Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

Now we must choose, said Mercier.

Between what? said Camier.

Ruin and collapse, said Mercier.

Could we not somehow combine them? said Camier.

The setting of almost all of Samuel Beckett’s work is that of Krapp’s Last Tape, written in 1958: “A late evening in the future.” The future is not a place, and not much of a time; it is a guess, a possibility, a threat. We may say it is in the head, and that is where Beckett’s characters often think they are: in an “imaginary head,” an “abandoned head”; “we are needless to say in a skull”; “perhaps we’re in a head, it’s as dark as in a head before the worms get at it, ivory dungeon.” But the head in this meaning is not a place either. It is a metaphor, a spatialization of the unseeable mind, and it is important not to be taken in by the familiarity of the figure. “Que tout ça est physique,” the narrator of The Unnamable (1953)* moans as he tries to picture the unpicturable.

Another name, another metaphor for this nonplace is limbo, the home of “those nor for God nor for his enemies,” as Beckett puts it, quoting Dante. But Beckett’s fictional universe is a limbo not because of the neutrality of its inhabitants (although this may well be part of Beckett’s strict judgment on himself), but because it is imagined and knows itself to be imagined. It is a domain just off the edge of life, late in the future, an ending order peopled by decaying or immobile creatures who lose the use of their limbs the way others lose their car keys. “It is in the tranquillity of decomposition,” Molloy writes elegantly, “that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…. To decompose is to live too, I know, I know, don’t torment me….”

And yet, in spite of appearances, a good deal of mimesis remains in Beckett. However broken or derelict, schematic, unlikely or cruel, a world is being imagined or remembered or both, and then imitated in words. It is because it is a writer’s world, alterable by a flick of the pen, that it seems so airless and arbitrary. “It’s easily said, and easily written, not to be able,” Moran writes in Molloy (1951), “but in reality nothing is harder.” It is because the writer himself seems more often than not to be at the mercy of the images that present themselves to him that it also has the feel of an observed or described world. “Perhaps I invented him,” Moran says of Molloy, “I mean found him ready-made in my head.”

This world, implicitly or explicitly figurative, persists in Beckett’s work, a rickety or fragmentary externalization of the reason-ridden consciousness. But over the years, this world has become less immediately recognizable, less of a shared world, and less likely to generate characters and stories. Belacqua, in More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), inhabits a historical Dublin, complete with pubs, place names, and Malahide murderer; Murphy, in the novel of that name (1938), sits in a mews in West Brompton. The Landscapes of Watt (1953) and the Trilogy are scarcely realistic, but resemble our world in striking ways and can be reached from it: Malone has been to London and Moran mentions Goering.

Above all, these personages are characters, caught up in stories, and eager storytellers themselves. They, and with them Beckett, equate stories with shape, meaning, and even a modest, if ultimately inaccessible, salvation. And this is what changes. “No need of a story,” Beckett writes prophetically in Texts for Nothing (1955), “a story is not compulsory, just a life.” In most of the later prose—Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), Ping (1966), Lessness, (1969), The Lost Ones (1971), For to End Yet Again (1976)—there are no characters, only closely watched creatures, and no stories, only stark images, obsessively focused and refocused. The scene is still a world, but now less than “just a life,” it is the depleted imagination and its meager contents.

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit….

Life dies, and then the imagination, the one that deals in islands, water, azure, and verdure. But even then something remains, imagination’s ghost or residue, the indefatigable spook of the writer, who cannot not see things, and who cannot give up trying to arrange in words what he sees. In this case, in Imagination Dead Imagine, the spook sees and describes a white sealed rotunda (“No way in, go in, measure”) containing two human bodies, male and female, curled up, back to back, not moving, not asleep, not dead. The temperature in the rotunda rises and falls, light comes and goes. And then the spook’s “eye of prey” perceives an “infinitesimal shudder” and abandons the image:


Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

The best of Beckett’s recent fiction returns again and again to the spectral visions of what he calls “dead imagining.”

For the end yet again [as the piece of that name opens] skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin. Long thus to begin till the place fades followed by the board long after….

The place fades, and a gray world appears. A gray little body stands ankle deep in sand pale as dust, the ruins of what is called its refuge sinking around it. The figure is approached by two white dwarfs carrying a litter, a pair of long-armed Keystone Cops trotting into a bleached nightmare. They do not reach the figure, who falls headlong on his face and stays there. The dwarfs then seem to freeze or die, the litter left lying between them:

is this then its last state all set for always litter and dwarfs ruins and little body gray cloudless sky glutted dust verge upon verge hell air not a breath….

