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

Thursday 5 January 2012

Beckett's pseudo-couples (part one)


Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together...
TS Eliot, The Waste Land

I have no idea what the IQs of these gentlemen are but I don’t think the same criterion applies when you’re talking about writers, composers, comedians and artists. Few would dispute that Beethoven was a musical genius, that Picasso was an artistic genius, that Shakespeare was a literary genius and that Peter Sellers was a comedic genius but does that mean that every note Beethoven wrote was a work of genius? or that every line penned by Shakespeare was a work of genius? Do geniuses ever have off days?

I am a huge fan of the writer Samuel Beckett. I believe him to be a literary genius. I do not, however, believe that everything he penned was a work of genius, merely that it was the work of a genius; there is a difference. Beckett himself was nothing if not self-effacing. Indeed, often in the scribbled notes he sent along with his manuscripts he apologises for them saying that this or that was the best he could manage and he hopes it will do. Even after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature—as if any greater validation was needed after that—he still remained the man he had always been, shy and unimpressed by fame, especially his own. He received the award in 1969, “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” but he declined to attend the ceremony. The following year, due to pressure from his French publisher, Les Éditions de Minuit, he agreed to the publication of his novella Mercier et Camier. It was not a new work. In fact it predated his most famous play, Waiting for Godot, which he began in October 1948 but wasn’t first performed until January 1953. He had sworn never to publish Mercier et Camier—he described it as “jettisoned”—in fact his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, in an article in The New York Times, notes this:

The manuscript was accepted in 1947 by Beckett's first French publisher, Bordas, but for reasons unknown he withdrew it before publication. For 24 years he steadfastly refused to allow it to be published, calling it a working draft or preliminary attempt to evolve a new technique in fiction.[1]

So why the change of heart? Simply to cash in after the publicity surrounding the Nobel Prize? Hardly Beckett’s style. Really the problem lay in his own generosity having previously allowed scholars access to the text, permitting bits to be quoted and translated, so that his defence against eventual publication got weaker and weaker year by year.

Wilhelm Dilthey says that we all perform the act of autobiography all the time, not in the sense of writing it down, of course, or sending it into the world for publication, but in the sense of—as Beckett puts it and performs it so often—drawing the line and making the tot. But the tot will be different each time, for memory and the self will have altered with circumstances, and these—self and circumstances—taken in adaptive conjunction, will determine the new tot. We can see such a totting up of a career, of necessity provisional and incomplete, as early as 1948, in a letter Beckett wrote to George Reavey: "I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt, the last I hope of the series Murphy, Watt, Mercier & Camier, Molloy, not to mention the 4 Nouvelles & Eleuthéria" (No Symbol Where None Intended, 53).[2]

The irony here, of course, is that, whilst taking a break from his next novel, L'Innomable, which he was working on at the time he wrote this letter, he began the play that would secure his place in literary history, as a bit of light relief, to, as he put it, "get away from the awful prose [he] was writing at the time." That play was En attendant Godot. The rest, as they say, is history.

Let’s jump back though to 1945. 1945 was a pivotal year for Beckett. He had been living in France but returned home to Dublin where he had his famous epiphany in his mother’s house which he, in a rather romantic gesture for him, relocated to the end of the East Pier of Dún Laoghaire staring out into the Irish sea. Less studious Pictured in Goodman Theatre's production of Krappís Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, directed by Jennifer Tarver is Brian Dennehy (Krapp). The double-bill production of Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape begins performances on January 16 (Opening Night is January 25) and runs through February 28 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. For ticket information, visit or call 312.443.3800.

Photo by Liz Lauren.researchers often assume his references to it in Krapp’s Last Tape are autobiographical but they are not, although when the opportunity to correct people arose, Beckett did not always jump in to provide a more accurate account. Three years before his death in 1989 he did, however, set the record straight in a letter 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.”[3]

The first work to be produced after this revelation was written in French. He made the switch because—as he himself claimed—it was easier for him thus to write "without style"[4] Prior to this Beckett’s prose is heavily indebted to his adoration of the writing of his fellow Irishman, James Joyce but following his revelation he 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.[5]

