No. 1
Online Edition

Reading Beckett's Fiction

R. M. Berry

Early in part I of Beckett's novel Molloy, the following sentence appears:

"Now my sick leg, I forget which, it's immaterial here. . . ."

It's not hard to figure out why this sentence sounds peculiar. There is a competing sense or echo created by the unintended reference of the pronoun "it" to "my sick leg." Although in saying "it's immaterial" the narrator ostensibly means to be done with the sick leg, to dismiss questions of right or left as irrelevant, the form in which he expresses his dismissal seems to resist or undo his aim, almost to unsay it. The sick leg returns as an echo. Instead of his intended meaning, the words literally say that the sick leg has been etherealized, its physicality dispersed, and this disappearing act seems to have occurred right "here" before our eyes, in the sentence we're reading.

Once attuned to echoes of this kind in Beckett's sentences, you can begin to hear them continually. His words seem always to be threatening to undo the narrator's recital of events and to draw attention to matters that normally seem immaterial. Here are a few more examples from Molloy: "I wouldn't know myself, if I thought about it"; "No matter, no matter"; "But that she should associate the four knocks with anything but money was something to be avoided at all costs"; "As to her address, I was in the dark, but knew how to get there, even in the dark"; "This whole question of climate left me cold"; "I say that now, but after all what do I know now about then"; "For it is natural I should dilate at lesser length on what I lost than on what I could not lose, that goes without saying."

I want to mention two things that I find interesting (and that I believe are easy to overlook) about these sentences. First, if in reading them you hear a competing sense, then the source of this verbal echo is not their figurative, but their literal meaning. That is, the echo in Beckett's writing does not result from puns, metaphors, symbols, analogies, or ambiguities, or from any of the other literary devices found in glossaries of literary terms. On the contrary, the second sense results from our hearing perfectly commonplace expressions as if for the first time: "after all," "in the dark," "goes without saying," "left me cold," "wouldn't know myself." In fact, one is more likely to be struck by the absence of literary devices in Beckett's sentences, by the commonplaceness or familiarity of his expressions, than by any colorful or complicated diction. His meaning feels difficult to grasp, but his sentences could hardly be simpler: "I am in my mother's room." It's as though the narrator's words were almost thoughtless, accidental, written by someone paying no attention to what he or she says.

Second, the echo has the effect of breaking in on our reading of the story, almost as if the narrator's words had distracted us, or as if we'd been startled by hearing ourselves read. Unlike a poetic "resonance," Beckett's alternate sense does not create a proliferation of new meanings or an atmosphere of ineffable ambiguities. On the contrary, Beckett's alternate sense functions like a Freudian slip or faux pas to interrupt the flow of words and redirect attention to matters that normally pass unremarked: "But to tell the truth (to tell the truth!). . . ." What startles us is obvious. In this way, Beckett's sentences achieve their clearest and most striking significance in a manner opposite that of mainstream novels. Instead of acquiring significance by finding their place in a sequence of related events, Beckett's sentences "mean" by suddenly asserting their independence from that or any sequence. Their significance is not cumulative. Either a Beckettian phrase sounds disarmingly complete from the start, unsettling us with its obviousness and immediacy, or it trails off in an aimless ramble, passing through consciousness with hardly a trace.

Why does Beckett write this way?

In 1949 in a famous dialogue on modern painting, Beckett tried to describe a new kind of artistic problem, one in which skill and knowledge and talent had become liabilities and where the task was no longer to do something as well or better than in the past, but rather to meet the obligations of art in full acknowledgement of the absence of anything artistically to be accomplished. This remark has often been quoted by critics as an explanation of Beckett's writing, although Beckett and his interlocutor at the time, Georges Duthuit, appear to have regarded it as itself in need of explanation. Duthuit responded by mocking Beckett, accusing him of talking like a mystic and asking him to explain why, if there was nothing for art to accomplish any longer, artists should still feel under an obligation. Beckett's reply is his briefest of the dialogue: "I don't know."

If we keep this reply in mind, it may help us understand some puzzling characteristics of Beckett's fiction. First, Beckett's relation to a work like Molloy seems to be closer to that of its reader than its creator. That is, Beckett is no more the creator of phrases like "in the dark," "no matter," "left cold," than he is the inventor of such customs as dwelling on the past or fabricating events or imagining alternate lives. For him as for the reader, the reasons humans say and do these things remain obscure. And yet this obscurity doesn't prevent his saying or doing them. On the contrary, Beckett's questions seem to arise, both in his novels and in the dialogue with Duthuit, precisely because (like the rest of us) he does say and do them.