No, it is not the last state, or the last image, that will haunt this bowed skull. There is always more in the remorseless mind, the afterlife of the imagination is like Hamlet’s sleep of death, perpetually startled by dreams.

All Strange Away, which was published in a limited edition in 1976 and is now reprinted in Rockaby and Other Short Pieces, looks like a trial run for Imagination Dead Imagine and the later prose. It was written, John Pilling tells us, in 1963-1964. Longer than the prose works which follow it, it reveals more clearly the writer’s hand tinkering with the presentation of the images that beset him:

Imagination dead imagine [it starts]. A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again…. Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again. Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there. Stool, bare walls when the light comes on, women’s faces on the walls when the light comes on…. Light off and let him be, on the stool, talking to himself in the last person….

Light and darkness continue to alternate in this pictured place; the writer makes the room smaller, takes the man’s stool away, converts the images of women on the walls to images of parts of one woman, Emma; changes the sex of the figure in the room, or rather defines it now as female, “since sex not seen so far”; has her lie down and corrects his text retroactively (“Let her lie so from now on, have always lain so”). He cuts the size of the room still further and then converts it into a diminutive rotunda; lends Emma nightmares which fill her with “dread of demons,” adding cheerfully “perhaps some glimpse of demons later”; and leaves the figure there, faintly sighing, moved by a dim memory. “So little by little,” the writer says, “all strange away.”

This is a world very close to that of Imagination Dead Imagine, as the verbal echo suggests, a space that is cramped and inhuman but “proof against enduring tumult.” Or at least aspiring to such immunity. “For in the cylinder alone,” Beckett says in The Lost Ones, where two hundred-odd forlorn creatures, denizens of a flattened rubber cylinder fifty meters round by eighteen high, search unceasingly for their one and only counterparts, “are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery.” The quest for a sure and surpriseless universe has dogged Beckett’s characters from Murphy and Watt through Molloy and on to a number of later figures. The narrator of “The End” cannot bear the sea, “its splashing and heaving, its tides and general convulsiveness.” “Closed place,” Beckett writes in Fizzles. “All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.”

The repeating joke, of course, is that convulsiveness is everywhere, and entirely stable certitudes are not to be had, however ruthlessly we slash at the variables. Are not to be had, and short of suicide, cannot be wanted as much as we think we want them, since the only perfect accomplishment of “all strange away” would be death. Molloy, after patiently constructing a complex system for sucking sixteen pebbles in what he regards as a properly impeccable order, simply leaves the pebbles on the beach. It may be, of course, that in these late texts Beckett wants precisely this ambivalence: a terminal condition which can be seen either as an alluring foretaste of death or an anticipation of death’s horror. But I find myself thinking of a remark of Beckett’s, made during a rehearsal for a German performance of Endgame, and quoted in Ruby Cohn’s Just Play: ‘Hamm says no to nothingness, sagt das Nein gegen das Nichts.”


Of the pieces in Rockaby, All Strange Away is interesting for what it promises, and for the sight it offers of the writer in the workshop of his mind. But it is not as concentrated or as memorable as several of the later prose texts. The other pieces in Rockaby are even slighter. The title work is a brief play, almost a poem, in which a prematurely aged woman sits in a rocking chair and listens to her own recorded voice telling her how she gave up her quest for a creature companion—“another like herself/another creature like herself/a little like”—and progressively withdrew from her walks, from her window, from her upstairs room, to die in her rocker, saying to herself, “Done with that” and to her rocker, “Fuck life.”

“Ohio Impromptu” is another short play, presenting two white-haired, long-coated figures sitting at a table, one reading to the other. The book being read from tells of a lost love, and of a man sent by the absent woman to read again and again to her lover, until “the sad tale” is told for the last time, and reader and listener, in the book and on the stage, sit “as though turned to stone.”

“A Piece of Monologue” is what it says it is. A man stands on stage wearing a white nightgown and white socks and tells of a man in a room, facing the window, then facing the walls. “Birth was the death of him,” the speaker begins, and recounts the man’s muffled memories and the fading of the light.

There is an acute sense of loss in these plays, and a doubling of the self in memory, represented by a separated voice or a book or a narrator. All of them are spare and graceful and eloquent. But they look like exercises, theatrical variations on themes by Poe and Beckett himself. The material is perhaps too possible for Beckett. “Let them ask the impossible, I don’t mind that,” the Unnamable said, “what else could they ask of me?”

