Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 11 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part three)

Part One

Part Two

Beckett’s posthumously published first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is a blatantly autobiographical work set in Dublin, Ireland. The story of Beckett’s first antihero, Belacqua Shuah, whom the publisher (Calder Books) calls an alter-ego for the author, is actually narrated by a Mr. Beckett. His biographer, James Knowlson notes:

[M]any of the figures who appear in the novel are closely based on people whom he knew – in some cases much too closely for this not to have been a source of embarrassment to the older Beckett, who, after several initial attempts to get it published, became extremely reluctant to see it appear during his own and their lifetimes.

This did not stop Beckett writing future works which had autobiographical elements but he is never quite as ham-fisted in his treatment of facts about himself, his friends or his family as he is in this book. I was gifted a first-edition by my lovely wife a few years ago and I have to confess it is not an easy read but at least I can say I've read it after a fashion.

One of the most significant events in Beckett's life was the death, in 1950, of his overbearing mother, May Beckett. The loss of any parent is never something to be trivialised but Beckett's relationship with his mother was very strong albeit often tumultuous. It was seven years before he could write about it; some things take a long time to process. The play, for many his most accessible, was Krapp's Last Tape which I have seen a number of times and have studied in depth.

Krapp’s Last Tape … represents one of the most autobiographical pieces with references to the death of the author’s mother, his sweetheart in Germany and the discovery of his creative vein before leaving Ireland for good, and shows a particular interest in autobiographical form. The separation of Krapp’s personality into his present self listening to the episodes of his past self, recorded on the day of his thirty-ninth birthday on a tape recorder, foreshadows Beckett’s concern with different versions of the self and signals the reduction of human character to voice. - Alfred Hornung, Fantasies of the Autobiographical Self: Thomas Bernhard, Raymond Federman, Samuel Beckett

In the play we get to hear an account of an epiphany, Krapp's "vision at last" on the pier at Dún Laoghaire and, in the past, scholars have taken this literally as a reflection of Beckett's own revelation. But that wasn't the case. Later on Beckett wrote to Richard Ellmann: "All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named 'New Place', across the road from Cooldrinagh." So, the epiphany was real enough but the nature and circumstances were quite different.

The same goes for the female characters in the play, the nurse, the girl in the green coat and the girl on the punt – they all display aspects of a couple of different women Beckett had been in love with and have become metaphors for his ideal woman, the one he let slip from his grasp to pursue his craft. Zooming out and considering all the women in the play it's easier to see what Beckett is looking at here: womankind, from his mother to the older woman he fantasised about at college to the idealised 'girl next door' to the old whore who visits Krapp at the end. This is autobiography but only of a kind.

What really captivates me is the character of Krapp, the sixty-nine year-old Krapp we see on stage. Who is he? Is he Beckett?

When you examine the early drafts of the play we learn a few interesting things. He wrote it in what scholars refer to as the 'Eté 56' notebook, the one he started in summer 1956. Most unusually for Beckett he originally set the play in April 1986 which he subsequently amended to 1985, then to "the nineteen eighties" before settling on "in the future". In other words he was projecting himself thirty years into the future. The whole play is a what-if scenario. The original age for the middle-aged Krapp was thirty. This was revised to thirty-seven at first and finally thirty-nine. By that age he had written three novels, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (unpublished in his lifetime), Murphy and Watt and a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, amongst a few other bits and bobs. Famous he was not and it never looked as if he was going to be. What if he'd never written En attendant Godot in 1952? How would Beckett be thought of today? He'd probably be lumped in with the likes of Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras and Maurice Blanchot, none of who are especially well known or appreciated.

In the play Krapp focuses his attention on the women in his life and much speculation has gone into finding the real life counterparts of the girl in the green coat, the dark young beauty and the girl in the punt. I won't take up time here explaining who is who – I covered it all in my (admittedly overlong) Wikipedia article – but the one person who does not appear is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who eventually became Beckett's wife. She does not figure significantly in his life till after his stabbing in January 1938, when he was thirty-one, but, from all accounts, Suzanne was never the love of his life.