And second, our difficulty reading Molloy serves to connect us more closely with its author. That is, if we don't see any point to Beckett's novel, then, according to the dialogue with Duthuit, we're in Beckett's situation. Our questions do not arise because of information Beckett has withheld, and our feelings of frustration do not result from techniques Beckett possessed but we lack. In Molloy there is nothing we seem prevented from doing. On the contrary, our questions arise because of something we are doing, ordinary practices of reading and narrating that in Beckett's fiction meet too little resistance, not too much.

A key to understanding this paradoxical reversal of force and difficulty is to recognize that Beckett's first-person novels, those with dramatized narrators (e.g., Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable; How It Is; Ill Seen, Ill Said, etc.) are not so much representations of actions as they are themselves actions. Perhaps we should call them enactments, or even performances, so long as this last term does not suggest that someone else (e.g., Molloy or Beckett or the character Sophie Lousse) is the one performing. It's probably most helpful to think of these works as dramas, ones in which a narrator (e.g., Molloy, Moran, Malone, Pim, etc.) is the antagonist and the reader (you or me or Beckett) is the protagonist. There is little or no obvious conflict in the story the narrator tells. By the end the principal character's circumstances have not improved, and no question he faces has been resolved. On the contrary, Beckett's narrative seems composed of a series of actions, sometimes including the composing of other texts as one of those actions, in which the overarching question is why any of this is being done. In Beckett's first-person novels, this fundamental question (why do I do what I do?) always turns out to include the actions in which reader and writer are involved: "Yes, I work now, a little like I used to. . . . Yet I don't work for money. For what then? I don't know." A question normally asked by readers about novels is now being posed to the reader by one. In Molloy the conflict is not a fiction.

Let's go back to our first Beckett sentence: "Now my sick leg, I forget which, it's immaterial here. . . ." What makes these words, the body or limbs of the one being narrated, immaterial? Well, what makes it possible to read this sentence and not hear the echo, not be struck by what's being forgotten, passing undistinguished? An obvious answer seems to be that we're following, or trying to follow, a story or action. The leg appears immaterial because it doesn't materially contribute to what happens next, to our knowledge of where events will lead and why. All that now makes this immateriality odd is the absence of what we thought we were sacrificing it to. In Molloy what matters above or beneath all is never what happens next. What seems continually endangered by our reading, then, is simply everything. If we are passing by a word or phrase to arrive at some conclusion, we are passing by Beckett's work. The only object seems to be our abandonment of these immaterial ends. The only subject seems to be the one at (in) hand.

Beckett's echo is not the only way in which this present breaks in on us. His novels continuously reveal, usually by placing at issue, such actions as noting, following, wondering, listening, projecting, anticipating, inferring, connecting, etc.--actions that constitute our everyday life with stories. To understand Beckett's novels is to pick up on these quotidian revelations. To miss them is a failure of an unusually radical kind. All of Beckett's novels to some extent, but to an increasing extent from Molloy to the end of his career, work according to this conflict between the manifest aims of narrating and the latent power of language to reveal its own and our presentness. This is the conflict that the reading and writing of Molloy must continually resolve. It achieves this resolution, when and if it does, by bringing our doing to a close. In the ensuing stillness what matters may occur to us at last.

In conclusion, it seems important to acknowledge that this way of writing can feel frustrating. If I regard Beckett's novels as benchmarks, that is, as works in comparison with which all later novels either stand or fall, that's not because they never bored anyone. On the contrary, their challenges are such that I can rise to them only at my most energetic and alert moments, in times or moods when my engagement with my world is at a peak. If I consider the challenge worth it, that's because Beckett's novels make possible a depth of self-encounter which I believe to be available no easier way. In other words, their frustrations are not accidental to their effects. Again and again Molloy tempts us into known relations only to reveal an unexpected sacrifice or cost. There's something that in reading Beckett we feel determined to do. Beckett never tells us exactly what, if anything, is wrong with doing it. But nothing ever comes of our efforts. The point of this frustration isn't to uncover social abuses, political outrages, or philosophical mistakes, or not initially. It is to reveal what at any moment our satisfactions with storytelling have depended on. The surprise in Beckett's novels is merely what, in other novels, we have always been up to. The surprise is what a novel is.

Selected works by Samuel Beckett

Disjecta. Grove Press, $12.00.
Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Arcade, $21.95 (cl).
Endgame. Grove Press, $10.00.
First Love and Other Stories. Grove Press, $11.00.
How It Is. Grove Press, $10.95.
Krapp's Last Tape. Grove Press, $10.00.
Mercier and Camier. Grove Press, $11.00.
More Pricks Than Kicks. Grove Press, $11.00.
Murphy. Grove Press, $12.00.
Stories and Texts for Nothing. Grove Press, $11.00.
Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). Grove Press, $14.00.
Waiting for Godot. Grove Press, $10.00.
Watt. Grove Press, $12.95.

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