Stirrings Still by Samuel Beckett (1988)

So on unknowing and no end in sight.

‘Still’ was one of Samuel Beckett’s keywords, like ‘go’ and ‘on’ and ‘white’ and ‘dark’. All are present in Beckett’s short final prose piece, Stirrings Still. He wrote it between 1986 and 1989 at the request of his old friend and American publisher, Barney Rosset. It was first published in The Guardian on 3 March 1989 and then in a limited edition, autographed hardback version, complete with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. The Guardian edition included a review of the limited edition by Frank Kermode, and a piece on the history of the work’s publication by John Calder. It was then republished in the posthumous collection As The Story Was Told (1990). So much for its publishing history, what about the content?

Content

Stirrings Still is very short, 1,904 words long. It is divided into three parts, of 868, 697 and 339 words, respectively (46%, 37% and 17%).

Part one

Stirrings Still covers familiar territory: it is night-time; a man who much resembles the author is sitting, by himself, in a plain room and, as if in a dream or a hallucination, sees himself get up and leave:

One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.

This doubling of the protagonist might once have been a difficult scenario to grasp, but we’ve seen this kind of thing happen in so many modern movies it’s become commonplace, and Beckett himself had used the doppelgänger onstage in his play Ohio Impromptu.

Before the story can properly get going, the text mentions that it is dark, or… maybe it isn’t – and there follows a typical piece of Beckett quibbling about whether it was dark and how the protagonist could know this, the kind of crabbed, involuted, self-referential enumeration of possibilities and permutations which he perfected in Watt back in the mid-1940s and had deployed periodically ever since:

For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again. So he would simply stand there high above the earth and see through the clouded pane the cloudless sky. Its faint unchanging light unlike any light he could remember from the days and nights when day followed hard on night and night on day. This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out and left him in the dark…

This is fairly comprehensible and is intended to be painfully pedantic. It is noticeable, however, that as the piece progresses it becomes steadily more difficult to understand: sentences become longer, containing multiple clauses but with key pronouns, verbs and punctuation removed to make them harder to parse at first reading.

Now the piece starts again, with the sitting man watching himself get up and leave, and then, even more mysteriously, watching the same figure reappear and disappear, repeating the action over and over.

As when he disappeared only to reappear later at another place. Then disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. So again and again disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. Another place in the place where he sat at his table head on hands…

This miasmatic section continues as the figure with his head in hands wonders whether the departing figure will reappear as he has done up to now, half hoping, half fearing he won’t.

But then, just as quickly, there’s another burst of comprehensibility when we learn the character used to walk the back roads. This immediately reminds us of the character in Company who talks a lot about walking the old back roads before returning to his room. Same here:

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. The back roads. Now as one in a strange place seeking the way out. In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out. A way out. To the roads. The back roads.

He is old. He has memories and regrets.

There had been a time he would sometimes lift his head enough to see his hands. What of them was to be seen. One laid on the table and the other on the one. At rest after all they did. Lift his past head a moment to see his past hands. Then lay it back on them to rest it too. After all it did.

That, too, mostly makes sense. But the next paragraph moves us into more overt Beckett territory, as the syntax becomes unclear: by leaving out subject, verbs and conjunctions, the thought process becomes dazed, drugged, Alzheimered:

The same place as when left day after day for the roads. The back roads. Returned to night after night. Paced from wall to wall in the dark. The then fleeting dark of night. Now as if strange to him seen to rise and go. Disappear and reappear at another place. Disappear again and reappear again at another place again. Or at the same. Nothing to show not the same. No wall toward which or from. No table back toward which or further from. In the same place as when paced from wall to wall all places as the same. Or in another. Nothing to show not another. Where never. Rise and go in the same place as ever. Disappear and reappear in another where never. Nothing to show not another where never.

This recurring cycle of disappearing and reappearing takes over the text which specifies how it is impossible to define where it is, or whether it is even happening. Note how part of the effect is the switch in texture between sections which make total sense, or which the mind can immediately grasp – man gets up from chair, man takes to talking the back roads – and the other, far from understandable sections where the prose and syntax become more difficult and fragmented.

One of Beckett’s central effects is the way he creates a rhythmic alternation between these two states or styles or textures, so that, as you read it, you have the giddying feeling of alternating between passages which are relatively easy to understand and then, suddenly, stretches which at first sight are bewildering.

The final element in section 1 is the sudden advent of a new, disturbing theme which shocks us into the comprehensible side of the scale. For in this mental landscape there are ‘strokes and cries’. Of what? Of a whip? Of torture?

