It was a matter of some pleasure to Samuel Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) that his work resists explication. His most important novels and plays are artfully constructed contemplations on their own form rather than commentaries on the familiar world of causal relationships and social contingencies. His most important novels abandon progressive narrative for the more difficult and subtle suggestiveness of haunting images, deliberate enigmas, and complexly ironic epigrams.
Although Beckett’s work defies criticism, the author issued critical statements and congenially submitted to interviews with critics, managing to transform both sorts of critical occasions into intellectual performances as provocative, and occasionally as humorous, as his fiction. Two particular comments by Beckett, out of many stimulating ones, may serve as instructive introductions to the body of his prose works. In his first published book, Proust, Beckett wrote that artistic creation is essentially an excavatory process, comparable to an attempt to reach an ideal, impossibly minuscule, core of an onion. Beckett’s novels relentlessly pursue this sort of process, stripping away layers of assumptions about the self and the world, peeling away conventional modes of thought to reach a pure essence of existence free of the inevitably distorting effects of intellect, logical structure, and analytic order. This image of the onion is a rich one because it communicates the sense in Beckett’s work that this excavatory process is unending, that disposal of each mode of thought reveals yet another, even more resistant, habit of mind. Beckett himself often spoke of his novels as a series, and it is this progressive penetration through one form of thought to another that marks the stages in the series.
Thirty years after Proust, Beckett submitted to an unusually provocative interview with Tom Driver that was published in Columbia University Forum in the summer of 1961. In this interview, he dwelled specifically on form. After contrasting the orderly form of most art to the intransigently chaotic nature of existence, he said: “The Form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. . . . to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Beckett’s novels reveal three stages in this attempt to discover a literary form that will accommodate the chaotic nature of existence. In the first stage, represented by Murphy and Watt, the process is a destructive one of ridiculing literary convention by parody and satire to suggest an as yet undiscovered alternative form of expression. In the second stage, represented by the trilogy, the attempt to give voice to that alternative takes the form of the disordered and at times deliberately incoherent monologues of individual narrators. In the third stage, represented by How It Is and the subsequent short prose pieces, the process takes the form of presenting metaphorical worlds that accommodate their own chaos.
This last stage, especially, is marked by the unpleasant emphasis on miserable degradation and the recurring private images that have given Beckett an undeserved reputation for misanthropy and deliberate obscurity. These charges are effectively rebutted by his own stated sense of “the task of the artist now.” Beckett’s works do not provide relaxing reading experiences. They are designed to disorient, to dislocate, and to thwart intellectual complacency. The formidable difficulties they present to the reader, however, are essential records of the intellectual ambience of advanced mid-twentieth century thought.
Beckett’s earliest fiction, the stories in More Pricks than Kicks, describes the passive resistance to social conformity and death under anesthesia of a protagonist named Belacqua (an allusion to Dante). Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, presents the same resistance and senseless death in the story of Murphy, given the most common surname in Ireland. Murphy is the first of numerous Beckett protagonists who seek to relinquish all ties to their environment and their compulsion to make sense of it. The centerpiece of Murphy is an analysis of the discrete zones of the character’s mind in the sixth chapter. The third and last of these zones is a darkness of selflessness in which mind itself is obviated. It is this zone beyond consciousness that most Beckett protagonists seek; it is their failure to reach it that creates the tension in most of Beckett’s fiction.
Murphy is surrounded by representatives of two frames of reference that prevent his withdrawal from the world. The first is nationality, represented here by character types such as the drunken Irish poet Austin Ticklepenny and monuments to national ideals such as the statue of Cuchulain in the Dublin General Post Office. The second frame of reference is erudition, represented here by a plethora of arcane references to astronomy, astrology, philosophy, and mathematics. Assaulted by these adjuncts of identity, Murphy remains unable to disengage himself fully from the world, to withdraw completely into the third zone of his mind.
The problem that Beckett confronts in Murphy is central to all of his novels: to define consciousness in a novel without the usual novelistic apparatus of recognizable environment, nationality, and psychology. The novel only approaches such a definition in the chapter on Murphy’s mind and in the image of an eerily withdrawn character named Mr. Endon. Elsewhere, Beckett is able to suggest an alternative only by destructive means: by heaping scorn on things Irish, by deflating intellectual pretensions, and by parodying novelistic conventions. These forms of ridicule make Murphy Beckett’s most humorous and accessible novel. The same reliance on ridicule, however, ensures that Murphy remains derivative of the very forms of thought and literature it intends to challenge.