Company, on the other hand, is what we might call a major work if Beckett had not taught us to mistrust such terms; his most important work perhaps, if that dubious adjective is allowed, since How It Is (1961), and a good deal more accessible than that oblique and violent text. It is a piece of fiction some sixty pages long. It was written in English, which again makes it something of a rarity among Beckett’s recent work, but originally published last year in French, in Beckett’s translation.

At first sight it appears to continue the vein of All Strange Away. It situates a figure in space and watches him, flat out and immobile except for the opening and closing of his eyes. But it returns us as well to the worlds of The Unnamable and Malone Dies and Molloy, since a voice speaks to the prostrate figure, offering him a past, a sheaf of memories it insists are his own. “A voice comes to one in the dark,” the text begins. “Imagine.” But there is someone else here, someone saying these things. “And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him.” “For company” is a kind of pun, meaning for us, the readers, and for himself, to keep himself company. The writer returns to this worry. “For why or? Why in another dark or in the same? And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this?”

The writer reaches a provisional, slightly bewildered answer to these unnerving questions—

Deviser of the voice and of its hearer and of himself. Deviser of himself for company. Leave it at that. He speaks of himself as of another. He says speaking of himself, He speaks of himself as of another. Himself he devises too for company. Leave it at that. Confusion too is company up to a point.

—but then he finds himself with a new character on his hands, and new authorial decisions to make. Is this figure (or “figment” as Beckett calls him) in the same dark or in a different one? Is he “standing or sitting or lying or in some other position”? The writer settles for same dark and crawling, but wonders what the status of these decisions is—can he cancel them if they don’t work out, what are the obligations of a deviser to a character once devised? And who is asking the questions now? Another figment? “Yet another then. Of whom nothing. Devising figments to temper his nothingness. Quick leave him.” Later the writer, in the grip of an infinite regress, finds he needs another figment still. “Yet another still? Devising it all for company. What a further addition to company that would be.”

But the company finally collapses. There is only the figure on his back in the dark, and all the rest, the proliferating figments, the writer concealed behind them, the shadowy readers (us), and the historical person of Samuel Beckett vanishing down a tunnel of perspective, is fiction. The voice ends, saying, “And you as you always were. Alone.”

I don’t know whether this sketchy account gives any sense of how funny this book is (“Confusion too is company up to a point”; “Might not the hearer be improved? Made more companionable if not downright human”). Beckett has often spoken of his characters as company for each other—in The Unnamable, in How It Is, in Texts for Nothing—but never with this tone of amused helplessness, with this sense of solitude longing for an inconceivable Dickensian jollity: “The test is company. Which of the two darks is the better company. Which of all imaginable positions has the most to offer in the way of company.” Company, in this rather old-fashioned usage, suggests not conglomerates but polite visits, tea-times, a cosy Victorian parlor, as in to receive company.

The fact that there is no company here, that the prostrate figure doesn’t speak, that he can’t or won’t acknowledge the past proposed to him as his own, plunges the text into unrelieved gloom at the end. But the work as a whole, like all of Beckett’s best writing, is made up of gloom and irony, and a note of bravery sounds throughout the narrative. Writing is a mode of hiding for the writer; hiding while seeming to be seen. “Quick leave him.” The writer can no more admit his actual presence than the silent figure can lay claim to his past. But he can admit the absurdity of his unmanageable activity, take his textual tumbles, and laugh at his narrative scrapes.

The memories presented to the figure in the dark are another strand in the text. They are highly personal and appear in several cases to be autobiographical, Beckett’s own.

A small boy you come out of Conolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand…. It is late afternoon and after some hundred paces the sun appears above the crest of the rise. Looking up at the blue sky and then at your mother’s face you break the silence asking her if it is not in reality much more distant than it appears. The sky that is. The blue sky. Receiving no answer you mentally reframe your question and some hundred paces later look up at her face again and ask her if it does not appear much less distant than in reality it is. For some reason you could never fathom this question must have angered her exceedingly. For she shook off your little hand and made you a cutting retort you have never forgotten.

Malone, in Malone Dies, recalls asking a similar question of his mother, who told him the sky was exactly as far away as it appeared to be. Other memories in Company include the child throwing himself repeatedly from a high fir tree, the great boughs breaking his fall; the child saving a hedgehog from hostile nature, only to have it decay and die in the old hatbox he had provided for it; moments of romance in “the bloom of adulthood” (“Imagine a whiff of that,” the voice says); the child become an old man losing heart one day on a walk in the snow; and this striking epiphany, as Stephen Dedalus would have called it:

You stand at the tip of the high board. High above the sea. In it your father’s upturned face. Upturned to you. You look down to the loved trusted face. He calls to you to jump. He calls, Be a brave boy. The red round face. The thick mustache. The greying hair. The swell sways it under and sways it up again. The far call again, Be a brave boy. Many eyes upon you. From the water and from the bathing place.

