All Strange Away by Samuel Beckett (1964)

But sudden gleam that whatever words given to let fall soundless in the dark that if no sound better none, all right, try sound and if no better say quite speechless, imagine sound and not till then all that black hair toss back into the corner baring face as about to when this happened.

All Strange Away is a powerful short prose text by Samuel Beckett first published in English in 1964. I thought it would be another monologue by a decrepit old man crawling to the end, but although that is the general tone, it is something slightly different. It seems to be the monologue of someone arguing with themselves about how to imagine the scene and the character he’s trying to describe. What scene and what character? Well, there’s the challenge.

Light off and let him be, on the stool, talking to himself in the last person, murmuring, no sound, Now where is he, no, Now he is here. Sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in the dark and in the light, try all.

‘Try all’ seems to be the operative phrase. The narrator, or writer, tries a series of attempts to get down what it is he is trying to convey, imagining various trials or situations or conditions to subject his (fictional) protagonist to. Shall he drag his character out of his frowsy deathbed and off to some place to die in?

Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again.

‘Not that again.’ In the very same sentences where he’s making the suggestions, he refutes them, realises their hopelessness, negates his suggestions even as he makes them. Above all acknowledges the element of hopeless repetition, with the word ‘again’:

A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again…

OK, a place, let’s start with conceiving a place, what will it be like? He imagines a place five foot square but six foot high – ‘just room to stand and revolve…floor like bleached dirt’ – the light comes on, the character is on a stool, talking in ‘the last person’, light on, takes off coat, no he’s naked, leave it on, he speaks but makes no sound, black sheets of paper gummed to the walls but they, also, reflect the pitiless glare. He has a black shroud on, this character, when the light goes on he gets down on his hands and knees searching for pins in this box, the the light goes off and he still searches, for years this goes on, he clutches the shroud round him till it rots to black ‘flitters’.

The long sentences made up of fragmented clauses are so pared-back that all kinds of syntactic arrangements between the fragments are possible or implied. Used to reading normal, fully-worded, consecutive prose, the reader keeps finding themself completing Beckett’s fragments and sentences, which has two results: 1. it makes the sentences and passages (if you let them, if you’re in the mood) feel incredibly dynamic, packed and overflowing with implications 2. which explains the eerie combination of a frustrating and yet deeply addictive reading experience.

As he was, in the dark any length, then the light when it flows still it ebbs any length, then again, so on, sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, all any length, no paper, no pins, no candle, no matches, never were, talking to himself no sound in the last person any length, five foot square, six high, all white when light at full, no way in, none out.

What does he look like, the imagined protagonist?

Imagine eyes burnt ashen blue and lashes gone, lifetime of unseeing glaring, jammed open, one lightning wince per minute on earth, try that.

On the walls are eight pictures, two per wall, light on, no, say one per wall, pictures of who?

Sex

And here we come to another common characteristic of these mid-period Beckett pieces, which is sex. Many of these plays or narratives get so far and then… Beckett seems to run out of ideas and resorts to male-female love, to admittedly pathetic decrepit parodies of romantic love, but love nonetheless.

I’m thinking in particular of the way that, from all the possible memories of his young self and his former life, Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape ends up settling on just one golden memory, of himself lying in a field with his hand on his true love’s breast.

Same here. Something very weird and abstract abruptly plunges into the all-too-inevitable subject of love, romance, women and sex. In this case the woman is named Emma and Beckett also indulges his fondness, evinced in many of his texts, for the crudest swearwords. These are the pictures on the wall of the protagonist’s cell.

First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words.See how he crouches down and back to see, back of head against face when eyes on cunt, against breasts when on hole, and vice versa, all most clear. So in this soft and mild, crouched down and back with hands on knees to hold himself together, say deasil first from face through hole then back through face, murmuring, Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Charming, as that great literary critic, my mother, would have said. The Beckett Companion summarises this material as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma” but the memory is fading’, but that’s not accurate, is it? That sugars the pill and makes it sound more bourgeois and respectable than what is actually written, which is crude and graphic and basic, and deliberately so.

Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Human geometry

Another Beckett element comes into play which is his love of geometry. If you read the plays rather than watching the productions, you’ll know that as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Beckett’s works became more and more festooned with very detailed stage directions about heights and sizes and angles and positions and movements of the human participants, at the same time as the ‘characters’ or human participants in the works are steadily deprived of names and given letters or numbers. For example, take the way the two characters in Act Without Words II are simply labelled A and B, or the ‘characters’ in Play are labelled M, W1 and W2, combined with the very precise instructions for every element of the onstage action, complete with diagrams which contain numbers, angles, positions and durations.

In this piece the main ‘character’ never has a name but his movements are mapped out in a mockery of a geometry problem:

Call floor angles deasil a, b, c and d and ceiling likewise e, f, g and h, say Jolly at b and Draeger at d, lean him for rest with feet at a and head at g, in dark and light, eyes glaring, murmuring…

(‘Deasil’, by the way, is a Gaelic word which means ‘in the direction of the sun’s apparent course, considered as lucky; clockwise.’ Jolly and Draeger are the names of posters on the walls of the cell, at least until these are replaced in the narrator’s imagination by pictures of Emma’s orifices.)

