“To say exactly what one means, even to one’s own private satisfaction , is difficult.” Not for Virginia Woolf, “the Chinese Wall of a private language”. “There is no a single sentence in The Waves that you would be likely to overhear on the street.” Yet the language is intelligible. “The experience of reading The Waves can be like listening to a piece of classical music that seems at first to have neither narrative nor structure.” This is good, what I am so often drawn to in fiction. “There is not a single unfocused shot in the entire book. Every passage, every sentence, every word is hard and bright. Where Woolf wants to shade or fade for the sake of effect, she does so as a painter does so, by taking a strong line and manipulating it. This is quite different from a line unfixed or ill-drawn.”
It is the finest part of Jeanette Winterson’s zealous encomium to art and her literary passions, this chapter on The Waves. Hugh Kenner often makes a similar argument for the clarity of Beckett’s prose: “Beckett has never written an obscure sentence. He is the clearest, most limpid, most disciplined joiner of words in the English language today.” Aside, arguably from Woolf. Both wrote literature that is not possible to read quickly. In both writer’s novels there are literary allusions, though in Beckett these appear to become less literary after Watt; some rely on the memory and knowledge of the reader, some more demanding, almost rarified and private. In a letter of 1972, Beckett wrote, “They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me. I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.”
Winterson compels a reader back to the subtlest of Woolf’s novels, as Kenner does to Beckett’s fiction. These in turn remind me to return soon to Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels trilogy. There is in Llansol’s compression of thought a perpetuation of the attempt to evolve prose beyond the nineteenth century novel, which as Winterson acknowledges, still provides the form and style of at least ninety-five percent of contemporary fiction.
‘Anglophone literary studies between about 1920 and 1970 are to be understood, I think, as one of the twentieth-century’s most significant and original intellectual accomplishments.’ Simon During’s argument is worth reading for anyone interested, as I am, in this most formative period of literary criticism. During lists the ‘path-breaking and exciting’ works, which establish an aspirational reading list, many which I’ve yet to read.
T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (1921)
Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)
J. Middleton Murry, Problems of Style (1922)
I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924)
T.S. Eliot, Homage to John Dryden (1924)
I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry (1926)
John Livingstone Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1927)
Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927)
T.S. Eliot, For Launcelot Andrewes (1928)
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)
George Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930)
F.R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930)
Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle (1931)
Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)
William Empson, Some Versions of the Pastoral (1935)
Samuel Holt Monk, The Sublime (1935)
Richard Blackmur, The Double Agent (1935)
Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935)
C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936)
Allen Tate, Reactionary Essays (1936)
L.C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937)
John Crowe Ransom, The World’s Body (1938)
Yvor Winter, Maule’s Curse (1938)
Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938)
Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art (1939)
Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (1939)
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941)
F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (1941)
Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942)
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947)
Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (1947)
Rosamond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947)
F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948)
T.S. Eliot, Notes towards a definition of Culture (1948)
Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History (1948)
Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, The Theory of Literature (1949)
Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot (1949)
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)
Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride (1951)
Reuben Brower, Fields of Light (1951)
W.K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (1951)
R.S. Crane, Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern (1952)
Donald Davie, Purity of Diction (1952)
F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (1952)
M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)
Dorothy van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)
Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953)
John Holloway, The Victorian Sage (1953)
Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: technology and the pastoral ideal (1954)
W.J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (1955)
Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955)
R.W. B. Lewis, American Adam (1955)
Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957)
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957)
Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (1957)
Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (1957)
Robert Langbaum, Poetry of Experience (1957)
Yvor Winter, The Function of Criticism (1957)
Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1958)
Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (1958)
Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (1959)
Harold Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959)
Vincent Buckley, Poetry and Morality (1959)
Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)
Graham Hough, Image and Experience (1960)
Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)
S.J. Goldberg, The Classical Temper (1961)
Fredric Jameson, Sartre: the Origins of a Style (1961)
Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett; a critical study (1961)
Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961)
William Empson, Milton’s God (1961)
Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (1962)
John Bayley, The Characters of Love (1962)
Winifred Nowottny, The Language Poets Use (1962)
Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier, In Defense of Reading (1962)
A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.
