Heard in the Dark, One evening and others by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett short prose pieces from the 1970s.

  • Heard in the Dark 1
  • Heard in the Dark 2
  • One Evening
  • As the story was told (1973)
  • The Cliff (1975)
  • neither (1976)

Heard in the Dark 1

The two Heard in the Darks were extracts from the work in progress which was eventually published in 1980 as Company. These two extracts were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines.

Heard In the Dark 1 begins with unusual syntactical clarity i.e. readable sentences:

The last time you went out the snow lay on the ground.

It depicts a consciousness ‘lying in the dark’ remembering taking a spring walk in the snow. Because Beckett is determinedly anti-romantic he depicts the snow with lambs frolicking in it but also ‘strewn with red placentae’. the blood-soaked reality of farming reminded me of Ted Hughes’s many poems of farm life and lambing, from Moortown in particular.

He knows the walk inside out, could virtually do it with his eyes shut. With characteristically Beckettian obsessiveness about numbers he says, ‘you need normally from eighteen hundred to two thousand paces depending on your humour and the state of the ground.’

He used to do the walk with his father but not any more: ‘Your father’s shade is not with you any more. It fell out long ago.’ But now the walk is getting harder.

The same hundred yards you used to cover in a matter of three to four minutes may now take you anything from fifteen to twenty.

This is because the character has, as if in a nightmare, encountered what you could call The Beckett Problem which is simply: he can’t go on. Of his feet, he asks:

Can they go on? Or better, Shall they go on?

Now he lies in the dark remembering the scene and the sense of slow decline. At the very end he looks back expecting to see the usual straight line of footprints in the snow. He thinks he’s walking in a straight line, ‘a beeline’, ‘taking the course you always take’. But looking back at his footprints, he realises he’s been walking in a great swerve, anti-clockwise or ‘withershins’. And that’s the end of the fragment.

This prompts two thoughts:

1. ‘withershins’ is a Scottish dialect word and he was fond of these abstruse terms for direction, also using ‘deasil’ in several works from this time, which is a Gaelic word meaning ‘right-hand-wise, turned toward the right; clockwise.’

2. The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett suggests the counter-clockwise circular movement is a nod to the same direction taken by Dante in the Inferno. Dante isn’t mentioned anywhere, but the piece is obviously yet another journey, though that makes it sound too glamorous, it’s yet another laborious trudge and in this fairly basic way lots of Beckett’s prose pieces can be related to Dante’s Divine Comedy, insofar as they are often about people trudging through bleak, inhospitable landscapes and/or bodies contorted into uncomfortable or painful positions, which is what the Inferno is packed with.

The obvious difference is that in the Divine Comedy, Virgil carefully explains why the people they see are in the plight they’re in, there’s always a good reason and the punishment generally matches the sinner’s sins. Not only that, but the individual is generally emblematic if wider categories of sin, which themselves sit within a carefully worked-out framework of Christian reward and punishment. In other words, The Divine Comedy overflows with meaning and purpose.

Beckett is like Dante with absolutely all the meaning, purpose and understandability stripped away, leaving inexplicable trudging, crawling, contortions and punishments, for no reason.

Heard in the Dark 2

Another fragment from Company. Again, the person being addressed as ‘you’ is lying on their back in the dark and remembering a ‘cloudless May day’ when a woman joins him in ‘the summer house’. Being Beckett, we are immediately given, not the romantic, emotional or psychological aspects of this encounter, but the precise physical dimensions of the house:

Entirely of logs. Both larch and fir. Six feet across. Eight from floor to vertex. Area twenty-four square feet to furthest decimal. Two small multicoloured lights vis-à-vis. Small stained diamond panes. Under each a ledge.

Here his father liked to retire after Sunday lunch with a glass of punch and read. When he chuckled, the person addressing themselves as ‘you’ liked to chuckle along. It appears to be a disarmingly simple memory from his boyhood.

Unexpectedly, the narrative gives a major insight into Beckett’s obsession with numbers and permutations and calculations: it’s therapeutic!

