Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

‘If I tell you all this in such detail, the reason is, believe me, that I cannot, much as I should like, and for reasons that I shall not go into, for they are unknown to me, do otherwise.’
(Arthur, in part three of Watt)

It’s a challenge, but I came to really enjoy this book.

Watt was Samuel Beckett’s second published novel in English (the first being Murphy, published 1938). It was begun in 1941 but largely written while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in a small French town in the Vaucluse in south-east France, and completed in December 1944. He revised and rewrote it as he went, experimenting not only with plot and style, but with structure and tone and, indeed, the entire conception of what a fiction is and can be.

It wasn’t published until a long time later, in 1953, and then only by the Olympia Press in Paris, a disresreputable publisher of pornography whose owner prided himself on publishing unpublishable literary masterpieces (he also published novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller). (Publishing with Olympia established Beckett’s copyright and helped him to negotiate with English and American publishers).

Fragments

In later life Beckett dismissed the book as ‘a game, a means of keeping sane’, as ‘an exercise’ to stave off the long evenings hidden away in a French farmhouse. Its long and claustrophobic gestation possibly accounts for the complex mess of the manuscript which contains all sorts of loose leaves, doodles, fragments of plot. It was, Beckett told George Reavey in 1947, ‘an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs’. After the war Beckett carried this ever-evolving mess with him, to Paris and then back to Dublin, working over and through to a final version of the book. Four excerpts were published in literary magazines between 1950 and 1953.

The patchwork assembly of the text is recognised in the series of ‘addenda’, 37 fragments which he added at the end of the main text, concepts, sentences, scenes and phrase apparently intended for the novel but not used. Or used to form intriguing and suggestive ‘addenda’.

The general approach

Watt is another of Beckett’s tramps-cum-simpletons-cum alzheimer victims. Some kind of autistic, he struggles to fathom the most basic human interactions.

Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done. And it was true that Watt’s smile, when he smiled, resembled more a smile than a sneer, for example, or a yawn. But there was something wanting to Watt’s smile, some little thing was lacking, and people who saw it for the first time, and most people who saw it saw it for the first time, were sometimes in doubt as to what expression exactly was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.
Watt used this smile sparingly.

Mind you, neither can the narrator or Beckett. All Beckett’s fictions come from a very similar place and depict people who can barely speak or communicate, who don’t understand basic human interactions, who are at the threshold of ordinary human behaviour, who can barely walk let alone speak, who fall, crawl, pull themselves forward by clutching tufts of grass through the mud of this world, obsessively repeating endless repeated phrases of endless repetition.

That, at least, is the enormously powerful impression you get from The Beckett Trilogy. The text of Watt, however, had not yet gone as far in that direction, although it has gone a long way in a very weird direction.

Paragraphs For a start the text is cast in paragraphs, lots of paragraphs, often fairly short. This may sound a trivial thing but Molloy starts with 80 pages of uninterrupted unrelieved prose, a Berlin Wall of prose, with no paragraphs or breaks of any kind, which turns out to be a real struggle to read.

Having your text chopped up into the conventional format of paragraphs which indicate when a new character speaks, or when a new action or topic starts and ends, is a vastly useful visual convention of typography – you only realise just how powerful and useful it is when it is completely absent in a work like Molloy. So Watt may use disorientating techniques but it feels much easier to read than the Trilogy.

To give an example, the conversation between Mr Hackett the hunchback, Mr Nixon and his wife Tetty, may well have surreal aspects – such as Tetty’s anecdote about giving birth by herself in the middle of a dinner party – but it is told in the format of paragraphs clearly indicating who is speaking when, and noting when characters change position or pause a bit – and so the texture of the reading experience is overwhelmingly traditional.

No speech marks Right at the start of his career, back in 1904 or so, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce had decided never to use speech marks or inverted apostrophes in his fiction and Beckett follows him in this mannerism. But it is a fairly easy-to-assimilate convention and you quickly get used to spotting what is dialogue and what is descriptive prose.

Conventional vocabulary Since we’ve mentioned Joyce, another thing worth pointing out is the utter conventionality of Beckett’s lexicon. He uses traditional words in a generally traditional way, nowhere is there a trace of the wild experiments with the English language which Joyce took to giddy heights in Ulysses and then burst all bounds in Finnegans Wake.

It also marks a distinct shift from the lexicon of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) which both indulged in the extreme complexification of the prose via orotund and arcane argots and terminologies. Here he is describing a character called ‘the Frica’ in the Dream:

A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic…

Beckett’s prose in Watt has undergone a thorough detoxification. Trace of the spastic pedantry of the previous texts still survives, but with nothing like the same intensity:

He had seen all from his warm nest of books and periodicals. But now that the best was past he came out on the platform, with the intention of closing his stall, for the night. He therefore lowered and locked the corrugated apron. He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain. One noticed his cap, perhaps because of the snowwhite forehead and damp black curly hair on which it sat. The eye came always in the end to the scowling mouth and from there on up to the rest. His moustache, handsome in itself, was for obscure reasons unimportant. But one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were of a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.

There isn’t the same fol-de-rol of recherche terminology. But there is still the fundamental attitude, the satirical deployment of an over-learnèd diction to a banal subject – ‘a series of aborted genuflexions’.

Beckett’s pedantic stage directions It is drily comic. It is droll, maybe, like clever undergraduates using over-elaborate language to impress each other with the absurdity of their erudition. This taste for the sly humour of extreme pedantry remained one of Beckett’s core qualities. An often overlooked aspect of his plays is the way the stage directions became things of extreme precision, which are both deadly serious and comic at the same time, like the precise nature of the bowler hats worn in Waiting For Godot. Indeed, some of the plays are entirely wordless, consisting solely of directions for actions the actors must perform and so are closer to mime or choreography. Any reader of the later plays gets used to the way the stage directions are often longer, more detailed and hyper-precise than the language involved in a production (if any).

So your response to Watt will depend on whether you enjoy, whether you find humour in the application of finicky, over-philosophical, over-learnèd and extended meditations on trivial everyday events.

In the opening scene Mr Hackett the hunchback and Mrs and Mrs Nixon spend four pages speculating why Watt got off the tram at the stop just opposite the bench where they are sitting. They work through all the potential reasons for his alighting just there with the scrupulous thoroughness of the medieval scholastic philosophers to whom Beckett owes a large debt.

Watt gets into a compartment of a train. He thinks it is empty but then realises a man is sitting in it (in a classic example Beckett-the-narrator playing with the conventions of what is, and what is not, implied by sentences in fiction. You write one thing, the reader understands the situation to be just so. You write another thing which flatly contradicts the first thing, and the reader realises just how slippery and imprecise language is, or how slippery the narrator is, or the text. Or perception. Or consciousness itself).

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Here then was a sensible man at last. He began with the essential and then, working on, would deal with the less important matters, one after the other, in an orderly way.

The scholastic method of generating content Watt’s asperger’s syndrome-like obsessiveness is central to Becket’s method, and echoes or consciously revives, the medieval scholastic obsession with categorising all possible eventualities of an occurrence, or working systematically through every possible attribute of an entity. It is absolutely no surprise at all that the man in the train compartment, Spiro, turns out to be the editor of a Catholic journal (named Crux) which delights in setting elaborate brainteasers based on obscure areas of Christian theology, one of which he proceeds to share with Watt:

A rat, or other small animal, eats of a consecrated wafer.
1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?
2) If he does not, what has become of it?
3) If he does, what is to be done with him?

The thing about this kind of scholastic, super-categorising, hair-splittingly logical approach to trivialities is that it can generate endless text out of next to nothing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was a question that could trigger medieval schoolmen to hours of learned debate, bringing in huge amounts of learning about angels, their bodies corporeal or non-corporeal, their abilities to change shape and size, and so on. Questions like this were set in medieval university exams not because anyone wanted to know the answer, but so the candidates could display their command of the gigantic schemas of categories and entities and types.