In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”
Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.
Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.
Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.
No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.
Is there another book that uses the power of first-person narration to the same degree as The Unnamable? Thomas Bernhard maybe? Beckett makes any other form of narration appear flaccid, aloof. In this last book of his Trilogy Beckett offers an existential discourse from an observer using language (for what other apparatus do we have) trying to pin down identity. How to define self? As Emily wrote, “We pretend, for example, that we are the same person from moment to moment, when our reality may be more fragmented and unpredictable.”
This observer speaks but we ‘know that it lies,’ invalidating each affirmation. This time there are no Molloys, Malones or Murphies, no characters with motivations, however indefinite. There may be memories, or dreams, or perhaps not. There are lots of perhapses. The narrator, presumably creator, ponders whether such inventions will be necessary.
Perhaps I shall be obliged, in order not to peter out, to invent another fairy-tale, yet another, with heads, trunks, arms, legs and all that follows, let loose in the changeless round of imperfect shadow and dubious light. But I hope and trust not.
How are we to read a fiction that fails to find a subjective voice, that is not in a distinct past, present or future?
What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later?
Like the narrator the reader must go ahead, inevitably trapped by Beckett’s rambling negations of his own declarations.
With Beckett’s fiction but particularly in The Unnamable I am reading against gaping cognitive abysses in my knowledge of philosophy (particularly epistemology and metaphysics) and linguistics, without even covering Beckett’s literary erudition. With The Unnamable I read the last eighty pages in a misty daze. The language is intoxicating, so rich that reading five pages takes an hour. But did I understand what I was reading? Not really, parts perhaps, more perhapses. I need to read around The Unnamable. As Hugh Kenner said I need someone to help me think about it. Or to quote Beckett, “To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time now since I last knew what I was talking about.” Yes, Mr. Beckett, I am with you, but you tell it so beautifully.
Perhaps I should feel inadequate but to quote Harold Pinter from a letter he wrote to a friend on Beckett:
The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy – he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not – he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.
A significant departure from earlier Beckett’s stories, Molloy resists summary. It is a strange loop of a novel that winds up where it started out. A dying narrator writes words onto paper, pages that are paid for and collected each week. A journal, a diary, a report perhaps? Though both parts are written in the first person, the identity of the narrator is unclear, though the author appears to reveal himself.
What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others. I would never have believed that-yes, I believe it willingly. Stories, stories. I have not been able to tell them. I shall not be able to tell this one.
The nature of the narrative is uncertain, yet somehow a story is told.
It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence.
Molloy begins his act of remembrance bedridden in his mother’s room. He has “taken her place,” though is unable to remember whether she died before his quest to find her was fulfilled. Through his constrained articulacy Molloy struggles to deliver his narrative, writing “I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.” The narrative unfolds as Molloy recalls his own unwanted birth:
My mother, I don’t think too harshly of her. I know she did all she could not to have me, except of course the one thing, and if she never succeeded in getting me unstuck, it was that fate had earmarked me for less compassionate sewers.
His mother, Ma, Mag, Countess Caca, “who brought [him] into the world, through the hole in her arse if memory is correct. First taste of shit.” This besmirched beginning sets up a central theme, the intermingling of birth and shit, the narrator’s disgust of birth/mother/women, ending in the pilgrimage to the Turdy Madonna, the holy mother of pregnant women.
Before going too far in pursuit of this theme, it is worth mentioning Simon Critchley’s injunction not “to employ a psychoanalytic register, which much in the novel seems to encourage and which, I think, must be refused because it is so encouraged.” A writer of Beckett’s subtlety, and possessing such dark humour, is more than capable of several psychoanalytic red herrings.
