Rockaby and Other Short Pieces
Just Play: Beckett’s Theater
Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett
Beckett and the Voice of Species: A Study of the Prose Fiction
Now we must choose, said Mercier.
Between what? said Camier.
Ruin and collapse, said Mercier.
Could we not somehow combine them? said Camier.
The setting of almost all of Samuel Beckett’s work is that of Krapp’s Last Tape, written in 1958: “A late evening in the future.” The future is not a place, and not much of a time; it is a guess, a possibility, a threat. We may say it is in the head, and that is where Beckett’s characters often think they are: in an “imaginary head,” an “abandoned head”; “we are needless to say in a skull”; “perhaps we’re in a head, it’s as dark as in a head before the worms get at it, ivory dungeon.” But the head in this meaning is not a place either. It is a metaphor, a spatialization of the unseeable mind, and it is important not to be taken in by the familiarity of the figure. “Que tout ça est physique,” the narrator of The Unnamable (1953)* moans as he tries to picture the unpicturable.
Another name, another metaphor for this nonplace is limbo, the home of “those nor for God nor for his enemies,” as Beckett puts it, quoting Dante. But Beckett’s fictional universe is a limbo not because of the neutrality of its inhabitants (although this may well be part of Beckett’s strict judgment on himself), but because it is imagined and knows itself to be imagined. It is a domain just off the edge of life, late in the future, an ending order peopled by decaying or immobile creatures who lose the use of their limbs the way others lose their car keys. “It is in the tranquillity of decomposition,” Molloy writes elegantly, “that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…. To decompose is to live too, I know, I know, don’t torment me….”
And yet, in spite of appearances, a good deal of mimesis remains in Beckett. However broken or derelict, schematic, unlikely or cruel, a world is being imagined or remembered or both, and then imitated in words. It is because it is a writer’s world, alterable by a flick of the pen, that it seems so airless and arbitrary. “It’s easily said, and easily written, not to be able,” Moran writes in Molloy (1951), “but in reality nothing is harder.” It is because the writer himself seems more often than not to be at the mercy of the images that present themselves to him that it also has the feel of an observed or described world. “Perhaps I invented him,” Moran says of Molloy, “I mean found him ready-made in my head.”
This world, implicitly or explicitly figurative, persists in Beckett’s work, a rickety or fragmentary externalization of the reason-ridden consciousness. But over the years, this world has become less immediately recognizable, less of a shared world, and less likely to generate characters and stories. Belacqua, in More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), inhabits a historical Dublin, complete with pubs, place names, and Malahide murderer; Murphy, in the novel of that name (1938), sits in a mews in West Brompton. The Landscapes of Watt (1953) and the Trilogy are scarcely realistic, but resemble our world in striking ways and can be reached from it: Malone has been to London and Moran mentions Goering.
Above all, these personages are characters, caught up in stories, and eager storytellers themselves. They, and with them Beckett, equate stories with shape, meaning, and even a modest, if ultimately inaccessible, salvation. And this is what changes. “No need of a story,” Beckett writes prophetically in Texts for Nothing (1955), “a story is not compulsory, just a life.” In most of the later prose—Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), Ping (1966), Lessness, (1969), The Lost Ones (1971), For to End Yet Again (1976)—there are no characters, only closely watched creatures, and no stories, only stark images, obsessively focused and refocused. The scene is still a world, but now less than “just a life,” it is the depleted imagination and its meager contents.
No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit….
Life dies, and then the imagination, the one that deals in islands, water, azure, and verdure. But even then something remains, imagination’s ghost or residue, the indefatigable spook of the writer, who cannot not see things, and who cannot give up trying to arrange in words what he sees. In this case, in Imagination Dead Imagine, the spook sees and describes a white sealed rotunda (“No way in, go in, measure”) containing two human bodies, male and female, curled up, back to back, not moving, not asleep, not dead. The temperature in the rotunda rises and falls, light comes and goes. And then the spook’s “eye of prey” perceives an “infinitesimal shudder” and abandons the image:
Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.
The best of Beckett’s recent fiction returns again and again to the spectral visions of what he calls “dead imagining.”
For the end yet again [as the piece of that name opens] skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin. Long thus to begin till the place fades followed by the board long after….