I talked before about autobiographical novels as being part wish-fulfilment and I suppose most do tend to accentuate the positive but can you ever imagine Beckett doing that? In Krapp Beckett takes all his worst characteristics and lets them play themselves out. It was a play he always had a soft spot for though. He expressed his feelings well in a letter to Barney Rosset:

I feel as clucky and beady and one-legged and bare-footed about this little text as an old hen with her last chick.

In the autumn of 1993 I sat down in my father's study, what had at one time been my bedroom, and wrote:

Had it been Death that had called that day then that would have been all right.

Twenty-one single-spaced A4 pages later I was done. I'd written my first novel. Okay it wasn't much of a novel at 20,000 words, more of a novelette really. The next draft made it to 34,000 (a novella), then 43,000, then 50,000, a full-blown novel. Yay, me! I really wrote more than was necessary to hit that magic number because, after editing, the final version I have sitting beside me is 48, 981 words long. Ah well.

In Beckett's play, Krapp pauses a couple of times to look behind him and peer into the darkness. Beckett explained to Martin Held at a rehearsal in Berlin: "Old Nick’s there. Death is standing behind him and unconsciously he's looking for it."

My protagonist wasn't a failed writer. It seemed a bit too obvious to go in that direction. But Jonathan is certainly a failed human being. It really wouldn't trouble him if Death appeared to cart him away. He's younger than Krapp too. Beckett was fifty-one when he wrote Krapp; I was in my thirties so when I decided on Jonathan's age, fifty-three seemed old. Now I'm forty-nine I think I might have made him a bit older but I did want to portray a man who was prematurely old. I've always looked older than I really was and no one has ever guessed my age right. Even now I get mid-fifties.

I never sat down to write a novel. I just sat down to write. Something. Anything. I had not written a word for just over two years. I looked in the mirror and I didn't see a writer any more. I didn't know how to be the man I was turning into. The master plan was … well, let's be honest, there wasn't any plan. I was in a dead end job. My marriage had failed. I was suffering from Depression – whoppin' great big capital D there – and I was back sleeping in the same bed I had done as a child only with a new mattress to help my bad back. That mattress felt like the only good thing I had at the time.

Surprisingly I was reading a lot. If you can't write then read. It really is the next best thing. Always attracted to short books I'd picked up a copy of Patrick Süskind's novella The Pigeon which describes a man who is terrified of a pigeon. It is an odd image:

He had almost set foot across the threshold, had already raised the foot, his left, his leg was in the act of stepping – when he saw it. It was sitting before his door, not eight inches from the threshold, in the pale reflection of dawn that came through the window. It was crouched there, with red, taloned feet on the oxblood tiles of the hall and in the sleek, blue-grey plumage: the pigeon.

I never finished the book. I bought a copy a couple of years back and I still couldn't get past this scene – Jonathan Noel was his name, by the way – and the preposterous position he found himself in. I found I didn't really want the reasons behind his predicament explained either. I found that I wanted to do the explaining. But the first thing I needed was to establish my character on the page.

(This all sounds so contrived looking back, but, believe you me, there was absolutely no planning. I simply sat down and started writing. It's only looking back I can pinpoint some of the significant stages in the book's development).

Names are important. There are some cultures (or perhaps "were" as I'm unsure if they still exist) where at birth a person is given a "child name" and then when some certain thing happens, perhaps finishing puberty or marrying, then the "child name" is discarded and the new adult gets to choose their own adult name. Of course people can still change their names and I include a minor character in the novel who changes his name to 'God' but how do you decide on the name for a character?

I've heard that Simenon used to fret over piles of telephone books until he found the perfect name for a character and once he found the name he would write it on a manila envelope on which he would build up a complete history of the character the vast bulk of which he would never use. I never felt the need for that but I did need the right name. It came easily. I'd love to say that I sweated blood over my protagonist's name but it really was obvious from the jump, he was a man in pain, a man who had been in pain for years; I called him, Jonathan Payne.

In my next post I'll tell you who I cast as the pigeon.

Part Four


Rachel Fox said...

Ah 'The Pigeon'...I put off reading it for ages because my first ever phobia was larger birds (and pigeons are generally the ones you come across most often). I've had a lot of other phobias over the years but as that was my first it has a weird, twisted place in my heart. I'm not as bad as I was...though I still cross roads to avoid the flying rats if possible!
I did read the book in the end but I think I had to read it with my brain in automatic or something. I can't remember a thing about it. Does he just stay in the flat all the time? I did that too - stayed in a flat for about 2 least it felt like that. It's not to be recommended.