This is one way of looking at Beckett – as a kind of machine who generated huge amounts of prose (in his novels) by deploying mechanistic and scholastic methodologies to absolute trivia. In More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett devotes a page to the complex methodology Belacqua Shuah employs to make two pieces of toast. In Molloy he spends an entire page enumerating the method Molloy develops for sucking 16 pebbles he has collected from the seashore and stores in his four pockets, so that he sucks them each in turn, while transferring them between pockets in a fair and just way.

Given this technique for generating prose, there doesn’t need to be any plot at all, no storyline in the traditional sense, and little sense or purpose to the narrative, for the text nonetheless to ramify out in all directions till it fills 200 pages of paragraph-less prose, and reading it makes you feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown.

Watt heard nothing of this, because of other voices, singing, crying, stating, murmuring, things unintelligible, in his ear. With these, if he was not familiar, he was not unfamiliar either. So he was not alarmed, unduly. Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, at the same time, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others.

See? Once you establish this method, you can apply it to anything, in fact the more trivial and silly the better, since it brings out the absurdity of the procedure and, by extension, the absurdity of trying to describe anything at all, the absurdity of writing fiction, the absurdity of being human.

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not. No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as may appear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason. Notwithstanding this, the feet fell, heel and sole together, flat upon the ground, and left it, for the air’s uncharted ways, with manifest repugnancy. The arms were content to dangle, in perfect equipendency.

Forever and ever this kind of thing can be spooled out like a spider spins webs all its life long.

Use an Irish accent If you read it in a traditional English voice, like mine, it can get quite tiresome. Which is why you should have a go at reading it aloud with a slight Irish accent. If you do this, or hear it with your mind’s ear read in an Irish accent, you can catch the sly humour behind the entire thing and make out the very dry twinkle in old Sam Beckett’s beady eyes.

And you can see why, after exhausting the possibilities of prose in the enormous trilogy, he discovered the far more potent effect of doing this kind of thing onstage, of having actors read his prose out loud. Not only read out his mechanical variations on trivial actions, but actually have them act them out. Thus he gets the puppet characters of Godot or Happy Days or Endgame to go through obsessive physical and verbal repetitions which reduce the idea of human agency to an absolute null. And yet… with a shrewd, beady, half-smile hovering around his dry lips…

(This playful disinterest in plot, and greater interest in the games implicit in language, the silliness of set phrases and so on, is a quality shared with another bleak joker, Kurt Vonnegut. When Beckett describes Watt’s walk as ‘a funambulistic stagger’ the phrase reminded me of the made-up ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ which plays a central role in Vonnegut’s first novel The Sirens of Titan.)

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

‘Hunchy’ Hackett sits on what he considers ‘his’ bench. He is joined by Mr and Mrs Nixon who, among other things, tell the story of how she gave birth in the middle of a posh dinner party (she went upstairs and delivered the baby herself before coming back down, leading the child by the hand). Night is falling. They observe someone alight from a stopping tram and identify him as Watt. There is a typically scholastic debate about why he chose this particular tram stop.

Cut to Watt hurrying to the train station and colliding with a man pushing a big milk churn. He picks it up along with Watt’s hat, the whole incident observed by the elderly keeper of the newsagent’s booth, who now closes it up. Watt enters the train in what he thinks is an empty compartment but then realises it has an occupant, who introduces himself as Spiro, editor of a Catholic popular magazine, Crux.

Watt alights (apparently) and walks along a road. His method of walking is described with characteristic obsessive pedantry. It once impressed a Lady McCann who observed his odd method of ambulation. He is tired. He lies down in a ditch (an image of utter dejection which was to be obsessively repeated in the falling, crawling, creeping protagonists of the Trilogy).

He hears a choir singing a song and, in that 1930s avant-garde way, the text includes a two-page transcription of it. Watt bestirs himself, picks up his bags and continues to the house of a Mr Knott, where we have a typical piece of obsessively repetitive Beckettiana:

The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

See what I mean by the technique which can spool an infinite amount of prose, of ratiocination, out of almost nothing. Every human action can be subjected to a) this degree of mindless mechanical repetition and b) unnecessarily thorough pedantic over-analysis. Either you find it irksome or, you adjust your mood to suit Beckett’s approach and find it dryly humorous, absurd, absurdist.

Watt enters the apparently empty house and sits in the kitchen by the ‘range’, taking off his hat, revealing his grey-red hair. A man enters and delivers a breathless, surreal and absurdist monologue of the kind which will dominate the Trilogy. It is really a very long monologue, 25 pages of the kind of solid block prose we will see in the Trilogy and the demented, repetitive, obscure, mad obsessive dwelling on trivial or inconsequential subject matter which characterises all Beckett’s prose.

In terms of ‘facts’, what emerges is the speaker is Arsene, the owner of the house’s former manservant, along with one Erskine and two serving girls, Ann and Mary.

Part two

The narrating voice settles into a series of philosophical meditations on the nature of reality, of our experience of the outer and inner worlds and the difference between them, the nature of time and of mind.

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.

These lengthy and repetitive lucubrations centre on a number of characteristically minor or trivial events, such as the visit to the house of the Galls, a father and son pair of piano tuners. Then there is the case of the pot, which gives rise to a long excursus on the nature of pot-ness.

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott’s pots, of one of Mr Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished.

It’s passages like this – and this is only a small excerpt from the long passage about the pot – that bespeak a kind of mental illness, that lead me to make the comparisons with an autistic or asperger-like inability to relate to the world, to be thrown into anxiety, into panic, by nothing, by looking at a pot.

There is a master of the house, one Mr Knott, whose names seems as much of a joke as Watt’s. Watt is Knott. Watt is not Knott. Knott is not Watt. We could go on all day, and Beckett does. The obsessive manner of Watt knocking on the front door when he first arrives, then going round to knock on the back door, then returning to the front to knock on the front door again, then returning to the back to knock on the back door again, are a fleabite compared to some of the monstrosities of obsessive repetition, or repetitions with variations, the text contains.

Watt prepares Mr Knott’s meals by mixing up a precise list of ingredients and medicines into a sort of gruel which must be served punctually at 12 noon and 7pm. Sometimes Mr Knott leaves the bowl empty, at other times leaves varying percentages of the gruel in it.

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

  1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  2. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  3. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  4. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  5. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  6. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  8. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  9. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  10. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  11. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  12. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.

All these passages say something about the madness of thinking, the madness of writing, and the madness of language. The anxiety about Knott’s dinner develops seamlessly into an even more elaborated worry about the dog Watt is ordered to give any leftovers of Mr Knott’s dinner to, worries whether such a dog might or might not exist, and then a detailed consideration of four possible permutations by which such a dog might be prevailed upon to eat the leftovers. Which leads into a consideration of the family which is required to manage the complex system of dogs which have been conjured up to eat Mr Knott’s leftovers, and who are named the Lynch family and who Beckett proceeds to list and describe at exorbitant length, 28 of them in total. When Liz, the wife of Sam, dies shortly after giving birth to her twentieth baby:

This loss was a great loss to the family Lynch, this loss of a woman of forty goodlooking years.
For not only was a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, a sister, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a niece-in-law, a niece, a niece-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and of course a grandmother, snatched from her grandfather-in-law, her father-in-law, her uncles-in-law, her aunt, her aunts-in-law, her cousins, her brothers-in-law, her sisters, her niece, her nephew, her sons-in-law, her daughters, her sons, her husband and of course her four little grandchildren (who however exhibited no sign of emotion other than that of curiosity, being too young no doubt to realise the dreadful thing that had happened, for their total age amounted to no more than sixteen years), never to return, but the Lynch millennium was retarded by almost one year and a half, assuming that during that time all were spared, and so could not be expected before roughly two years from the date of Liz’s departure, instead of in a mere five months time, as would have been the case if Liz together with the rest of the family had been spared, and even five or six days sooner if the infant had been spared also, as he was to be sure, but at his mother’s expense, with the result that the goal towards which the whole family was striving receded to the tune of a good nineteen months, if not more, assuming all the others to be spared, in the meantime.

