The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

‘At No Costs to Prisons': Three Books on Beckett

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 16 January 2005

Samuel Beckett's formidable work merits no place on a shortlist of Irish writers inspired–as Frank O'Connor, Sean O Faolain, or Liam O'Flaherty had at one time however ambiguously or briefly–by republicanism. Beckett risked his life for his ideals even as much of what he wrote challenges their adequacy amidst so much doubt, destruction, and desolation–caused by each other, by our mortality, and by the absence of a caring deity. Still, the appeal by Beckett to a vision of humanity trapped amidst ruins of its own making sustains a reader's interest long after ideologically motivated authors' lesser publications have been marred by obsolete value systems, economic fallacies or political regimes' falls from favour. Three books that I have read over the past month, in my effort to learn more about an author whose texts I have studied but not always understood, illuminate various ways for those of us less intelligent than Beckett to enter into the labyrinths he drew on page and stage.
If you seek to understand how a product of the Irish Protestant middle class a century ago managed at an early age to overthrown any certainty brought about by such an upbringing, Anthony Cronin's massive biography of Beckett, The Last Modernist (London/New York: HarperCollins, 1997) offers surmises to this and hundreds of other puzzles in the reticent Foxrock native's life. For a man who so esteemed silence, the impossibility of words to match our inner experiences and their outer raiments, the herculean effort gone into cleaning out the Augean stables, the poring through every scrap penned by Beckett, results in an extraordinarily thorough but never exhausting account ranging six hundred closely printed pages.
As an adopted Dubliner, and as a working writer for fifty years, Cronin adds here to his earlier successes that pondered literary failure, or at least mediocrity, in what passed for bohemian life in the Irish capital of the postwar decade, 1945-55, Dead as Doornails, and in his life of Flann O'Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brian O Nolan, No Laughing Matter. Both of these have been reissued recently, and I recommend them to readers curious about how talent can drown its sorrows in too much whisky and its potential in too much talk with too little discipline. While this pair illustrates many anecdotes riotously rendered, the cumulative effect of the two accounts makes for sobering cautionary tales, and how the ghost of Joyce lingered long over last century.
How Beckett managed to extricate himself from the early dominance of Joyce when the two met and depended upon each other however fleetingly in Paris makes for engrossing storytelling. What I noted most of all was how Cronin, through scouring Beckett's records, depicts an author doggedly crippled by maladies mostly psychosomatic, by imagined fears, by phobias befitting indeed his future characters. It takes until 1950 or so for this writer, now in his mid-forties, to begin to enter into the period, after ‘the long siege in the room,' where he could come out of his shell and wrestle with his demons. Having fought, at first for the French Resistance (if his rather circumspect accomplishments fell less than dazzlingly in the Hollywood sense, his danger was no less real and the fate of his comrades no less fatal) and then against his interior desolation, he only then could become, well into middle age, the leader of the avant-garde we know him as, the creator of Godot and Endgame, Krapp and Malone, Molloy and Worm, Winnie and Gogo.
In this brief overview of Cronin's tome, I have little room to quote at length. But, for anyone needing an excellent précis of what Beckett achieved, chapters 23 and 24 in my estimation serve as a thoughtful and by no means uncritical survey of how Beckett set up scaffolds, erected his plots, and then demolished as much of the structure as the work could stand and still survive.

