Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

How, if this novel were by an unknown author, would one set about the reviewer’s task of giving some notion of its contents, and throwing in an appraisal? First, perhaps, by dealing in certainties: for instance, this book was written in French under the title Comment C’est. The translation is by the author. It is on the whole about as literal as a comparison of the titles will suggest, though one notes a lost pun (commencez). And since Comment C’est are the last words in the book, they impart to the design a circularity which is, perhaps not too unhappily, lost in English. Where the English is obscure the French in general helps little: “the history I knew my God the natural” comes from l’histoire que j’avais la naturelle. Where the English looks wrong the French looks just as wrong: “of the four three quarters of our total life only three lend themselves to communication” sounds as if the first “three” has got in by mistake, but the French says quatre trois quarts and adds to the muddle by saying deux seuls for “only three.” It seems unlikely that the reader loses much in clarity by using the English version. The syntax is neither English nor French, but that of some intermediate tongue in which “ordinary language” cannot be spoken. This language goes indifferently into French or English. It eschews marks of punctuation, although the novel is divided into paragraphs of unequal length, signifying, why not, the fluttering of some moribund intellectual pulse, rather than successive stages of meaning. At its climax the story virtually disclaims its own authenticity, and this uncertain commitment to ordinary criteria of meaningfulness is also characteristic of the language in which it is told.

The meanings present in this language are not valid outside the book, being mostly the products of intensive internal references and repetitions. Phrases of small apparent significance occur again and again with some kind of cumulative effect: “something wrong there,” “bits and scraps,” “quaqua,” “when the panting stops,” etc. The speaker of these phrases looks forward keenly to the end of his task, frequently promising that we are near the end of the first, second, or third part, and rejoicing especially in the final paragraph, only to be thwarted by the Finnegan-begin-again trick mentioned above. In short, the whole book refuses to employ the ordinary referential qualities of language, and frustrates ordinary expectations as to the relation between a fiction and “real life.” It is as if the old stream of consciousness were used in a situation where there is nothing but the stream to be conscious of.

Not very helpful, says the reader. What is the story? Well, it is spoken by a nameless man face down in mud, and apart from him its principal character is called Pim. Three sections describe how it was before, with and after this Pim, who is therefore a measure of time and history. Pim was long awaited, then he arrived and lay down in the mud beside the speaker and his sack full of cans; but things didn’t go well, and he passed on. Where, or to whom? Before Pim, the speaker had been alone; perhaps, he thought, the “sole elect,” moving at intervals with his sack and his can opener ten or fifteen yards through the mud. His only contact with the world “above” is the memory of a past idyllic scene with a girl and a dog; and another of a marriage that failed with the waning of desire. After Pim he sees that he is really one of a great number, all on the same impossible muddy journey. Somehow it has been arranged that its progress is circular and endless.

With Pim, the situation was at least not solitary. Pim brought a watch and one could listen to the delicious ticking away of the seconds. Furthermore, the speaker devised an elaborate signal code by which he induced Pim to speak: as by jabbing the can opener in to his rectum, beating him on the kidneys, or, to make him stop, on the head. Pim, being a man, is a kind of machine, l’homme machine in fact, responsive to external stimuli. Nevertheless he clenches his fists in pain, and his nails grow through his palm. The close relationship of the couple is that of tormentor and victim. When Pim abandons the speaker he leaves very little, but still something, behind him, “with Pim all lost almost all nothing left almost nothing but it’s done great blessing.” This example of dream parataxis, translated into English, means, I suppose, that the residual benefits of Pim’s sojourn are small but important, perhaps only because they prove that we have lived through one more stage and are nearer the last. Later we gather that as far as the speaker is concerned we can do what we like with time—reverse it, for example—so long as we always give Pim a central place in it: “on condition that by an effort of the imagination the still central episode of the couple be duly adjusted.”