As you read this sort of thing, it’s hard not to think of Beckett’s own description that he wrote the book as an exercise, as experiments in dribs and drabs, on the long long nights hidden away in a house in the Vaucluse, with a pen, some notebooks and far too much time on his hands.

We are now in the clutches of the Lynch family and their absurd wish that the total of their combined ages reaches a thousand, something which keeps being prevented when one or other of them dies unexpectedly. Meanwhile one of the uglier cousins has twins. Which leads into an extended consideration of who impregnated her which requires a long, detailed description of the fornicatory habits of all the male members of family (cousin Sam in his wheelchair, cousin Tom with his manic depression, Uncle Jack…?)

After pages about the Lynch family, we revert to Watt, during his era of service on the ground floor, and a further disquisition about the name and nature of the dog the two members of the Lynch family, the dwarves Art and Con (remember the hunchback Mr Hackett at the start of the ‘story’), are tasked with bringing to the door of Mr Knott’s house every evening at 9pm to receive whatever leftover there may be. Or not. The dog is called Kate and we have it fully explained which Lynch family member she is named after. Kate dies and is replaced by another dog named Cis.

Eventually the book gets beyond the complex issue of the dig which eats Mr Knott’s leftovers and settles on the even more vexed matter of why the other servant in the house, Erskine, seems to spend so much of his time running up and down stairs from the ground floor to the first floor to the second floor and back down again, presumably at Mr Knott’s command, whereas Watt, at least in the first phase of his employment, remains on the ground floor throughout his working day. The possible reasons why are given the Beckett treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason.

Then there is the bell which goes off anytime day or night to summon Erskine to Mr Knott’s room. Same kind of treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason, including a list of every possible part of the human anatomy which could be used to press a bell. Watt decides he needs to discover the layout of Erskine’s room and in particular the location of the bell. But:

Erskine’s room was always locked, and the key in Erskine’s pocket. Or rather, Erskine’s room was never unlocked, nor the key out of Erskine’s pocket, longer than two or three seconds at a stretch, which was the time that Erskine took to take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the outside, glide into his room, lock his door again on the inside and slip the key back into his pocket, or take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the inside, glide out of his room, lock the door again on the outside and slip the key back into his pocket. For if Erskine’s room had been always locked, and the key always in Erskine’s pocket, then Erskine himself, for all his agility, would have been hard set to glide in and out of his room, in the way he did, unless he had glided in and out by the window, or the chimney. But in and out by the window he could not have glided, without breaking his neck, nor in and out by the chimney, without being crushed to death. And this was true also of Watt.

Abruptly a first-person narrator enters the text who informs us that everything written so far was told him by Watt many years later and over the course of many years, and that he took it all down in his notebook. Which gives rise to extensive, repetitive and thorough reflections on epistemology and the limits of knowledge, specially when it comes to narratives.

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me.

We don’t know his name and the text moves back to the issue of Watt breaking into Erskine’s bedroom where he discovers a mysterious geometric painting hanging on the wall which gives rise to a very deep meditation on the nature of perspective and space and time and experience within it.

Time passes and Watt wonders how long he will be serving on the ground floor, how long his predecessors did, was it service of fixed duration, or did it vary from servant to servant?

For the service to be considered was not the service of one servant, but of two servants, and even of three servants, and even of an infinity of servants, of whom the first could not out till the second up, nor the second up till the third in, nor the third in till the first out, nor the first out till the third in, nor the third in till the second up, nor the second up till the first out, every going, every being, every coming consisting with a being and a coming, a coming and a going, a going and a being, nay with all the beings and all the comings, with all the comings and all the goings, with all the goings and all the beings, of all the servants that had ever served Mr Knott, of all the servants that ever would serve Mr Knott.

Repetition with variations. Obsessive repetition of the variations of a small number of variables, like the stones Molloy sucks or the toast that Belacqua Shuah methodically burns. The passage about the possible permutations of the servants goes on for four densely-written pages. Then he remembers lying on a beach at night and hearing three frogs who croak, respectively, Krak!, Krek! and Krik! at precise numerical intervals, such that the next two pages contain a table enumerating the froggy croaks.

Which leads into a memory of Watt’s sort-of affair with Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who came round to his house every Thursday evening. Sometimes she sat on his lap, sometimes he sat on hers, which immediately sparks two pages describing all the possible permutations of lap-sitting, along with a calculation of how long it took to change position, with the additional complexity of the time required to kiss or simply clasp each other, leading into ever-more complex calculations and permutations.

Mr Graves the old gardener comes regularly to the back door. Watt brings him a cup of tea in the morning or a bottle of stout in the evening.

Watt literally bumps into Mr Knott once when the owner is staring at a daisy and a worm at his feet. They do not speak. At numerous other times he glimpses the mysterious owner through windows, which often distort his appearance so he appears sometimes tall, sometimes short, sometimes stout, sometimes thin.

Watt realises he is tired and bored, service on the ground floor has tired him out. Then one fine winter morning he comes downstairs to find a new man in the kitchen, named Arthur. And on that word part two terminates.

Part three

Is narrated by a person called Sam but his narrative voice is identical to all that came before:

Watt seldom left his mansion and I seldom left mine. And when the kind of weather we liked did induce us to leave our mansions, and go out into the garden, it did not always do so at the same time. For the kind of weather that I liked, while resembling the kind of weather that Watt liked, had certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had not, and lacked certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had.

It appears they are both in an institution whose halls are crowded with what the narrator calls ‘scum’, playing ball all the time. The reference to mansions appears to be ironic. Watt appears to have ended up in a lunatic asylum, as does Murphy in his book. It is the logical place for all Beckett protagonists to end up since they are clearly suffering from advanced mental illness and inability to cope with everyday experience or any human interaction.

Watt and the protagonist are in some kind of institution, they can wander freely in separate gardens, divided by barbed wire fences. This is the most genuinely surreal. The narrator discovers a hole in his fence which parallels a hole in Watt’s fence and crawls through to him, watches him advance backwards towards him, wearing his clothes back to front, and when Watt speaks, his words are back to front.

The narrator says he has a little notebook, so maybe he is the same narrator with a little notebook who popped up in part two, saying he kept extensive notes of Watt’s stories. They often walk together in their favourite weather, sunny windy days. Then Watt’s defect deepens and he starts talking by reversing the spelling of words. In fact the narrator documents a further sequence of linguistic oddities, all laid out with the usual obsession for precise variation.

Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order of the words in the sentence, nor that of the letters in the word, nor that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, ho no, but, in the brief course of the same period, now that of the words in the sentence, now that of the letters in the word, now that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period.

Watt describes an afternoon when he, Mr Knott, Mr Graves and Arthur are all in the garden together. Arthur makes his recommendation of Bando to Mr Graves and then proceeds to give a long, rambling, surreal or absurdist account of an academic expedition into darkest Ireland carried out by one Ernest Louit as recounted to the committee of crusty old academics who commissioned him. All this is set in Beckett’s old university, Trinity College, Dublin.

There are five crusty old dons on the committee and there is a spectacularly Beckettian, obsessive-compulsive 3-page description of precisely who was looking at who and where they were sitting and what they saw. But this is as nothing compared to the subsequent scene in which Louit brings along and presents to the committee the ageing peasant Mr Nackybal who turns out to have the uncanny ability to rattle off the square root or the cube root of very large figures. Beckett’s obsessive compulsive, obsessively repetitive mannerisms go into overdrive.

