How curiously this valediction rings, addressed as it is to a man who satirized every form of metaphysics and renounced any mental comfort that might subtract him from the exhausting experience of being alone with his conviction that the world was without meaning and expression futile, yet that all the same he was duty-bound to express the fact. But perhaps it is precisely in Beckett’s repeated renunciations—of English for French, of a rich and traditional narrative facility for texts stripped of everything we would normally think of as plot or color—that we can find a link between these sometimes sentimental centenary remembrances and the core of the author’s work, his special position in the literature of the twentieth century. “How easy,” wrote Cioran, “to imagine him, some centuries back, in a naked cell, undisturbed by the least decoration, not even a crucifix.” With Beckett, it is the persistence of a “religious” seriousness in the declared absence of any sustaining metaphysics that gives his work its special, for some, saintly, pathos.
Born in 1906, Beckett was brought up in a well-to-do Protestant family in County Dublin. Educated at private schools, he excelled in both academic work and sports and, after graduating in French and Italian at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1927, went back and forth between teaching posts in Dublin and Paris, where he met James Joyce, who was then writing Finnegans Wake. But Beckett soon decided he was not cut out for teaching and gave up his job, thus disappointing his parents. The ensuing and bitter arguments, with his mother in particular, plus what appears to have been a number of panic attacks, led to the decision to undergo psychoanalysis in London, where Beckett spent two years trying and failing to start a career as a reviewer. After an extended visit to Germany and another unhappy period in Dublin, he settled permanently in Paris in 1937.
In two essays written in his twenties Beckett declared his great admiration for Proust and Joyce, yet his first novel, Murphy, written shortly afterward, suggests a different inspiration. While Proust and Joyce share a confident commitment to the evocation of complex psychological reality within a densely described material world, Beckett seems embarrassed to present his story of a feckless, unemployed Irishman in London as “real” at all. Despite, or perhaps because of, the novel’s evident autobiographical content, all kinds of strategies are used to prevent the reader from becoming immersed in plot and character in the traditional fashion. The book opens with a tone of mockery:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.3
The very etymology of “novel” suggests that the form brings newness. Echoing Ecclesiastes, Beckett renounces the idea. The solar system is a prison, ever the same, and the notion that Murphy might have achieved some freedom by sitting “out of it” (out of the sunshine ) is laughable. Nor is it the only prison. His room is a “cage” in the rigid grid of London’s terraced streets. Even the language aligns itself with this imprisoning environment as groups of words are repeated as though to form the walls that close Murphy in: “eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off” is mirrored by “eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off,” while in between “a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect” faces “medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” Those compound, hyphenated adjectives—medium-sized, north- western—reinforce the sense of entrapment, making the irony that Murphy’s room might “command” a view even heavier.
In Joyce, Beckett had admired the fusion of word and sense. “When the idea is sleep, the words go to sleep,” he remarks, and he speaks of his compatriot as the heir to Shakespeare and Dickens in this regard, great masters of onomatopoeia and evocation. But a letter written to his friend Axel Kaun a year before the publication of Murphy suggests that Beckett’s sense of what could be achieved with language was changing quite radically:
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…when language is most efficiently used where it is being 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 he adds: “With such a program, in my opinion, the latest work of Joyce has nothing whatever to do.”
Interesting here is the way what at first seems the dissatisfaction of any adventurous young artist with current conventions is drastically extended to the whole of language, which, in the name of honesty, is to be attacked with “a mocking attitude towards the word, through words.” The position explains those odd slippages in the opening sentences of Murphy where first we hear of clothes being “put on and off,” rather than put on and taken off, and then more comically of “buckling to” not to finding a new apartment or a job, but “to eating, drinking, and sleeping,” three activities not usually considered onerous. Throughout the book Beckett misses no opportunity to exploit certain automatisms in the language which lead it to fall into error. It is as if he were constantly warning us that his own verbal brilliance is a matter of little import beside the threat of “quite alien surroundings.”