Although it was not published until 1953, after Molloy and Malone Dies, Watt was written a decade earlier and properly belongs among Beckett’s early novels. It is a transitional work, written in English, in which one can observe intimations of the central concerns of the trilogy of novels written in French.
Like Murphy, Watt is an alienated vagabond seeking succor from the complexities of existence. In the opening and closing sections of this four-part novel, Watt’s world is a recognizably Irish one populated with middleclass characters with small social pretensions. In the central two sections, however, Watt works as a servant on the surreal country estate of a Mr. Knott. Watt most resembles Beckett’s later fiction in these central sections. In them, Watt ineffectually attempts to master simpler and simpler problems without the benefit of reliable contingencies of cause and effect or even the assurance of a reliable system of language. The structure of the novel is ultimately dislocated by the gradual revelation that the four parts are not in fact presented in chronological order and that they have been narrated by a character named Sam rather than by an omniscient narrator. Sam’s account proves unreliable in particulars, thus completing the process by which the novel undermines any illusion of certainty concerning the interaction of the characters Watt (“What?”) and Knott (“Not!”).
Watt, like Murphy, relies on satire of literary precedents and disruption of novelistic conventions. There are allusions in the novel to the work of William Butler Yeats and James Jones and to the poet Æ (George William Russell), to cite only the Irish precedents. The great disruption of novelistic conventions is effected by “Addenda” of unincorporated material at the end of the text and by pedantic annotations throughout the novel. Nevertheless, Watt does look ahead to Molloy in its central sections, dominated by episodic problems such as the removal of Knott’s slops and the attempt of the wretched Lynch family to have the ages of its living members total exactly one thousand. The full emergence of this sort of episodic narrative in Beckett’s fiction, however, seems to have required the focus of attention on language itself (rather than on literary conventions). That was one important effect of Beckett’s decision to begin to compose novels in French rather than in English.
Mercier and Camier
Mercier and Camier, although published in 1970, was written in French in 1946, soon after Beckett returned to Paris at the end of the war. Like Watt, it is best placed among Beckett’s works by date of composition rather than publication. Written at the outset of the “siege in the room” that produced Beckett’s major novels, it illuminates the process by which the style of the trilogy emerged from concentration on elements of composition rather than on the social concerns that dominate most conventional novels.
Mercier and Camier is an account of an aimless journey by two decrepit characters out of and back into a city that resembles Dublin.Awitness-narrator announces his presence in the opening sentence but remains otherwise inconspicuous. The descriptions of the two characters’ generally enigmatic encounters with others, however, are periodically interrupted by subtly disported tabular synopses that call attention to the arbitrary features of the narrator’s accounts. The novel is thus a shrewdly selfconscious narrative performance, with the emphasis falling on the telling rather than on the meaning of the tale.
The belated publication of Mercier and Camier was a welcome event because the work represents what must have seemed to Beckett an unsatisfactory attempt to open the novel form to accommodate the “mess” he finds dominant in the world. His composition of the novel in French produced a spare prose style and calculated use of language that would prove essential to his later fiction. Like Watt, however, the novel retained a peripheral witness-narrator; this may have been one of the sources of Beckett’s dissatisfaction with the novel, for immediately after Mercier and Camier he shifted to the monologue essential to the three works that followed.
Beckett’s major accomplishment in prose fiction is the trilogy of novels begun with Molloy, written in French in 1947 and 1948. All three are narrative monologues, all seek to explain origins, and all expose various forms of self-knowledge as delusions. Thus, they approach that ideal core of the onion in their quest for explanations, and they assert the governing “mess” of incoherence, which continues to resist artificial, if comforting, intellectual fabrications.
In structure, Molloy, translated into English by Beckett in collaboration with Patrick Bowles, is the most complex work in the trilogy. The first part of the novel is the narrative of the derelict Molloy, who discovers himself in his mother’s room and attempts unsuccessfully to reconstruct his arrival there. The second part is the narrative of the Catholic and bourgeois detective Jacques Moran, who has been commissioned by an authority named Youdi to write a report on Molloy. As Moran’s report proceeds, he gradually begins to resemble Molloy. His narrative ends with the composition of the sentence with which it began, now exposed as pure falsehood.
