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.

Whatever the evil was, it spread originally from the cabin where the woman lives. Nowadays ‘stones increasingly abound,’ although ‘in the far past at the time of its building there was clover growing to its very walls. Implying furthermore that it the culprit.’ And implying, perhaps, an Original Sin. The idea is there to be latched onto, or can be let alone. The vagueness about this evil merges anyway into the unease caused by the title phrase ‘ill seen ill said’, which often recurs in the text, always under the shadow of the implied ‘ill done’. It’s an oddly used phrase, appearing in contexts where only part of it seems to fit – as in ‘Such the dwelling ill seen ill said’ – but by mere repetition it gives a general impression of guilt and remorse. And the same vagueness attaches to ‘the others’, who watch the woman from afar – ‘the twelve’. This is a hinting number, but little more than their number is known about them. Vaguely frightening because inexplicable, they may even be benevolent at heart, since the term ‘guardians’ occurs. But are they guardians of the woman or the tomb? It seems that their only function is to hint at a meaning without disclosing what it is.

This suggesting and then withholding of a meaning puts even the most ordinary objects under a strain. A buttonhook, for instance. Elsewhere, Beckett has shown that he has a wonderful, roving eye for objects that assume a private importance for a character, while helping to keep the narrative healthily realistic. And objects have been known to exhibit a casual absence of appropriate meaning, like the ‘succession of oil-lamps, followed by shirts with turned-down collars’ that helped Proust’s narrator to wake up in Swann’s Way. But Beckett’s buttonhook is an object charged with too much to do. ‘Of tarnished silver pisci-form it hangs by its hook from a nail. It trembles faintly without cease. As if here without cease the earth faintly quaked.’ Nothing happens to this buttonhook except that it’s several times mentioned, but the mere fact that it has a place in Beckett’s universe makes it significant, though incomprehensibly so. It seems to be expected to declare a meaning. It trembles.

But a fine thing emerges from Ill seen ill said, and it has little to do with the obscurities or the hints at meaning. It is simply the apprehension of a woman dying. The narrator-through whom this is mediated – can only apprehend: he cannot solve anything, or even hope to understand. Something about the woman ‘Forbids divining her. What but life ending.’ The quality and complexities of Beckett’s observation at this point have the surprising effect of recalling Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems. Remote isolation is a theme natural to both writers, but there are specific resemblances: Beckett writing evocatively of the evening star, not one of his usual subjects, might be evoking also ‘Fair as a star, when only one ...’; and the merging into the void at the end seems like an echo in his language (‘Sky earth the whole kit and boodle’) of Lucy’s peculiar end with rocks and stones and trees. Whether these are accidents or not, the remote but intense gaze of Beckett’s narrator suggests to me exactly that of Wordsworth at Goslar, meditating on the paradox of Lucy.

Some have been cheered by this novel, especially by its ending, which is about the moment of ending: ‘One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.’ I’m afraid I find the last words objectionable – and not just because ‘Know happiness’ is a thumping C major chord for any novel to end on, let alone one by Beckett. Admittedly they aren’t intended as an injunction of the embarrassing ‘Live all you can!’ kind. They mean just the opposite. Die, and enjoy that all you can. Beckett proposes to enjoy the end, if nothing else (indeed, because nothing else). But it’s too glib, this way of phrasing a refusal to mourn. Beckett has been waiting for the end a long time, and might have treated it more decently – as he does elsewhere in the novel.

In 1964 John Fowles published ‘a self-portrait in ideas’ called The Aristos, of which he has said: ‘I hate to think of the awful pages of bad philosophy that would be in my novels if I hadn’t written that. ‘Perhaps time will find a similar use for Mantissa: at the moment, there’s little else to say for it. Before fantasy was liberated by some modern writers, it often tended to the facetious: arch encounters between a fanciful nymph or two, muses and such. Mantissa is that sort of thing. It is an encounter between a writer and his muse, in a series of quick-change acts they have been developing ever since Erato came down from Olympus. There’s no evidence this time that the writer is a self-portrait of John Fowles, but the ideas look like his all right. His ideas about literary theory, mythic recurrence or sexual politics may have done some service in the best of his novels, where they’re not altogether out of contact with narrative and the reality principle – though even there they look a bit sententious. Here they have everything else wrong with them as well.

The muse Erato appears in various stylised forms (nymph, psychiatrist, punk rocker), and perhaps just a little the stylisation protects the ideas. The muse as sexy West Indian hospital nurse, for instance, is outrageously a racist and sexist stereotype: but because this is only one among her other stock parts, the provocation doesn’t seem dangerous, merely silly. When the muse isn’t acting out a fantasy for the writer (when she is, it’s stereotyped pornography), they argue and quarrel. They prop themselves on their elbows, like figures on Etruscan tombs, and discuss sex, literature, psychiatry or ancient Greece. But what it always comes to in the end is the battle between the sexes, scenes from which are acted out, as in the pornographic bits, with the limited aid of stereotypes and jargon. In one role Erato says, ‘You’re pathetic. You don’t even know where it’s bleedin’ at any more,’ and in another: ‘I’m female, Miles. I can’t help being a tissue of contradictions.’ (‘Of course. Forgive me,’ he replies.) When she’s really serious she says things like ‘an absolutely typical male pseudo-intellectual’s sexist belief that making black sisters proves he’s a liberal.’

