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

It will perhaps seem paradoxical to suggest that Beckett even in his late work is in many ways a traditional novelist, but I believe that it is so. His characters, though few in type, are strongly drawn, and certainly memorable, and his plots are interesting (consider Moran’s vain pursuit of Molloy, or the drama of the nameless narrator’s agonized journey through the mud in How It Is); his fictions, even the briefest of them, have beginnings, middles, and ends; and practically all of them have a “twist in the tail” (“Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining”21 ). His themes are simple, and universal; as Gontarski puts it, “Childhood memories, adolescent unhappiness, fears of mortality, wasted opportunities, familial and cultural alienation, memories of suicidal sweethearts: these are the elements Beckett’s art needs and needs to undo as he struggles to make universal art out of personal neurosis.” 22 In other words, what he is dealing with is no less or more than life, the commonplace thing itself, in all its disorder and hilarity and pain. In other words.

But if the content of Beckett’s work is conventional, its methods are not. His fictions advance by a kind of reverse progression, denying and consuming themselves as they go; as Wolfgang Iser puts it in his essay in Bloom’s collection, “The Pattern of Negativity in Beckett’s Prose,” “The Beckett reader is continually being confronted by statements that are no longer valid. But as the negated statements remain present in his mind, so the indeterminacy of the text increases, thus increasing the pressure on the reader to find out what is being withheld from him.”23 This is what Gontarski calls “the intent of undoing.”

Of course, Beckett is not the first artist to “affirm by negation.” Some of the greatest writers of this century, from Rilke and Hofmannsthal to Celan and Thomas Bernhard, have produced work that derives its power and pathos from the negative, from all that is absent from it. Negation is not nihilism. The statement of an absence implies a presence elsewhere. (Oh yes, Kafka remarked to Max Brod, there is hope, plenty of hope—but not for us.) This is not to claim Beckett as a covert champion of an outmoded humanism, yet neither is he a harbinger of The End, as posthumanist commentators such as Adorno have all too often and too fiercely affirmed about him. The essence of art is that like a river in flood it flows around obstacles and finds new ways of progressing. Beckett knows that so long as we can say, “This is the worst,” then the worst has not arrived. The Unnamable’s last words are: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” and Worstward Ho, the final volume of the second “trilogy,” Nohow On, ends thus:

Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.

Said nohow on.

The point being, in my reading of it, that to have said nohow on is already to have found way forward.

It is meaningless to describe Beckett, as he is often described, as a pessimist. His work is neither pessimistic nor optimistic; like all true art, it simply is. By its very existence it affirms, but affirmation is not always positive. A story is told of Beckett walking in London with friends one fine summer morning and remarking on the splendors of the day. One of the friends agrees, and suggests that on such a day it is good to be alive, to which Beckett replies: “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as that!”24 Yet Beckett’s narrators, even in their worst extremes of anguish, profess a deep fondness for the world. “Great love in my heart too for all things still and rooted,” says the voice in From an Abandoned Work, and goes on:

Oh I know I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store, that makes me happy, often now my murmur falters and dies and I weep for happiness as I go along and for love of this old earth that has carried me so long and whose uncomplainingness will soon be mine. Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate and drift, through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me.25

When we consider these and countless other such tender passages in the work of his middle period, we realize that the fictions of the 1980s represent no real change of direction but merely an intensification of concerns that were always present but repressed in favor of the ferocity of Beckett’s sensibility in the immediate postwar period.

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” Thus begins Company. It is, I feel, the least successful of the three works gathered in Nohow On. The conjunction is uneasy between the solitary hearer lying in blackness and the bright images called up for him from childhood (“A small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand”); the “intent of undoing” is too apparent:

…there are no flies. Then why not let there be? The temptation is great. Let there be a fly. For him to brush away. A live fly mistaking him for dead. Made aware of its error and renewing it incontinent. What an addition to company that would be!

Also, Beckett comes perilously close here to sentimentality. The images of the little boy holding his mother’s hand, or sitting with his father in the summerhouse, or trying to make a pet of a hedgehog (this last adventure ends badly, of course: “The mush. The stench”), have a touch of Enid Blyton about them. Yet Company contains some of late Beckett’s sparest and most supple prose, and in the end the old, harsh honesty is there, as this “devised deviser devising it all for company” comes clean at last:

You now on your back in the dark shall not rise to your arse again to clasp your legs in your arms and bow down your head till it can bow down no farther. But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable. Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.