Of course, his later rather dead-end prose such as How It Is and his tinier plays, or dramaticules, produced as the 1960s and 70s found him caught within the expectations of comedians, scholars, analysts, and audiences, the productions shrank as he seemingly had less to say and less support for their spatial and linguistic gaps. As Beckett, at the start of his career, noted of Joyce, the elder Irishman strove to cram the whole of existence into the written word, while his successor sought to eliminate as much of the words and still capture the whole of the same human condition. Two contrasting approaches, intersected by the love of language, the compulsion to manufacture it, and the doubt in any higher purpose than that of the artist driven to create and depict and narrate.
Cronin's energy never flags. I happily measured how well he paces his own story. Godot appears only about 2/3 of the way through, and Cronin never stints on the earlier, more embarrassing malingering of the younger Beckett that presaged his rise to fame and irritated his naturally reclusive nature. His generousity, often remarked upon by those who knew and/or studied him, left many in his debt. Winning the Nobel Prize in 1969, he escaped on an extended holiday and gave away the prize money to a list of deserving up-and-coming writers. One bought a sports car with her windfall. Cronin, as one who knew and at least once offended Beckett, offers a counterpart to Damned by Fame, which appeared (as biographers often find) immediately prior to his own volume in 1996. James Knowlson, the keeper of the Beckett archive at the University of Reading (where a year's concentration and cash can earn you a MA in Beckett Studies), brought out the authorised biography, with more of the typical trajectory beloved by screenwriters, with Beckett's earlier, more derivatively jaunty, Joycean, or jejune scribblings preparing the way for a blossoming into challenging, disturbing, and, yes, humorous sketches of frailty, despair, and hope.
For Cronin, Beckett's less a secular saint than a hypochondriacal mum's boy who, after coddling and a preparation for respectability, lived the life of the Irish exile (who kept decamping to London and even Dublin often enough) and finally had to grow up, support himself, and push his resources to plumb the darkness within. He took in a lot of drink along the way and into many a wee hour and dawn. Out of this, he made stunningly evocative prose, for my tastes some of the best in the 20th century in English, full of cadences that, in the restricted French that he chose so as to limit himself to a harsher diet than that afforded the luxuriant Hiberno-English consumer, ghosted Irishisms, summoned English at its best, and shone through French.He inspires us lesser mortals by proving that we too can overcome our lesser natures--and perform.
Gary Adelman, a professor at the University of Illinois, offers a much-needed serial explication of the later prose in Naming Beckett's Unnameable (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP/ London: Associated University Presses, 2004) He writes engagingly and accessibly, thankfully for a scholar. Often overshadowed by Martin Esslin's mislabelling of Beckett as among the ranks of the existentialist-inspired "theatre of the absurd" of Ionesco, Sartre, and mid-century French rivals, the fictions Beckett hammered out of his skull onto paper from 1946-50 that became known as the "trilogy" of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable announces a spectacular performance of its own. He wrote Godot as a witty break from the rigours of forming the last book of these three, so you can imagine how difficult this process might have been!
Many readers shrink from the trilogy. As it progresses, narratives break down like their successive narrators, driven into inarticulation as they are goaded by an unseen force to tell their descents, more and more distant from our quotidian world, into encounters with themselves, doppelgangers, and pursuers bent on overtaking the tellers themselves to continue the tale. Yet, if read at a rush and then a stroll, depending on the mood you set for yourself, it constructs in your mind a scenario gripping enough to eliminate the distractions of, in my case, bomb scares on the Belfast-Dublin train and endless delays at Newry one dreary, typically Beckettian, longish day.
Adelman, clearly honed by decades in the classroom, attacks the prose and chips away at its edifice. He uncovers the lineaments of care and craft to argue for–beneath the experimental narrative style–redemption within. I agree here, contrary to many who have delved into the same shafts, that Beckett cannot be placed totally within the atheist camp. He, like Joyce, wavered. Adelman looks hard at the bleak inscapes of the Unnameable to face, in his critique, a partial account of a Holocaust survivor. I had known of Adelman's argument in its broad terms in an article he had published earlier before I read The Unnameable. When I encountered Beckett's final installment, after which he could truly go no further (How It Is being I think an aborted try), I tested Adelman's reading against my fresh one. It works for some of the novel, but as the narrative itself fractures, one narrator is not enough to address the impact of the Shoah. Adelman realises that his efforts to extract strivings for the sacred out of what many readers have determined to be godless texts has its limits, and he appeals to Kafka for support, a similarly tenuous figure for the past century's spiritual seekers and deniers.
I add here that Beckett appeals to prisoners. Like Kafka's K in the Castle, or Josef on Trial, or Gregor Samsa's Metamorphosis, the wrenchings physical and mental undergone by fragile humans under pressure had early inspired San Quentin's inmates to stage Beckett's plays. Rick Cluchey, ex-convict there, became one of Sam's trusted interpreters of his works, and at the prison a Drama Workshop produced his plays. They apparently were filmed, but only sporadically surface on video, unfortunately. I note from the premier Beckett website,, that his early novel Murphy is on audiotape in part from this prison workshop, ‘at no costs to prisons'. Hearing Beckett, as with Joyce, on tape I recommend as a both entertainment and education, cheering any commute!