Nothing to show not another where never. Nothing but the strokes. The cries. The same as ever. Till so many strokes and cries since he was last seen that perhaps he would not be seen again. Then so many cries since the strokes were last heard that perhaps they would not be heard again. Then such silence since the cries were last heard that perhaps even they would not be heard again. Perhaps thus the end. Unless no more than a mere lull. Then all as before. The strokes and cries as before and he as before now there now gone now there again now gone again. Then the lull again. Then all as before again. So again and again. And patience till the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own…

These strokes and cries are worrying, very worrying, but even they are swept along as the water rushes to the weir which ends the section, and suddenly tumbles over into the unexpected wish for an end, the wish for ‘the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own’.

All this – the head in hands, the getting up and leaving, the reappearing, the eternal recurrence, all to the backdrop of the disturbing strokes and cries – all this is subsumed by, is swept on by, is waiting for the advent of, ‘the one true end to time and grief’.

You can see why Beckett hadn’t published this fragment, why it was lying among his notebooks when Barney Rosset’s letter arrived in 1983. It is almost too Beckettian. It contains a number of his most familiar tropes and yet… yet with a strangely rushed air about them. The doppelgänger and the strokes and cries are both given a few paragraphs and yet the whole thing seems to rush up to this final bit, the simple exhausted wish that it would all end.

Part two

If part one opened with the relatively easy notion of a man getting up from his table, part two deliberately opens with a demanding theoretical question of how we know we are in our right minds:

As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all?

Is he a reasonable being? Can anyone be a reasonable being? Note how the sentences are deliberately long and confusing. Now the protagonist appears to have emerged into an outdoors space where a clock strikes but is also still at the table.

It was therefore in the guise of a more or less reasonable being that he emerged at last he knew not how into the outer world and had not been there for more than six or seven hours by the clock when he could not but begin to wonder if he was in his right mind. By the same clock whose strokes were those heard times without number in his confinement as it struck the hours and half hours and so in a sense at first a source of reassurance till finally one of alarm as being no clearer now than when in principle muffled by his four walls.

I’m not sure the clock has much meaning but it has a function. Very often in the midst of the most abstract passages Beckett includes something hard and comprehensible. For me this is like an abstract painter deciding to add a splash of red. Red doesn’t ‘mean’ anything but it somehow balances the composition. No doubt many readers will make the clock mean something, but for me it acts as a contrast to the highly abstract language surrounding it. Anyway, not long before we’re back with the cries we learned about at the end of part one. If nothing else, this shows that part one and part two are linked, in case there was any doubt.

Then he sought help in the thought of one hastening westward at sundown to obtain a better view of Venus and found it of none. Of the sole other sound that of cries enlivener of his solitude as lost to suffering he sat at his table head on hands the same was true. Of their whenceabouts that is of clock and cries the same was true that is no more to be determined now than as was only natural then.

The protagonist is puzzled why his footsteps are so quiet but then realises he is in a field of grass, except he is disturbed because all his previous experience of grass involved a limit a border a fence, but there is none here, moreover the grass he remembers was green whereas this is long and light grey verging on white. Maybe his memory of grass is at fault so he stops to take stick, head down in meditation.

But soon weary of vainly delving in those remains he moved on through the long hoar grass resigned to not knowing where he was or how he got there or where he was going or how to get back to whence he knew not how he came. So on unknowing and no end insight.

He has reached a version of Beckett nirvana, unknowing, uncaring moving over an endless vista. Except that:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not. The strokes now faint now clear as if carried by the wind but not a breath and the cries now faint now clear.

Those strokes and cries again. Are they of torture? I’m thinking so because I’m influenced by having recently read What Where, which is very much about torture. But, rereading the words I realise they could have a sexual connotation, be soft porn strokes and cries, but… Doubtful. No-one enjoys sex in Beckett.

Part three

If part one opened with a very readable sentence – ‘One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go’ – by part 3 we have moved deep into the disjointed language of radical uncertainty:

So on till stayed when to his ears from deep within oh how and here a word he could not catch it were to end where never till then.

Didn’t quite get that?

Rest then before again from not long to so long that perhaps never again and then again faint from deep within oh how and here that missing word again it were to end where never till then.

