The Built-in Reader

Colm Tóibín

There is a moment in Samuel Beckett’s story ‘The Expelled’ in which the hero watches a funeral pass:

Personally if I were reduced to making the sign of the cross I would set my heart on doing it right, nose, navel, left nipple, right nipple. But the way they did it, slovenly and wild, he seemed crucified all of a heap, no dignity, his knees under his chin and his hands anyhow ... As for the policeman he stiffened to attention, closed his eyes and saluted ... The horses were farting and shitting as though they were going to the fair.

This is one of Beckett’s common modes, the comic spirit which the actor Jack McGowran, for example, could seize upon and exploit with such brilliance. Our rueful narrator muses to himself, intrigued and obsessed by the rigours of things, loving lists, locked into the mind’s peculiar capacity to gather information, analyse it, store some of it and then forget most of it, lacking all respect for what Yeats called ‘custom and ceremony’, having it in for tradition and authority, and delighted by the body’s ability to undo whatever grandeur society or the mind had constructed.

Beckett’s work is at its best when he seems to forget himself, to forget his great mission to undo the power of words, an objective which he explained in a letter, written in German, to Axel Kaun in 1937:

It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used when it is most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.

And yet, we look back to that last sentence quoted from ‘The Expelled’: ‘The horses were farting and shitting as though they were going to the fair’; or the celebrated first sentence of Murphy, published in 1938, a year after the letter was written: ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new’; or sentences chosen at random from Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable – and we find that he is half in love with Grammar and Style, and that he is somehow prevented from putting his own agenda into operation, that the ‘higher goal’ constantly eludes him. It is this tension – Beckett with his agenda and Beckett becoming too distracted by the world to put his agenda into operation – that fills his work between Murphy and the later prose pieces.

There were, of course, other tensions too, not least a philosophical tension between the notion of cogito and the idea of sum. Beckett’s characters take a dim view of the ergo part of the equation. Cogitating is the nightmare from which they are trying to awaken, and Being is a sour trick played on them by some force with whom they are desperately trying not to reckon. Beckett produces infinite comedy about the business of thinking being boring, invalid, quite unnecessary. His characters know they exist because of the discomforts and odd habits of their bodies. In some cases they are left in no doubt.

The smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find unpleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how infinitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.

‘In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence,’ T.S. Eliot wrote at the beginning of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. How would such an essay go on if it were to begin ‘In Irish writing ...’ and if it were to consider the plight of the novelist? We begin with language. How different words sound on our lips: Christ, master, ale. Language is a cultural construct here, and no one from Jonathan Swift (or even from Edmund Spenser) came to see it as natural. We have survived to inherit the tension between the Latin of non serviam and the Anglo-Saxon of the groans and moans which Beckett used to such effect. But another, more crucial tension has also been inherited: a tension between the notion of English as a plague inflicted upon us (which I, for example, born in 1955, was brought up to believe) and as a language we possess ‘more deeply and sonorously than most of the English themselves’, as Seamus Heaney said of Derek Walcott.

One language has gone, and that means that the one we use now could fade too, slip and fail, as Mrs Rooney in Beckett’s All That Fall points out to Mr Rooney when he says ‘sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language’: ‘Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said.’ And the Irish tradition begins from that point: the language must be worked for all it is worth until, as John Banville’s narrator in his early novel Nightspawn says, ‘we are all up to our balls in paper, and this same testimony would remain: I love words and I hate death. Beyond this, nothing.’

The tradition becomes deeply ironic, loving words for their beauty and fragility, but knowing, too, a contempt for them and a need to search beyond them for what they will not disclose. The brokenness of history offers the novelist a tone: the feeling that there is no shared sense of time and place. The central moments in French history are communal and urban; Ireland had no Communards, no rabble being roused in the streets. Strange, small, isolated pockets of resistance, personal sacrifice as a metaphor for general sacrifice, a political activity which resembles literature in its desire to move the populace rather than seize the citadel, strike a chord with them, live on in their memory. An activity which needed literature, the power of songs and stories to thrive.

Yeats, the ringmaster for much of the circus of Irish history in the early part of the century (in Banville’s Birchwood it becomes a genuine circus), makes two crucial appearances in Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett. ‘Just as he sought Jack B. Yeats’s company, Beckett avoided introductions to his brother whom he regarded as pompous and posturing, fatuously slobbering over all the wrong aspects of Ireland and Irish society. Beckett actually met W.B. Yeats only once, during a brief encounter in Killiney, where he was disgusted with the way Yeats simpered over his wife and made an inordinate fuss with his children.’ Then in 1961, according to Bair, Beckett became absorbed in Yeats’s work, reread the poems and the plays. ‘There were lines in The Countess Cathleen that he knew by heart, and passages from At the Hawk’s Well that never failed to move him,’ Bair wrote.

Yeats had done enough slobbering and simpering over the myth-kitty of Ireland to serve Irish writing for many generations. Those who came after him could afford to make Ireland into an enormous joke. In First Love Beckett wrote:

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

It was easier for a poet to invent his own Ireland, and people it with peasants and hard-riding country gentlemen, than it was for a novelist. Ireland was built on dreams; but there was no society, no sense of continuity, tradition, money; nothing for the novelist to thrive on; and no readers.