Although undoubtedly an Irishman—the thick accent stuck until his dying day (with no loss of viscosity)—even his early scribblings are not as overtly Irish as is the writing of Synge or Flann O'Brien, but although the Irishisms faded from his work post-1945, their echo remained. In his book Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life Writing, James Olney makes an interesting observation:

It was with the intention, I believe, of clothing memories in a language that had for him no tentacular roots in memory, a language that was therefore safer, more formal and abstract than the intensely charged medium of English, that Beckett decided, when memory became in all ways central to his work, to write in French.[6]

The adjective ‘tentacular’ is a good choice here for it means “equipped with tentacles” and the fact is that although “he did not wish to indulge in memory: he had no choice but to take it on as a subject along with the self.”[7] This is why when the two men with the ever-so-French-sounding names in his next book set out on their journey, although the city is never named it is obvious to all and sundry that it is a thinly-disguised Dublin. He began the novella on 5th May 1946 and completed it by 3rd October[8] that same year lumbering it with the rather unwieldy title of Le Voyage de Mercier et Camier autour du Pot dans les Bosquets de Bondy (literally The Journey of Mercier and Camier around the pot in the groves of Bondy). The subtleties of this title do not come across in the transliteration:

"Tourner autour du pot" is colloquial French for "to detour," and the voyage of Mercier and Camier proves to be a series of detours from the undesignated destination of the two travelling friends. Further, the title situates these detours in the groves of Bondy, which is colloquial French for "a den of thieves." [...] The long French title therefore implies that the two friends engage in a series of detours within an environment of ill-wishers.[9]

Now we have Beckett’s complete canon, it’s hard to see how Mercier et Camier stands out but these were the first of his vaudeville couples and the only ones in prose. His most famous pair, obviously, are Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot followed by Hamm and Clov in Endgame of whom Beckett said, “You must realise that Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their endgamelives.”[10] Once he qualified this remark, stating that Hamm and Clov were actually “himself and Suzanne” (his long-time mistress and finally wife who he first met in1929) "as they were in the 1950s—when they found it difficult to stay together but impossible to leave each other."[11] Beckett's Waiting for Godot has been called "a metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks... during the day and walked by night..."[12] when they were fleeing the Nazis and, as at least some “of the dialogue of the novella Mercier et Camier is repeated word for word in”[13] Waiting for Godot, it’s not unreasonable to look as Mercier and Camier as prototypes, if not exactly much younger versions, of Didi and Gogo. In his novel, L'Innomable, published in French in 1953, a number of characters from Beckett’s earlier works get a brief mention, Belacqua Shua, Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Moran, Malone and Mercier and Camier who get singled out and referred to as a “pseudo-couple.”

It is an odd expression and one Beckett (typically) never expounded on so it has been left to others to try and agree upon what he meant. As his three main male pairs (I’m not discounting the pairs in Rough for Theatre I and II but let’s not overcomplicate the issue) are clearly connected then what people, including Beckett himself, have said about the latter two may also be applied to the original pair and one of those things is that rather than be viewed as separate individuals, Didi and Gogo and Hamm and Clov should be viewed as two halves of a single personality. Peter Boxall writes:

Vladimir and Estragon have been seen as so complimentary that they might be the two halves of a single personality, the conscious and the subconscious mind. Each of these three pairs—Pozzo-Lucky; Vladimir-Estragon; Hamm-Clov—is linked by a relationship of mutual interdependance, wanting to leave each other, at war with each other, and yet dependent on each other. 'Nec tecum, nec sine te.'[14] This is a frequent situation among people--married couples, for example--but it is also an image of the interrelatedness of the elements within a single personality, particularly if the personality is in conflict with itself.[15]

Boxall’s book only focuses on the two plays, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but if I added ‘Mercier-Camier’ into his list of pairs I am sure no one would argue. In fact in The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett there is a lengthy section on ‘pseudocouples’ which notes that…

[P]airs of characters pervade SB’s terrain like animals in search of an ark. Some wander deserted byways in pursuit of a saviour; others go nowhere, doomed to existence in claustrophobic rooms or ashbins. Whatever their predicament, the men and women who make up SB’s teetering twosomes are tied to each other, figuratively or, like Pozzo and Lucky, literally.[16]

Unlike most others in the Beckett canon Mercier and Camier are not together at the start of the book, nor, in fact, do they remain together, parting at the end after their journey has returned them to where they started off from in the first place.