John Calder, British publisher of much of Beckett, is ideally placed to provide his own determinedly secular reading of SB. I have my arguments about some of his stubborn persistence in removing God from Beckett to leave that Sartrian ‘god-shaped hole' but after all, Beckett is notoriously and delightfully difficult to pin down and resists easy categorisation about the presence or absence of the deity in his fictions and dramas and other unclassifiable prose. Calder's exegesis gains added conviction from the closeness between author and publisher for so long.
The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett (London: Riverrun/Calder, 2001) remains hard-to-find and on the pricey side for a slim volume. Yet, if you can wrangle it in a library or find it cheap, it deserves a place by your side for the few days it may take to sink into your soul. Calder explores philosophical, ethical, and religious sources for Beckett's early writings, and compares his own musings to those of Beckett on these matters. The resulting conversation of sorts between SB and Calder invites us to consider our own responses to human suffering, as limned in Beckett's creations and as influencing Calder himself as he became friends with SB.
While I disagree with some of Calder's readings, I fully support his aims, and stress that this is an excellent advanced study that deserves an audience and incites a reader to return to Beckett for direction as well as out into the world to act as SB would. If this sounds like Calder makes SB a guru, so be it. For many otherwise in danger of meeting the tautological fate of many of SB's tormented characters, we can learn to read Beckett as a direction out of our own self-imprisonent towards selflessness.
I've read a shelf-load of Beckettiana, and I admit that this book, overlooked and not easily found, remains among the two or three to turn to after or during encounters with the primary texts. Not recommended as an introduction or primer (if you're starting from scratch, try Hugh Kenner's Student's Guide to SB); you must get your own bearings and learn to respond on your own terms to SB first. But, for a boost and a reminder of the challenges within--and I might add against reductive--existentialism, Calder gives us a heartfelt, eloquent, and accessible study of a man he knew well and, like many of us, loved for his inspiring humanism.
Where would I start, if eager to take on Beckett outside of or despite the curriculum? Certainly, Krapp's Last Tape provides a tender one-act that can introduce many of the author's themes. Written to be dramatised by the Irish actor Pat Magee, we can now see this and the other 18 plays and dramatic fragments on a four-DVD set, Beckett on Film. Details can be found via the website above, which can link you to a fine support site by the Irish makers of this ambitious series.  For those of us who can rarely see any Beckett on stage, let alone the rarer works, this offers a lifeline and an invaluable method to get a sense of how lighting, timing, and blocking took up so much of the later author's energy as he supervised so many of the productions of his work in the 1960s and 70s, if at the drawback of creating fewer original efforts. He couldn't let go of his progeny.
Godot and then Happy Days should come before the grimmer Endgame. Unlike when I read The Unnameable, I advise that you keep free of criticism the first time around. This isn't Shakespeare, where you might need a list of dramatis personae to keep track of who's who before the curtain rises. You lack the complicated plots and the expository set-ups that the Bard offers, as for Beckett it's pretty much a reductive form, with few characters and limited development. This is not to say that these lack complexity, only that their minimalist surface for a modern audience may be less daunting than Shakespeare's four hundred years after his era for his audiences is for ours.
For prose, Murphy's a bit juvenile, but starts his own voice hemming. In Watt, you can hear the mature Beckett gain confidence. Then, on to the Trilogy. How It Is, as I hinted before, is so devoid of salvation that it may cause you to commit that mysterious sin against the Spirit that Jesus warned mysteriously of in the Gospels. The Shorter Prose, 1929-89, offers his Nouvelles, or the four stories that also found Beckett coming out of the four year ‘siege in the room' into life again in post-war France. The thirteen Texts for Nothing can be bracingly gripping, despite an all too perfect collective title. After, I'd check with that Hugh Kenner book for help, visit that website, read Cronin or at least consult it, and learn to think on your own about an author whose works, Calder warns, have been written about only a bit less than Shakespeare, Marx, Milton, Freud, Proust, and Kafka. Not to mention Joyce. Good company, however, you'd agree.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

17 January 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Fed Up With the Lies
Michael Benson

Dolours Price

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Strategically induced crises pay rich electoral dividends for Sinn Fein
Anthony McIntyre

Old Foes Discover New Ideas
David Adams

Celebrate 100 Years by Undoing Betrayals
Dr. John Coulter

Saor Eire
Bob Purdie

‘At No Costs to Prisons': Three Books on Beckett
Seaghán Ó Murchú

14 January 2005

Criminalising Republicanism
Anthony McIntyre

Brian Mór

Leading Human Rights Solicitor "Shut Down" by Law Society
Sean Mc Aughey

A Little Known Republican Military Group: Saor Eire
Liam O Ruairc

Too Bad The North's Future Depends On Tony Blair's Bravery
Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Free Tali Fahima - an anti occupation activist in the Israeli prisons
Iris Bar

Marie Wright
Anthony McIntyre



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