A quest is also at heart of the second part of the novel, this time in search of Molloy. A messenger orders Moran, a detective, to take his son on this quest. The relationship between Moran and his spectral son (of indeterminate age?) is equally appalling and fascinating.
But from time to time. From time to time. What tenderness in these little words, what savagery.
While reading Molloy I scribbled furiously, sentences like my favourite above, trying to make some sense of what I read. My thoughts on Molloy are contingent on subsequent reading of this and secondary material (Hugh Kenner’s suggestion of work “to help you think about it.”) A single reading is insufficient to do justice to this staggering novel-several readings are not enough; Critchley quotes a rare direct reference that Derrida makes to Beckett:
When I found myself, with students, reading some of Beckett’s texts, I would take three lines, I would spend two hours on them, then I would give up because it would not have been possible, or honest, or even interesting, to extract a few ‘significant’ lines from a Beckett text. The composition, the rhetoric, the construction and the rhythm of his works, even the ones that seem the most ‘decomposed’, that’s what ‘remains’ finally the most ‘interesting’, that’s the work, that’s the signature, this remainder which remains when the thematics are exhausted.
Any attempt to give a coherent interpretation of Molloy (and presumably the later work) is contingent, hence the sheer weight of scholarship that exists around Beckett. My bibliography of secondary literature is an attempt to distil just what is worthwhile.
My urge is to turn straight back to page one and start again but I will save that for another time. Though slightly delayed, my Trilogy companion Emily will also be posting her undoubtedly more astute thoughts on Molloy.
My starting point for Beckett is the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition, containing seven novels, thirty-two dramatic works, thirty poems, fifty-four stories, texts and novellas, three pieces of criticism. Though not a true Collected Works, the set forms the essential part of the Beckett canon. I’m now reading Beckett’s Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (sharing the reading with Emily).
Of the thirty or so writers that constitute the core of my literary exploration, I like to go beyond the primary works. Looking past the Grove Press collection I intend to read an enlightening biography, the letters and Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. But which biography, and what other ‘divine analysis’ is worth reading?
Beckett distrusted biography as a form of knowledge but curiosity is irrepressible and Knowle’s biography the most illuminating. Beckett critical scholarship is vast and frequently dull, but what are the works that, to quote Hugh Kenner are not intended “to explain Samuel Beckett’s work but to help the reader think about it.” Which works are worth exploring? Starter list below, please help me to add any worthy titles (or to remove discredited or dull works):
Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett – James Knowlson
The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington
Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him – James Knowlson
Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Magicians – Hugh Kenner
Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study – Hugh Kenner
The Beckett Canon – Ruby Cohn
Beckett’s Dying Words – Christopher Ricks
“Where now? Who now?” (The Book to Come) – Maurice Blanchot
Know happiness – on Beckett (Very Little…Almost Nothing) – Simon Critchley
Beckett’s Fiction – Leslie Hill
Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love (Love’s Knowledge) – Martha Nussbaum
Saying “I” No More – Daniel Katz
Samuel Beckett: Photographs – John Minihan
Samuel Beckett (Overlook Illustrated Lives) – Gerry Dukes
Beckett chapter (Theatre of the Absurd) – Martin Esslin
Beckett: “En Attendant Godot” and “Fin de Partie” (Critical Guides to French Texts) – J.P. Little
The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien
Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St. John Butler
How it Was – Anne Atik
No Author Better Served – edited by Maurice Harmon
Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives edited by Morris Beja
Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue
The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner
Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn
Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz
The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater
Bram van Velde (Grove Press)
The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett – Stanley E. Gontarski
On Beckett – Alain Badiou
Samuel Beckett’s self-referential drama – Shimon Levy
Samuel Beckett – Andrew Gibson
Samuel Beckett and the end of modernity – Richard Begam
Beckett and Poststructuralism – Anthony Uhlmann
Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text – Steven Connor
Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed – Jonathan Boulter
Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett – Adam Piette