books on Samuel Beckett, of the contemporary critic — his need to have major artists to write about, even if he has to create them on his own.

Joseph Epstein is a visiting professor at Northwestern University.

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