Beckett may have come to dislike the work but he pottered around with it for years. An English translation appeared in 1974—Beckett had worked intermittently on this since the 1940s—but it’s not really a translation, rather a “reshaping” into English; he also took this opportunity to trim the novella reducing its length by some twelve percent, the omitted material varying from the odd line or phrase to two or three pages at a time. It tends to get overlooked by scholars but it has its admirers. Al Alvarez reviewed it for The Observer and called it “a comedy of high style, tenser and, I think, funnier than any of his other novels.”[17] Ruby Cohn considers it “an accomplished work” and “a milestone on Beckett’s French path.”[18] I never took to the book but then Endgame is probably one of my least favourite of Beckett’s plays. The reason in both cases is that, like so many people, I developed a great affection for Didi and Gogo; they are a most likeable couple (pseudo or not). Hamm and Clov are not nor did I find Mercier and Camier a pair that I cared about. I don’t have a problem with an author producing unlikeable or unsympathetic protagonists—much can be learned from them—but still no reader is going to be in a rush to return to their company: Waiting for Godot I have seen many time but Endgame only three. Mercier and Camier I have only read twice.

From what I’ve read I think a great many people simply do not get where Beckett is coming from in this book. The book opens, for example, with the following statement:

The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.

Does this mean that there was a third person travelling alongside them? No, that’s not it. This is simply the book’s narrator who butts in every now and them and makes his presence felt but, for the most part, contents himself with the telling of the story like a good omniscient narrator should. But why personalise him then? Why have him refer to himself as ‘I’? The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett says:

The opening claim that “I” was there, with no further evidence, is an irritant.

The clue comes later in the book, a short interchange:

Strange impression, said Mercier, strange impression sometimes that we are not alone. You not?

I am not sure I understand, said Camier.

Now quick, now slow, that is Camier all over.

Like the presence of a third party, said Mercier. Enveloping us. I have felt it from the start. And I am anything but psychic.

Does it bother you? said Camier.

At first no, said Mercier.

And now? said Camier.

It begins to bother me a little, said Mercier.

So who is this presence? Julie Campbell has the right idea:

When Beckett approaches the idea of a quest the probability of failure is posited right from the beginning. Beckett’s narrator begins with an attempt to authenticate his text: “The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time”. Yet this authenticating statement of the narrative’s ‘reality’ is quite obviously exploded, for instance, when Mercier and Camier separate, as they do more than once. It is, of course, impossible for the narrator to be with them both all the time. Beckett is here mocking the inability of narrative to present simultaneity, and his placing of the narrator within the narrated world mocks the ‘reality’ of the fictional creation, for the ‘real’ author is outside his creation while, conversely, it is inside him: the narrated journey originates within the author’s mind, is an inner journey.[19]

Metafiction is, at least according to Wikipedia, “a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion.” This can be done is a variety of ways, e.g. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author begins as follows:

6_charactersThe play begins with an acting company preparing to rehearse a play. As the rehearsal is about to begin the play is unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of six strange people. The Director of the play, furious at the interruption, demands an explanation. The Father explains that they are unfinished characters in search of an author to finish their story. The Director initially believes them to be mad, but as they begin to argue amongst themselves and reveal details of their story he begins to listen. While he isn't an author, the Director agrees to stage their story despite the disbelief amongst the jeering actors...

Or in Puckoon Spike Milligan has the character Dan Milligan engage in an exchange with the author of the book he finds himself in complaining about the state of his legs or looking for wee favours.

The ‘I’ in Mercier and Camier is their "author who is following the same road as them."[20] Hugh Kenner [21]hits the nail on the head when he writes:

The point of 'I was with them, all the time' ... is the sly point that I invented them, and made up their journey, every step of which, so far as steps are specified, they took with my deliberate cooperation.

