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"The surprise in Beckett's novels is merely what, in other novels, we have always been up to. The surprise is what a novel is."
June 25, 2011 1:50 PM   Subscribe

R.M. Berry on Samuel Beckett's peculiar writing style: "It's as though the narrator's words were almost thoughtless, accidental, written by someone paying no attention to what he or she says." Beckett is best known for his play Waiting For Godot, in which "nothing happens, twice", but he was also an accomplished writer of prose, ranging from the relatively simple Three Novels to the extremely minimal Imagination Dead Imagine. Some of Beckett's more challenging short plays are available on YouTube: Play (pt. 2), Not I (the famous "mouth" play), and Come and Go, one of the shortest plays in the English language (ranging between 121 and 127 words, depending on translation). Once he interviewed John Lennon and found out who the eggman really was. Beckett's final creative work was his poem What Is the Word.
posted by Rory Marinich (41 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Needs less auto-launch music.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:52 PM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


1

why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

2

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending

I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

3

unless they love you
posted by nathancaswell at 1:56 PM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


"How It Is" is easily the best thing Sam Beckett ever wrote.
posted by koeselitz at 1:56 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's a crime that most people are only aware of Godot. There's so much more - I get more out of his prose than his plays (Texts for Nothing, How It Is, Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable Trilogy.)
posted by naju at 2:04 PM on June 25, 2011


"Ever tried
Ever failed
No matter
Try again
Fail again
Fail better"

On my bedroom wall. I read it out loud every day.
posted by Conductor71 at 2:11 PM on June 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: nothing happens. Twice.
posted by uosuaq at 2:28 PM on June 25, 2011


Conductor: your post reminds me of of a Yoda (from Star Wars) paraphrase - it's a rough, partial parallel to the Beckett lines (which I will save - thank you!).

Yoda: "There is no try; there is only do"
posted by Vibrissae at 2:29 PM on June 25, 2011


This has been sitting in my user profile for ages now, just waiting for a post like this:

In 1969, the Irish-born writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) published the piece of short prose Sans in French. One year later, in 1970, it was followed by a translation (by Beckett himself) into English titled Lessness. An interesting characteristic of this work is its combination of dense aural and structural patterning and apparent randomess. Both versions consist of 24 paragraphs containing a total of 120 sentences. Each sentence occurs twice: once in the first half of the work and once in the last. Beckett later indicated to critics that the order in which the sentences in Lessness appear had been determined randomly by drawing little slips of paper out of a container.
Possible Lessnesses lets you generate alternate versions of Lessness according to the same rules that Beckett originally used.


Get the password by email, it's an auto-responder.
posted by carsonb at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just in case you've never seen it:-

Pitch and Putt


My sense, with Beckett, is that he was so in thrall to Joyce that he couldn't tread on the same turrf, so instead of concentrating on life's joy and variety, as Joyce did, he focused instead on its disappointments and monotony. But amazingly, found a special poetry in that.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:37 PM on June 25, 2011


Ever tried
Ever failed
No matter
Try again
Fail again
Fail better


Worstward Ho is great, but it's not a poem, and it has periods. And as this nicely explains, "Ever tried. Ever failed." isn't a motivational-poster question to the reader but an expansion of the sentence before, "Nothing else ever."
posted by RogerB at 2:42 PM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Beckett was one of Joyce's disciples — he helped Joyce complete Finnegans Wake as a young man. And he speaks in a book that I have about struggling to find a purpose in his writing after working with Joyce. How do you follow a writer whose ambition was to write books about Everything?

The solution that he eventually hit upon was to focus on Nothing — one critic in this book I have of his refers to it as "the void", though I don't know if Beckett ever called it specifically that. There's a line in his brilliant monologue Krapp's Last Tape where Krapp says, "[it is ]clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality—" and the (taped) monologue cuts off there. Beckett said that the finished sentence would have ended: "my greatest ally," and that this was a reference to his own artistic realization. Mid-to-late Beckett sees him challenging himself to strip more and more out of his works, to draw more out of less and less. It's kind of breathtaking, and it lets him get into territory that Joyce never touched upon.