Murphy himself is implicated in the book’s linguistic waywardness when his girlfriend Celia remarks that his words “went dead” as soon as spoke, as if he didn’t believe in them. It is not difficult here to see a relation between the author’s denial of a traditional realism to his story and Murphy’s problems with language, his problems above all in taking seriously the world of employment in 1930s London, something that might well reflect Beckett’s own difficulty in engaging with the very conventional expectations of his parents.
Yet despite the air of mockery that hangs over Murphy, reality of the economic variety does impinge: if the hero is to make a living, and above all to stop his beloved Celia from prostituting herself to pay the rent, he will have to take the world of work seriously, even though he can’t. He simply cannot do it. But he must. It’s an early formulation of what would become Beckett’s motto, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This is not, as is sometimes supposed, a celebration of human resilience, but simply the contrast of an emotive conviction on the one hand—I can’t go on—and an inevitable fact on the other—willy-nilly life goes on. “No future in this,” says the narrator in Worstward Ho, and continues: “Alas yes.”
Needless to say, the only and ultimate solution to such a contradiction is death. At the end of the novel Murphy’s ashes will be flushed down the lavatory of his favorite pub. If Beckett later chose to end his novels and plays without anything so clear-cut as his main character’s demise, nevertheless his works always point in that direction, to the release of silence and nonbeing. There thus emerges a complicity between the plots he creates and his attitude toward language. So far as either leads to a resolution or final truth it lies not so much within the text as in the silence after its end.
Much is made in the academic world, and rightly so, of Beckett’s “deconstruction” of traditional realism, his constant undermining, that is, of the premises of conventional fiction. “He veritably hunted realism to death,” says Paul Davies with evident satisfaction in Beckett After Beckett. And indeed the writer’s second novel, Watt, makes fun of traditional narrative in all sorts of wonderful ways. In the following passage, for example, the bleakest possible pessimism is framed in a nursery rhyme sequence of rhyming monosyllabic anapests:
Personally of course I regret everything. Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure, from beginning to end.
It is genuinely hard for the reader of this passage to respond to the unhappiness of the speaker, since his attention is captured by the trite ordering of experience into so many opposites—girl/boy, tear/joy—and in general by the bizarre manner of the expression which exposes language’s inevitable tendency, as Beckett would see it, to mask reality.
Yet for all these aggressive experiments one is struck on rereading Beckett that he did not dispense with traditional realism tout court. Throughout his work we come across passages of haunting descriptive power in which we cannot help feeling the author has a considerable emotional investment. Deciding to fill the empty days before his death by telling himself stories, the character Malone, in Malone Dies, casually invents a family of ignorant farmers, the Lamberts. After some high comedy with Mr. Lambert’s pig-sticking activities, we have this:
Then Mrs. Lambert was alone in the kitchen. She sat down by the window and turned down the wick of the lamp, as she always did before blowing it out, for she did not like to blow out a lamp that was still hot. When she thought the chimney and shade had cooled sufficiently she got up and blew down the chimney. She stood a moment irresolute, bowed forward with her hands on the table, before she sat down again. Her day of toil over, day dawned on other toils within her, on the crass tenacity of life and its diligent pains. Sitting, moving about, she bore them better than in bed…. Often she stood up and moved about the room, or out and round the ruinous old house. Five years now it had been going on, five or six, not more. She told herself she had a woman’s disease, but half-heartedly. Night seemed less night in the kitchen pervaded with the everyday tribulations, day less dead. It helped her, when things were bad, to cling with her fingers to the worn table at which her family would soon be united, waiting for her to serve them, and to feel about her, ready for use, the lifelong pots and pans.
Beckett's French translation of Murphy gives the "mew" in West Brompton as "l'impasse de l'Enfant Jésus," introducing a Christian reference into the city grid. The critic Christopher Ricks has pointed out that "mew" rather than the more correct "mews" is in fact an archaic word for "cage."↩
Beckett’s French translation of Murphy gives the “mew” in West Brompton as “l’impasse de l’Enfant Jésus,” introducing a Christian reference into the city grid. The critic Christopher Ricks has pointed out that “mew” rather than the more correct “mews” is in fact an archaic word for “cage.”↩