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

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The need to be vague

If there is one thing that language is good at, it’s being vague. People try and say what they mean but it’s never that easy. The real question is: How important is it? It depends what you’re writing. If it’s a technical manual then precision and clarity are a given. But what about fiction?

One of the most articulate and literate writers of the 20th century was Samuel Beckett. His command of English was frightening and he was no slouch in other languages such as French, German and Italian. On holiday once he sat and read an Agatha Christie thriller in Portuguese for the practice.

His early work is riddled with unusual, often archaic, expressions and yet, as he grew older, rather than refine his use of language to ensure the reader was presented with exactly the right word for the job, he deliberately simplified his style which you would think would add to his works' clarity but then he goes one step further, he starts to use that eraser I spoke about a while back and he rubs out all the specifics. This process is known as 'vaguening'. The question that needs to be answered is: Why?

Think of a cat. Have you thought of one? I have. Is it ginger, black, white, a Siamese perhaps? It doesn't matter if you're a dog person or a cat person you will still have an image in your head so when you read, The cat came into the room, do you see my mum's cat Tigger? No. And why would you? How much information would I have to add to that simple sentence for you to see what I see? Perhaps you think he was a ginger cat, because of the name, perhaps an allusion to Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh books. Nope. Tigger was a tabby. That's not him in the picture though. That's actually another cat called Tigger. Everyone will see a different cat enter a different room and in a different way. An ailurophobe would find the creature menacing if not downright terrifying. I would get up and try and pet the thing.

In early drafts of his play, Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett includes a number of details which never made it to the final play. The year in which the play is set was originally 1986, amended to '1985' and then 'the nineteen-eighties' until finally all he says is that it is set in the future all of which is irrelevant to the viewer. Only someone with the text of the play would know that. It could be any year. Only the use of an old reel-to-reel recorder dates the piece at all. Likewise the fact that Krapp was a Dubliner is excised. The pub is emptied of people as is the park. His red nose vanishes and those ridiculous oversized white shoes. Originally Beckett had Krapp sing an old hymn, Now the Day is Over, but cut this from later performances as "too clumsily explicit."

With each draft, and then later as director, Beckett moves further and further away from stating towards implication and suggestion. Krapp become Everyman, a one-size-fits-all template for humanity. Everyone is born and everyone dies. Not everyone is Krapp – very few come anywhere near – but Krapp laments a life that anyone could avoid having lived.

In his later works even names go out of the window. We see grey men sitting in rooms staring at walls, we watch a nameless woman rocking herself to death and a mouth – just a mouth – jabbering in the dark at such a ferocious speed that it is impossible on first hearing to do anything other than react emotionally to the onslaught of words. And all of this from a grand master of the English language.

People like puzzles. Why are shows like Lost so popular? Simple because they demand that their viewers do much of the work. Okay, at the end, though hopefully not in an X-Files-type finale, everything will be revealed just so you can make sure you did figure it all out but if they didn't – anyone remember The Prisoner? – then years later there will be people still trying to make it make sense. There's a bestseller still kicking around called The Bible that's kept readers guessing for years.

Does that make a work great? In itself, no. But it'll pretty much guarantee you an audience. I've seen five different versions of Krapp's Last Tape. I have the text and two DVDs of the play. I've studied it in depth and written articles about it and still, if there was a new version available to me, I'd want to see it to see if I'd missed anything. You can do that with plays. A pity you can't do that with books. I wouldn’t say no to a rewrite of Finnegan's Wake, maybe by Douglas Coupland or better still Douglas Adams if he was still about.


Adrian Slatcher said...

Many interesting points here. I was speaking to a friend last night - who's an artist - and saying that the problem with literature is that it struggles with abstract feeling, unlike music or visual art. I guess the literary modernists were trying different ways to offer up the same re-interpretability of a painting or a symphony; in Beckett's case by taking things away. (Is the thing still there? Yes. Let's take something else away.) I do wonder though, if the "cat" is the same cat as a result. British writers tend to say that "John ate a sandwich" whilst American writers would say that "John ate pastrami-on-rye". Here its about signifiers. British writers tend to make assumptions about class/society that don't need spelling out, whereas American writers need to tell you something a little more - because the society is more (or was more) in flux. Therefore drinking Pepsi rather than Coke might tell you something important. I guess if you're wanting someone to visualise a cat, its better that you do the visualisation rather than the author!

Dave King said...

I have found this post absolutely absorbing. I have been back to it a couple of times, not having been aware until now of Beckett's process.
Interesting, the whole business of process v outcome. This is one time maybe when A+B+C+D-D-c is not the same as A+B.
I am reminded of Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", though only in so far as it is logically quite incomprehensible because the information necessary to "understand" it is not given. No matter, it works at the level that logic cannot reach.

Anonymous said...

Envaguening is also universalising, the less detail the more the character represents everyman, I think that was part of Sammy's motivation. It also allows the reader easier identification with the characters. Over the years I have noticed an interesting thing with my love poems. The more detailed and specific she becomes, the less popular the poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

An interesting point you make there, Paul, and I'm sure others could make similar claims. As long as you don't name names or state places most people can put themselves into a piece of writing although I've even seen people pretty much ignore the specifics of a poem or a song in order to make it their own - they choose to deliberately misunderstand it, to impose their own meaning on the thing.

Ping services