After Pim, the world is full of tormentors and their victims, an endless chain in which each man repeatedly changes his role from one to the other. Over vast stretches of time, one torments and is tormented. The speaker moves on through this suffering inflicted and received, towards reunion with Pim. But in the end the voice we are listening to rebels, denies that all he has said is quoted from some external authority, claims that it is all a fiction (“all balls”); that there was something, yes, but no “quaqua,” no logos or revelation from without, only himself, face in mud, making it up and mumbling. Then the last sentence, with its ambiguous denial of this disclaimer.

What kind of a story is this? Certainly there is a fiction; and there is a chain not only of torment but of rhythmical incantation. But the reader who wants more than a form commenting upon itself, an autistic stir of language, will be tempted to look aslant at the book, to seek allegory. I myself have already slipped into allegory in describing Pim’s watch, and in hinting that the tormented relationship between the speaker and Pim stands for the incarnation, which, we are told, gives history such meaning as it may be said to have, and could be regarded as affording the type of human love-relations ever since (the love of the Word unable to speak a word speaks, under painful stimulus, when it is embodied in l’homme machine. Pim has nails through his palms, and is pierced by a kind of spear).

Perhaps, as the speaker felt when he denied the authenticity of “quaqua,” the intervention of that word was all a fiction anyway. Even so, his dreams are penetrated by it. Thus there are in the book echoes of Christian figurations of experience: hints of millennialism, of the logos as distorted by mud. In the first part a vague “epiphany” suggests an involuntary memory of Eden. The sack is a figure for the body, support and burden of the soul, which the Christian centuries would have had no difficulty in recognizing; in the third part we have a picture of the history of the elect parallel to Milton’s in the last two books of Paradise Lost, except that we lack the assurance of Pim’s second coming in majesty. The book offers an open invitation to such allegories, even though everybody who accepts it will soon feel lost and uncertain.

In view of all this it is, I suppose, just as well that we do after all know something, if only a little, about Beckett. The Speaker in this book is the latest in a long line bred from his obsession with Dante’s Belacqua, who could not enter purgatory until he had relived his slothful life. Beckett’s dream of life is purgatorial, or would be if salvation waited at its end; as it is, his characters are, as Mr. Rooney says in All that Fall, “like Dante’s damned, with their faces arsy-versy.” There is a Beckett country in which we feel half at home; and we know the Beckettian homo patiens, sinking progressively into immobility. His role as victim and tormentor we recall from Godot. His relation to the past we learned from Krapp’s Last Tape. And so on. In addition there is, to provide a physics for the Beckett world, his early book on Proust, as well as such sophisticated experiments as Mr. Kenner’s book.* So we have some knowledge, not much, of the physical laws governing this new book; we have keys to its meanings. “No symbol where none intended,” noted Beckett in the addenda to Watt; but by establishing a world of uncontrollably interrelated objects and meanings he makes this injunction impossible of fulfilment.

A few instances will serve to illustrate this. There must be a connection between Pim’s watch, Pozzo’s watch in Godot, and the passage in Proust on Time’s “ingenuity…in the science of affliction.” Time is the means by which we are punished for having been born. For Beckett as for Proust our only means of triumphing over it is the involuntary memory; in Beckett this operates infrequently and unsatisfactorily, as with Krapp’s tape or the Speaker’s recollection of the girl and of his marriage. We are enslaved by time; when eternity, the nunc stans, the duré, came down to save us, it apparently failed. So much for the “succour” which, as Molloy observed, you ought to consider as a possibility before, inevitably, you reject it. Pim is one name for it. Trapped in time and space as the fallen categorize them (and what other way is there?) Beckett’s figures are all, as Mr. Kenner demonstrates, more or less conscious Cartesians. They are all, perhaps, Descartes himself, contemplating the world from a position prone or supine (Yeats remarked that the world changed when Descartes discovered that he could think better in bed than up).