Molloy and Moran are counterparts whose narratives expose the alternative fallacies, respectively, of inward and outward ways of organizing experience. Molloy’s self-involved preoccupations, such as his chronic flatulence, function as counterparts of Moran’s more social preoccupations, such as Catholic liturgy and his profession. Both are left in unresolved confrontation with the likelihood that the ways they have attempted to make sense of their origins and present circumstances are pure sham. The special brilliance of Molloy is the manner in which this confrontation is brought about by the terms of each narrator’s monologue. The prose style of the novel is dominated by hilarious deflations of momentary pretensions, ironic undercutting of reassuring truisms, and criticism of its own assertions. It is in this manner that Molloy manages to admit the “mess” Beckett seeks to accommodate in the novel form: Its compelling and humorous narratives effectively expose the limits rather than the fruits of self-knowledge.
Malone Dies is the purest of the narrative performances of Beckett’s storytellers. In it, a bedridden man awaits death in his room and tells stories to pass the time. His environment is limited to the room, the view from a window, and a meager inventory of possessions he periodically recounts with inconsistent results. Beyond these, he is limited to the world of his stories about a boy named Sapo, an old man named MacMann, an employee in an insane asylum named Lemuel, and others. All are apparently fictions based on different periods in Malone’s own life. At the end of the novel, Malone’s narrative simply degenerates and ends inconclusively in brief phrases that may suggest death itself or simply the end of his willingness to pursue the stories further.
It is essential to the novel that Malone criticize his own stories, revise them, abandon them, and rehearse them once again. His predicament is that he knows the stories to be false in many respects, but he has no alternative approach to the truth of his own origins. Like Beckett, Malone is a compulsive composer of fictions who is perpetually dissatisfied with them. As a result, Malone Dies is one of the most completely self-critical and self-involved novels in the twentieth century stream of metafictions, or novels about the nature of the novel. It demonstrates, with bitter humor and relentless selfexamination, the limits of fiction, the pleasure of fiction, and the lack of an acceptable substitute for fiction.
In The Unnamable, Beckett pursues the preoccupations of Molloy and Malone Dies to an extreme that puts formidable difficulties before even the most devoted reader of the modern novel. In Molloy the focus is on two long narrative accounts, in Malone Dies it narrows to concentrate on briefer stories, and in The Unnamable it shrinks further to probe the limits of language itself, of words and names. As the title suggests, these smaller units of literary discourse prove to be just as false and unreliable as those longer literary units have proven to be in Beckett’s previous two novels. In The Unnamable, there is no character in the ordinary sense of the term. Instead, there are only bursts of language, at first organized into paragraphs, then only into continuous sentences, and finally into pages of a single sentence broken only by commas.
The premise of the novel is that a paralyzed and apparently androgynous creature suspended in a jar outside a Paris restaurant speaks of himself and versions of himself labeled with temporary names such as Mahood and Worm. As he speaks, however, he is diverted from the content of his speech by disgust with its elements, its words. The names of Murphy, Molloy, and Malone are all evoked with complete disgust at the complacent acceptance of language inherent in the creation of such literary characters. The Unnamable thus attempts to challenge assumptions of literary discourse by diverting attention from plot and character to phrase and word. It is tortuous reading because it calls into question the means by which any reading process proceeds.
The preoccupation with speaking in the novel leads naturally to a corollary preoccupation with silence, and The Unnamable ends with a paradoxical assertion of the equal impossibility of either ending or continuing. At this point, Beckett had exhausted the means by which he attempted to admit the “mess” into the form of the novels in his trilogy. He managed to proceed, to extend the series of his novels, by exploring the richness of metaphorical and generally horrific environments like that of the unnamable one suspended, weeping, in his jar.
How It Is
Beckett’s critics commonly refer to the series of prose fictions begun with How It Is as “post-trilogy prose.” The term is useful because it draws attention to the methods of Beckett’s works as well as their chronology. Even in the midst of the incoherence of The Unnamable, there are references to the familiar world, such as the fact that the narrator is located in Paris. In How It Is and the works that followed, however, the environment is an entirely metaphorical and distinctly surreal one. Without reference to a familiar world, these works are governed by an interior system of recurrent images and memories. How It Is marks the beginning of this final stage in the series of Beckett’s works, and so its French title, Comment c’est, is an appropriate phonetic pun meaning both “how it is” and commencer, or “to begin.”