Whether the ‘I’ is Beckett or not is another thing. I would say not. Beckett is his author. My own suspicion is that the narrator of this book is actual Malone the bedridden author in Malone Dies who says at one point:

Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave. But sufficient unto the day, let us first defunge, then we’ll see. How many have I killed, hitting them on the head or setting fire to them? Offhand I can think of only four, all unknowns, I never knew anyone … There was the old butler too, in London I think, there’s London again, I cut his throat with his razor, that makes five.[22]

suggesting—and that’s all we can ever do—that he is the author of these earlier texts. The ambiguity is, no doubt, deliberate on Beckett’s behalf. (The one set on fire, by the way, was Murphy. The other four were the butler (also in Murphy), A and C (from Molloy) and the police officer (from Mercier and Camier.)

But why do we need this kind of narrator? Would a common-or-garden omniscient narrator do the job fine without intruding into the story as he does?

[T]o neutralize the expectation that fiction represent life or, more precisely, that the experience presented be construed as a life, Beckett, especially since Mercier and Camier, foregrounds the very act of imagination creating the fiction. The opening words of Company will illustrate: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.”

By emphasizing the act of imagination, Beckettian narration becomes self-referential, a closed system where experience can be presented that relates only to the special purposes of the “reasonridden” imagination which conceives it and not to the movement of a self through time called life. In the closed system, imagination is free to express experience in alternative modes that resist the reader’s tendency to assimilate them to his more familiar notions.[23]

In other words this is not the real world we are dealing with here and so normal rules apply. This is why, after the pantomime of the book’s opening, our narrator/author confesses: “What stink of artifice.”

The notion of a “closed system” is one that Beckett fans will be familiar with, the “skullscape” or the less commonly used “soulscape.”[24] The former is a term used to describe many of Beckett’s works both on the stage (Words and Music, Embers) and off (The Unnamable, All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine), the “ivory dungeon” as he himself refers to it in Texts for Nothing; but it is nowhere more obvious than in the play Endgame where the actual stage where the room might be a skull, the windows eyes, and the characters aspects of a mind: “four people oppressed by forces largely beyond their control.”[25]

Endgame stage

The nature of Beckett’s literary enterprise was largely cerebral. His subject was, to quote Beckett himself, “ontospeleology”[26]—a term derived from the Greek words for ''being'' and ''cave''—although there are more confusing definitions out there.

In the next part of this article I’ll talk about the actual novella itself.


[1] Deirdre Bair, ‘While Waiting for Godot’, The New York Times, 9 March 1975. The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett actually says that the word was “accepted then turned down by Bordas, it was shelved as ‘unpublished and unavailable.’ (p.367)

[2] James Olney, Memory & Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing, pp.344,345

[3] Letter to Richard Ellmann, 27 January 1986; qtd. in John Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, p.772 n. 55.

[4] John Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, p.324

[5] Ibid, p.319

[6] James Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life Writing, p347

[7] Ibid

[8] Some sources say 26th September, however, The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett gives the date as 3rd October

[9] Ruby Cohn, A Beckett Canon, p.133

[10] Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, eds., Beckett in the Theatre: The Author as Practical Playwright and Director, p.163

[11] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, p.495

[12] Ibid, pp.409,410

[13] Raili Elovaara in The Problem of Identity in Samuel Beckett's Prose: An Approach From Philosophies of Existence on p.76 says that “[a] great part of the dialogue is transferred” and in her article in The New York Times Deirdre Bair says that there “are large chunks of dialogue which he later transferred directly into Godot” but as the Éditions de Minuit edition of En attendant Godot the foreword (p.lxxii) indicates that “very little of the actual dialogue of the novel is repeated in the play” I am tempted to accept that as my French is not good enough to check myself.

[14] Sic ego nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum. Translation: So I can't live either without you or with you. Ovid, Amores

[15] Peter Boxall, Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Endgame,p.32

[16] CJ Ackerley and SE Gontarski, eds., The Faber Guide to Samuel Beckett, p.463

[17] CJ Ackerley and SE Gontarski, eds., The Grove Guide to Samuel Beckett, p.367

[18] Ruby Cohn, A Beckett Canon, p. 139

[19] Julie Campbell, Bunyan And Beckett: The Legacy of Pilgrim’s Progress in Mercier and Camier, p.3

[20] PJ Murphy quoted in Daniela Caselli, Beckett's Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism, p.105

[21] Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, p.86

[22] Samuel Beckett, Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, p.237

[23] Eric Levy, ‘Company: the mirror of Beckettian mimesis’, Journal of Beckett Studies, No.8, Autumn 1982

[24] The designation "skullscape" is Linda Ben Zvi's, "soulscape" is Ruby Cohn's, both in the recorded discussion that follows the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988.