The place fades, and a gray world appears. A gray little body stands ankle deep in sand pale as dust, the ruins of what is called its refuge sinking around it. The figure is approached by two white dwarfs carrying a litter, a pair of long-armed Keystone Cops trotting into a bleached nightmare. They do not reach the figure, who falls headlong on his face and stays there. The dwarfs then seem to freeze or die, the litter left lying between them:
is this then its last state all set for always litter and dwarfs ruins and little body gray cloudless sky glutted dust verge upon verge hell air not a breath….
No, it is not the last state, or the last image, that will haunt this bowed skull. There is always more in the remorseless mind, the afterlife of the imagination is like Hamlet’s sleep of death, perpetually startled by dreams.
All Strange Away, which was published in a limited edition in 1976 and is now reprinted in Rockaby and Other Short Pieces, looks like a trial run for Imagination Dead Imagine and the later prose. It was written, John Pilling tells us, in 1963-1964. Longer than the prose works which follow it, it reveals more clearly the writer’s hand tinkering with the presentation of the images that beset him:
Imagination dead imagine [it starts]. A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again…. Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again. Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there. Stool, bare walls when the light comes on, women’s faces on the walls when the light comes on…. Light off and let him be, on the stool, talking to himself in the last person….
Light and darkness continue to alternate in this pictured place; the writer makes the room smaller, takes the man’s stool away, converts the images of women on the walls to images of parts of one woman, Emma; changes the sex of the figure in the room, or rather defines it now as female, “since sex not seen so far”; has her lie down and corrects his text retroactively (“Let her lie so from now on, have always lain so”). He cuts the size of the room still further and then converts it into a diminutive rotunda; lends Emma nightmares which fill her with “dread of demons,” adding cheerfully “perhaps some glimpse of demons later”; and leaves the figure there, faintly sighing, moved by a dim memory. “So little by little,” the writer says, “all strange away.”
This is a world very close to that of Imagination Dead Imagine, as the verbal echo suggests, a space that is cramped and inhuman but “proof against enduring tumult.” Or at least aspiring to such immunity. “For in the cylinder alone,” Beckett says in The Lost Ones, where two hundred-odd forlorn creatures, denizens of a flattened rubber cylinder fifty meters round by eighteen high, search unceasingly for their one and only counterparts, “are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery.” The quest for a sure and surpriseless universe has dogged Beckett’s characters from Murphy and Watt through Molloy and on to a number of later figures. The narrator of “The End” cannot bear the sea, “its splashing and heaving, its tides and general convulsiveness.” “Closed place,” Beckett writes in Fizzles. “All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.”
The repeating joke, of course, is that convulsiveness is everywhere, and entirely stable certitudes are not to be had, however ruthlessly we slash at the variables. Are not to be had, and short of suicide, cannot be wanted as much as we think we want them, since the only perfect accomplishment of “all strange away” would be death. Molloy, after patiently constructing a complex system for sucking sixteen pebbles in what he regards as a properly impeccable order, simply leaves the pebbles on the beach. It may be, of course, that in these late texts Beckett wants precisely this ambivalence: a terminal condition which can be seen either as an alluring foretaste of death or an anticipation of death’s horror. But I find myself thinking of a remark of Beckett’s, made during a rehearsal for a German performance of Endgame, and quoted in Ruby Cohn’s Just Play: ‘Hamm says no to nothingness, sagt das Nein gegen das Nichts.”
Of the pieces in Rockaby, All Strange Away is interesting for what it promises, and for the sight it offers of the writer in the workshop of his mind. But it is not as concentrated or as memorable as several of the later prose texts. The other pieces in Rockaby are even slighter. The title work is a brief play, almost a poem, in which a prematurely aged woman sits in a rocking chair and listens to her own recorded voice telling her how she gave up her quest for a creature companion—“another like herself/another creature like herself/a little like”—and progressively withdrew from her walks, from her window, from her upstairs room, to die in her rocker, saying to herself, “Done with that” and to her rocker, “Fuck life.”
Dates throughout are for the earliest publication, whether in French or English.↩
Dates throughout are for the earliest publication, whether in French or English.↩