After about 25 pages of the story of Mr Nackybal Arthur abruptly tires, breaks off and goes into Mr Knott’s house. Watt is relieved, it was a very draining story. The story having desisted we move onto a few aspects of Mr Knott, and a fantastically obsessive iteration of all the possible combinations of footwear he could wear. This is surpassed by this description of Mr Knott’s activities in his room:

Here he stood. Here he sat. Here he knelt. Here he lay. Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the fire to the door, from the door to the fire; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the bed to the window, from the window to the bed; from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the bed to the door, from the door to the bed; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the window, from the window to the fire; from the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the fire to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the fire; from the bed to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the bed.

This scales new heights of mad compulsive repetition with a large number of small variations, even for Beckett.

It’s hard not to feel, as these mad repetition scenes mount up, that this kind of mathematical iteration is what replaces, in Beckett, a sensual feel for language. He subjects language to endless algorithmic combinations, but very rarely do you read a sentence which is vivid and breath-taking. Often it is like reading a computer program. Quite regularly there are softer sentences which appear to be recalling a kind of Tennysonian, ‘poetic’, susurration.

At ten the steps came, clearer, clearer, fainter, fainter, on the stairs, on the landing, on the stairs again, and through the open door the light, from darkness slowly brightening, to darkness slowly darkening, the steps of Arthur, the light of poor Arthur, little by little mounting to his rest, at his habitual hour.

But these are never quite convincing or consistent. Beckett is much more at home in the mechanical, in algorithmic repetitions, in perfunctory combinations, creating a new kind of 20th century ‘poetry’, based on objective descriptions, computer manuals, algorithmic permutations or – as here – a parody of bureaucratic forms:

I come from —, said Mr Micks, and he described the place whence he came. I was born at —, he said, and the site and circumstances of his ejection were unfolded. My dear parents, he said, and Mr and Mrs Micks, heroic figures, unique in the annals of cloistered fornication, filled the kitchen. He said further, At the age of fifteen, My beloved wife, My beloved dog, Till at last. Happily Mr Micks was childless.

The last few pages of part three describe Watt’s encounters with Mr Knott, or their joint presence in rooms, but they never communicate, Watt discovers or understands as little about him as when he started in his employ. On the penultimate page there is one of Beckett’s algorithmic fantasias listing all possible permutations of the elements of Mr Knott’s physical appearance, which is even longer than the one above describing the moving furniture in his bedroom.

Eventually we come to the end. Watt gives a final description of the characteristically obsessive patterns or permutations which Mr Knott applied to putting on his slippers, or shoes, or overshoes, or boots, or one slipper and one shoe, or one boot and one slipper etc etc.

And then, quite abruptly, it appears that Watt has told the narrator everything he can, or everything the narrator was able to make out from Watt’s umpteen peculiar ways of speaking, as enumerated earlier. And so Watt returns, moving backwards, through the holes in the fences between their respective gardens, and then walks backwards across his park, continually stumbling over roots and into brambles, back towards his ‘pavilion’.

Which is all very weird and disturbing. This walking backwards across dreamily huge parks, and then talking backwards, is part nonsense in the manner of Lear or Carrol, maybe, but feels more like a disturbing 20th century sci-fi dystopia or bad dream. I found it emotionally upsetting.

Part four

The shortest of the four sections. One night a stranger is sitting in the kitchen when Watt comes down for his night-time drink of milk and to smoke the remains of his cheap cigar. It is Micks, a man who has arrived, like he did all those years ago, out of nowhere. Watt realises it is time to leave Mr Knott’s house, goes upstairs, packs his two little bags, gives Micks a talk much as Arsene gave him (only infinitely shorter) and leaves the house forever. In fact he finds himself out the house, walking down the avenue and then along the road from the house, before he’s really aware of it, and regrets not having said a formal goodbye to Micks.

It’s the early hours so the station is closed. He climbs over the wicket gate, looks up at the night sky, looks back along the highway and sees a peculiar figure shuffling towards the station. It gets larger and larger and then gets smaller and smaller. So it goes.

The station master, Mr Case, is awake and reading a book by Irish writer, poet, critic etc George Russell. Watt asks if he can wait in the waiting room but as this requires entry through the ticket office, which is locked up, this triggers two pages of complex calculations about keys and locks and the correct sequence of opening, closing and relocking doors which eventually results in the answer Yes. Watt says that on reflection he would rather stay outside on the platform walking up and down.

Which makes it odd that we then find him in the waiting room lying down, possibly having a hallucination or memory of an old lady talking. There’s another unusually mysterious and ‘sensitive’ moments, which intersperse the mad combinatory passages:

He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust.

It gets slowly very dark. And the slowly the light of dawn appears and Watt can make out shapes in the waiting room, first a chair, then a fireplace, then a picture of a horse in a field. At that point the morning staff of the station arrive, notably Mr Nixon, a loud whistling sort of gentleman who kicks the waiting room door open with great vigour. What he didn’t know was that Watt was directly in its path.

The text now becomes deliberately tricksy, a ‘hiatus’ is indicated in the manuscript, as if it were a venerable relic, and then the message that ‘MS is illegible’. Watt sees the ceiling of the room with preternatural clarity, but from the behaviour of Mr Nixon, Mr Gorman his superior and Mr Case, it seems that Watt is now lying on the floor, badly concussed and bleeding a little from the mouth or nose. (Mr Gorman? Is the husband of the Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who Watt was described as having an affair with earlier in the book?).

The traditional morning commuters turn up including Lady McCann, and Arsy Cox and Herring-gut Waller and Cack-faced Miller and Mrs Penny-a-hoist Pim.

(This all reminds me of the radio play Beckett wrote for the BBC ten years later, All That Fall, which involves a gabby old Irish lady cadging a lift to a railway station. It has the same claustrophobic smallness.)

They all decide something must be done but don’t know what. They don’t know Watt. Nixon and Gorman appear to manhandle the firebucket over to Watt’s prone form and try to tip the water over him, though from the generally lamenting tone, it seems (it’s all described with deliberate obscurity) as if they drop the bucket itself onto Watt.

Then to their surprise, Watt stands up, takes up his bags, walks through to the ticket office and asks to buy a ticket. He doesn’t know where he wants to go. When quizzed, he replies ‘to the end of the line’. ‘Which end?’ Mr Nolan asks, ‘the round end of the square end?’ The nearer end, Watt decides.

So I think what has happened is Watt has been seriously concussed, possibly suffered brain damage and this is the precursor to him going, or being taken, to the institution we found him in, in the disturbing part three.

The last page leaves Watt altogether and gives us a last little flare-up of Beckettian combinatorial obsessiveness.

Mr Nolan looked at Mr Case, Mr Case at Mr Nolan, Mr Gorman at Mr Case, Mr Gorman at Mr Nolan, Mr Nolan at Mr Gorman, Mr Case at Mr Gorman, Mr Gorman again at Mr Case, again at Mr Nolan, and then straight before him, at nothing in particular. And so they stayed a little while, Mr Case and Mr Nolan looking at Mr Gorman, and Mr Gorman looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march.

This is the final paragraph. In it you can see the obsessive variation trope, but note also the way it ends with a thumping cliché. It is an ending of sorts but an ending which takes the mickey out of endings. But it doesn’t quite avoid the feeling that this is partly because Beckett is not necessarily any good at endings. This is partly because, philosophically, he appears to regard all things as taking part in an endless flux in all directions, through all directions and through time. But a few works after Watt he was to stumble across a form of words which captures this, the sense of endlessness, and one which captures both his bleak nihilism and his determination:

‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…’

No wonder this formula is then repeated with variations (arguably Beckett’s basic imaginative trope, as Watt abundantly demonstrates) in his subsequent fictions, most famously at the end of Waiting For Godot:

Well, shall we go.
Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move)

Repeated until, like much else in Beckett, it itself becomes a formula and a new cliché, as predictably bleak as a Mills and Boon happy ever after is predictably sentimental.

The addenda

At the end of the book are 30 or so fragments which Beckett couldn’t find place for in the text, but which he attached nonetheless. They include fragments of sentences, songs, definitions, one-line summaries of events, learned references phrases in foreign languages, sheet music, a summary of the second picture to be seen in Erskine’s room and so on.