[25] Peter Boxall, Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Endgame, p.129

[26] Cited in James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett, p.xiii.


scott g.f.bailey said...

Beckett's works always bring up questions of autobiography and narrative intrusion into the text. Possibly the biggest question has always been "Does it matter?" Does it matter if Beckett's characters are stand-ins for Beckett? Perhaps so, or perhaps they're like the fictional writers--the heteronyms--in the works of Pessoa? I am more inclined over the years to see these as being more surface elements of the narratives than mysteries worth pursuing. The states through which the characters move--or refuse to move, maybe more accurately--are far more interesting and important than Beckett interpolating himself into the text, don't you think? I am sure that Beckett would like to be read without "Samuel Beckett" being in the reader's mind. "The Unnamable" might be read as an essay or exhortation about casting off the (useless and essentially false) idea of self. Maybe.

I really liked this post of yours. I read them all but I almost never comment. You give us almost too much to think about.

Life Line said...

Wow. I like what you wrote....

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for this wonderful introduction to Beckett, Jim. I haven't read much of his work, though I too am a fan of Waiting for Godot. Even as a sixteen year old when I first studied the play at school it made sense to me in a powerful way.

The idea of a pseudo couple appeals to me as an accurate description of the burdens of being in a couple, this notion of how difficult it is to be together and equally how impossible it is to separate.

I also think reading this, when you refer to the other person as being an aspect of the one person, two halves of the same identity, then I think of the character of Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, so brilliantly portrayed not only in the book its first appearance but in the film. See, for an example of the terrible to-ing and fro-ing, the battle between trust and distrust in the one person, always directed outwards to Frodo but clearly also reflecting an inner state of mind.

You've introduced me to another new word here, too Jim. Last time it was 'frangible', gorgeous word and now 'tentacular'.

For one who writes so clearly and so powerfully you always add a new word or too to my vocabulary but you do it in such an understated way that I can only be grateful and never feel intimidated.

Beckett to me is the sort of writer who might well intimidate, not by the sound of things that he ever intended to.

There's an Australian writer, Brian Castro who writes that he intends for his readers to struggle over his texts. He does not want to make things easy. I prefer to find a balance for my readers between the readily accessible and the new and difficult stuff. You always manage to do as much, too. And in doing so you open whole new worlds of literature and beyond for people including the life and writing of Beckett here and once again, I thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

In a word, Scott? No. Beckett is no different from any other author. He used settings that were familiar to him and repurposed them in his writings. When he was working on Happy Days he wrote a note to himself on the typescript to “vaguen” and a lot of scholars have picked up on this, the way he’ll start off with a concrete image and deliberately blur things to universalise it. Autobiographical references are only one weapon in his arsenal though and undue importance shouldn’t be placed on the facts that, for example, Mercier and Camier stroll around Beckett’s old haunts. Had he felt it was necessary to identify the places, to say that the city was Dublin, he would have done so but now it is simply a city and the playing field has been levelled. I agree totally with what you suggest about how Beckett would like his work to be read. It reminds me of something that the Australian writer Gerald Murnane said—I’ve just written a long essay on him—when he wrote:

I would like my next book to be published with a pseudonym on the cover. Better still, I would like the book to be published with no author’s name on it. But I would like more than that. I would like all books of fiction to be published without their author’s names. I would like all writers to be secret writers. Then readers would read books with more discernment. I believe many readers are too much influenced by the names on the fronts of books.

I think Beckett would be nodding in agreement right now if he was reading this.

Thanks for leaving that comment, Life Line. Always nice to see a new name popping up in the comments. Hope you stick around for the next two parts to this essay.

Jim Murdoch said...

And, Lis. There is a huge amount of information available online about Beckett. I have downloaded well over a hundred essays on all manner of subjects many published in esteemed journals. But Mercier and Camier is nowhere near as well represented as the likes of Waiting for Godot not that these essays really redress the balance; they’re here merely to introduce Milligan and Murphy in ten days time so people have some idea where I was coming from when I wrote the book not that you need to have read Mercier and Camier to get it but a little background knowledge won’t hurt either.