She talks in all the ways women have ever been supposed to talk. The pompous Miles Green, on the other hand, talks like a book; what’s worse, like this book – which advances its narrative by such means as: ‘This somewhat abrupt ending (or aposiopesis) is caused by a previous movement from the figure on the bed.’ Couched in every cant phrase ever used between man and woman, their exchanges are immensely boring. Serious points are intended – on the connection between sexuality and language, for instance. And there’s the let-out that Erato isn’t really responsible for her fantasies or her awful script: it’s his fantasies about women that she’s acting out. She gets the odd comic come-back out of this: ‘If you say so. That is, if you say “if you say so” is what you want me to say.’ But nothing serious stands a chance against the facetiousness of it all. Better to be facetious about silly ideas rather than serious ones. It’s no consolation that Fowles is serious.

Two American novels are each conventional in their way, and their ways are miles apart: that of madness and the visionary gleam in Sounding the territory, and old-fashioned realism and poignancy in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. But neither is merely conventional, and they notice more than is usually noticed. When a character in the first says, ‘Nothing is either so simple or so complicated as we imagine it to be,’ this could be what is meant in the other by the ‘half-right-and-half-wrongness of things’. Both novels attend to such ambiguities with care and fairness. Jay Davidson, the narrator of Sounding the territory, is disturbingly mad some of the time, when imaginary ‘control’ figures appear or rooms close in on him. But he makes out precariously with a job as a cinema usher in New York – utterly bored, but is that his problem or New York’s? The fact that madness and reality are never far apart is explored in much of the detail of ordinary living – and then in fantasy, on a nightmare journey through Indiana, where a gas station has been bombed, the bus crashes and the driver vanishes into the night: all this is hallucination, but its horrors have their place in the outside world as well as inside Jay’s mind.

This is a first novel, and too much indebted to a tradition, going back to Sylvia Plath and Salinger, of writing from inside a character, especially an insecure one, with a determined brightness. ‘Dear Dad, I don’t know who I am. I seem to be whoever I am with. Did you ever have that feeling? Love, Jay.’ When, as a child, he is seized by hysterical paralysis on the school bus and cannot get off, it’s made out to be quite a laugh: he reports all his symptoms and the driver’s consternation, but without a hint of the actual terror. It’s a more original and sensitive novel on the incidentals of Jay’s plight, which don’t call for literary sophistication and have nothing unusual about them. Jay has difficulty in living at first hand, or believes he has. He can talk and act quite naturally, but also finds that he self-consciously watches himself in the act of acting. You don’t have to be mad to recognise yourself in Jay.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is full of facts about cooking, clothes and families over the eighty years of the century. They are plain, ordinary facts, but they have subtle uses. These are some of the things Pearl was doing in 1909, according to her diary: ‘She pressed a bodice, sewed a corset cover, darned her stockings, altered a girdle, stitched a comforter, monogrammed a handkerchief, cut outing flannel for skirts.’ Because they were once familiar to someone, all these unfamiliar things do more than establish a period. Realism in Anne Tyler’s novel has a way of endearing its subject, not just of documenting it. She is none the less an exceedingly sharp and sceptical writer. She loves her characters, but her ploy is to demonstrate that any assumption about them, favourable or not, is likely to be wrong. When her husband takes off, Pearl is left alone in Baltimore to bring up the children – a pushy boy, a gentle boy and a strangely evasive girl. All these children are capable of behaving both well and badly, but in the end they ‘turned out fine’. It’s rather a happy novel – in the end. But full of nasty surprises.

Pearl now lies dying, consoled by her memories. But her view of the past and of herself goes unsupported. At best Pearl was a difficult woman, living through her children; at worst, Cody says at her funeral, ‘a raving, shrieking, unpredictable witch’. We see everything differently through different eyes: in this respect, the realism isn’t at all old-fashioned but of a modern and relativistic kind. ‘Little did they know,’ Pearl reflects, thinking of the trials of motherhood. Little does any of them know. The incongruity of points of view is one of the two main factors that undo easy assumptions. The other is the passing of time. Cody, who is pushy and unsympathetic and bears grudges, acts out of pure malice in stealing his brother’s girl. But time passes and Cody’s marriage works; what he once did no longer seems such a bad thing; and even the distinction between forgiving and forgetting it becomes blurred. There is realism here too. A good deal of life has been quietly encompassed by the time Cody’s young son is discovering both the love and the deceptions around him, and his long-missing grandfather turns up to remark on the ‘half-right-and-half-wrongness of things’.