Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho
The last four prose works of Samuel Beckett, from Company in 1980 to Stirrings Still in 1988, appear to represent a change of artistic direction which professional, academic critics have greeted with an uneasiness that rises at times to what sounds like consternation. The Polish scholar S.E. Gontarski spotted this seeming shift early on, remarking in 1983 that “Beckett is much less theoretically consistent than one might expect (the later work especially running against earlier theory),”1 while the English critic David Watson in 1991 wrote of Beckett’s having “remarkably produced a series of significantly longer, more sustained fictions, involving in part a return to traditional discourses of narrative representation, though of course in a manner fundamentally informed by the preceding intertext of experimental fictions.”2 Is there a note of anxiety detectable in that “of course”?
Beckett’s artistic venture, from his first, exuberant volume of stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), to his last published writing, the poem “what is the word,”3 was unequaled in its dedicated single-mindedness and unrelenting ideological rigor. That venture was always and only a struggle with and against language; as Leslie Hill remarks, “From beginning to end, Beckett’s work pursues one end, which is the end of language. The end of language, however, never comes,”4 or as the narrator says in the beautiful fragment, From an Abandoned Work (1956): “I love the word, words have been my only loves, not many.”5 After the great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (1951–1953), and the last “full-length” work, the novel How It Is (1961), the texts became shorter and shorter as the author pared down his material, until he achieved a kind of “white-out” in such pieces’ as Imagination Dead Imagine (1966), and All Strange Away (1976):
Imagine Light. No visible source, glare at full, spread all over, no shadow, all six planes shining the same, slow on, ten seconds on earth to full, same off…6
The effort, the concentration, the risk involved in this continuing throwing-out of literary ballast provided a rare and exemplary instance of artistic good faith. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s devoted Beckett readers greeted each successively shorter volume from the master with a mixture of awe and apprehensiveness; it was like watching a great mathematician wielding an infinitesimal calculus, his equations approaching nearer and still nearer to the null point. Surely after this, we would say, the only possible advance will be into total silence at last (“no way in, none out, try for him there”).7 Yet somehow Beckett always found an escape route, no matter how strait the tunnel or how bleak the view at the end of it.
Then came the late works, beginning in 1980 with Company, an unexpectedly substantial (almost fifty pages long) piece which, according to Beckett’s English publisher, John Calder, “received more attention than any of his prose works since Imagination Dead Imagine“8—being read by Patrick Magee on BBC radio, and performed in a…
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