Between Beckett and Joyce I can't think of another writer who approaches that height of almost violent aestheticism. They are not the only two writers in 20th century English literature, but they are the two that, for me, most staked out what our language was capable of doing when taken to the extremes. They also have damaged my ability to appreciate other literature, a problem which I'm slowly remedying now. It's very difficult to go from Beckett to his contemporaries; they're writing with entirely different goals in mind.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:47 PM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm not afraid to admit that I find it very hard to really understand any of this, but I'm still intrigued by it all. English isn't my first language, and this is the kind of thing where you really feel that somehow. I suppose that sort of intuitive link with the language isn't there. Wonderful stuff, though.
posted by Harry at 2:47 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Holy. Fucking. Shit. That Not I is one of the most brilliant pieces of work of any kind I've ever seen. It's like Nausea being blasted into your skull with a fire hose.
posted by cmoj at 3:09 PM on June 25, 2011


I'm not sure if I should assume the so-called inverview is a joke on Rory's part or a mistake, but at any rate, any celebration of Beckett is a good thing.

Random fact: Beckett was active in the French resistance, joining after his Jewish friend Paul Léon (James Joyce's secretary) was arrested.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:09 PM on June 25, 2011


“The relatively simple Three Novels”

What? simple, in what sense? That they use short words? Because, friend, there is nothing simple – structurally, stylistically, syntactically – about any of them. The Unnamable, in particular, is a phenomenally (no pun intended) difficult piece of work.
posted by urschrei at 3:14 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hence "relatively". As in, easy compared to IDI or Lessness, which are almost painfully challenging works, but still incredibly difficult.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:20 PM on June 25, 2011


"I can't go on, I'll go on."

Can no one here answer my AskMe?
posted by chavenet at 3:26 PM on June 25, 2011


Yes, maybe say the three novels are relatively readable rather than relatively simple. I don't know if they're simpler than any of his other books, as I didn't understand a word of them, but at least I've read Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable cover to cover.
posted by koeselitz at 3:28 PM on June 25, 2011


Also, Lessness = Comic Sans
posted by chavenet at 3:31 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hate to break it to you, but that Beckett/Lennon interview is a put-on.
posted by beagle at 3:34 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


My sense, with Beckett, is that he was so in thrall to Joyce that he couldn't tread on the same turrf, so instead of concentrating on life's joy and variety, as Joyce did, he focused instead on its disappointments and monotony...


Beckett quoted in Damned to Fame: "I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding"
posted by villanelles at dawn at 3:39 PM on June 25, 2011


A few years ago I read (or rather attempted to read) the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition of Beckett's Works. I was apprehensive about making the attempt: Beckett can seem daunting - and indeed it was hard going at times. I never finished The Unnameable or How it is: I couldn't go on; I didn't go on... these works seemed somehow inhumane to me as a reader. On the other hand I loved Watt, Happy Days, Krapp's Last Tape and Company, among others.

I was struck by how often Beckett used the image of, or described the sensations of, a man lying prostrate, face down in the grass or the mud: how did that come about, does anybody know?
posted by misteraitch at 3:58 PM on June 25, 2011


> nothing happens, twice

If you're going to hang nothing on the wall in the first act you'd better use it by the third
posted by jfuller at 3:59 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


misteraitch: “I was struck by how often Beckett used the image of, or described the sensations of, a man lying prostrate, face down in the grass or the mud: how did that come about, does anybody know?”

I imagine it was usually because someone pushed him over, although maybe he just laid down because he felt like it.
posted by koeselitz at 4:18 PM on June 25, 2011


I spent my junior year of college at the University of East Anglia, where I was fortunate enough to study Joyce and Beckett with Vic Sage (a fine scholar, excellent drinker, and erstwhile husband of the late, great Lorna Sage).

It was traditional for Vic to meet with his students in a one-on-one chat to present their final papers. So there we sat, in his cozy little office, on a dark, late December afternoon with the tea kettle whistling and BBC's Radio One playing softly in the background. I presented my work on Endgame, concentrating on its use of Zeno's dichotomy paradox as a metaphor and its relation to absolute zero and nuclear half-life, ultimately declaring -- with a dramatic flourish that only a youthful English major can muster! -- that Beckett's ultimate argument is that death, the only (merciful) release, is ultimately unattainable: that what appears to be death is merely life continuing at a maddeningly slower pace.

Vic nodded gravely. "Provocative," he finally said.

At that moment, we were interrupted by the radio announcer. "This just in," she said in dulcet tones. "Irish writer Samuel Beckett dead in Paris at the age of 83."

"The BBC are fools!" he declared heartily, standing up and clapping his hands together. "Let us now retire to the pub to drink to the animated corpse of Beckett!"
posted by scody at 4:49 PM on June 25, 2011 [34 favorites]


Waiting For Cardoso ?
Surely, if this does not provoke a de-cloaking, the concept of If you build it, he will come has no merit here whatsoever..
posted by y2karl at 5:05 PM on June 25, 2011


Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word.