In my novel I chose to bind Milligan and Murphy together genetically. They’re not twins—they’re not even full brothers—but they act as if they are but there is another pseudo-couple in the book, known only as F. and M. based on a poem I wrote many years ago:

      FOR F.

      Two one-legged men
      limping down the road
      sharing a single crutch
      and each, in turn,
      being a crutch to the other.

      Both must go on
      for neither has the strength to alone
      and neither knows how
      to leave the other.

      16 September 1983

I believe you are spot on in your assessment of how Beckett would feel about learning that his work intimidated people. From all accounts he was a lovely chap. There is a book Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett which is made up of small remembrances of and by the man that in many respects is far more illuminating than any of the biographies on him that I have read because the one thing that comes across is how fond people were of him and how very un-Beckettian he was in person.

I’m glad you don’t feel intimidated by me although I have no idea why you should; you’re not exactly a daftie yourself. But I am aware that I can intimidate. There was this bloke I knew once who approached my last wife saying he’d like to get to know me better but didn’t know how to approach me and asked for help in breaking the ice. Part of me was quite sad to learn that but not that surprised either. A gloss of cleverness is a good way to keep people at a distance which I have a tendency to do. This is where my dichotomous nature reveals itself—and I can so relate to Golum here—because as much as I try and push people away, albeit gently, I don’t put up much resistance when they do try and get close. Queer buggers, aren’t we?

I’m not sure I can relate to Castro’s attitude towards his readers. There’s a balance to be struck I think. Will a reader’s appreciation of Milligan and Murphy be enhanced by an appreciation of Beckett? Indubitably. Is a thorough grounding in all things Beckettian necessary to appreciate the book? I would sincerely hope not. I’ve yet to find someone to agree to review the book who knows nothing about him though in fact a couple have refused a review copy simply because they know little about him and feel that puts them at a disadvantage. I must watch how I word my e-mails in future.

Dave King said...

This is something of a tour de force you've given us, Jim. It's totally fascinating as most discussion of Beckett tends to be, and I find it hard to prise my self away from it, wanting to go over paragraphs again and again - which I shall no doubt do later - but I usually find that, while such discussion may add to my knowledge of Beckett, it rarely does the same for my understanding or enjoyment of his work.

To my mind the Beckett plays are psychologically powerful - as powerful as any I have come across - and so it is the outcome rather than the process which is important. Of course, you could say that of any art form or piece of art, but sometimes knowing - or thinking that one knows - the process can weaken the effect. Fortunately, it doesn't do so in Beckett's case, perhaps because the process is in doubt anyway.

I realise that I may be sounding like the guy who says that knowing scientifically how the rainbow comes to be destroys the aesthetic appreciation of the phenomenon. It doesn't, of course, and that is not what I'm trying to say.

The incidental learning is both enjoyable and instructive, so - despite my reservations - please keep 'em coming!

Jim Murdoch said...

No, Dave, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. I honestly can’t think of another author who is analysed the way Beckett is and, as you say, such analyses don’t always enhance one’s appreciation of the work. For me, though, it does cut him down to size a bit, to realise that he wrote in notepads and doodled while he was writing. (See the pages from Watt here.) He worked to get his writing as refined as it is. Yes, he may very well have been a literary genius, but that doesn’t mean that it was easy for him or, indeed, that he was satisfied by his work. Or even, as I am keen to point out, that everything he wrote succeeds and the fault lies with us for not getting it. It’s easy to feel that way around Beckett. There are occasions—especially in his early works when he was besotted by Joyce—that he’s too clever for his own good and the writing is just not fun to read, not even as a challenge; he definitively improved with age. And that’s where we have the problem with Mercier and Camier because it was written by one Beckett and then rewritten by another. As you can see there’s a second part coming and then I get to introduce Milligan and Murphy to the world and—hopefully—people will see where I was coming from when I wrote the book.

Dave King said...

I enjoyed looking at the Watt manuscripts. They look a bit like my note books - but there the comparison ends, I fear!

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Dave, I reckon it's only a matter of time before some scholar writes a paper entitled Boxes within Boxes: Alienation and Confindement in the Doodles of Samuel Beckett. (You think I'm joking.)

Kass said...

