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SAMUEL BECKETT 1906-89 (IRISH)
from Encyclopedia of the Novel.
Schellinger, Paul (ed.); Hudson, Christopher; Rijsberman, Marijke (asst eds).
Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998. 2 vols.
Copyright ? 1998 Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
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Samuel Beckett is better known for his plays than for his fiction. Yet he has had as radical an effect on the development of fiction in the second half of the 20th century as on modern drama. It may be argued that he and Jorge Luis Borges laid the foundations of postmodern fiction. Where modernists had experimented with new forms that better lent themselves to what T.S. Eliot called "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history," postmodernists attempted to subvert all varieties of artistic form in order to render the reality of the abyss, the nullity of postwar life. If, as Beckett believed, life constitutes an "issueless predicament" and amounts to a meaningless "void," then how is the postmodern writer to respond to this meaninglessness with words, those signs that cannot help but proliferate meaning? Beckett was obsessed by a desire to create what he called "a literature of the unword." He waged a lifelong war on words, which led him to startling innovations in form and language. His fictions offer a record of his struggle to force words to yield to the silence that underlies them and that, for him, represents the only true reality.
Beckett withheld from publication his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, written in 1932,
until 1992. But he drew on it and used the same protagonist, Belacqua, for his first published work of fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), a collection of ten connected short stories. In both texts Belacqua, like his namesake in Dante's Purgatorio, aspires to silence and stasis. A failed artist,
Belacqua defies the modernist obsession with (unconscious) motive, refusing for instance to reveal any reason for his decision to commit suicide. Beckett manipulates plot with the same capricious abandon. Major events such as marriage and death are mentioned in asides, while several pages are devoted to Belacqua's preparation of a sandwich. In both narratives the narrator intervenes metafictionally to stress the purely fictional nature of his antihero and to comment that "the only unity in this story [Dream] is, please God, an involuntary unity." More Kicks dismisses the language
of Dream as "torrents of meiosis." This is a fair description of Beckett's early Baroque style in both narratives.
Beckett's next novel, Murphy (1938), shows him exercizing greater control over language. He
employs pun, paradox, allusion, repetition, and inversion in an attempt to disrupt the semantic function of language. He cultivates self-negating patterns of dialogue that parallel the protagonist's efforts to achieve physical stasis and mental communication with what he calls "the dark of absolute freedom." Beckett followed this, his most accessible novel, with Watt (1953), his most
inaccessible one, written between 1942 and 1945. Even less eventful than his previous works, it contains familiar Beckett motifs that are not satisfactorily embedded in the fictional text. Watt's is an inner journey of the mind made up of ordered enquiries that only demonstrate the futility of human rationality. Watt (or What?), the wordy protagonist, is negated by another character, Knott (or Not), whose wordlessness turns What? into Whatnot, that which cannot be named.In 1946 Beckett determined to investigate the darkness within him that he "had struggled to keep under." At about the same time he began writing in French because, he said, when using an alien language "it is easier to write without style." He delayed publishing his first French novel, Mercier
et Camier (Mercier and Camier), until 1970, because he drew on it for Waiting for Godot (1952),
the play that first established his international reputation. Next he wrote four novellas, which anticipate in form and theme the trilogy of novels that would establish him as a novelist of major stature. Between 1947 and 1949 he wrote Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), and
L'Innommable (1953; The Unnamable). In each book the protagonist is progressively immobilized,
finally reduced in the third novel to a disembodied voice. Using interior monologue, Beckett
portrays human consciousness telling itself fictions about itself, each one aspiring to be the last. Simultaneously, Beckett portrays the predicament of the modern artist, which is "to fail, as no other dare fail." Each successive narrator pursues a more reductive excavation of the self, and each fails. Failure, it is implied, is inevitable for those using language as the means of reaching silence and death.
In The Unnamable, Beckett claimed, "there is complete disintegration." His next book, Nouvelles
et Textes pour rien (1955; Stories and Texts for Nothing), a series of 13 short linked texts, "was an
attempt," Beckett said, "to get out of the attitude of disintegration, but it failed." Yet its strategy of countering the linearity of language by a circularity of structure and repetition of motifs is put to brilliant use in Beckett's last full-length novel, Comment c'est (1961; How It Is). Searching for a
postmodern form "that admits the chaos," Beckett offers a protagonist whose existence consists of crawling across the mud dragging a sack of canned food behind him. The novel, reminiscent of Canto 7 of Dante's Inferno, is divided into three sections in which the crawler remembers his old "life in the light," overtakes another crawler whom he tortures into speech, and is left alone waiting to be overtaken himself by another crawler who will torture him in turn. The circular form is accompanied by a radically pared down use of language that depends for its near-poetic effect on the blank spaces between each of the unpunctuated versets that constitute the text. The murmurings in the mud are so many stains on the silence to which the speaker and narrator aspire, a silence given visual and aural presence by the blank spaces in the text.After How It Is, Beckett's fiction took the form of what he called "residua" or "têtes mortes" (death's-heads). These are not short stories but minimalist works of fiction. During the 1960s he wrote eight brief "Fizzles" and six more substantial texts: All Strange Away (1976; written 1963-64),
Imagination morte imaginez (Imagination Dead Imagine, 1965), Assez (1966; Enough), Le
Dépeupleur (1971; The Lost Ones), Bing (1966; Ping), and Sans (1969; Lessness). Except for
Enough, the remaining five texts evolve from each other. In these "skullscapes," Beckett abandons the first person for an impersonality and reliance on mathematical calculations that still fail to fully represent the futility of human existence.
