Il n’y a pas de Beckett

Christopher Prendergast

  • Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson
    Bloomsbury, 872 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 7475 2719 9
  • Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist by Anthony Cronin
    HarperCollins, 645 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 246 13769 X
  • The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol I: Waiting for Godot edited by Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson
    Faber, 472 pp, £75.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 571 14543 4
  • The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol II: Endgame edited by S.E. Gontarski
    Faber, 276 pp, £50.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 571 14544 2
  • The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Vol III: Krapp’s Last Tape edited by James Knowlson
    Faber, 286 pp, £50.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 571 14563 9
  • Eleutheria by Samuel Beckett, translated by Barbara Wright
    Faber, 170 pp, £6.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17826 X

‘You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that,’ says Hamm to Clov in Endgame. This is sometimes taken as a summary of what is alleged to be the distinctively bleak Beckettian world-view, but for it even to be a starter in this role, one would have to figure out what it means. For, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell observed, the meaning(s) will vary according to the stress-pattern the actor’s voice imposes on its principal terms; if, for example, on ‘cure’, this of itself would not preclude other worthwhile possibilities for our terrestial condition, and if on ‘that’, there could be an implicit invitation to countenance other-worldly aspirations. Similar considerations of a less starkly ultimate kind might arise in connection with the subtitle of James Knowlson’s new biography: ‘The Life of Samuel Beckett’. (The main title looks suspiciously like a publisher’s wheeze, a low-grade spin on Beckett’s desperate formula for the modern artist as doomed to fail or, more tantalisingly, as driven by a ‘fidelity to failure’ and the mind-bending imperative of Worstward Ho: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’) In the subtitle, is the stress to fall on noun or definite article? If the former (implying an account of the life-story of Samuel Beckett), there is already a problem. How might such an account proceed in relation to its subject given the peculiar inflection of ‘autobiographical’ discourse provided by the subject himself (in his description of How It Is)?

A ‘man’ is lying panting in the mud and dark and murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him. This utterance is described throughout the work as the fragmentary recollection of an extraneous voice once heard ‘quaqua on all sides’ ... The work is in three parts ... It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from he outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.

Knowlson, who quotes this passage from a letter to Donald Mc Whinnie, draws no lesson from it, other than the somewhat limp, and question-begging, suggestion that the world of How It Is is ‘related sometimes closely but rarely unambiguously to Beckett’s own life’. Certainly all possibility of a lesson evaporates if our prosodic attention fixes on the definite article in Knowlson’s title (‘The Life’). For if the stress falls here, then ‘life’ refers rather to the book before us, as an instance of the genre of literary biography, and the definite article carries an implication of the comprehensive. Knowlson quite properly reminds us in his Preface that Beckett endorsed the undertaking as the ‘sole authorised biography’ (with the previous biography, by Deirdre Bair, he had been studiedly non-committal) and that he aided Knowlson in major ways, giving interviews and access to unpublished material such as diaries and letters.

In that sense Knowlson’s biography can legitimately claim to be the Life, an ambition reflected, though less happily, in the sheer length of the book, which conforms to a more general trend in contemporary literary biographies; carrying them around resembles nothing so much as Lucky’s portering of the sand-filled suitcases in Waiting for Godot. Lévi-Strauss argued that history-writing was impossible given the indefinite divisibility of time and hence the arbitrariness of the temporal units adopted by the historian. This thought is unlikely to be much of an impediment to the practising historian, but it sometimes seems as if the biographer has sought to take it into account, not, however, as disincentive but as spur to the production of more and more pages on everything under the sun.

Take, for example, Knowlson on the topic of Beckett under the sun (on vacation in Sardinia with his partner, Suzanne, in 1967): ‘The weather was unfailingly kind. The hotel was quiet and peaceful and their rooms had fine views overlooking the sea. The beach was beautiful, part fine sand, part tiny pebbles. Even the local white wine was surprisingly drinkable.’ If Knowlson’s story is going to follow Beckett on his hols, why stop here? Why was the plonk ‘surprisingly’ drinkable? Is this a comment on Sardinian wines in general or just those of that particular year? What about the reds? And where the weather is concerned, why leave it at ‘unfailingly kind’? Why not deconstruct this into the crazy pastiche of a metereological report that we find on the opening pages of Musil’s The Man without Qualities (analogous perhaps with Beckett’s rewriting of the verb ‘to walk’ in the insanely analytical description of Watt’s mode of locomotion)? If the threshold of relevance is already so low as to include Beckett on the beach, why pin the threshold to the conventions of the tourist office brochure?

There are Beckettian as well as Lévi-Straussian reasons for entertaining this question about limits, where things begin and end, or whether they can begin and end. Strolling with Beckett on the sand might call to mind his abiding preoccupation with the grains of Zeno’s paradox: on the principle of indefinite divisibility, when does the heap of grains cease to be a heap? (In Endgame, Hamm muses on this conundrum.) The taste for arcane philosophical puzzles is not merely a tic: it connects with a central issue of Beckett’s writing, indeed of modern writing in general. Beginnings and endings are problematic categories for Modernism. A la recherche describes a circle; Finnegans Wake loops round from its final ‘the’ to its initial ‘riverrun’; Les Faux-Monnayeurs begins by constantly deferring a beginning; Joseph and His Brothers propels its beginning into the perspective of an infinite regression. But it is perhaps above all in Beckett’s work that the security of these categories is blown apart, and this must have consequences for the project of a literary biography.

Both Knowlson and Cronin follow biographical custom in shaping their narratives between a birth and a death, but both also point out that, in Beckett’s terms, ‘life’ begins before birth. Beckett claimed to have (largely disagreeable) memories of the pre-natal (according to Peggy Guggenheim, he ‘retained a terrible memory of life in his mother’s womb’). References to the pre-natal condition abound in his work (between them Knowlson and Cronin list Murphy, All that Fall, Company, the poem ‘Sanies 1’). Yet, however unpleasant life in the womb, it is as nothing compared with the catastrophe of birth. This is a view Beckett shares with Job, Sophocles, Schopenhauer (whose remarks on the ‘crime of having been born’ are reproduced almost verbatim in Beckett’s early essay on Proust) and Nietzsche (in the fable at the beginning of the Birth of Tragedy, according to which the ‘best’ is ‘never to have been born’; the second best to die quickly). Beckett gives a novel twist to this venerable tradition by extending the curse from birth to conception (in Murphy, Neary curses first the day he was born, then, ‘in a bold flashback’, the night he was conceived). There is also Molloy’s bracing observation, to the effect that the ante-natal period was ‘the only endurable, just endurable, period of my enormous history’. In their trawls through the literary after-life of Beckett’s ruminations on the pre-natal, both Cronin and Knowlson omit Molloy’s resumé of his ‘life’ from their lists, perhaps for the reason that, taken seriously in relation to Beckett, it would not leave much of a story to tell.

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