None of them contain any great revelations, mainly it’s just more of the same banal and trivial events. Nonetheless, puzzling over their implications or how they might have been included or altered the text, has kept scholars happily absorbed ever since. They are humorously introduced with the author’s note:

The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.

Looking at the Amazon reviews of the book, ‘fatigue and disgust’ are what some readers of the book have experienced, who haven’t been able to approach it, who haven’t learned to approach it with the correct tangential, amused attitude, completely liberated from the desire expectation to have character or plot or dialogue that makes sense in a supposed ‘novel’.

And who haven’t been able to see, beneath or behind the obsessive repetition and deliberate anti-plot and anti-character, the sly smile of the Dante-loving cricketer from Dublin.

Thoughts

Experiments

The Wikipedia article humorously quotes S. E. Gontarski’s description of Watt as ‘the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it.’ But it makes total sense if you see it as a congeries of fragmentary exercises stitched together and this is how Beckett himself consistently referred to it.

Much later Beckett said that Watt was written in Roussillon as ‘just an exercise’ while he was waiting for the war to end and it certainly reads like a series of exercises or experiments in the obsessive-autistic manner I’ve described. The use of repetition has you initially grasping to keep the meanings in mind but after a while you submit to it like trance music and go into a kind of Beckett zone where you know none of it means anything but are lulled by the insistent repetitions with variations.

Banned

Like UlyssesWatt was immediately banned in Ireland. It’s not for the explicit sex, as there is none. The episode of the Lynch family more than hints at incest. There’s a description of cousin Ann’s ‘splendid bosom, white and fat and elastic’ and of Sam managing to have sex with countless local ladies despite being confined to a wheelchair. In part three the character Arthur refers to a product named Bando which appears to help with erectile disfunction, and openly criticises the Irish Free State for banning it.

Just as offensive might have been the blunt descriptions of bodily functions i.e. pooing and peeing, number ones and number twos, the description of 64-year-old Mr Nackybal scratching ‘a diffuse ano-scrotal prurit’.

And there is a steady stream of mocking references to God and his son, not blasphemous in the French manner, just casually disrespectful. And a few swearwords, arse and bugger, balls, the word ‘erection’ is mentioned once! Maybe, taken together, that sufficed to trigger the censor’s stamp.


Related links

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

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)

[K.’s assistants] rushed to the [telephone], asked for the connection – how eager they were about it! in externals they were absurdly docile – and inquired if K. could come with them next morning into the Castle. The ‘No’ of the answer was audible even to K. at his table. But the answer went on and was still more explicit, it ran as follows: ‘Neither to-morrow nor at any other time.’

‘When can my master come to the Castle?’
‘Never,’ was the answer.

Plot

In The Trial Joseph K is ‘arrested’ (although he remained, in practice, entirely free to continue going about his business as he wishes) and spends the rest of the increasingly fraught story having encounters with Court officials, friends, lawyers and other advisers who (he hopes) can help him make his case to the Court and clear his name. But there never actually is a trial, Joseph K never gets to meet any important official, all the officials he does meet turn out to be powerless, he never manages to clear his name and, in the sudden, short, final chapter, he is taken to a quarry and miserably murdered. Kafka wrote The Trial in an intense burst in the second half of 1914 and abandoned it in January 1915.

Seven years later, Kafka began writing The Castle, working intensely on it from January to September 1922. But didn’t finish this novel, either, and the manuscript breaks off in mid sentence.

It opens with a Land Surveyor, referred to throughout simply as K., arriving in the depths of a snowy winter at an unnamed village in the shadow of a looming castle (which turns out more to be a ramshackle collection of low buildings) and checking into a rundown inn, the Bridge Inn, for the night. Here he is not made particularly welcome, and a young man bursts in to tell him he needs a pass to be there, and rings up the Castle to confirm the fact.

This sets the tone for the rest of the (unfinished) novel which K. spends trying to get an audience or meeting with anyone up at the Castle who can tell him what his task is, and what he’s been hired to do. In this he fails as completely as Joseph K. does to find anyone to present  his case to. Instead K. ends up wasting most of his time in interminable conversations with characters from the village – starting with the landlord and landlady of the Bridge Inn, and their daughter, and his two so-called assistants, and a messenger from the Castle who K. hopes will get him an entrée there but rapidly turns out rarely to actually visit it. And so on. K’s asks them all for help and advice about how to get an interview with anyone of importance at the Castle, but their replies and interpretations are so tortuous, convoluted and contradictory hat he never makes it anywhere near the famous Castle, and then the text stops in mid sentence.

Just like The Trial, then, The Castle is an exercise in long-winded, verbose and dialogue-heavy delaying.

Just like Joseph K, K. meets a sequence of people, and has long exchanges with each of them about his plight, which, far from clarifying the situation, leave him steadily more puzzled and confused than when he started.

‘You misunderstand everything, even a person’s silence.’ (The landlady to K., p.72)

Just like Joseph K, K. forms immediate and very sexual relationships with the women that he meets. In K’s case this is Frieda, the serving woman in another inn which K. goes to in the hope of meeting the legendary Castle official, Klamm. In a bizarre scene, which i had to reread to make sure I had it right, K. ends up making love to this barmaid who he’s only just met, on the floor behind the counter, among the beer slops and fag ends.

Just like Joseph K, K. becomes increasingly obsessed with his forlorn quest, until it is all he can think about day and night – the simple goal of gaining access to the Castle, which is turned down by officials on the phone, pooh-poohed by the peasants that he meets, mocked by his landlady, and generally ridiculed by everyone he meets, while he is slowly, step-by-step, reduced in status, worn down and humiliated.

Decline and entropy

Reading The Trial acclimatised me to numerous aspects of Kafka’s approach or worldview. One is that things are never as grand or formal or impressive as they initially seem; they are always disappointing. The movement is always downwards.

‘You’re still Klamm’s sweetheart, and not my wife yet by a long chalk. Sometimes that makes me quite dejected, I feel then as if I had lost everything, I feel as if I had only newly come to the village, yet not full of hope, as I actually came, but with the knowledge that only disappointments await me, and that I will have to swallow them down one after another to the very dregs…’ (p.126)

In The Trial an impressive-sounding magistrate turns out to be a shabby little fat man with no control over anything. Joseph’s uncle recommends a well-connected advocate who, in the event, turns out to be ill and bed-ridden, and who candidly admits that advocates like himself are virtually powerless – in fact they may end up damaging a client’s chances. People’s reputations and power decay virtually in front of us. Every new opportunity turns out to be a dead end or worse, a setback.

Well, The Castle is dominated and defined by the same trajectory, by a hundred little fallings-off and declines and disappointments. The very first disappointment is that the Castle itself turns out to be a lot less castle-ey than we were led to believe.

It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town… on approaching it he was disappointed in the Castle; it was after all only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses, whose sole merit, if any, lay in being built of stone, but the plaster had long since flaked off and the stone seemed to be crumbling away.

An early example of people being disappointing is the young man who bullies K. within an hour of him arriving at the Bridge Inn, officiously telling K. he needs a pass to stay at an inn and documents to prove he is who he says he is, who rings up the Castle and generally throws his weight about. But later the landlord of the inn tells K. that this young man is only the son of an insignificant under-castellan, a man of no importance or authority.