Along with many pseudo arguing couples, don't we all have an omniscient digressing narrator in our heads?

Beckett's relationship to his wife in the 50s was admittedly difficult to stay with and impossible to leave. Isn't this like the debating couples we carry in our head? We can't get rid of them. We love/hate them.

"Both must go on
for neither has the strength to alone
and neither knows how
to leave the other."

Aren't we equally fascinated by what Beckett doesn't say as with what he does? That's why I like your poetry. You've subtracted rather than added obfuscation with your words.

Jessica Bell said...

Hi Jim! I find it really amazing that you posted this on the same day that we released the first issue of Vine Leaves, because it has a piece in it called BECKETTIAN, which was inspired by Deirdre Bair's, Samuel Beckett. AND that you have a piece in the journal too. What a crazy coincidence!

Ken Armstrong said...

I feel like I am on something of an inside-track here, thanks solely to you and I feel very Lucky about that.

Yes, maybe there's a little pun...

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think any other writer uses silence as effectively as Beckett does. Kass. When you compare the verbal pyrotechnics of his early prose works like Fair to Middling Women—which I found almost unreadable—to the sparseness of his last few plays it is impossible to imagine they were written by the same man. Duality, however, is a constant theme in his writing—expressed in varying ways but always there—even if only one person is present on the stage or the page as in Eh Joe or Footfalls where there is another (ghostly?) voice present inside Joe’s and May’s heads although nowhere are doubles seen more often than in his novel Murphy. Just type “Beckett duality” into Google and see just how often his work is interpreted in this manner.

In my novel, Milligan and Murphy, which is where these articles are leading to, there are many instances of doubles: two brothers, two mothers, two whores, two barmaids, two priests, two cats, two frogs, two tramps, two one-legged men…

I’m glad my poetry appeals to you. It is the writing I am most proud of. Which is why I was a little sad that my poetry collection did not sell better than it did. I’m not unhappy people bought the novels—and I hope they buy Milligan and Murphy in droves—but I’d rather they read my poems. Books take so long to make their points and really you can boil Milligan and Murphy down to a few lines, a short conversation with a priest about looking for reasons which, with a bit of effort, could be transformed into a poem you could read in under a minute. The rest of the book is nothing but fancy wrapping.

Jessica, I read that piece. It jumped out of the list as I was scanning for my own name, in fact I read it before I looked at my own piece. Bair’s biography tends to get slagged off a bit these days which is a shame because before hers we had nothing and it is quite an achievement considering the strictures she had to cope with—Beckett wouldn’t let her take notes or use a tape recorder, for example—whereas Knowlson had years to develop a relationship with Beckett and also was able to interview him at length close to Beckett’s death when he was more willing to set the record straight.

And, Ken, very punny. By the way, 'In the beginning was the pun', Beckett wrote in Murphy. He had a great affection for them.

Elisabeth said...

Jim, your book arrived today. Amazingly slow for Australia Post. I've only read to page 9 so far, but I can well see the Beckettian-is that the word? - connections, though for me it's far easier to understand than what I've read of Beckett.

Thank you so very much. I'm off to the airport to pick up a daughter back from holidays in Sri Lanka but I'll finish it soon enough.

So far I enjoy what I've read. It's very Murdochian, too, I might add.

Gwil W said...

One of the best plays I ever saw was a German version of Waiting for Godot - the stage was suspended in midair inside a giant picture frame. In fact when I come to think of it now I may have reviewed it somewhere. I'll check back if I find that I have.

Gwil W said...

From the wait there's more department.

I see now that I did review Godot. If you enter Waiting for Godot in my blog search box the top item you get is the review. The second item down is 3 Beckett haiku!

Thanks Jim for reminding me of my Godot stuff. Always moving forward I tend to forget.

Jim Murdoch said...

I am shocked, Lis, truly. It’s taken over five weeks to get to you. I posted it five days before the last guaranteed posting day for Australia for Xmas so God alone knows where it’s been sitting. Still, at least you have it now. Beckett was just the starting point for this book. I never set out to emulate him and why would I want to? I’m not sure how one would define ‘Murdochian’ but I can live with that.