While Company and Worstward Ho may be described as autobiographical in the broadest sense, the central work, Ill Seen Ill Said, is narrated in the third person, and has as its central character a dying old woman, alone amid the snows at lambing time and watched over by a mysterious Twelve who ring the clearing where her cabin stands. It is profound and moving, an extended poetic meditation on eschatology; these last things shake the heart.

Winter evening in the pastures. The snow has ceased. Her steps so light they barely leave a trace. Have barely left having ceased. Just enough to be still visible. Adrift the snow. Whither in her head while her feet stray thus? Hither and thither too? Or unswerving to the mirage? And where when she halts? The eye discerns afar a kind of stain. Finally the steep roof whence part of the fresh fall has slid. Under the low lowering sky the north is lost. Obliterated by the snow the twelve are there.

Though all the movement of the work is toward death, the end is strangely joyful: “One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.” Lawrence Graver has remarked, somewhat menacingly, that “speculation about the biographical significance” of the piece cannot go far “until scholarly studies tell us a good deal more than we now know about the fiery relationship of May Beckett and her son,” yet he does declare “how extraordinary it is that the mother-haunted Ill Seen Ill Said should be—for all its provisionality and anguish—arguably the most conclusive and serene of the old master’s works.”26

Serene is not a word one would apply to Worstward Ho.27 This is a difficult, spiky work, built up arduously out of short, percussive sentences, as if the bearer of some terrible news had come stumbling to a halt before us and begun to stammer out his message:

On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

The entire piece is contained in ovo in this opening. Over the following twenty-six pages the breathless speaker strives, mostly in vain, to unravel the sense of things. It is a frightful task. “Less worse then? Enough. A pox on void. Unmoreable unlessable unworseable evermost almost void.” And yet despite the difficulties there are pleasures to be derived. The piece is strangely bracing in its energy and speed, and we are gripped by a sense that all this that is going on—whatever it may be—does matter. “The words…. How almost true they sometimes almost ring!” As always in Beckett, there is consolation to be derived from the right articulation of even the deepest sorrow.

What do they mean, these strange, fraught, desperate fictions? Are we to take any meaning from them? Are they “about” something, or are they that something itself? Many of the images here are religious,28 and I suspect that much critical energy in the coming years will be devoted to teasing out the religious implications of Beckett’s work. (It would be well to remember, however, Beckett’s remarks about his use in Godot of the anecdote of the two thieves crucified with Christ, one of whom was saved and the other damned: it was not the theological aspect that interested him, he said—he merely liked the shape of the idea.) I believe that all of Beckett’s work, from the fumblings of the hapless Belacqua in More Pricks than Kicks to the final, benighted groping for speech in “what is the word,” is first and fore-most a critique of language,29 of the deceptiveness of words, and of our illusions about what we can express and the value of expression, and that it was his genius to produce out of such an enterprise these moving, disconsolate, and scrupulously crafted works which rank among the greatest of world literature.

Beckett is an exemplary figure. He presents for the writers who came after him a model of probity and tenacity which is a secret source of strength in an age when literature itself seems under threat. He refused to take part in the cult of personality, maintaining an admirable reticence in the face of a gossip-obsessed world. He lived, he wrote; the rest was the madness of art. When I think of him I recall his description in Malone Dies of young Sapo watching the flight of the hawk, “fascinated by such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude.”30

Even the most enthusiastic of Beckett’s admirers surely would not claim that the late texts are easy to read. They are packed and dense as furled flowers, and the reader’s attention to them must be as calm, as patient, and as constant as sunlight. The manner of their presentation, therefore, is of critical importance. They are so short and so compact that they confront the publisher with immense difficulties, in these days of the blockbuster and the throwaway paperback. John Calder, who is among the most distinguished and most courageous publishers of the century, has been publishing Beckett for four decades with admirable loyalty and devotion to an author who was never going to make him rich.31

However, the appearance of this “trilogy,” following hard as it does upon another patched-together collection from the same publisher, As the Story Was Told (1990), is, frankly, cause for concern. The jacket tells us that “the overall title Nohow On, the last words of Worstward Ho, have [sic] been given to the trilogy by the author.” Now the term “trilogy” is not sacrosanct, but this offhand use of it is startling, to say the least. The trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable has an organic cohesion that is immediately apparent. Each successive volume in the series consumes its predecessor, swallowing and negating it, in a way that is entirely consistent with Beckett’s stated artistic aims.

