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The Last Word

Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho

by Samuel Beckett
Calder Publications, 128 pp., £5.99 (paper)

The last four prose works of Samuel Beckett, from Company in 1980 to Stirrings Still in 1988, appear to represent a change of artistic direction which professional, academic critics have greeted with an uneasiness that rises at times to what sounds like consternation. The Polish scholar S.E. Gontarski spotted this seeming shift early on, remarking in 1983 that “Beckett is much less theoretically consistent than one might expect (the later work especially running against earlier theory),”1 while the English critic David Watson in 1991 wrote of Beckett’s having “remarkably produced a series of significantly longer, more sustained fictions, involving in part a return to traditional discourses of narrative representation, though of course in a manner fundamentally informed by the preceding intertext of experimental fictions.”2 Is there a note of anxiety detectable in that “of course”?

Beckett’s artistic venture, from his first, exuberant volume of stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), to his last published writing, the poem “what is the word,”3 was unequaled in its dedicated single-mindedness and unrelenting ideological rigor. That venture was always and only a struggle with and against language; as Leslie Hill remarks, “From beginning to end, Beckett’s work pursues one end, which is the end of language. The end of language, however, never comes,”4 or as the narrator says in the beautiful fragment, From an Abandoned Work (1956): “I love the word, words have been my only loves, not many.”5 After the great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (1951–1953), and the last “full-length” work, the novel How It Is (1961), the texts became shorter and shorter as the author pared down his material, until he achieved a kind of “white-out” in such pieces’ as Imagination Dead Imagine (1966), and All Strange Away (1976):

Imagine Light. No visible source, glare at full, spread all over, no shadow, all six planes shining the same, slow on, ten seconds on earth to full, same off…6

The effort, the concentration, the risk involved in this continuing throwing-out of literary ballast provided a rare and exemplary instance of artistic good faith. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s devoted Beckett readers greeted each successively shorter volume from the master with a mixture of awe and apprehensiveness; it was like watching a great mathematician wielding an infinitesimal calculus, his equations approaching nearer and still nearer to the null point. Surely after this, we would say, the only possible advance will be into total silence at last (“no way in, none out, try for him there”).7 Yet somehow Beckett always found an escape route, no matter how strait the tunnel or how bleak the view at the end of it.

Then came the late works, beginning in 1980 with Company, an unexpectedly substantial (almost fifty pages long) piece which, according to Beckett’s English publisher, John Calder, “received more attention than any of his prose works since Imagination Dead Imagine8—being read by Patrick Magee on BBC radio, and performed in a dramatized version at London’s National Theatre. The (relative) popularity of the piece (written in English, unusually for Beckett, who since Molloy [1951] had first composed in French and then translated himself into English), can be at least in part explained by the air of nostalgia that pervades it. Never before had Beckett dwelt so tenderly on what, on the evidence of Deirdre Bair’s flawed biography, and Eoin O’Brien’s more dependable The Beckett country,9 we could recognize as memories of the author’s own past, especially his childhood:

An old beggar woman is fumbling at a big garden gate. Half blind. You know the place well. Stone deaf and not in her right mind the woman of the house is a crony of your mother. She was sure she could fly once in the air. So one day she launched herself from a first floor window. On the way home from kindergarten on your tiny cycle you see the poor old beggar woman trying to get in. You dismount and open the gate for her. She blesses you. What were her words? God reward you little master. Some such words. God save you little master.

Company was followed in 1981 by Mal vu mal dit, translated as Ill Seen Ill Said (1982), one of Beckett’s gentlest and most approachable late pieces, a portrait of a woman in old age, which seems to owe some at least of its inspiration to Beckett’s memories of his formidable mother. Then came Worstward Ho (1983), written, like Company, in English, a difficult but haunting text in which again the far-off past plays its part:

Bit by bit an old man and child. In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child…

Hand in hand with equal plod they go…. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held.

Such images, and the tender treatment of them, seemed a far cry from the savageries of Beckett’s middle-period works, such as Molloy, in which the eponymous narrator, though on crutches, for no good reason fells and savagely kicks a helpless old man, or The Unnamable, whose family “all died first, the whole ten or eleven of them, carried off by sausage-poisoning, in great agony.”10 What were we to make of this apparent softening, this return from the lofty and well-nigh barren wastes of such severe texts as Imagination Dead Imagine? Instead of falling at last into silence, Beckett had found a new access of inspiration (“Imagination at wit’s end spreads its sad wings”), a final efflorescence which in these three texts, along with the last prose work, Stirrings Still, would produce one of the most beautiful, profound, and moving testaments in the literature of this century.

In Paris in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s the young Beckett was much under the influence of James Joyce, for whom he did some secretarial work, and whose writings he championed, notably in his essay on what was to become Finnegans Wake, “Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce,” in which he made the by now famous distinction: “[Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself,” a formulation that may apply more comfortably to Beckett’s own work than to the encyclopedic fabulations of Joyce. Later, Beckett sought artistically to strike the father dead^11, speaking of Joyce’s tendency toward “omnipotence and omniscience,” while he himself sought to work with “impotence, ignorance.” This did not mean, he insisted, that in his own, new kind of art there would be no form, but only that there would be a new form, “and this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else….”12

In his early essay on Proust, Beckett had insisted that the only progression possible for the modern artist was a progression in depth; the vast inclusiveness of Balzac, or, indeed, of Joyce, must be eschewed. In the first of three dialogues with the editor of Transition, Georges Duthuit, published in 1949, Beckett sets the agenda. Speaking of the painters Matisse and Tal Coat, Beckett commends them for having disturbed “a certain order on the plane of the feasible.”