Dave King said...

It seems to me that there are two kinds of autobiography: the external, what I did and when and with whom; and the internal; what I imagined I was doing, why and with what repercussions for me. You would think it not impossible to write the second (much the most vital) without giving away the first, which is the one that causes the upsets and embarrassments.
And as a corollary, it is interesting to note how folk often see themselves (or others) in a novel - alternatively, how they sometimes fail to make the connection.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say Rachel I never did finish the book. I bought myself a copy a couple of years back just to see what happened but I still never managed to get much further than I had before. I flicked to the end so I know he got out of the flat and got back and the bird was gone but I have no idea what happened in between. I feel a bit guilty but you learn to live with that.

And Dave I think that so much of reading is trying to, if not exactly identify then at least clarify ourselves. I had a moment of clarity when I read, or as I'm painfully aware, started to read The Pigeon – suddenly I found an opening, a way to investigate how I was feeling about my life by using projection exactly as Beckett had done.

Ken Armstrong said...

Jim, this might not be one you wish to answer (and I'll respect that) but I am interested in the 'Modus Operandi'...

When your draft novel grew from 20,000 words toward 34,000 words, how much did you refer to the first draft when doing the second?

You hear about people who never even *look* at that first draft while writing the second, the thinking being, if you can't remember it, it ain't worth keeping.

I would be more of the school of 'saving as' and cutting and adding from there.

BTW if you haven't already, would you say a little something sometime about your profile pic - is it a painted-portrait of you? It's very good (can't vouch for the likeness, obviously).

Jim Murdoch said...

My M.O, eh, Ken? Basically I've never done the whole first draft, second draft thing. I always work in the same way. The first draft of 20,000 was the core from which the final novel was produced. The second version added a second day to the original story so I'm not sure whether you'd call that a second draft per se. I took the story I had up to that point, lopped off the ending and inserted 17,000 words. Now, for the next version I took the previous 34,000 and grafted in words, sentences and paragraphs bringing it up to 40,000 and then I repeated the process beginning at page one until I had the required 50,000. Then came the editing, going over each sentence, then each paragraph and each chapter so that the book flowed from the first work to the last. It was never written to be read out loud but quite often I would read chunks out to check the flow. Finally we got to the proof-reading when the final polish was put on.

I've written all my books this same way, starting with a thin story just to get me from A to B and gradually building up the piece. With my current novel I scrapped the whole thing after about 10,000 words and rewrote from scratch. I don’t really think of the work I've done as a draft; it's a false start. I've written 20,000 words in the third person and I'm thinking of reworking it in the first person. Since the content will be the same I suppose we could use the term 'draft'.

The 'portrait' was based on a photograph taken on my 44th birthday in Dublin airport. Very unlike me I asked my wife to take it. There was a mirrored wall facing me and I realised it was a good picture. Once we got home she photoshopped it into quite a respectable watercolour which hangs on our living room wall.

Conda V. Douglas said...

As always another interesting post, Jim. I got caught up/trapped in the bit about names. Since my own name is so odd and it's been of course a blessing and difficult--as in the time I received a draft notice. So naming my characters has always been, hm, a struggle. Am I the only one who has a problem naming characters?

I believe the Balinese still do a form of re-naming after certain points are reached. Do the Catholics still take a name after First Communion and the age of reason?

Jim Murdoch said...

As far as I'm led to believe, Conda, that is still the practice with Catholics. I've no experience so I have to believe what I'm told.

As for characters' names, I've never sweated blood over any of their names. All my leads have begun with J though: Jonathan, Jim, two Johns and a Jen – my acknowledgement that they all have a bit of me in them.

Ken Armstrong said...

That's right Jim! We RC's (lapsed or otherwise) take an additional name after our confirmation. I was Kenneth Felix Armstrong before, then I was Kenneth Felix Martin Armstrong (I needed something a bit boring after the 'Felix' thing). This additional name is not regularised on any certificate or anything and I'm not sure if it's even still done.

Thanks, too, for a most informative reply to my question.

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