Personally, I find this kind of thing immensely absorbing and rewarding. This is core Beckett, the style he perfected in The Unnamable and then spent 40 years struggling to move beyond because he had taken it to the limit. The technique is relatively simple:

  1. several sentences are mashed together
  2. key words (subject, verb, conjunctions) are removed
  3. all punctuation is removed

to create car crash sentences which are, initially, difficult to parse and understand, but, on rereading, begin to create a miasma of suggestive meanings. And what they suggest is a process of thought which cannot be captured in words. If I wanted to read a manual on motor car maintenance or instructions for operating a new DVD player or government advice on staying safe during a pandemic, I would expect it to be laid out in a logical order and each element clearly explained. But Beckett is at the opposite end of the spectrum from this, trying to capture the workings of a mind which might not even be a ‘mind’, trying to annotate the thought processes of events or perceptions which are beyond thought, beyond any kind of sense.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, you can make out the outlines of what is going on in this text. You can piece together a sort of summary of events: a man in a room at the table watches himself get up and leave, sees the same thing happen over and over again, begins to worry about the repetition, is worried by the sound of strokes and cries, steps out, is outside, hears a clock chime, worries about its next chime ringing or not ringing, his footsteps are quiet, it’s because he’s in a field of grass, but not like any field or any grass he can remember, if his memory works, if his mind works, stops to think, closes his eyes, reopens them and can’t decide which direction to go in…

Any prose text has to have a subject, and critics are free to analyse and comment on the events listed in this summary, and on the imagery used. But what I’m driving at is that none of this interests me very much. A little, but not very much. What interests me is the power of the sentences to take the reader to somewhere completely weird and other.

There then all this time where never till then and so far as he could see in every direction when he raised his head and opened his eyes no danger or hope as the case might be of his ever getting out of it. Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more.

In fact, if anything, Stirring Still is not, in my opinion, obscure enough. A sentence like this is disappointingly comprehensible especially when you re-introduce some sensible punctuation:

Was he, then, now to press on regardless, now in one direction and now in another, or on the other hand, stir no more, as the case might be…

This can be translated as: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ We’ve got the protagonist to an infinite field of long grey-white grass, he stops to think, he reopens his eyes, he wonders whether to move or not and if so, in what direction. OK. But just when any reader might be expecting there to be further developments… the text, very abruptly, ends with the rather blunt thought that ‘he’, the figure all this seems to be happening to, you know what? He just wants it all to end:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

And that is the end. Sudden.

Thoughts

On this read-through, then, I felt Stirrings Still is yet another continuation of the extraordinary stylistic breakthrough Beckett made in The Unnamable, but it doesn’t quite have the shock value or verve of so many of his other prose pieces – All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine, How it Is, Enough, The Dead Ones or Company. These are all genuinely weird and creepy, while Stirrings Still…

Stirrings Still is very good, it contains some vintage Beckett tropes, but it feels a little… over-familiar… And also, having read it closely half a dozen times, I’ve come to feel it doesn’t end so much as just stop, with the sudden bolting on of those last sentences about ‘Oh all to end’. They feel like a sop to all those Beckett fans who loved his earlier smash hits, ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on’, and ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Sentimentalists will read this last sentence as the sad cry of a weary old man, and maybe it is. But Beckett characters had been saying more or less the same thing for the previous forty years, except that in many of the other texts they say it with a great deal more… more depth and weirdness.

Who is Darly?

Who is the Darly who is referred to twice in the text?

  • The same place and table as when Darly for example died and left him…
  • A clock afar struck the hours and half-hours. The same as when among others Darly once died and left him…

He’s the same as Woburn in Cascando, the sudden appearance of an improbably specific name in an otherwise sea of bewildering and confusing verbiage arranged in a brainteasing way to convey mental collapse or the struggle to make sense of apparently senseless perceptions.

The sudden eruption of a proper noun like this from the morass of the spavined text introduces two singular moments of colour. Names immediately mean something to any reader; even if we don’t know who the person is, we at least know what a name is, and so the zone around the two mentions suddenly comes into focus, as if something is about to be delivered.

To me the two uses of what is obviously someone’s name perform a structural, compositional function rather than a semantic one. As with the clock, mention of Darly adds a sudden splash of ‘realism’ in an otherwise almost abstract composition. Like a recognisable face suddenly discernible in a modernist collage.

Similar, although with a slightly different flavour, is the mention of Walther in part three. Initially it feels like the Darly reference, a proper name thrown into a sea of abstraction, as a foil or highlight. However, when you learn that the reference is to a poem by medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide, a favourite of Beckett’s, then instead it feels more like a momentary reversion to the mode of the smartarse younger Beckett, filling his texts with references to obscure European literature in his pre-war stories and novels. Here’s the opening of the poem:

I sat upon a stone
covered one leg with the other
and set my elbow on them
I nestled in my hand
my chin and one of my cheeks.
In this position I started pondering
How one should live in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The poet has a rational aim and clearly states it. So one purpose of this (rather obscure) reference may be precisely to highlight the gap between the confident rationality of the Middle Ages and the gaping irrationality of both the surreal situations and the broken language found in Stirrings Still.