This, then, is where the tradition begins: the novelist needs to invent a form, a structure, a language and, if need be, a built-in reader. In Ulysses, At Swim-Two-Birds, Birchwood and in John McGahern’s The Pornographer, parodies and pastiche are thrown in for the narrator to amuse himself with, as though no reader exists outside the pages of the book. Such strategies take their bearing from Modernism and mirror what was happening elsewhere in poetry and music, but it is nonetheless remarkable that the mainstream tradition (let us call it the Great Tradition) in the Irish novel over a period of sixty years was so willing to take on experiment, formal trickery, parody and the idea of a built-in readership. There was nowhere between history and destiny for the novelists to pitch their tents. In Banville’s world everything has to be imagined and constructed; nothing was there before the novel. In McGahern’s work the fate of the Irishman becomes the fate of all mankind: alone, lost, in search of some whole, unbroken place which might have existed in the past, which will perhaps be possible in the future in a personal and intimate way, but which will probably not be possible at all. But in Beckett’s austere universe nothing is there after the novel, or within the novel, and there is no search, except for time to pass, and nothing is possible, but certain things are probable, and those probabilities, in all their infinite absurdity, haunt the books and the plays from the very beginning.

The very beginning, in the guise of an unpublished first novel, has come back to haunt him. Dream of Fair to Middling Women was written in the summer of 1932, when Beckett was 26, in a Paris hotel. It is the story of the sentimental and philosophical education of our hero Belacqua, his adventures in Paris and Dublin, his drinking and his ambitions, his relationship with two women, the Smereldina and the Alba. The style is a rambling stream of consciousness, full of asides and associations, with a tone of half-seriousness and oblique mockery. It is easy as you read to imagine someone writing the words on the page – perhaps a young Protestant intellectual in Paris in 1932, the year when Catholic nationalism finally triumphed in the Republic of Ireland, and the state settled down as a dull and self-satisfied monolith. The old Protestant business class, Beckett’s class, would then lose all its power. The writing is self-conscious: it reads as though the writer wrote it merely to read it himself. And indeed he did read it himself, reusing a good deal of it in his first book of stories, More Pricks than Kicks. It reads as though the author cannot contemplate the idea of a reader, that the world beyond the book is beyond belief.

There are passages of startling beauty.

The mind, dim and hushed like a sick-room, like a chapelle ardente, thronged with shades; the mind at last its own asylum, disinterested, indifferent, its miserable erethisms and discriminations and futile sallies suppressed; the mind suddenly reprieved, ceasing to be an annex of the restless body, the glare of understanding switched off. The lids of the hard aching mind close, there is suddenly gloom in the mind; not sleep, not yet, nor dream, with its sweats and terrors, but a waking ultra-cerebral obscurity, thronged with grey angels.

Later, he would have pared this down, taken out the angels and the ‘ultra-cerebral’, but the phrase ‘there is suddenly gloom in the mind’ would have remained, and the ‘glare of understanding switched off’ became a theme for him, kept him going for the rest of his days.

There are many such marvellous passages. In a letter from the Smereldina we find a tone, tender and sour at the same time, that runs through all the plays and the novels:

You ask me to give you a taske. I think I have gived you a big enough task. I am longing to see the ‘thing’ you wrot about my ‘beauty’ (as you call it) I must say (without wanting any complements) I cant see anything very much to writ about except the usual rot men writ about women.

And always there is the body, making itself felt: ‘I curse the old body all day asswell because I have some damn thing on my leg so that I can barely walk, I dont know what it is or how it got there but it is there and full of matter to hell with it.’

For the reader who believes that Beckett’s need to write in French came through necessity, as a result of writing a good deal in English, this passage comes as a small shock:

The writing of, say, Racine or Malherbe, perpendicular, diamante, is pitted, is it not, and sprigged with sparkles; the flints and pebbles are there, no end of humble tags and commonplaces. They have no style, they write without style, do they not, they give you the phrase, the sparkle, the precious margaret. Perhaps only the French can do it. Perhaps only the French language can give you the thing you want.

And the narrator writes about his fiction: ‘The experience of my reader shall be between the phrases, in the silence communicated by the intervals, not the terms of the statement.’ And this is how Beckett and many of his critics came to view his work, that it approached silence, sought to bring ‘the terms of the statement’ in fiction and drama to an end. Language had once been constructed and now it could be destroyed.

The lines from The Countess Cathleen that Beckett knew were the last words:

The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet.

In Beckett’s last prose writing I can hear this statement as an undertow. His ideas about Grammar and Style and the writer’s ‘higher goal’ are no use to him now, and ‘the silence communicated by the intervals’ serves only to make the words themselves more powerful.

These late masterpieces have not been helped by Beckett’s later works for the theatre, which often seem flat and embarrassing parodies of his supposed views. Since both the plays and the fiction insist on brevity and lessness, it is easy to feel that they come from the same impulse and should be taken as part of the same process. But the late fictions are written with a sympathy for the human voice which is not in the later plays. It is a broken voice, full of memory, fresh thought and insight, and only too willing to stop and start, to offer us more words, further statements, the rhythm repetitious and mesmerising. The prose is modulated with care: there is no time now for jokes or casual ironies. This is the language of the body, found after a lifetime’s search. There is no need to think. Words and the space between them and more words become the only comfort. We treasure, with reason, last works. In Beckett’s last work for the theatre there is a huge falling off, a sense of exhaustion. The last works written in prose – ‘Company’, ‘Ill Seen Ill Said’, ‘Worstward Ho’, for example, published together as Nohow On – come, on the other hand, as a wonderful culmination, grave and still works of art which deserve our full attention.