Samuel Beckett, who is eighty this month, is sui generis, a writer with his own stamp, assured and stylized. This said, he can still usefully be ranged against his Irish predecessors. Because of what he has written, they take on a different aspect. Because of their work, he may seem not quite so rootless as he first appears. Although Beckett has not called attention to his Irish nationality as Yeats and Joyce did, his books are apt to mention with fondness unexpected Irish details. For example, in his first publication, the poem “Whoroscope,” he draws in two brothers named Boot from seventeenth-century Dublin so as to compliment them for having refuted Aristotle. His character Molloy suddenly remarks, “Da, in my part of the world, means father,” and the name Molloy reminds us of Beckett’s conspicuous fondness for the commonest Irish names, especially if they begin with M—Murphy, Molloy, Moran. In his Fizzles the Irish word deasil, which means “clockwise,” suddenly appears, and we recall that it is also used conspicuously as the first word in the Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses. Beckett’s translations of his works into English tend to give them an Irish inflection. When someone asked him if he were an Englishman, he replied, “Au contraire.”
These inclinations to acknowledge his Irish antecedents were qualified by his decision in early youth to live outside Ireland. At the age of twenty-two Beckett went from Dublin to Paris; twenty-six years earlier, at the age of twenty, Joyce made the same journey. Equally pivotal were the displacements of Yeats at twenty-two from Dublin to London, and of Wilde, at twenty, from Dublin to Oxford. The geographical change symbolized for all four of them an attempt to proceed from the known to the unknown, to remake themselves in unfamiliar air.
When Beckett arrived in Paris in 1928, he might well have supposed that the principal outposts of literature had already been stormed, some of them by his own countrymen. Disapprove as he did of Yeats when he postured—for Beckett hates posturing—he could not help but find Yeat’s late verse and prose incongruous with that poet’s frequent references to his decrepitude. Joyce, whom Beckett soon met in Paris, had reconstructed prose narrative and, not content with radical modifications of English, was evolving “heavenly vocables” in a language never before uttered by man. Other eminences, of other nationalities, were of course about, and activity in related arts was intense. Beckett was not intimidated. Initially he pursued the academic career that he had earlier marked out for himself. He wrote about Proust and Joyce, in partisan and cryptic terms; he worked, or disdained to work, at a thesis in French literature; and after two years as lecteur at the Ecole Normale he went back to teach at Trinity College, Dublin.
His friends suspected that he was a genius, yet no one knew as yet how his abilities would be deployed. His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling. He returned to the Continent, he traveled, he idled, he absorbed languages while he idled, he allowed himself amorous entanglements, and because there was nothing else for it and he was, as he liked to say later, “in the last ditch,” he began to write. Whether he did it to express nuances or to exorcise demons he could perhaps not have specified. But write he did. First he was a poet who wrote short stories, then a novelist who wrote plays. Compositions of all kinds—often hard to specify in traditional terms of genre—sprang from his sense that the old relations of authors to their subjects, to their characters, to their language, to their readers, and even to their own selves were discredited. Each foray into a more stark and final apprehension necessitated another; he was impatient with his own modes of pursuit, which became increasingly outlandish as he strove to come closer to the total expression of his experience. Not that he thought of himself as pursuing, for the idea of pursuer and quarry belonged to the past of literature. Rather he happened upon certain consequences of his own being. The urge to write seized him convulsively rather than on some Trollopian schedule.
The temporal stirrings of Beckett’s molar genius are familiar. He published his first novel, Murphy, in 1938. That it was an early work seems to be demonstrated by its having a plot, though the plot was, as he said, deliberately hard to follow in its later stages. The character of Murphy in some ways extrapolated Beckett’s own. Murphy is in search of plenitude, or is it emptiness? Perhaps they are the same. Beckett’s work was to rest, or to be restless, amid such paradoxes. A corollary is that poverty and possessions are the same thing, possessions being only meaningless arrests in time, and time itself an illusion. Murphy, even more than Belacqua in the earlier short stories of More Pricks Than Kicks, is someone to whom such paradoxes offer a way of life, or of nonlife. Action is suspiciously like inaction, being like nonbeing. At the novel’s start Murphy, self-bound by seven scarves in a rocking chair and attempting to rock himself (as Baudelaire says) “anywhere out of this world,” feels the rocking chair overturn. Physical dislodgement and spiritual aspiration intermix, as if the world might overcome and be overcome at the same moment.
