Beckett’s Buttonhook

Robert Taubman

  • Ill seen ill said by Samuel Beckett
    Calder, 59 pp, £4.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 7145 3895 7
  • Mantissa by John Fowles
    Cape, 192 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02938 X
  • Sounding the terriotory by Laurel Goldman
    Faber, 307 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 571 11962 X
  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
    Chatto, 303 pp, £7.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2648 5

Beckett our contemporary – readers and audiences undoubtedly respond to him as a contemporary – is all the same very much a creature of the Twenties. He is the last great Modernist. His plays make use of Twenties techniques: hypnotic spotlights, loudspeakers, expressionistic props and highly-organised speech rhythms. Ill seen ill said is bafflingly obscure, not in any new and unfamiliar way, but in the now historic Modernist manner that uses metaphor and symbolism to half-suggest a meaning. It plays the old trick of the far-flung allusion – for instance, to the statue of Memnon at Thebes, to Michelangelo and to King Lear. It will give more work to the scholars who have already erected a monument to Beckett. He belongs with the generation of writers, like Joyce and Eliot, whose work requires such attention.

What is not so obscure in Ill seen ill said is the presence of familiar Beckett themes: isolation, absence of hope, approach of death. Because they are recognisably his themes, one is somehow reassured by them – which may be false comfort, for it’s not the same as understanding them. Here is a lone, elderly woman, soon to die but surviving for the time being in a cabin or hovel in a patch of stones. Sometimes she visits a nearby tomb, and comes under the scrutiny of 12 watchers or ‘guardians’. The whole scene is observed by a mysterious narrator, who reports what he sees and sometimes speculates about it. He can’t actually see much, for after giving us fairly clearly his subject and themes it is Beckett’s habit to let obscurity take over again. There is literal obscurity in the interior of the cabin (‘She is done with raising her eyes. Nearly done. But when she lies with them open she can just make out the rafters. In the dim light the skylights shed. An ever dimmer light. As the panes slowly dimmen’); and this gives rise to – what is common in Beckett – an apparently urgent need for directives, cardinal points and measurements. The narrator has to behave like a blind man feeling his way around the place, identifying objects. And then it’s a principle in Beckett to treat all evidence as unreliable, so that a qualification is apt to follow any specific statement: ‘On the lips same minute smile. If smile is what it is’ or ‘left it as it was however that was’. This sounds as though he doesn’t care, but really it’s that Beckett is drawn to enigmas, or to anything that strives to elude description, and he’s just being meticulous. It’s true that, perhaps playfully, he adds to the difficulties. ‘What is the wrong word?’ he keeps asking in this text. Why should Beckett, an adept at the right word, want to search for the wrong one? Or pretend to. ‘On its what is the wrong word its uptilted face obscure graffiti’ would be a perfectly clear statement about a leaning megalith if a problem about a wrong word hadn’t been introduced into it. What he points to in another instance looks like the right word for a bad or wrong thing. ‘And from it as from an evil core that the what is the wrong word the evil spread.’ But here we come to a problem of substance, not a niggle about words. This evil spreading as from an evil core sounds important, but also sounds obscure. And such obscurity is more than a matter of Beckett’s mannerisms and chosen tactics: it means that a big subject is attempted unsuccessfully, and that what needs to be a clear statement has been garbled.

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