Also early on, there’s a small symbolic enactment of this relentless entropy in the incident of the bell. The morning after his arrival in the village K. sets off to walk up to the Castle but gets bogged down in the deep snowdrifts in the village, eventually has to knock on a peasant door for help, before being given a sleigh ride back to the inn where he’s staying. As he’s being driven away:

A bell began to ring merrily up there, a bell which for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfilment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble monotonous little tinkle which might have come from the Castle, but might have been somewhere in the village. It certainly harmonized better with the slow-going journey, with the wretched-looking yet inexorable driver…

It’s a small moment, but it’s typical of the way that in things great and small, from the overall shape of the entire narrative down to tiny details – everything falls away into a state of confusion and uncertainty:

‘If you had followed my explanation more carefully, then you must have seen that the question of your being summoned here is far too difficult to be settled here and now in the course of a short conversation.’
‘So the only remaining conclusion,’ said K., ‘is that everything is very unclear and insoluble…’ (p.66)

Take the handsome, slender messenger who comes to the Bridge Inn from the Castle and announces himself as Barnabas. Initially K. hopes Barnabas, as an official messenger, can take him with him up to the Castle, but it turns out that this is a misunderstanding and, after a trudge through the snow, they arrive not at some official residence but at the house of Barnabas’s parents, who turn out to be two decrepit old crones. K.

had been bewitched by Barnabas’s close-fitting, silken-gleaming jacket, which, now that it was unbuttoned, displayed a coarse, dirty grey shirt patched all over, and beneath that the huge muscular chest of a labourer.

Barnabas goes from being a slender official messenger, elegant in fine silk, to a coarse and oafish peasant wearing dirty patched clothes, even as we watch.

It is typical of Kafka that when K. finally manages to see the village Mayor he finds him far from being a superb figure of fitness and power, but ill in bed with gout, fussing and fretting and cared for by his wife, Mizzi. Later (and there’s almost always a ‘later’ moment in Kafka, when someone else comments on an important encounter Joseph K or K. has had, generally undermining and contradicting it), later the landlady tells K. that the Mayor is actually pretty powerless, it’s his skinny mousey wife who’s the power behind the throne.

‘The mayor is someone entirely without consequence, didn’t you realise?’ (p.77)

And so it goes on, Decline. Fall. Entropy. It is characteristic that beautiful young Frieda, within days of starting her affair with K., loses her beauty and goes into a decline (p.122) Everywhere, in aspects large and small, people, bells, buildings turn out to be less impressive or authoritative or even comprehensible than first imagined. Everything disappoints, everywhere the protagonist’s hopes or plans are dashed, on every front he finds himself being squeezed into a narrower and narrower corner.

‘If that is so, madam,” said K., ‘then I beg your pardon, and I’ve misunderstood you. For I thought – erroneously, as it turns out now – that I could take out of your former words that there was still some very tiny hope for me.’

Crowded with people

Another quick and obvious thing you notice is that The Castle, like The Trial, is packed with people. It has a surprisingly large cast:

  • the landlord and the landlady of the Bridge Inn where K is staying
  • Schwarzer, the son of the Castellan who bullyingly tells K. he needs a pass to stay at the inn
  • the peasants drinking in the hotel bar
  • the schoolteacher who tells him everyone is disappointed by the Castle
  • the cottage K. stumbles into up in the village, which contains two men in a bath (one of them the tanner Lasemann), an old man a woman breast-feeding, and a horde of screaming children
  • Arthur and Jeremiah, two thin men walking by the cottage who are hailed by the owner
  • the stooping coachman called Gerstacker who drives K back to the Bridge Inn in his sledge, after K. has got lost wandering the streets of the village
  • Barnabas the messenger who arrives at the Bridge Inn with a letter for K.
  • Barnabas’s family, consisting of his aged mother and father and sisters Olga and Amalia
  • Klamm, the legendary official from the Castle who everyone talks about and K. becomes obsessed with meeting
  • Momus, Klamm’s secretary
  • Vallabene, Castle official Momus works for
  • Frieda, daughter of the Bridge Inn landlady, and mistress of Klamm, who is working at the Count’s Inn where K. goes to find Klamm, and who K. has an affair with
  • the Mayor and his mousey wife, Mizzi
  • Sordini, a minor official in the Castle, who features in the Mayor’s extremely long-winded explanation of the bureaucracy up at the castle
  • the schoolmistress Gisa who sets her cat to scratch K. (p.117)
  • Pepi the stocky sturdy replacement for Frieda as barmaid at the Herrenhof (it is a minor element of the ‘Kafkaesque’ that the male protagonist is always horny; within moments of meeting Pepi K. is lusting after every bit as much as he did after Frieda [and the word used is ‘lust’, p.91])

Not only a fairly large cast but more intricately intertwined than in The Trial. Admittedly when K. discovers that the young woman he has so abruptly had sex with, Frieda, is in fact Klamm’s mistress, this very much echoes the situation in The Trial where the young woman, Leni, who throws herself at Joseph K. (to be precise, who falls backwards onto the carpet and pulls Joseph on top of her, thus making her intentions plain) is also the mistress of the Advocate Huld. Same with the Law Court Attendants wife who first with Joseph, but snogs another young man, Barthold, and turns out to ‘belong’ to the Examining magistrate.

Structurally, if we put aside the actual sexual content of these encounters for a moment, they can be seen to be yet another variant on the basic structure from which his texts are built, namely that things turn out to be something other than the protagonist thought. He thinks a woman is flirting with him alone, but she turns out to have multiple other lovers is cognate with the structure of Joseph being recommended to meet the Advocate who turns out to be ineffective and maybe even damaging to his cause.

But when we learn that Frieda is the daughter of the landlady of the Bridge Inn; and that Frieda’s mother was herself, in her time, a mistress of Klamm’s, then the latter book begins to feel more incestuous, more claustrophobic.

Attics and inns

One of the things I noticed in The Trial is the way so many of the ‘offices’ or rooms of supposedly important officials, and of the painter Titorelli, seem to be located right at the top of rickety staircases in dusty airless attics. The same initially happens here.

The house was so small that nothing was available for K. but a little attic room, and even that had caused some difficulty, for two maids who had hitherto slept in it had had to be quartered elsewhere. Nothing indeed had been done but to clear the maids out, the room was otherwise quite unprepared, no sheets on the single bed, only some pillows and a horse-blanket still in the same rumpled state as in the morning.

But in the event K. doesn’t get to meet as varied a selection of bureaucratic officials as Joseph K. and spends more of his time in the two village inns and at the schoolhouse.

Less intense, more surreal

The Trial is the better book. It gives you the pure Kafka experience, the sense of a hyper-sensitive man drowning in a sea of bureaucratic mysteries which he can never solve.

It has its bizarre moments but is mostly a kind of sustained meditation on the nature of the Court which has accused Joseph K and, by extension, of the nature of his guilt which is, in fact, tied to his entire existence. His mere existence implicates Joseph K. and it’s in this sense that Kafka’s friend and executor Max Brod makes the case for it being at bottom a religious book, an examination of the fundamental nature of human existence.

Moreover, the metaphor of ‘the trial’ is extremely large and flexible, it extends out into all kinds of meditations and metaphors to do with an extended range of related subjects such as ‘the Law’ and ‘Guilt’ and ‘Innocence’. Characters can say things which both apply to Joseph K’s plight in a literal sense, but also have quite weighty double-meanings to do with the nature of Divine Law and human existence etc.

And because the legal systems of any country are so complicated and bureaucratic, the central metaphor of a ‘trial’ allows Kafka to generate a potentially endless sequence of characters who are either officials of the Court or experts or advisers about the law or the Court or the bureaucracy and so on. You can see the truth of Max Brod’s comment that the Trial could have been extended almost indefinitely.

By contrast, the fundamental concept of ‘the Castle’ is a lot more vague and limited. The Castle is up on the hill and (supposedly) contains ‘the Count’ and his officials, but it doesn’t really provide a lot of metaphorical or conceptual framework, certainly not as much as the idea of a trial and of the Law.

This may partly explain why The Castle seems less unified and inevitable and quite a bit more random that The Trial. Whereas most of the encounters in The Trial were aligned with the fundamental metaphor of the Court, many of the incidents in The Castle seem simply bizarre and surreal.