In the late 1970s, Beckett produced a second trilogy of novella-length texts. Company (1980), first
written in English, is divided between a third-person description of one who lies on his back in the dark and a second-person voice that remembers scenes from the past that come close to autobiography. The subject is hopelessly split between these pronominal stand-ins that offer it delusive company. The last paragraph returns the "you" to where "you always were. Alone." Mal vu
mal dit (1981; Ill Seen Ill Said) takes the postmodern penchant for self-referentiality to extreme
lengths. Its subject is the process of composition itself. The imagination summons up a minimal scenario, an ill-seen image that is then consumed by the ill-said narrative that aspires to narrate it out of existence. In Worstward Ho (1983), Beckett starts by conjuring up images of a woman, an
old man, a child, and a skull and progressively pares them down until he is left with "Three pins. One pinhole." He has effectually deconstructed realist narrative by prioritizing the marginalized act of narration and reinscribing plot and character within this new hierarchy. Simultaneously he strips language to its essentials in one final attempt to force it to express the inexpressible reality of nothingness. Of course he fails. But he fails magnificently. "On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on." Beckett has many imitators, but no successors. As Joyce took modernism to its ultimate conclusion in Finnegans Wake, so Beckett not only helped initiate
postmodernist fiction, but pursued it ruthlessly to a point that might prove to be its final expression.Brian Finney
See also MOLLOY, MALONE DIES, THE UNNAMABLE BY SAMUEL BECKETT (MOLLOY,
MALONE MEURT, L'INNOMMABLE 1951-53).
Born in Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland, 13 April 1906. Attended Ida Elsner's Academy, Stillorgan; Earlsfort House preparatory school; Portora Royal School, County Fermanagh; Trinity College, Dublin (foundation scholar), B.A. in French and Italian 1927, M.A. 1931. French teacher, Campbell College, Belfast, 1928; lecturer in English, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1928-30; lecturer in French, Trinity College, Dublin, 1930-31; translator and writer in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and closely associated with James Joyce's circle; lived in Dublin and London, 1933-37; returned to Paris, 1937; joined French Resistance, 1940; fled to Roussillon in unoccupied France, where he lived, 1942-45; worked at the Irish Red Cross Hospital, St. Lô, France, 1945; resumed literary career in Paris after World War II, usually publishing his work both in French and English versions. Awarded Nobel prize for literature, 1969. Died 22 December 1989.
(All translations from French to English by Beckett)
More Pricks Than Kicks, 1934
Molloy, 1951; as Molloy, translated with Patrick Bowles, 1955Malone meurt, 1951; as Malone Dies, 1956
L'Innommable, 1953 as The Unnamable, 1958
Nouvelles et Textes pour rien, 1955; as Stories and Texts for Nothing,
translated with Richard Seaver, 1967
Comment c'est, 1961; as How It Is, 1964
Imagination morte imaginez, 1965; as Imagination Dead Imagine, 1965
Assez, 1966; as Enough, in No's Knife, 1967
Bing, 1966; as Ping, in No's Knife, 1967
Sans, 1969; as Lessness, 1971
Le Dépeupleur, 1971; as The Lost Ones, 1972
All Strange Away, 1976
Mal vu mal dit, 1981; as Ill Seen Ill Said, 1982
Worstward Ho, 1983
Dream of Fair to Middling Women, 1992
return to top Other Writings:
plays for the stage (including En attendant Godot [1952; Waiting for Godot]), screenplays, and radio plays; theatrical notebooks, poems, and essays (including studies of Joyce's "Work in
Progress" and Proust); also translator of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, and
Abbott, H. Porter, The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect, Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1973
Brienza, Susan, Samuel Beckett's New Worlds: Style in Metafiction, Norman
and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987Federman, Raymond, and John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett: His Works and His Critics: An Essay in Bibliography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970; London: University of California Press, 1971Fletcher, John, The Novels of Samuel Beckett, New York: Barnes and Noble, and London: Chatto and Windus, 1964; 2nd edition, 1970Kenner, Hugh, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1973Knowlson, James, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, New York:
Simon and Schuster, and London: Bloomsbury, 1996Knowlson, James, and John Pilling, Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett, London: Calder, 1979; New York: Grove, 1980Levy, Eric, Beckett and the Voice of Species: A Study of the Prose Fiction,
Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1980
Murphy, P.J., Reconstructing Beckett: Language for Being in Samuel Beckett's
Fiction, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990Rabinovitz, Rubin, Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992
Toyama, Jean Yamasaki, Beckett's Game: Self and Language in the Trilogy,
New York: Peter Lang, 1991
View Select Bibliography for the Encyclopedia of the Novel
View List of Contributors for the Encyclopedia of the Novel