For Christ's sake, Samuel Beckett. What, were you raised in a barn?
posted by Naberius at 5:07 PM on June 25, 2011


Ha! Nice story scody. Very good.
posted by nathancaswell at 6:43 PM on June 25, 2011


The only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature to have also played first class cricket.

BTW, avoid Deirdre Bair's biography. Her French is quite faulty when not outright wrong — how this pile passed an editor's scrutiny is beyond me.
posted by Wolof at 6:53 PM on June 25, 2011


Damned fine story scody!

I went to see Waiting for Godot in a tiny theater tucked into a back corner of the Pike Place market in Seattle years ago. Being quite uneducated I suspect my desire was as much sharing first names as literary reputation. The tiny theater group had included in the program Godot played by (don't remember the name, I think it was their only backer) as a joke, but I spent the entire play waiting for Godot's entrance. I think he did finally show up in a version done by Second City or something...
posted by sammyo at 7:36 PM on June 25, 2011


He did indeed play a couple of first class games for Dublin University against Northants in 1925 and 1926. He was a left handed opening batsman with a 'gritty defence' and bowled some left arm medium pace. As he averaged just over 8 in those games and didn't take a wicket, it's probably best that he stuck to his writing.
posted by joannemullen at 7:54 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not his best work, but "Dream of Fair to Middling Women" is his best title
posted by kersplunk at 8:23 PM on June 25, 2011


Wow, do you think that Lennon interview was where the brand tweezerman got their name? Glad Preparation H weren't similarly inspired ...
posted by iotic at 12:18 AM on June 26, 2011


The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked also, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.

Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he found it locked, had been in effect locked, but had been subsequently opened, from within, or without, but some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

Of these two explanations Watt thought he preferred the latter, as being the more beautiful.
posted by piato at 3:18 AM on June 26, 2011


Whoroscope (1930) thanks to Nancy Cunard and her Hours Press.
He moved in interesting times.
posted by adamvasco at 4:00 AM on June 26, 2011


Don't forget Beckett's Film, starring Buster Keaton.
posted by jack_mo at 8:43 AM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]



Between Beckett and Joyce I can't think of another writer who approaches that height of almost violent aestheticism. They are not the only two writers in 20th century English literature, but they are the two that, for me, most staked out what our language was capable of doing when taken to the extremes. They also have damaged my ability to appreciate other literature, a problem which I'm slowly remedying now. It's very difficult to go from Beckett to his contemporaries; they're writing with entirely different goals in mind.


I saw Endgame at a small production at my university and really enjoyed it. I love Joyce, and I admire Beckett. I'm just afraid of delving into him too deeply yet, because I fear he confronts oblivion too starkly. This, obviously, is to his credit.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:03 PM on June 26, 2011


I'm just afraid of delving into him too deeply yet, because I fear he confronts oblivion too starkly. This, obviously, is to his credit.

This is what I was alluding to in re: The Unnamable, and to a slightly lesser (again: no pun intended*) extent in Malone Dies. The sense of anguish is so palpable, so personal (or if not personal, then so sharply rendered as to be painful, thus practically compelling sympathy toward the author), almost beyond any appeal to the intentional fallacy. I took to my bed for a week midway through an undergrad essay on the Trilogy.
Which isn't to say you should be hesitant; I think you should just get on with it. It's therapeutic, in its way.

*no really, but it's tough, you know?
posted by urschrei at 3:18 AM on June 27, 2011


I've always held that Beckett's plays make way more sense in French than in English, particularly Godot. There's a reason he wrote them in French, and I don't think even he really got the translation absolutely right, because there just aren't the same shades of meaning across the languages. Except I can't remember the quotes I used to use to prove that, so feel free to ignore me.

I also don't know what it means that I don't really connect to Joyce, but adore Beckett.

The Beckett quote I had on my wall (at work, which is the nice thing about putting up quotes in a language no one but you can read) was: "Quand on est dans la merde jusqu'au cou, il ne rest plus qu'a chanter." "When you are in shit up to your neck, there's nothing left to do but sing."
posted by threeturtles at 9:13 AM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Beckett is better read than talked or written about. Fact. Pleasure. Secret.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:40 PM on July 23, 2011 [13 favorites]


MiguelCardoso are you coming back here again? or are you just teasing?
posted by adamvasco at 8:30 AM on July 24, 2011


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