These memories are sharply realized, stripped of all nostalgia, and ultimately unowned. They cannot be claimed by the figure in the darkness, because he, like the woman in Rockaby, like Molloy, Moran, Malone, and a number of other Beckett characters, has withdrawn from his dwindling world and life. They do not, in this context, properly belong to Beckett; and still less to us. Beckett’s art here turns into something like the excruciating reverse of Proust’s. Time is not recaptured, it is held up at an immeasurable distance, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. We perceive it so clearly because we can’t have it back. Beckett consigns his character to solitude, and himself and us to “labor lost and silence.” And yet the writing remains, a conquest not of time but of the pain of memory, and the cruelty of a dead but unforgiving imagination.

Ruby Cohn dedicates her book to “Beckett-lovers,” and while there is certainly more than a touch of gush in the phrase, there is no danger of its not finding takers. Beckett-lovers are everywhere, and his critics are chief among them. It is one sort of sign of his stature that he can provoke this kind of attention: tireless, loyal, intelligent, modest, well-informed.

Just Play, Cohn says, is “an implicit appreciation” of Beckett’s theater, conducted through an inspection of devices like soliloquy and repetition, and including an attractive description of Beckett’s late career as a stage director. Cohn writes eloquently of Beckett’s “irrealization” of time, and sensibly reminds us of the distance which separates the prolix Beckett of the Thirties from the parsimonious sage of recent years.

James Knowlson and John Pilling, like Ruby Cohn, are old Beckett hands returning to the scene of their criticism. Frescoes of the Skull explores the theater (Knowlson) and the prose (Pilling) from the Fifties on, throwing in for good measure chapters on Beckett’s criticism, Beckett and Synge, Beckett and Kleist’s essay on the marionette theater, and on two unpublished early works. Pilling is extremely good on the early material, and patient and sensitive with the late; Knowlson, like Cohn, has an acute sense of how Beckett’s theater plays, as well as of what it’s about. There is something miscellaneous about this book, though, as there is about Cohn’s; an air of random thoughts pursued merely because they are thoughts about Beckett, and of works discussed because, like Mount Everest, they are there. Perhaps these writers feel that their affection for their subject is a sufficient guarantee of the interest of what they have to say. Certainly few attempts are made to reach beyond the circle of Beckett-lovers.

The difficulty with Eric P. Levy’s book on Beckett’s prose fiction is different. Levy has shrewd and sensible comments to make, and a suggestive argument about Beckett’s use of the notion of species (“A species can accomplish nothing, not even its own termination. It is merely the formal statement of qualities which any individual must have in order actually to be a member of that species and not another”), but he is anxious, in 128 pages of text, to tackle nothing less than the universe. He speaks blithely of “the experience of being human,” of “the meaning of man,” of “the certainties of earlier eras,” of Proust’s “easy confidence” (can this be Marcel Proust?) and “the impasse reached by the great enterprise of Western Humanism.” Levy is not alone in the use of such baggy language, of course, or in the view that doubt was unknown to man before the modern period. But these elements do blur the outlines of his book.

A more general question remains, though. What exactly is lacking in this decent, engaging criticism? Why does it seem to show us less than we looked for; to strand us so often in simple description and paraphrase? There are various answers, no doubt, but three seem especially striking.

First, Beckett’s critics seem reluctant to question their own (and Beckett’s) language strenuously enough. They recognize how thoroughly Beckett’s work gnaws at conventional vocabularies, but they don’t do anything very serious about it. It is not a matter of evolving a new language, as Knowlson and Pilling intimate at one point. The language we have will do, if we learn to use it more warily, and to put a little more pressure on the weight-bearing words. It is because Beckett’s critical writings do not apply this pressure (do not try to) that we can’t accept John Pilling’s extravagant claims for them (“quite as remarkable and challenging as any of the more canvassed critical theories to have claimed our attention in recent years”). It’s not just that Beckett, as Pilling says, “has not always argued his ideas with the clarity and rigor that would attract a professional aesthetician.” He has scarcely argued them at all. He has fished them out and presented them, on rare occasions, and they do illuminate the work. But only if we use the work to illuminate them first.