In How It Is, the speaker, named Bom, is a creature crawling in darkness through endless mire, dragging with him a sack of canned provisions, and torturing and being tortured by other creatures with their indispensable can openers. His narrative takes the form of brief, unpunctuated fragments separated by spaces on the page. Each fragment is of a length that can be spoken aloud, as it ideally should be, and the style may be in part a product of Beckett’s experience in the production of plays. There is a second character, named Pim, against whom the narrator tends to define his own status. The novel, which many prefer to term a prose poem, is thus broken into three parts: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim..
The Bom and Pim interaction is an excruciating account of misery in a netherworld of darkness and slime. It is related entirely in retrospect, however, and the changing relationships of domination and subordination are less important than the manner in which the language of the fragments creates its own system of repetitions and alterations of phrases. How It Is dramatizes, in fact, how it was for Bom, and in place of clear references to the familiar world, it offers a verbal model for the mechanics of memory. This remains a consistent, if extraordinarily complex, extension of Beckett’s attempt to accommodate the “mess” of chaos in the novel form. Its extremely calculated prose creates a sense of the consistent, but inexplicable and ultimately uninformative, impingement of the past on the present.
The Lost Ones
The Lost Ones is a representative example of Beckett’s prose fiction immediately following How It Is. He composed many brief prose pieces in this period, abandoned most of them, and resurrected them for publication at the urging of enthusiastic friends. Most are published in collections of his short works. The Lost Ones, however, is a more sustained narrative performance (sixty-three pages in the American edition). It was abandoned in an incomplete form in 1966 but retrieved and supplemented with an effective conclusion in 1970. It has also gained greater attention than most of Beckett’s works from this period because of an innovative stage adaptation by the Mabou Mines Company in New York City in 1973.
The Lost Ones is unique among Beckett’s works because it focuses on a group rather than on an individual. In fifteen unnumbered passages of prose, it describes the workings of a huge cylinder populated by male and female figures who maneuver throughout its various areas by means of ladders. The prose style is remarkably understated in comparison to the painful, if metaphorical, imagery of How It Is, and the primary action is the continual reorganization of this closed set of persons according to an entropic process of diminishing energies. Mathematical computation, a motif in many of Beckett’s novels, is a primary feature in The Lost Ones. As language does in so many of Beckett’s earlier novels, numerical calculations prove an inadequate means of organizing experience in this work, and the crucial final paragraph added in 1970 is a fatalistic exposure of the worthlessness of these computations as indications of the past, present, or future of this surreal environment. As in many of Beckett’s later prose pieces, the metaphorical environment created by the prose is open to many interpretive referents. The text is subtly allusive— the French title, for example, evokes Alphonse de Lamartine—and the viability of literature as an effective indication of past, present, or future is among the possible subjects of this spare and immensely suggestive text.
With the exceptions of The Lost Ones and other aborted works, nearly twenty years elapsed between the writing of How It Is and the next of Beckett’s prose fictions to approach the novel in form if not in length. Company ended this relative silence, during which Beckett produced a variety of works in other genres. Like How It Is and the intervening works, Company presents a generally metaphorical environment and a consistent emphasis on the workings of memory. Unlike Beckett’s other late works, however, it was composed in English and apparently generated out of contemplation of distinctly autobiographical images.
Company is a narrative by a figure immobilized on his back in darkness. Despite this surreal premise, it dwells on images of a familiar, suggestively Irish environment marked by features such as Connolly’s store and the Ballyogan Road. It thus combines the astringency of Beckett’s “post-trilogy prose” with the references to an identifiable world common in the trilogy. It is, however, far from a regression from experimental form or an abandonment of the attempt to accommodate the “mess” in a novel. Instead, it represents the fruit of Beckett’s years of careful manipulation of a spare prose style in his second language. Like How It Is, Company concentrates on the inexplicable workings of memory. Unlike How It Is, the novel does so in a passive and restrained mixture of nostalgic and ironic images free of the vulgar and painful hostility of that earlier novel. In less flamboyant ways than Beckett’s earlier works, Company also manages to underscore its own nature as an artificial, literary construction. Its governing metaphor of “company” manages to encompass both the memories surrounding the narrator and the meeting of author and reader of a literary text.