The misplaced, obsessive precision is carried over into the description of the positioning of the protagonist vis-a-vis the big posters of Emma and her body parts: if there’s one picture on each wall, then, in order to enjoy sight of one, in such a small prison cell, the character must have his head pressed back against another. And Beckett carefully goes through the four possible positions, as is his obsessive wont.

But what if the floor of the cell is hot, almost punishingly hot, and the character wants to lie on it in the most effective way. Hmm. I’m glad you asked, because there are, quite clearly, a number of precise permutations which we shall now go through in sequence:

Sit, knees drawn up, trunk best bowed, head between knees, arms round knees to hold all together. And even lie, arse to knees say diagonal ac, feet say at d, head on left cheek at b. Price to pay and highest lying more flesh touching glowing ground. But say not glowing enough to burn and turning over, see how that works. Arse to knees, say bd, feet say at c, head on right cheek at a. Then arse to knees say again ac, but feet at b and head on left cheek at d. Then arse to knees say again bd, but feet at a and head on right cheek at c. So on other four possibilities when begin again…

‘See how that works’ could be the motto of the piece, indeed of many of Beckett’s prose pieces, like Molloy working out how to suck his stones most efficiently, or any number of the obsessively detailed permutations of physical activity described in Watt.

Emma imprisoned

Then abruptly the narrator/writer says, what if it isn’t the male character in the cell at all, but the lovely Emma?

and how crouching down and back she turns murmuring, Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that, no sound, hands on knees to hold herself together.

‘Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on’ is not something I would summarise, as the Beckett companion does, as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma”‘.

Apart from being mildly titillating what these passages do most is remind you how, back in the day, the so-called the avant-garde was addicted to sexual explicitness, as if saying cunt broke taboos, pushed boundaries, subverted bourgeois society.

But what happens when sex is everywhere, we live in a world of multiple, fluid genders and endless pornography of every possible permutation is available at the click of a button on the internet?

In the world of 2020, reading the jolly boundary-breaking swearwords of the 1950s and 60s avant-garde is like watching your Dad try to dance to rave music. Or it is looking back at a simpler world where writers wore jackets and thin black ties for their interviews with plummy BBC interviewers, politely discussing ‘the role of obscenity in literature’, all available now, 60 years later, in spotty, flickery black and white on YouTube.

And thus this text’s strange, haunting combination of anatomical explicitness with geometric precision.

Any length, in dark and light, then topple left, arse to knees say db, feet say at c, head on left cheek at a, left breast puckered in the dust…

The deathless imagination

By this stage, we have the sense that the opening sentence –’Imagination dead imagine’ – can be interpreted as: ‘We might well be in a situation where the imagination is dead, but unfortunately we can’t stop imagining; imagining may well be a bankrupt activity, belonging to the old bourgeois world, before the Holocaust before the atom bombs and yet, no matter how much we despise and reject it and try to move beyond it, that old human instinct to imagine things, to conceive and speak and describe them, seems to be unquenchable. Well, alright, if this is the case, if the old bourgeois forms and imaginings are dead and bankrupt but we don’t appear to be able to stop imagining, then let’s imagine this, let’s test and experiment with imagination reduced to its most minimal amount possible, let’s imagine a cell five foot square and six foot high’ – and off we go…

The entire narrative may give the superficial impression of rambling, but is carefully crafted to convey the feeling of a mind, a writer, trying to reject imagination, rise above imagination, trying to do something new, but continually trapped back into the old tropes and gestures, considering them, then rejecting them, starting again, ‘imagine’ really meaning ‘consider this option, what about this one? No? how about this one…’:

  • imagine light
  • imagine what needed
  • imagine candles and matches
  • imagine eyes burnt ashen blue
  • imagine him kissing
  • imagine lifetime
  • imagine a common housefly
  • imagine hands
  • imagine later, something soft
  • imagine other murmurs
  • imagine turning over

and then the punchline of all these imaginings, the one that contains the title phrase:

  • imagine all strange away

Clearly, imagination is not dead, but works, continues, struggles on, despite the writer’s best efforts to deny or reject it, he cannot evade the ‘so great need of words’. We all need words, words is all we have, even in the last extremities. And so the text continues despite itself, despite its best intentions otherwise, goes on to consider other aspects and approaches to the problem, which include:

– frequent references to the lights in the box cell coming up then fading out, so that the carefully timed duration of these fadings or ‘ebbings’ strongly suggesting stage directions as per Beckett’s countless plays

– suddenly the invocation of names takes a Catholic turn with mention of Mary, Jesus, God and other proper names to be spoken in any combination required, which segues into similar consideration of Greek philosophers (preferably with name of place of birth attached to make you look intelligent and well read)

– and in the piece’s final page the small space that ‘Emma’ was confined in (the man who featured in the early part has vanished) becomes slowly smaller and smaller, forcing her to bend and contort tighter and tighter, the geometric points of her body more and more compacted, until (it doesn’t say this) she must be crushed altogether in the tiny two-foot cuboid

Beckett in 2020

I can see why many people would be utterly repelled by this apparently endless, unpunctuated, pretentious rambling, but I find it utterly entrancing, just as I found The Unnameable by far the strongest of the three Beckett novels precisely because it has most completely abandoned any attempt at character, structure, plot or dialogue in order to become something else completely, something utterly new.