And, Gwilliam, I read your review. It sounds like a delightful experience and I would have loved to have seen that set (I'm fond of Magritte) but as for the interpretation, I’m afraid Beckett may have hedged his bets on many things but he was very clear about who Godot was not: he was not God. He told Ralph Richardson that “if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot.” That said, as with any artistic work, one cannot discount the reader’s baggage and it is very easy to use the biblical imagery that runs through the play as a jumping off point. When I wrote the Wikipedia article (which took me six weeks by the way—your really need to check your facts with Beckett) I listed several different interpretations that people have imposed on the text including a Christian one. I’m with Beckett though when he defends his use of biblical imagery because I do. I was brought up with it and it’s very familiar to me; don’t have to check my facts the way I do when referencing other sources.

Gwil W said...

But I do dilute the case for God/ot with the idea of "the force that through the green fuse . . . . is my destroyer" (Dylan Thomas) with a Beckett quote towards the end of my piece. I'm not going overboard with this God thing. I'm think I'm just saying that it is in to a certain extent at least ghosting thereabouts.

Gwil W said...

And just to clarify my position apropos religion. If I do, as I do, in today's post refer to the Old Testament as God's War Manual it doesn't mean that I believe in the God of Israel and the Universe business. It only means that I give the book a title worthy of its gruesome contents. For my money one should substitute the words High Priest wherever the word God appears in the OT.

Art Durkee said...

IQ doesn't mean a whole lot in cases. It's no guarantee of either wisdom or experience.

I've been asked to join MENSA three times in my life. In every instance, the people who invited me were brilliant intellectually and otherwise totally lacking in social graces. Their emotional intelligence was mostly much lower than their intellectual measured intelligence. Being good at taking tests and solving chess problems doesn't make you wise, nor does it make you smarter than the guy next to you when it comes to other types of situations. I've seen this with child music prodigies, too.

You know i love Beckett. Especially the shorter plays and scenarios. I love how compressed and poetic he writes. I love his often dark sense of humor. Critics have called his humor absurdist, but I think it's more existential.

I don't make the mistake of ever thinking Beckett's writings are autobiographical, beyond the usual caveat that anything a writer writes contains something of his or her self.

The idea that groups, pairs, triads, of characters make up the complete whole is not new. I've seen it often in literature and the arts, ranging from very concealed to very overtly stated. Some literary criticism has even built whole theories on the supposition. Oppositional archetypes. The completing of the self in the Other goes back as afar as Gilgamesh. Some authors have overtly built entire series of novels on such premises. (Gordon R. Dickson comes to mind.)

I appreciate your take on it in Beckett, although I'm not 100 percent certain I agree. It's a good theory, I just would have to think about it some more.

Art Durkee said...

One other thought.

People claim not to be able to to understand John Cage's ideas, or his music, or his ideas about his music.

I've pretty put in as much time studying and reading Cage as you have Beckett. And what you've written here actually can help people understand Cage, at least as far as the ways in which they were similar. The removal of the artist's ego, which I think is what Murnane is getting at, too. The spareness and the hard work spent on creating the spareness. The powerful usage of silence. That sort of thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

We all reference what we are familiar with, Gwilliam, and I wasn’t trying to judge merely to make it clear what Beckett didn’t intend. In four of my five novels I talk about supernatural beings but they are simply literary devices. There is a danger in assuming that writing is autobiographical. This happens with poetry more than prose but it’s all made up, even the true bits.

And, I was being facetious about the IQs, Art, and I agree totally that a high IQ is only evidence of potential; that potential can easy be wasted due to lack of opportunity or plain laziness on the part of the intelligent person in question. I had a friend who joined MENSA and wanted me to too but I declined. I said, “There are enough things in this life that set me apart from other people without adding to them.”

Beckett didn’t like the term ‘absurdist’ and I’m not sure I do either. Labels, in general, irritate me. As regards my take on Beckett, I’m just chewing the cud; he’s no longer round to ask and even if he were who’s to say he would be able to shed a light on his process? I expect, like most of us, he wrote what came naturally and never thought twice about being clever; there’s nothing contrived about his writing.

I bow to your knowledge of Cage but you do have a point. I’ve just written a lengthy article on Murnane’s collected essays in which he tries to communicate his process and I guess ‘egoless writing’ might be as good an expression as any despite him being one of the most autobiographical of writers.

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