Secondly, critics like to “humanize” Beckett. They are charmed by his courtesy, undaunted by his remoteness, and insist, against most of the evidence, on his broad humanity. “Beckett is an important writer because he writes about important experiences in words that precisely convey their importance” (Cohn, her italics). This insistence can’t be all wrong, given what we know of Beckett’s life and anguish, and the undercurrents of turbulent feeling that regularly tug at his writing; but it does flatten him out, make him seem more ordinary and manageable than he is. Pilling, for example, speaks of “the common experience of humanity” in relation to How It Is, a dark piece of fiction in which naked creatures crawl about in interminable mud, torturing each other into speech with can-openers. I’m not sure I know what the common experience of humanity is, but my guess is that it is not immediately reflected in such a scene. Something wrong there, as the text of How It Is keeps repeating. The fact that the narrator of this bleak book wonders whether “this so-called mud” might not be “our common shit” should put us on our guard rather than invite us to sit back.

And finally—this tendency overlaps a good deal with the previous one—Beckett’s critics cannot seem to resist the empty generalization, although they don’t all carry their ambitions as far as Levy. Claiming large meanings for Beckett’s work, they lose sight of the grim privacy of many of his preoccupations—a privacy which is both a limit and a virtue. To see Beckett as dramatizing the particular “while rendering its solidarity with the human species” (Cohn) is to state the problem more fully, but not to say anything about it.

“Beckett is agonizingly aware,” Cohn says, “that when we begin to live we begin to die, and shades that awareness theatrically.” Is shading, however theatrical, enough to make this platitude worth noticing? “That’s vague,” Malone says, “life and death.” It is true that Beckett himself, especially in his plays, appears at times to take platitudes of this kind seriously, their creaking obviousness relieved only by the intellectual and formal stylishness of the presentation. But Beckett at his best is engaged in the reverse of this tired operation. “They give birth astride of a grave,” Pozzo says in Godot, “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Vladimir then amplifies this to: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.” This is so lugubrious (and funny—note how lingeringly slows down the pace and hints at an exaggeration) that Beckett cannot be out to demonstrate the truth of such gloomy propositions. He must mean to make us see how attractive they are, how comically irresistible, how we fall for them and relish them. Like Belacqua Shuah in More Pricks Than Kicks we’re eager to put on “a long face” and readily welcome “a lachrymose philosopher,” and still more when he is “obscure at the same time.” This tone should warn us to tread softly when we look for large meanings in Beckett. “This is becoming really insignificant,” Vladimir says in Godot, and Estragon replies, “Not enough.”

There is an edge to Beckett’s jokes which queers their mournful content—doesn’t shade it but gives it a different sense altogether—and there is a characteristic Beckett joke. “You can’t keep a dead mind down”; “This is awful, awful, at least there’s that to be thankful for”; “Nothing like breathing your last to put new life in you”; “‘I must be happy,’ he said to himself, ‘it’s not as lively as I would have thought.”‘ Perhaps the most haunting and moving instance of the joke occurs in Molloy. Moran has been told that his boss, one Youdi, has remarked that life is a thing of beauty and a joy forever—in the original French une bien belle chose, une chose inouïe. Moran, puzzled, tentatively asks his informant, “Do you think he meant human life?”

It is not that the joke cancels its dark substance. A good irony never cancels anything. The joke offers its gloom as a temptation, as an excess of philosophy or despair, and its wit not as a consolation but as the mark of an impossibility. This cannot be said seriously, even if, as it must often be for Beckett, it is what we feel. The joke ruins generality, leaves us only with awkward particular cases—with a world of particular cases, all refusing to meet our shapely (or morose) specifications. “The silence is such,” Malone says at one point in Malone Dies, “that the earth seems at times to be uninhabited. That’s where a love of generalization gets you. You sit in your hole for a few days without hearing any sounds except those of things, and you start to believe you’re the last of the human race.”

Gags are rarer in Beckett’s later writing, although they do recur in Company. “God is love. Yes or no? No.” Perhaps he has come to see them as a form of whistling in the dark: not an answer to pain, but an attempt to pretend that it is less grueling than it is, a version of fraud. The only form to be found in his work, he told Harold Pinter, is that of a scream. Without the gags Beckett’s writing is purer, and we must respect the austerity that pares them away. But it is not richer or more profound. The joke is not the icing on the solemn existential cake, it is an essential feature of one of Beckett’s necessary truths: We can’t take ourselves seriously without getting ourselves wrong, but how else are we to take ourselves, given the seriousness of our plight?

Beckett, to borrow two of his own phrases, is a dream-eaten, ghost-forsaken man who has written the human, almost inhuman comedy of ignorance, the master, as Dante did not say, of those who do not know.

This Issue

April 30, 1981