Beckett has encouraged us to think of his life not as a well-filled chronicle but as a patch of dark color. Authors, he has said, are never interesting. The poem “Whoroscope” offers a picture of Descartes in the form of a monologue by him that is fragmented and opaque. He was dissatisfied with the anodynes—love, ambition, diligence—with which we moderate incomprehension and futility. He agreed with Dr. Johnson, about whom he started to write a play, that the predominant element in life is misery. “I suffer, therefore I may be” was his improvement upon Descartes, as if misery marked but did not confirm existence, and as if thinking were out of the question. He suffered not only for himself but for others. His character Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks feels pity for the lobster thrown into the boiling pot, but Beckett’s companionable sympathy extends beyond crustaceans. Forty-odd years after the event, he can still mourn the killing of Jewish friends by the Nazis as if it had happened yesterday. That Estragon in Waiting for Godot was originally called Levy suggests some of the emotional origins of that play, though, indeed, the play’s final form still embodies them. His dedication of the recent play Catastrophe to the dissident Czech dramatist Václav Havel would suggest that Beckett sees horror as maintaining itself in post-Nazi events.
Both Murphy and a novel he wrote in English during the war, Watt, brought the characters to insane asylums, as if only there did human gestures approximate to their environment. Beckett was searching out a form for what he called “the mess.” The mess could be framed if not alleviated. Shortly after the war he experienced what he would later with some embarrassment and yet some stubbornness identify as “a revelation.” It occurred when he was visiting his mother in Ireland in the summer of 1945. In her house, “New Place,” across the road from “Cooldrinagh,” where he had grown up, he suddenly saw what his future writing must be. Unlike most revelations, this one offered no new heaven or new earth. If anything, something like a present hell. We know what the revelation was in part because he himself satirized it in Krapp’s Last Tape. This play manipulates the double perspective of Krapp young, taping his achievements, and Krapp old, exasperated with his earlier pretensions and eager to listen only to a moment of relinquished love. Krapp switches on box three, spool five, and hears his own claim made long ago to have had such a momentous experience as Beckett did:
Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle…[hesitates]…for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was that, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely….
At this point he impatiently switches ahead on the tape, but not far enough, for we pick up the words “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…” before he switches again. The tape must have gone on to say, “that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most” effective ally (or most valued confederate). What Krapp really wants to listen to is not his revelation, which no longer interests him, but his experience of a moment of love in a boat. He gets to this and listens to it with intentness. The tape relentlessly winds on past it:
Here I end this reel. Box three, spool five. Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.
Constipated Krapp—banana-eating, spool-playing Krapp—would of course give anything to have them back. The fire of creation, if ever there was one, has long since gone out. Beckett memorializes here, with self-lacerating irony, a moment when he too must have made a crucial choice.
The label he gave to his new motive in art was poverty or impoverishment. His characters would be deprived not only of money but of youth, of health, of fortitude. I do not think that the aged, the infirm, the enervated attracted him for their own sake so much as because through them he could approach the underside of experience, go beneath pose and posture. His books would also neglect the available saving graces of literature. Since Balzac, novelists had prided themselves on amassing particulars. Beckett does not renounce them, though he speaks of doing so, but the particulars he includes, such as sucking stones or farts, are of such paltriness that we scarcely recognize them. Yet beds, chairs, pets, bikes, and food appear, separated and isolated. The furniture may not be Louis Quinze, but it is there.
Only in one way did he allow himself an unexpected sumptuousness, and that was in language. He uses hard words that have to be looked up and then turn out to be marvelously apposite; he will not allow clichés or stock phrases to pass as dead matter; his sentences may describe faltering, but they themselves stand up under inspection; as if to counter the dying fall of his characters, his language undergoes a tremendous revivification. Beyond that, he deals in unheroics. His dislike of pretenses and pretensions makes him shy away from swelling chords toward diminuendos. No makers and shapers, no deeds or events; nothing but residues, detritus, debris, the pratfall triumphant. It was one way of coming close to the nucleus of being, where the least false is the most true, where—as for Genet, the poorest is the richest, or, as for Chaplin, the most painful is the funniest. In More Pricks Than Kicks Belacqua asked himself, “Was it to be laughter or tears?… It came to the same thing in the end.” Or as Oscar Wilde said, “There is a grotesque horror about its [life’s] comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce.” The two elements heighten each other.