If you walk down Kildare Street in the center of Dublin, past the National Library, and take a right turn into South Leinster Street, and look then at the old building on the opposite side of the street which backs onto the playing fields of Trinity College, you will see the sign. It is written in now-fading letters high on the gable end of the building. It says simply: “Finn’s Hotel.” This was what Richard Ellmann called “the slightly exalted rooming house” where Nora Barnacle worked. Close to here, on June 10, 1904, she locked eyes with the young James Joyce. They stopped to talk, the two young strangers, and they arranged to meet four days later on a corner of Merrion Square, outside the house once owned by Sir William and Lady Wilde, where their son Oscar was raised, the site of many parties. When Nora failed to turn up, Joyce wrote to her the next day, “I hear nothing but your voice… I wish I felt your head over my shoulder.” The day afterward they met, and James Joyce made that day into Bloomsday, the day of all days for Irish literature, as he made the name of the hotel into the working title of his last book, Finnegans Wake.
The journey between Nora’s hotel and Wilde’s house is along a single short street called Clare Street. Here at Number 6, Samuel Beckett’s father ran his quantity surveying business. On his father’s death in 1933, Samuel Beckett’s brother took over the business while Beckett himself took the attic room in Clare Street. Here, it was agreed, he would do his writing, and even give language lessons. It was, more than anything, a way of escaping the mausoleum into which his mother had converted the family home; it allowed him to spend his day wandering in the city or staring at a blank sheet of paper. The implications of being halfway between Wilde’s house and Nora Barnacle’s hotel would not have been lost on him. Like Wilde, he belonged to that group of Protestant geniuses who emerged as Protestant power was dwindling and dying in southern Ireland. Among the others were W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, Bram Stoker, John Millington Synge, and Sean O’Casey. All of them came from different rungs of the Protestant social ladder; all of them developed a deeply personal idiom; it was their style which set them apart from the world. Beckett’s early system had elements of Wilde’s interest in finding an accepted set of truths and then turning them sharply inside out, and elements also of Joyce’s concern with language and consciousness. His stepping out into Clare Street was enough to remind him of his destiny.
In the years when Beckett was tentatively creating his early work, three events stand out which helped to mold and shape his genius. The first took place in London, as Beckett was undergoing psychotherapy. In the autumn of 1935, as he was writing Murphy, he attended a lecture by C.G. Jung, who spoke of a patient, a young girl: “Of course, the truth of the matter is, as I realised afterwards, this young girl had never really been born.” The idea intrigued Beckett. Twenty years later, in his radio play All That Fall, Beckett’s character Mrs. Rooney would remember her own attendance at that lecture:
…It was just something he said, and the way he said it, that have haunted me ever since…. When he had done with the little girl he stood there motionless for some time, quite two minutes I should say, looking down at his table. Then he suddenly raised his head and exclaimed, as if he had had a revelation, The trouble with her was she had never really been born!
For Beckett, who had been reading the central texts in the debate around ideas of being and thinking, and was deeply interested in states of nonbeing, nonconsciousness, and nonlanguage, this offered a dramatic opening. He could make characters in his fiction mirror his own plight, characters who had not fully been born, who had come forlorn into the world, whose predicament was an essential alienation, which could not be cured and was almost comic.
During these months in London he worked quickly on Murphy, and then, after his return to Dublin at Christmas 1935 with 40,000 words written, he wrote more slowly, finishing the book in June 1936. He sent it to the publisher Chatto and Windus, who, having sold only two copies of Beckett’s story collection More Pricks Than Kicks, turned it down. It was finally accepted by Routledge and Kegan and Paul in December 1937 and published in 1938.
In the time between the finishing of the book and its publication, Beckett was to receive a lesson, in case he needed one, in the meanness and philistine nature of the new Irish state. It would be made clear to him that he would be more at home in France at war than in Ireland at peace.
