Incompetents

Stephen Bann

  • Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
    Calder, 48 pp, £5.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 7145 3979 1
  • That Voice by Robert Pinget, translated by Barbara Wright
    Red Dust (New York), 114 pp, $10.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 87376 041 7
  • King Solomon by Romain Gary, translated by Barbara Wright
    Harvill, 256 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 261416 2
  • A Year in Hartlebury, or The Election by Benjamin Disraeli and Sarah Disraeli
    Murray, 222 pp, £8.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4020 8
  • The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire by Doris Lessing
    Cape, 180 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 224 02130 3

The less there is to see, the more there is to say. Such might be the motto of the Beckett enthusiast. An ingenious recent article by James Hansford devotes almost twenty pages to a story whose original manuscript consists of a bare page of typescript,[1] But the apparent-neglect of due critical economy is easily explained by the character of Beckett’s corpus of writings. To borrow the term which Micher Butor coined for Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, these writings form a ‘mobile romanesque’. Each new work offers a new vantage-point on what we sense to be the same fictional material. A repeated phrase will not only play its intrinsic structural role in the unfolding of the narrative, but will mobilise a whole series of supplementary murmurs from the vast echo chamber of Beckett’s preceding work. And as the new pieces of writing become slighter and slighter – judged by the crude criterion of length – so the challenge to the attentive reader is maximised. Jean-Michel Rey claims to see the germ of Ill seen ill said, Beckett’s last brief novel, in a fragmentary passage from How it is.[2] The earlier work establishes a particular cadence, which at first passes almost undetected in the rhythmic, elliptical patterning of Beckett’s narrative. The title of the new work singles out that lapidary cadence, and it becomes the ground bass for a further, even more elliptical elaboration of Beckett’s recurring themes.

Whether the title of this most recent novel, or novella, can be elicited from the earlier writings must be left to the specialist to find out. What cannot be denied is that Beckett has lighted upon a spectacular banner headline, which summons up other associations and, in doing so, achieves a querulous irony. Worstward Ho – the title puts us in mind of Charles Kingsley’s stirring adventure yarn, and perhaps of Kipling’s boarding-school, model for Stalky and Co. Shorn of the exclamation-mark which gives a stirring emphasis to the Victorian adventure story (and the name of the Victorian school), Worstward Ho is the signal for an implosion of fictional matter. ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is perhaps the most memorable of Beckett’s phrases, conveying as it does the force of contradiction as an agent in thickening and deepening the narrative texture. In Worstward Ho, which could be seen as the third in a new trilogy of related novels, the complementary stresses of forward movement and devices of inhibition produce a remarkably concentrated effect. The positive is expressed through innumerable detours into the double negative. Verbs are lopped off, leaving their predicates washed up on some remote semantic shore. Yet occasionally the balance is tilted forward, and the elliptical fragments appear for a moment to hold together. Even the exclamation-mark returns, in force, when Beckett starts to count from one to three, and perhaps, endorses this new trilogy:

Something not wrong with one. Then with two. Then with three. So on. Something not wrong with all. Far from wrong. Far far from wrong.

    The words too whosesoever. What room for worse! How almost true they sometimes almost ring! How wanting in inanity! Say the night is young alas and take heart. Or better worse say still a watch of night alas to come. A rest of last watch to come. And take heart.

It would be a great pity if, nowadays, Beckett had become more celebrated than read, or if the classic status of the early work had blinded us to the evidence of his continuing achievement. Worstward Ho enables us to enter, once again, the circulating mobile of his fictional world, and to follow the still enthralling adventures of the lone authorial voice.

There is perhaps only one other living author for whom a direct comparison with Beckett would be neither irrelevant nor absurd. The French novelist and playwright Robert Pinget was put forward in the 1960s as an exponent of the ‘nouveau roman’. But his affiliation with Beckett was always stronger than the temporary association with Robbe-Grillet’s travelling circus, and Beckett paid him the compliment of making an English translation of his short play La Manivelle (The Old Tune) in 1963. It can and should be claimed for Pinget that he has produced a sequence of some twenty books over the past three decades, all of which observe the kind of stringent laws of discourse and development that we associate with the Beckett oeuvre. Pinget has also constructed his recognisable ‘mobile romanesque’. But the comparison with Beckett should not be allowed to mask the fact that this is a wholly original and distinctive achievement.

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[1] ‘Seeing and Saying in “As the story was told” ’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, edited by John Pilling, Autumn 1982, No 8.

[2] ‘Sur Samuel Beckett’ by Jean-Michel Rey, in Café Littéraire, edited by Jean-Louis Schefer, 1983, No 1.

[3] edited by John O’Brien, Summer 1983, Vol. III.

[4] The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, Blond and Briggs, 526 pp., £9.95, 28 April, 0 85634 142 8.

[5] Readings and Writings by Peter Wollen, New Left Books, 228 pp., £15 and £4.95, November 1982, 0 86091 055 5.