Many critics and readers take Beckett’s works to be masterpieces of nihilism, on a par with the Writing Year Zero extremity of European existentialism or the post-holocaust figurines of Alberto Giacometti. I think I read them in a completely different way. I come to them as a citizen of the year 2020, when humanity hasn’t changed at all, but we have invented even more media – the internet, email, text alerts, social media and all kinds of other channels – with which to bombard ourselves with text and meanings.

Anyone with a mobile device gets bombarded with updates and texts and emails and notifications, telling us to read this guidance, look at this powerpoint, check this spreadsheet, inviting us to like each other’s holiday photos or be outraged at this or that public figure’s latest example of everyday sexism or racism or misogyny or whatever.

The framework of digital media we have erected around ourselves amounts, in my opinion, to a high-tech cage, a prison of thumpingly obvious meanings within which most people find it reassuring to dwell, venting their woke or reactionary views via twitter, sharing their makeup secrets via Instagram and so on, a vast mental prisonhouse of conformity created by its billions of users and consumers.

That’s what 2020 feels like to me. And so Beckett’s oeuvre, his increasingly brief, abstract plays, the surprising number of short prose pieces he produced on the same minimalist themes, all these attempts to float free of narrative and logic seem to me to be wonderfully liberating, freeing the mind of anyone who really engages with them from the prisonhouse of contemporary meaning, the degraded discourse of shouty politics or trashy consumerism which literally billions of people have chosen to plug into their brains and to dominate their imaginations.

I don’t find Beckett’s works ‘difficult’. Just read a piece like this out loud, slowly, savouring the jumps, the gaps in syntax and logic which require you to fill them in, or are the record of someone who has gone beyond needing them and whose journey beyond meaning takes you with it, into an entirely new linguistic space.

Either way they’re exercises in escaping the tyranny of the sensible, the common sensical, the flat trite empty mindless twaddle pumped out by the modern media machine in all directions, 24/7.

Such then the sound roughly and if no clearer so then all the storm unspoken and the silence unbroken unless sound of light and dark or at the moments of change a sound of flow thirty seconds till full then silence any length till sound of ebb thirty seconds till black then silence any length, that might repay hearing and she hearing open then her eyes to lightening or darkening greys and not close them then to keep them closed till next sound of change till full light or dark, that might well be imagined.

When he wrote them, Beckett’s pieces may have been designed to shock the bourgeois world of cocktail parties and lounge suits by their a) aggressive bleakness b) geometrical denial of human individuality and b) resort to crude swearwords. Now, 60 years later, I find their teasing meanings, their reassuring repetitions, the recurring tropes and strategies, oddly comforting.

I like the spare abstract empty prose which his box of tricks generates. I enjoy reading such ‘white’ prose, almost entirely empty of content and amounting to a fabric of teasing repetitions, snatches and fragments. It makes a refreshing change from the oppressive tyranny of forced, shallow, angry 100% obvious meaning which dominates the modern world.

In the second half of the piece, titled Diagram, the text whirls and twirls a number of fragments, clearly intending to create a kind of poetry through the repetition of the image of black hair falling across white skin, interspersing some kind of fragment of a memory of lying in a hammock in the sun, and maybe distant repeated snatches of sobbing… This is the last sentence:

Henceforth no other sounds than these and never were that is than sop to mind faint sighing sound for tremor of sorrow at faint memory of a lying side by side and fancy murmured dead.

Which is an example of the way that Beckett’s supposedly dehumanised, anti-humanistic anti-plays and anti-narratives often end up conveying, albeit in an unorthodox way, a melancholy sense of time fleeting and human loss which is surprisingly straightforward and sentimental. He may be well aware that they are ‘sops to mind’, but that doesn’t stop these moments sticking in the memory because they are so very much what ‘traditional’ literature, especially poetry, is meant to be and do, from the Latin poets’ lachrymae rerum to Wordsworth musing by Tintern Abbey.

Personally, I find it more bracing to focus on the deliberately anti-human elements, the geometrical formulae, the detailed, complex and entirely arbitrary stage directions which mimic, in their heartless elaborateness, the elaborate heartlessness which (presumably) Beckett saw as the essence of human existence.

When Irish eyes are smiling…

And, lastly, never forget that there’s quite a lot of sly humour buried away behind the grim fragments and the struggle to speak, to express anything, in Beckett’s texts. Behind the elaborate machinery of despair, there’s always a sly twinkle in his beady Irish eyes. Here’s a description of ‘Emma’, increasingly contorted as the space she is crammed into becomes ever smaller.

Last look oh not farewell but last for now on right side tripled up and wedged in half the room head against wall at a and arse against wall at C and knees against wall AB an inch or so from head and feet against wall be an inch or so from arse.

‘An inch or so from arse’. Quite.


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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