No such unity is apparent in Nohow On. Indeed, the insertion of the third-person narrative Ill Seen Ill Said between the “autobiographical” Company and Worstward Ho is incongruous, and artistically displeasing. All three texts have been published separately, and in fact the Grove Press edition of Ill Seen Ill Said (1981), printed and bound in the United States and distributed by Calder in the UK, is a far more handsome version than the text as it is printed here. If there were to be a second “trilogy,” surely the third volume of it should have been the haunting Stirrings Still, which has appeared only in As the Story Was Told. It would seem that Beckett himself wanted some such arrangement. John Calder has given this account of the origins of the present volume:

It was my idea to put the three together as a trilogy, but Sam instantly liked it, and gave it its title. When the publication was in press he suddenly suggested adding Stirrings Still, but it was too late. I think it would have been a mistake.32

Stirrings Still was finished shortly before Beckett’s death in 1989; Nohow On was not published until this year. How long does it take for a book to go through the press? Surely if Beckett himself wanted Stirrings Still included, there would have been time—or time should have been made—to include it, even if that meant that the “trilogy” would have stretched to a “tetralogy.” Beckett’s French publisher, Editions de Minuit, has no intention of publishing this “trilogy,” nor it seems does Grove Press in the US. It seems fair to say, therefore, that Nohow On is John Calder’s book, not Beckett’s, even if the author “instantly liked it.”

As I have said, these late texts can be difficult. They constitute, however, a distinct and extremely significant stage in Beckett’s work, analagous to Beethoven’s late quartets, or Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the products of his old age and, I would argue, the pinnacle of his art. To have them shuffled like so many dog-eared playing cards into an omnibus edition such as this one will I believe only damage them, and confuse and discourage potential readers. The decade or so after a writer’s death is a critical period for his or her reputation; a decline can set in that is difficult to reverse—consider the case of Henry James, whose novels were hardly read at all for forty years after his death. It is time now for all of Beckett’s works, especially these late pieces, to be properly edited and published in definitive and accurate editions, in order that future readers be allowed to see them for the unique testaments that they are.


Ill Seen Ill Said’ November 5, 1992

Ill Seen Ill Said’ November 5, 1992

  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.

  20. 21

    Molloy (in the trilogy), p. 176.

  21. 22

    Gontarski, in Bloom, Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett, p. 245.

  22. 23

    In Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett, edited by Bloom, p. 126.

  23. 24

    Brater, Why Beckett, p. 7.

  24. 25

    From an Abandoned Work, Collected Shorter Prose, pp. 133–134.

  25. 26

    Lawrence Graver, “Homage to the Dark Lady,” in Women in Beckett, edited by Linda Ben-Zvi (University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 148.

  26. 27

    As the awful pun in this title shows (how surprised Charles Kingsley would be!), even Beckett was capable of bad misjudgments, though there were some he avoided: the short play Come and Go originally bore the title Good Heavens. Good heavens!

  27. 28

    A striking and very beautiful example is this, from Ill Seen Ill Said: “And alone on the other most alone the nail. Unimpaired. All set to serve again. Like unto its glorious ancestors. At the place of the skull. One April afternoon. Deposition done.”

  28. 29

    For an illuminating discussion of this topic, see Linda Ben-Zvi’s essay, “Samuel Beckett, Fritz Mauthner, and the Limits of Language,” in Bloom, Modern Critical Views: Samuel Beckett.

  29. 30

    The trilogy, p. 191.

  30. 31

    It should also be said that Barney Rossett’s Grove Press deserves great credit for having published Beckett’s work in the US.

  31. 32

    Letter from John Calder to the present writer.