Take the case of the assistants. When K. arrives at the Bridge Inn he says his assistants are following him not far behind. Then, impatient, he sets off to explore the village for himself but gets lost in the heavy snowdrifts, is rescued by some villagers who dry him and warm him and who, as they escort him back to their front door, hail a couple of young locals who are walking by. When K. gets back to ‘his’ inn, the one he’s checked into, he discovers the very same pair of men have arrived there and are telling everyone they are K’s assistants. Then – and this is the bizarre thing – K. himself accepts that they are indeed his assistants and treats him for the rest of the book as if they are, even though they haven’t brought the surveying equipment he said they had, and have different names, and behave like irresponsible children most of the time (‘ludicrously childish, irresponsible, and undisciplined’, p.123).

This doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the Court or the purpose of the book, it just becomes a permanent, bizarre addition to the narrative. Their exaggerated childishness and bickering soon reminded me of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, which made me see the entire book in a different light; less 20th century ‘surreal’ than in the tradition of Victorian ‘nonsense’ verse and prose.

Similarly, K. is told that the important Court official Klamm is at another inn in the village, the Count’s Inn, and so treks off through the deep snowdrifts to try to meet him. Characteristically, this attempt fails, for Klamm is locked in his private room. But K. he does get chatting (at length – all Kafka dialogue is immensely long-winded) to the barmaid, Frieda, one thing leads to another and suddenly they are in an embrace, rolling among the beer slops on the floor behind the bar. This goes on for hours and, in his characteristically obscure and long-winded way, it appears as if they have sex, then fall asleep there, for most of the night.

As if this wasn’t fantastical enough, when they finally disengage K. and Frieda discover that the two assistants… have been perching on the edge of the bar all night long, and have presumably observed everything which went on.

Now this isn’t a necessary or logical consequence of K.s quest to meet the authorities, it is more a bizarre incident, made more bizarre by the presence of the two assistants perching like buzzards on the bar.

It’s easy to apply the word ‘surreal’ to these moments of Kafka, and he was certainly writing at exactly the moment that the idea of surrealism and the term surrealism were coined (by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in a play performed in 1917, and taken up and popularised by André Breton, who published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924). Breton defined surrealism as:

thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation

The early Surrealists were obsessed with ‘automatic writing’ where the writer went into a dream or fugue state and wrote or dictated whatever came into his mind unhindered by any rational censorship or conscious intentions.

Well, on one level, Kafka’s two main novels do indeed have a horrible, irrational dreamlike or nightmare quality, the kind of nightmare where you’re running fast but not moving, or trying to keep above the waves but feel yourself being relentlessly pulled down. Thus the scene where K. is chatting to the barmaid one minute and the next, somehow, having sex with her behind the counter, is a sort of letting loose of usually suppressed sexual fantasies, a delirious improbability carried out in the dream-novel in a way it never could be in real life. And then the detail of the whole thing happening under the gaze of the two bird-like assistants definitely has the uncanny quality of Surrealism.

And yet a lot of other elements in the works are far more conscious and crafted and consistent than that.

For example, the messenger from the castle tells him that, while they try to sort out whether he has actually been hired to do any land surveying for the Count, K. is being offered the post of janitor at the little local school.

Because K. is now in a relationship with Frieda – in fact K. himself offers to marry her and everyone accepts that they are now engaged – he feels obligated to take the job although it is an obvious come-down from the figure he presented on his first arrival at the village, that of a confident, urbane professional man.

Not only is this a very Kafkaesque degradation or lowering of K.’s status, but he is then informed that the school building only contains two classrooms, with no other rooms whatsoever, and that therefore he and Frieda (and the two giggling assistants who follow him everywhere) will have to set up a camp bed every evening in the schoolroom once school is over, but be sure to be up and packed away before the schoolmaster then the children arrive the next day.

In practice this is a profoundly humiliating arrangement and again has a nightmareish quality because, inevitably, the very first morning of the new arrangement Frieda and K. oversleep and find their ‘bedroom’ overrun by schoolchildren laughing and pointing at them as they get out of the rough ‘bed’, made of a straw palliasse on the floor, and pad around in their underwear – at which point the smartly dressed schoolteacher and schoolma’am arrive and are outraged.

I think I’ve had dreams like this, being discovered in a public place half-dressed and with an oppressive sense of being publicly humiliated.

But the point I’m driving at is that true surrealism is bizarre in all directions, is unexpected and unpredictable, tigers turn into steam train, eyes are cut open, it can be fantastical and horrifying and weird. Early surreal works were often scrappy and unfinished precisely because their exponents were trying to achieve spontaneity, to throw off professionalism and reason and control in order to let the unconscious break through.

Whereas, although Kafka may achieve some ‘surreal’ effects with some of his nightmareish scenes and some of the fantasy-like details in them — his dreams invariably head in the same direction – in the direction of humiliating, degrading and wearing down the protagonist.

In this sense, Kafka’s works are highly conscious and contrived and artificial products: they are not at all open-ended and unexpected: the complete opposite: the degradation of Joseph K and K. and Gregor Samsa are highly predictable and move in one direction only – relentlessly down.

Long-winded

A major part of the protagonists’ problems in these two core Kafka novels is that everyone they talk to gives contradictory advice, or starts off urging one course of action but then hedges it with caveats and ends up advising the direct opposite. Joseph K and K. never know who to believe.

Partly this is to do with the convoluted content of each one of these long dialogues, and an analysis of them would take up many volumes. Easier to summarise is their immense length. God, everyone talks to immense and hyper-verbose excess! Here’s the landlady in conversation with K, telling him how naive his hope to meet the Castle official Klamm is.

‘Upon my word,’ said the landlady, with her nose in the air, ‘you put me in mind of my own husband, you’re just as childish and obstinate as he is. You’ve been only a few days in the village and already you think you know everything better than people who have spent their lives here, better than an old woman like me, and better than Frieda who has seen and heard so much in the Herrenhof. I don’t deny that it’s possible once in a while to achieve something in the teeth of every rule and tradition. I’ve never experienced anything of that kind myself, but I believe there are precedents for it. That may well be, but it certainly doesn’t happen in the way you’re trying to do it, simply by saying “No, no”, and sticking to your own opinions and flouting the most well-meant advice. Do you think it’s you I’m anxious about? Did I bother about you in the least so long as you were by yourself? Even though it would have been a good thing and saved a lot of trouble? The only thing I ever said to my husband about you was: “Keep your distance where he’s concerned.” And I should have done that myself to this very day if Frieda hadn’t got mixed up with your affairs. It’s her you have to thank – whether you like it or not – for my interest in you, even for my noticing your existence at all. And you can’t simply shake me off, for I’m the only person who looks after little Frieda, and you’re strictly answerable to me. Maybe Frieda is right, and all that has happened is Klamm’s will, but I have nothing to do with Klamm here and now. I shall never speak to him, he’s quite beyond my reach. But you’re sitting here, keeping my Frieda, and being kept yourself – I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you – by me. Yes, by me, young man, for let me see you find a lodging anywhere in this village if I throw you out, even it were only a dog-kennel.’

Poor K. thinks he’s understood the gist of this long monologue:

‘Thank you,’ said K., ‘That’s frank and I believe you absolutely. So my position is as uncertain as that, is it, and Frieda’s position, too?’

But, of course, and as usual for Kafka’s protagonists, it immediately turns out that he hasn’t:

‘No!’ interrupted the landlady furiously. ‘Frieda’s position in this respect has nothing at all to do with yours. Frieda belongs to my house, and nobody is entitled to call her position here uncertain.’
‘All right, all right,’ said K., ‘I’ll grant you that, too, especially since Frieda for some reason I’m not able to fathom seems to be too afraid of you to interrupt. Stick to me then for the present. My position is quite uncertain, you don’t deny that, indeed you rather go out of your way to emphasize it. Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true…’

‘Like everything else you say, that has a fair proportion of truth in it, but it isn’t absolutely true.’ That could stand as a motto for both novels.

There is often very little ‘information’ or factual content in these countless dialogues. Instead their sole purpose often consists solely in being so long-winded and tortuous as to perplex and punish the protagonist.