Contemplating a world so changed, Beckett is moved to “jettison the very matrices of fiction—narrator, setting, characters, theme, plot,” and “devote his scrutiny (under the sign of Belacqua) to the very heart of novel writing: a man in his room writing things out of his head while every breath he draws brings death nearer.” So Mr. Kenner. He is also much interested by human inventions which reflect the factitious order and interrelatedness of the objective world to which he cannot belong; his relation to this common-sense reality is exactly that of a circus clown, who can do apparently impossible things but finds easy ones incredibly complicated. The fundamental absurdity of the subject-object situation is for him figured in clowns and clochards; and so is our imperfect control over space, time, and death. Beckett’s humor derives entirely from this. It is a stateliness of speech, a clownishness of philosophical language (dealing with the complicated things and finding the easy ones too hard); in action it is the Bergsonian pratfall. This is the humor of man as machine, whether rhetorical or locomotive.

Beckett can thus be read as a philosophical fantasist: His bicycles are Cartesian symbols, his submen Prousts who have really contracted out, and so forth. Sunk in Belacqua’s sub-social, sub-psychological dream, they all merge in one’s mind—Watt, Molloy, Malone, the Unnameable, the unnamed of the new book. They may sink deeper into a state of pure rejection, pure negativity—indistinguishable, as Molloy noticed, from God’s. But because they are all aspects of the same figure, inhabiting similar worlds, we have relevant knowledge to bring to this new book; we can live with it, perceive something of its rhythms and stresses—in short, receive it.

That, at any rate, is a way of putting it. Yet it may tell little more than a small part of the truth about how Beckett has to be read. To emphasize the formal interest can be a fashionable way of concealing the true nature of our curiosity. Beckett is a puzzle-maker, quaint and learned. We look for clues, guess at meanings. His formal sophistication may be the meat the modern burglar brings along to quiet the avantgarde housedog. Under it all, he is a rather old-fashioned writer, a metaphysical allegorist. Take, for example, Watt. There he made his hero’s name the first word of a metaphysical conundrum; and Knott, whom Watt serves, is the god defined by negatives, perhaps also time itself, inexplicably regular. Watt has only oblique religious experiences. He meets a porter whose lameness causes him “to move rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflections,” and a Mr. Spiro, Catholic propagandist, who gives prizes for anagrams on the names of the Holy Family. (Out of Mr. Spiro’s motto, dum spiro spero, we get the interesting anagram dum: mud. Since dum is “while,” here meaning one’s time on earth, it isn’t hard to see why the latest hero spends his time in the mud.)

Watt, however, is not good at symbols: he had “lived, miserably it is true, among face values all his adult life…whatever it was Watt saw, with the first look, that was enough for Watt .. he had experienced literally nothing, since the age of fourteen, or fifteen, of which in retrospect he was not content to say, That is what happened then.”

To enjoy Beckett, one mustn’t be a Watt. When we meet, for example, the Lynch family, we must take their heroic efforts, ruined by disease, to reach a combined age of a thousand years not as merely grotesque humor, but as a hopelessly human millennial aspiration, an absurd plot to overcome history, bring time to an end. If we know that Beckett’s names and titles often contain puns, sometimes obscene, let us also look for allegorical meanings in such names as Malone and MacMann, Godot, and even Pim.

This suggests that the delights offered by Beckett are of an old and tried variety. He has re-invented philosophical and theological allegory, and as surely as Spenser he needs the right to sound sub-rational, to conceal intention under an appearance of dreamlike fortuity, to obscure the literal sense. The only difference is that his predecessors were sure there was such a sense, and on this bitch of a planet he can no longer have such certainties. This difference does not affect the proposition that Beckett’s flirtations with reality are carried on in a dialect which derives from the traditional language of learning and poetry. It is nevertheless true that the more accustomed we become to his formal ambiguity, the more outrageously he can test us with inexplicitness, with apparently closed systems of meaning. How it is differs from the earlier work not in its mode of operation but principally in that it can assume greater knowledge of the Beckett world. Such assumptions have often and legitimately been made by major artists, though we should not forget that this is not a certain indication of greatness. Prolonged attention given (from whatever motives) to a minor but complex author may allow him to make them. But who can be sure which is which? It is a perennial problem for critics of avant-garde art, and Beckett raises it in a very acute form.

This Issue

March 19, 1964