Ill Seen Ill Said
Company was followed by Ill Seen Ill Said, a series of paragraphs consisting primarily of sentence fragments. They describe a woman and her attempt to capture the details of her environment. The devotion to detail is such that vocabulary, rather than image, tends to capture attention, frequently because of intentional neologisms, interior rhymes, and sporadic echoes. It is more an evocation of a mood than a plotted novel, one that reveals the author, having rid himself of complacent use of language in earlier works, as a prose stylist with marked affinities to a poet. Ill Seen Ill Said, despite the disparagement of voice in its title, marks the emergence in Beckett’s works of a devotion to pure sensation unmodulated by systems of logic or desire. It is in this respect that Ill Seen Ill Said is a necessary and inevitable extension of “the task of the artist now” addressed in a long series of novels. Rather than suggesting an alternative literary expression by destructive irony or subverting complacency by incoherent monologue, it attempts to present consciousness free of artificial order in a distinctly lyrical form of prose fiction.
In an early essay on the Irish poet Denis Devlin published in Transition in 1938, Beckett offered this dictum: “Art has always been this—pure interrogation, rhetorical question less the rhetoric.” Like so many of his statements on other writers, this has a special relevance to Beckett’s own literary career. Over a period of a half century, he produced fictions that relentlessly question assumptions of intellectual and literary order. He did so with a single-minded devotion to what he took to be “the task of the artist now” and so compiled an oeuvre that is unique in the twentieth century in its concentration on a central purpose and in its literary expression of the great philosophical preoccupations of its time. Beckett’s work has been discussed by critics in reference to other innovative thinkers of the century as disparate as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition to fueling the literary debates of his time, Beckett’s work may be said to have created, in part, contemporary literary theories such as structuralism and deconstruction. Despite their formidable difficulties, then, Beckett’s novels have an indisputable importance to anyone seriously interested in the intellectual climate of the twentieth century.
Short fiction: More Pricks than Kicks, 1934; Nouvelles et textes pour rien, 1955 (Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967); No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1947-1966, 1967; First Love, and Other Shorts, 1974; Pour finir encore et autres foirades, 1976 (Fizzles, 1976; also known as For to Yet Again); Four Novellas, 1977 (also known as The Expelled, and Other Novellas, 1980); Collected Short Prose, 1991.
Plays: En attendant Godot, pb. 1952 (Waiting for Godot, 1954); “Fin de partie,” suivi de “Acte sans paroles,” pr., pb. 1957 (music by John Beckett; “Endgame: A Play in One Act,” Followed by “Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player,” 1958); Krapp’s Last Tape, pr., pb. 1958; Act Without Words II, pr., pb. 1960 (one-act mime); Happy Days, pr., pb. 1961; Play, pr., pb. 1963 (English translation, 1964); Come and Go: Dramaticule, pr., pb. 1965 (one scene; English translation, 1967); Not I, pr. 1972; Ends and Odds, pb. 1976; Footfalls, pr., pb. 1976; That Time, pr., pb. 1976;APiece of Monologue, pr., pb. 1979; Ohio Impromptu, pr., pb. 1981; Rockaby, pr., pb. 1981; Catastrophe, pr. 1982; Company, pr. 1983; Collected Shorter Plays, 1984; Complete Dramatic Works, 1986; Eleutheria, pb. 1995.
Poetry: Whoroscope, 1930; Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, 1935; Poems in English, 1961; Collected Poems in English and French, 1977.
Screenplay: Film, 1965. teleplays: Eh Joe, 1966 (Dis Joe, 1967); Tryst, 1976; Shades, 1977; Quad, 1981.
Radio plays: All That Fall, 1957 (revised 1968); Embers, 1959; Words and Music, 1962 (music by John Beckett); Cascando, 1963 (music by Marcel Mihalovici).
Nonfiction: Proust, 1931; The Letters of Samuel Becket: Vol. 1, 1929-1940, 2009 (Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, editors).
Translation: An Anthology of Mexican Poetry, 1958 (Octavio Paz, editor).
Miscellaneous: I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: ASelection from Samuel Beckett’s Work, 1976 (Richard Seaver, editor).
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_______. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
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