Take this characteristic block of dialogue from the Mayor, who spends Chapter Four explaining to K. the processes at work in the organisation that runs the Castle, how different departments might issue contradictory instructions, how discrepancies might not be cleared up for years, or might suddenly and abruptly be cleared up and yet nobody be told about them, causing yet more confusion. Who, by the end, has thoroughly demoralised poor K. and utterly exhausted the reader.

‘And now I come to a peculiar characteristic of our administrative apparatus. Along with its precision it’s extremely sensitive as well. When an affair has been weighed for a very long time, it may happen, even before the matter has been fully considered, that suddenly in a flash the decision comes in some unforeseen place, that, moreover, can’t be found any longer later on, a decision that settles the matter, if in most cases justly, yet all the same arbitrarily. It’s as if the administrative apparatus were unable any longer to bear the tension, the year-long irritation caused by the same affair – probably trivial in itself-and had hit upon the decision by itself, without the assistance of the officials. Of course a miracle didn’t happen and certainly it was some clerk who hit upon the solution or the unwritten decision, but in any case it couldn’t be discovered by us, at least by us here, or even by the Head Bureau, which clerk had decided in this case and on what grounds. The Control Officials only discovered that much later, but we will never learn it. Besides by this time it would scarcely interest anybody. Now, as I said, it’s just these decisions that are generally excellent. The only annoying thing about them – it’s usually the case with such things – is that one learns too late about them and so in the meantime keeps on still passionately canvassing things that were decided long ago. I don’t know whether in your case a decision of this kind happened – some people say yes, others no – but if it had happened then the summons would have been sent to you and you would have made the long journey to this place, much time would have passed, and in the meanwhile Sordini would have been working away here all the time on the same case until he was exhausted. Brunswick would have been intriguing, and I would have been plagued by both of them. I only indicate this possibility, but I know the following for a fact: a Control Official discovered meanwhile that a query had gone out from the Department A to the Town Council many years before regarding a Land Surveyor, without having received a reply up till then. A new inquiry was sent to me, and now the whole business was really cleared up. Department A was satisfied with my answer that a Land Surveyor was not needed, and Sordini was forced to recognize that he had not been equal to this case and, innocently it is true, had got through so much nerve-racking work for nothing. If new work hadn’t come rushing in as ever from every side, and if your case hadn’t been a very unimportant case – one might almost say the least important among the unimportant we might all of us have breathed freely again, I fancy even Sordini himself. Brunswick was the only one that grumbled, but that was only ridiculous. And now imagine to yourself, Land Surveyor, my dismay when after the fortunate end of the whole business – and since then, too, a great deal of time had passed by suddenly you appear and it begins to look as if the whole thing must begin all over again. You’ll understand of course that I’m firmly resolved, so far as I’m concerned, not to let that happen in any case?’

If you find that paragraph hard going, you are not alone. I found much of The Castle very hard to read because it consists of page after page of solid blocks of tortuous dialogue just like this.

I’m tempted to say that it’s not really the situations Kafka’s protagonists find themselves in which are the problem – a) being told you’ve been charged with something but never being able to find out what and b) arriving at a castle to do some work and discovering nobody will acknowledge you or clarify what work you’re meant to be doing, if any.

No, it’s not the situations they’re in which are Kafkaesque, so much as the massive, inordinate, unending stream of interpretations and advice and tips and insider knowledge etc which their situations are subjected to by every single person they come into contact with – that is the core of the Kafkaesque.

At the heart of the Kafkaesque is people’s unending need to talk talk talk. The Kafkaesque would cease to exist if people just shut up. Or spat it out in a sentence. Twitter would sort out K.’s problems in a few moments. But instead, he is forced to listen to monstrously long monologues by the Mayor or the Landlady, which leave him bitterly concluding:

‘This is a great surprise for me. It throws all my calculations out. I can only hope that there’s some misunderstanding.’

But there hasn’t been a misunderstanding. Or, to be more precise, everything is a misunderstanding, everyone is in a permanent state of misunderstanding everyone else.

Meanings

‘It’s so hard to know what’s what,’ said Frieda. (p.142)

Kafka knows what he’s doing as he creates fables with enough layers, and enough symbolism, to be susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation. The three principal ones which first spring to mind are religious and social-cultural and political.

1. Religious I mean the way in which Max Brod mostly interpreted the stories, as allegories or fables of Man looking for the Meaning of Life, for The Answer, trying to find the God or representative of God (priest etc) who will provide peace and fulfilment and knowledge about the True Path – but the permanent sense of frustration and perplexity which the Good Pilgrim is subjected to.

2. By social-cultural one I mean a reading which focuses on the oppressive and entirely secular bureaucracies which seem endless and impenetrable, which sweep us up in their processes and do with us as they please, without us ever finding out who to appeal to or how to get our case heard. Kafka is often taken as being ‘prophetic’ of the way large bureaucracies – whether belonging to the state or the private sector – especially after the Second World War, came to be seen as reducing individuals to the status of ciphers.

It is a characteristic of modern (i.e. since about the First World War) bureaucracies that they rarely admit their errors but prefer to hide behind jargon and contradictory statements.

‘Frankly it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?’

3. The Political is a more intense of the bureaucratic interpretation and argues from what we know happened after Kafka’s death i.e. the domination of Europe by terrible, deadly bureaucracies which consigned vast numbers to starvation, forced labour and death, in the name of ‘quotas and collectivisation (in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s) or in the name or purifying Europe of its race enemies (under Hitler’s Nazis).

4. There is a fourth type of interpretation, which is hermeneutical where ‘hermeneutics’ means:

the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts (Wikipedia)

This occurred to me as I read the scene in Chapter Four where K. produces the letter he’s received from Kramm with a flourish and gives it to the Mayor as evidence that he has been taken on as a land surveyor. The Mayor then proceeds to read the letter closely and undermine all its claims to authority and even coherent meaning. When he’s finished, K. says there’s nothing left except the signature.

So you could say that Kafka’s novels revolve around, not so much the big Religious Questions which Max Brod read into them – but more technical philosophical debate about meaning. What does the letter mean? What did the phone call to the Castle mean? What does the landlady’s lengthy advice mean?

K. has lots of encounters, conversations, promises, threats, advice and so on. But almost always he then meets someone who immediately contradicts and undermines them. No meaning remains stable or fixed for long.

Worse, some of the characters suggest that, just possibly, K.’s entire system of meaning is alien to the villagers. According to Frieda her mother, the landlady

‘didn’t hold that you were lying, on the contrary she said that you were childishly open, but your character was so different from ours, she said, that, even when you spoke frankly, it was bound to be difficult for us to believe you.’ (p.138)

Subjected to this continual attrition erosion of meaning, can anything be said to be meaningful? In this respect, then, the books can also be interpreted as very 20th century meditations on the meaning of meaning, and of the difficulty, nay, the impossibility of ever really communicating anything to another human being.

‘He’s always like that, Mr Secretary, he’s always like that. Falsifies the information one gives him, and
then maintains that he received false information.’ (The landlady, p.102)

‘To anyone who knows how to read official communications, and consequently knows still better how to read unofficial letters, all this is only too clear. That you, a stranger, don’t know it doesn’t surprise me.’ (The Mayor, having demolished the content of Klamm’s letter)

Samuel Beckett

As soon as I read the name Klamm, and began to learn that he is a major character who, however, never actually appears, but about whom all the other characters speculate, I thought of the plays of Samuel Beckett – plays with titles such as Krapp’s Last Tape – and of course, of his masterpiece, Waiting For Godot. And the entire book radiates the wordy futility of Beckett’s novels.

Last word

‘Doesn’t the story bore you?’
‘No,’ said K., ‘It amuses me.’
Thereupon the Superintendent said: ‘I’m not telling it to amuse you.’
‘It only amuses me,’ said K., ‘because it gives me an insight into the ludicrous bungling which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.’


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Dates are dates of composition.

 

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

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