In 1937 Oliver St. John Gogarty, on whom Joyce had based the character of Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, published a volume of autobiography in which he clearly libeled Beckett’s uncle-by-marriage Henry Sinclair, who was Jewish. Beckett wrote an affidavit for the case stating that he recognized Sinclair, who was not named, in two viciously anti-Semitic passages in Gogarty’s autobiography. As Gogarty was known as a wit, the libel case was covered in detail by the local press and there were queues each day for the public gallery. A visiting journalist thought that “only the ‘Pickwick Papers’ re-written by James Joyce” could properly capture the atmosphere of anticipation.
Beckett was cross-examined robustly by the defense counsel, who mocked him for living in Paris, and who insisted that Beckett had written a book about an author named “Prowst,” allowing Beckett to correct his pronunciation, and a book of poems named Whoroscope. The barrister then read a section from More Pricks Than Kicks to the jury, pointing out its blasphemous nature. He added that the book had been banned in Ireland. “I suggest,” counsel for the defense said, “that it was banned because it was a blasphemous and obscene book.” He then asked Beckett if he was a Christian, a Jew, or an atheist. Beckett replied that he was none of the three. In his summing up, counsel referred to Beckett as “that ‘bawd and blasphemer’ from Paris…’that wretched creature.’” The judge, in his summing up, said that he felt he was bound to tell the jury that he would not put any faith in the evidence of “the witness Beckett.” The judge said: “He did not strike me as a particularly satisfactory witness. He did not strike me as a witness on whose word I, personally, would place a great deal of reliance.”
Despite his side winning the case, with damages of nine hundred pounds, Beckett felt, from the way the case had been reported, that he had let his family down. His brother, running the family business in a conservative city, advised him to leave for London and then Paris that very night without even saying goodbye to his mother. He did so, and soon wrote to his brother to say once again how sorry he was; his brother did not reply. His mother, who blamed Henry Sinclair, never spoke to Sinclair again. Later, Beckett wrote that the case “had been a thorough turning over of the family manure.” When his novel Murphy appeared the following year with a cruel and unusual portrait of the poet Austin Clarke, presented as Austin Ticklepenny, it was Oliver St. John Gogarty who advised Clarke to sue Beckett for libel. Clarke, however, was smart enough to realize the amount of damage a savage cross-examination in court can do to a confused, arrogant, and ambitious writer. He let the matter rest.
Beckett felt deeply humiliated by the trial. Thereafter, his remarks about Ireland became more and more vituperative. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1969, he asked his French publisher Jérôme Lindon to receive it in his stead rather than the Irish ambassador, who would have been the customary representative.
It should not be suggested that it was this trial alone which caused Beckett to stay in France for the Second World War, but it may have helped him to decide, whatever happened, not to stay in Ireland. It also may have affected the tone of creating a deep ironic distance between each object, each motive, each set of relations, each perception, and each word used to describe them in Watt, the novel written in France between 1941 and 1945, and published in 1953, but by that time there were also other more pressing matters than Irish meanness and parochialism which would make Watt such an original and unsettling novel.
Beckett’s Dublin appeared in Watt much as the London he knew appeared in Murphy. He had not much real interest in these locations and did not suffer from nostalgia or feel any need to refind lost time. These local details appeared in his novels much as the single color in the background of Francis Bacon’s paintings. In the case of both artists, the action was elsewhere.
Beckett was interested in consciousness as a form of comedy close to tragedy and logic as a crime, its perpetrators to be punished by offering them infinite numbers of absurd logical conclusions. He loved the tension in cogito ergo sum and took a dim view of the connecting word, the ergo in the equation. Cogitating was the nightmare from which his characters were trying to awake. Being was a sour trick played on them by some force with which they are trying desperately not to reckon. Beckett produced infinite amounts of comedy about the business of thinking as boring, invalid, and quite unnecessary. His characters did not need to think in order to be, or be in order to think. They knew they existed because of the odd habits and deep discomforts of their bodies. I itch therefore I am.
Early in 1945 Beckett and his wife, Suzanne, returned to “a grim Paris” from the Roussillon, where they had taken refuge in the last years of the war. As soon as he could, Beckett traveled to Ireland to visit his family, whom he had not seen for six years. His mother had sold the family home and moved across the road to a small bungalow which she had built. It was here, while staying with her, that the third event took place which crystallized the terrible experience of the war, and helped to shape and mold Beckett’s genius. In his play Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett tried to describe a night of revelation:
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…. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely—(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)—great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most—(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)—unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire.