All that said, once again, if we look closely at the sentence Walter appears in, it isn’t really as broken as it ought to be. It is, in fact, rather tame, specially if (as above) we reintroduce some sensible punctuation:

To this end, for want of a stone on which to sit like Walther and cross his legs, the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

In a sentence like this you can hear the late Victorian or Edwardian prose which lies behind much of Beckett’s supposedly modernist language, a surprisingly starchy and formal register.

the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

Sounds like a Victorian gentleman giving evidence. In a masterpiece like The Unnamable and other weird highlights such as How It Is, Beckett developed a style which reached completely beyond his Edwardian origins and probed into a new linguistic world. But here, in Stirrings Still, the more times I read it, despite the length and obscurity of some of its sentences, what really comes over to me is how unobscure and unrevolutionary a lot of it is. Take the very next sentence after the Walther one: all you have to do is add a few commas to make it look surprisingly conventional:

But soon, weary of vainly delving in those remains, he moved on through the long hoar grass, resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

This could almost come from an Edwardian children’s story. It could almost be from The Wind In The Willows. It sounds a little like the Terry Pratchett audiobook my daughter was listening to recently, in the sense that long sentences which simply pile together clauses with a series of ‘or’s or ‘and’s –

resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

often end up sounding like the naive ‘and then and then and then’ of children’s fiction. For sure the next sentence returns to the reassuring obliquities of avant-garde prose:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not.

But even this has the same breathless, running-three-sentences-together quality you find in a certain kind of children’s book.

Finally, the last few sentences with their sudden introduction of the theme of wanting it all to end, are arguably a reversion to the grown-up, proper thing:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

But, having come this far down this rather negative analysis, I can’t help feeling that even this sounds a bit like the famous cry from the kids in the back of the car: ‘Are we there yet?’ It certainly feels like a sudden switch, like this Final Thought has been bolted onto something which didn’t really organically lead up to it.

Sentimental interpretation

In fact Beckett was nearly there, at the destination so many of his characters long for. A few months after the luxury edition was published, Beckett died, old and frail in a care home. If we read the final sentences with sympathy, as the cry of an old man wishing for relief, then it can be very moving.

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

In this mood, it reminds me of a similar plea by the English poet, W.H. Auden, prematurely worn out by a life of drink and drugs, which was published in his final book of poetry, Thank You Fog, in 1974:

He still loves life
But O O O O how he wishes
The good Lord would take him.

Charitable interpretation

At first sight it’s of only negligible interest to learn that Beckett wrote Stirrings Still for his long-time American publisher Barney Rosset. But your reading completely changes when you learn that Rosset had recently fallen on hard times, having been dismissed as the chief editor at the Grove Press, and had asked Beckett for something with which to launch a new publishing venture, Blue Moon Books.

Now, a strong theme which emerges from a reading of James Knowlson’s wonderful biography of Beckett is that he was a very soft touch, he became known as a fantastically kind, considerate and charitable man, that he could never turn down any requests for financial assistance, whether from friends, family or total strangers.

If we return to Stirring Still’s history we find that Beckett replied to Rosset’s request with the text which makes up part one of the piece, which he had lying around as a fragment, but then took some time, in fact three years, to rustle up the other two parts, to try to give the piece an overall coherence, even though they only amount to four or so pages of text.

Now, the three parts of Stirrings Still do make sense, and they do hang together as three successive stages of psychological collapse, or end-stage visions. There is a definite progression in the narrative and it is described in prose which also becomes progressively more disintegrated. And yet, as I’ve highlighted, it still feels… a little rushed and not quite…

So it sheds real light on your understanding of Stirrings Still to learn that it was written as a favour to an old friend. This real world background knowledge helps to explain the rather cobbled-together nature of the text, which I’ve been increasingly struck by on every rereading.

Maybe Stirrings Still isn’t really the fitting conclusion to an extraordinary career as an experimental and highly innovative writer that his fans would like it to be; maybe what it is is a testament to Beckett’s extraordinary kindness and generosity to his friends and to everyone who was in need of his help. Maybe it is less an artistic, than a moral achievement.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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