D.—What other plane can there be for the maker?

B.—Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.

D.—And preferring what?

B.—The expression 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.13

At the time that these dialogues took place, Beckett was in the midst of what he was later to call “the siege in the room,” out of which came the great trilogy, which many still regard as the core of Beckett’s lifework—and which, indeed, he himself as late as 1966 was still referring to as “toute mon oeuvre,”14 despite the fact that between the second volume, Malone Dies, and the third, The Unnamable, Beckett, “in search for a respite from the wasteland of prose,”15 wrote Waiting for Godot, the play which was to bring him worldwide fame.16

The world had certainly taken its time before giving him due recognition (“Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the sea. Getting known”17 ), and there are many readers still who find the trilogy too daunting to attempt. Yet Beckett for all his seeming bleakness is a wonderfully entertaining writer. At one level the trilogy is a comic masterpiece, sparkling with wit and humor, and containing some splendid, mordantly funny setpieces. Also, the prose here is superb:

There was nothing, not even the sand on the paths, that did not utter its cry. The still nights too, still as the grave as the saying is, were nights of storm for me, clamorous with countless pantings. These I amused myself with identifying, as I lay there. Yes, I got great amusement, when young, from their so-called silence. The sound I liked best had nothing noble about it. It was the barking of the dogs, at night, in the clusters of hovels up in the hills, where the stone-cutters lived, like generations of stone-cutters before them. It came down to me where I lay, in the house in the plain, wild and soft, at the limit of earshot, soon weary. The dogs of the valley replied with their gross bay all fangs and jaws and foam. From the hills another joy came down, I mean the brief scattered lights that sprang up on their slopes at nightfall, merging in blurs scarcely brighter than the sky, less bright than the stars, and which the palest moon extinguished. They were things that scarcely were, on the confines of silence and dark, and soon ceased. So I reason now, at my ease. Standing before my high window I gave myself to them, waiting for them to end, for my joy to end, straining towards the joy of ended joy.18

It was in the trilogy that Beckett found his true and unique voice. His style is classical, poised, incantatory, yet one that will “admit the chaos.” His models are the great masters of plain yet sonorous prose, such as Swift, Sir Thomas Browne, the English divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and, above all, the translators of the King James Bible. This century’s other master of English, James Joyce, was essentially a Catholic writer; his work bristles with imagery from the Catholic liturgy, and many of the effects it seeks for depend on typographical presentation: these texts—even Finnegans Wake, for all its vaunted musicality—were written to be seen on the page. On this level Beckett is very much an Anglo-Irish Protestant, his language resonating (“like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah”19 ) as if delivered from the pulpit of a bare, three-quarters-empty church.20

  1. 1

    S.E. Gontarski, “The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Art,” in Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett, edited by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1985), p. 228; an excellent essay in a useful and shrewdly chosen collection.

  2. 2

    David Watson, Paradox and Desire in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction (St. Martin’s, 1991), p. 146.

  3. 3

    First published, in English and French, in The Irish Times (December 27, 1989), and included in As the Story Was Told (Riverrun Press, 1990).

  4. 4

    Leslie Hill, Beckett’s Fiction: In Different Words (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 162.

  5. 5

    From an Abandoned Work, in Collected Shorter Prose 1945–1980 (John Calder, 1984), p. 135.

  6. 6

    All Strange Away, limited edition; Gotham Book Mart, 1976; trade edition, London: John Calder, 1979, p. 8.

  7. 7

    All Strange Away, p. 7.

  8. 8

    Letter from John Calder to the present writer.

  9. 9

    Eoin O’Brien, The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland (Black Cat Press/Faber, 1986), a meticulous and handsomely illustrated volume which in its subtle way amounts to a biography of the writer.

  10. 10

    The trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Grove Press, 1958), p. 318.

  11. 12

    Quoted by Gontarski in Bloom, Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett, p. 240.

  12. 13

    Proust and Three Dialogues with George Duthuit (London: Calder and Boyars, 1965), p. 103.

  13. 14

    Pierre Mélèese, Samuel Beckett (Paris: Seghers, 1966), quoted by Thomas Trezise, Into the Breach, Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature (Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 3, a provocative though jargon-laden “reinterpretation” of Beckett in relation to such figures as Bataille, Blanchot, and Derrida.

  14. 15

    Quoted in Enoch Brater, Why Beckett (Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 55, a relaxed, anecdotal study mainly of Beckett’s dramatic works.

  15. 16

    I confine my comments in this review almost entirely to Beckett’s work in fiction, since I believe that it is in the medium of prose that he produced the best of his art: as he said, “I wrote Godot to come into the light. I needed a habitable space, and I found it on the stage” (quoted in Brater, Why Beckett, p. 55). However, it was in darkness and the uninhabitable places that Beckett found his greatest inspiration.

  16. 17

    Krapp’s Last Tape (London: Faber, 1959), p. 18.

  17. 18

    Malone Dies (in the trilogy), pp. 206–207.

  18. 19

    Molloy (in the trilogy), p. 71.

  19. 20

    The critic Declan Kiberd regards Beckett as a religious writer, finding in the late work, particularly, much persuasive evidence to support this view; he sees in the bare stages and minimal stage-business of the drama a hearkening back to the Church of Ireland churches of Beckett’s childhood.

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