It is clear that something like this happened to Beckett in his mother’s house in Dublin after the war. Beckett later told Richard Ellmann:
All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named New Place, across the road from Cooldrinagh [the old family house].
He exhorted one of his biographers, James Knowlson: “Krapp’s vision was on the pier in Dún Laoghaire; mine was in my mother’s room. Make that clear once and for all.”
Beckett was, by then, deeply alert to his own need to struggle against the influence of Joyce. A short time before his death he told Knowlson:
I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.
This concurs with an interview Beckett gave to Israel Shenker for The New York Times in 1956:
The more Joyce knew the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance…. My little exploration is that whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable—as something by definition incompatible with art.
Beckett’s attendance at the lecture by Jung in 1935, his experience of a humiliating cross-examination in 1937, and his revelation in his mother’s house in 1945 may be merely public aspects of a pattern which was well in place. This pattern may have been formed by Beckett’s relationship with his mother and by the quality and intensity of his reading as much as any set of sharp, dramatic experiences.
Mercier and Camier was written after his revelation in his mother’s house that darkness rather than light, lessness rather than completion, would be his métier. “Molloy and the others,” he said, “came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.” Mercier and Camier is proof, in case we needed it, that in art as much as in history, the study of undercurrents is more useful than the study of grand, central moments. Mercier and Camier, in its playful tone, its jokey banter, belongs much more to the world of Murphy and Watt than to the new work which Beckett soon began to produce. “What stink of artifice,” the narrator remarks on page three. In his work to come Beckett would make every effort to clear the air of that stink.
Despite the vision’s place in Beckett’s sense of his own development, it is not as though the work done in the next decade would be enormously different in its tone or in its preoccupations. He refined his style; he changed his language; he found a first- personal-singular voice which made further comic and sharp efforts to unexplain the inexplicable. In Molloy and Malone Dies he allowed his hero to be even more bewildered than
Murphy or Watt, and much funnier. Perhaps the real effect of the vision he remembered in the summer of 1945 was in the volume of his output. For a decade at least he became what Henry James called “a constant producer.” The author of Murphy and Watt, it was clear, did not really mean business; he could happily, and unhappily, have settled into lethargy. Now in 1945, something memorable and important enough occurred that he would care to have it corrected by his biographer, but he may have misunderstood its import. Perhaps it did not tell him to change, merely to work.
Mercier and Camier, written in French in 1946, soon after his vision in his mother’s house, was not published until 1970. The English translation was published in 1974. Beckett made various statements about his move from English to French, saying that French had “the right weakening effect,” insisting that he was afraid of English because “you couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” When he discussed the matter with Lawrence Harvey, the critic reported that he said that
for him, an Irishman, French represented a form of weakness by comparison with his mother tongue. Besides, English because of its very richness holds out the temptation to rhetoric and virtuosity, which are merely words mirroring themselves complacently, Narcissus-like. The relative asceticism of French seemed more appropriate to the expression of being, undeveloped, unsupported somewhere in the depths of the microcosm.
In 1937, with Murphy finished and a period of silence beginning, which would end with Watt, Beckett wrote a letter in German about language to the translator Alex Kaun:
It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.
And yet, as we know from his work, including Murphy, Watt, and Mercier and Camier, he was half in love with grammar and style. He knew the power of a sharp sentence and a well-placed comma. He was constantly prevented from putting his own agenda into operation. His higher goal constantly eluded him. This battle between austerity, distance, a refusal to play games, and the distraction of wit and the sound of words gave his work its power and its unpredictability. As he stepped into the light of Clare Street in the 1930s, the gap between Oscar Wilde’s wit and eloquence and Joyce’s embrace of the world was one that he sought not to fill at all, but to leave empty and stark. He sought to enter that dark space with all his damaged talent, his mixture of arrogance and humility. He was determined to leave the void empty and to fill it with echoes, all at the same time.
Copyright © 2006 by Colm Tóibìn