Rockaby and Other Short Pieces
Just Play: Beckett's Theater
Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett
Beckett and the Voice of Species: A Study of the Prose Fiction
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.