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort.

And details his boyhood calculations of the size and surface and cubic volume of the summer house. Escape from feeling into maths. Hah! As if Beckett has made what appears to be a psychological coping strategy into an entire literary aesthetic.

So no surprise that he then devotes a slightly demented amount of time thinking through the issues of measurement and scale and maths triggered by the fact that when ‘she’ arrives at the summerhouse where he’s waiting, her eyes are at his own eye-level even though he’s sitting down within. Pondering this problem requires far more text than anything at all to do with ‘her’ or with his feelings.

She must have entered the summerhouse because he looks at her breasts and then at her abdomen. They are both bigger than he remembered. Could she be pregnant, ‘without your having asked for as much as her hand?’ They both sit on in the dead still of his memory, remembering it, there, as he lies in the dark.

Well, it seems, on the face of it, to be a surprisingly straightforward and surprisingly poignant boyhood memory (father chuckling) mixed and blended by a young adult memory (a presumed girlfriend) on the family property back in Ireland (which was substantial and comfortable).

It is made into Beckett material via the obsessive calculation of shape and volume and then the characteristically oblique paragraph about her possible position in order for them to have the same eye level etc. But the basic content is amazingly old school and sentimental. Beckett was 74 by the time Company was published.

One Evening

One Evening is a prose poem related to the long piece Ill Seen Ill Said. It describes a body lying on the ground in a green greatcoat where it is found by an old lady dressed in black. Once again, the style represents a massive backwards step away from the radical prose style of How It Is, back to something vastly more conventional and conservative.

He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him.

She was looking for flowers. It is lambing time (lambs, hmm – like the lambs in Heard In the Dark and therefore in Company also). The text gets a bit more adventurous with the narrator commenting that this or that detail ought to be like this or that – as if we’re overhearing the author thinking aloud about his piece.

He wore a greatcoat in spite of the time of year. Hidden by the body a long row of buttons fastened it all the way down. Buttons of all shapes and sizes. Worn upright the skirts swept the ground. That seems to hang together.

When the phrase is repeated we realise it is one of those words or key phrases, whose repetition Beckett uses to build up the strange mechanical atmosphere of his prose.

Were a third party to chance that way theirs were the only bodies he would see. First that of the old woman standing. Then on drawing near it lying on the ground. That seems to hang together.

Attention switches to the old lady who has been cooped up all day by the rain. Now it has ceased she hurries out to take advantage of the light before sunset. She is wearing the black she adopted as a young widow. It is to lay flowers on her husband’s grave that she has come out to pick them.

This is another example of the paradox that, although much of Beckett’s technique was pioneeringly avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s, so much of the actual content of those was immensely conservative and old fashioned. His plays and prose are highly experimental but often, when there is a discernable content, actually describe old ladies and old joxers from his youth in deeply rural Ireland. Beckett has been called ‘the last Modernist’, or one of the first post-Modernists – but a lot of the content has a late Victorian feel. An old lady dressed in black picking flowers to put on the grave of the husband who died when she was young sounds like something from Thomas Hardy.

Thus the figure of an old lady in black out picking flowers at sunset literally stumbling over the corpse of a young man dressed in a green longcoat face down in the grass of a field forms what the narrator calls a ‘tableau vivant if you will’. The whole thing has a late-Victorian feel, it might be a Symbolist painting from the 1890s, The Old Lady and The Suicide, or, as the Faber Companion suggests, a nocturne in green (the coat and the grass) and black (the old widow’s mourning) and yellow (the scattered flowers).

As the story was told (1973)

A short prose piece composed in August 1973. Like many Beckett prose pieces it simply begins and he sets down words and images and then you have the strong sense that the initial formulations then have to be explained and create an ongoing momentum of their own, one detail leading to another, which needs explanation, and so the text ramifies outwards like a glass of wine spilt on a tablecloth.

As the story was told me I never went near the place during sessions. I asked what place and a tent was described at length, a small tent the colour of its surroundings. Wearying of this description I asked what sessions and these in their turn were described, their object, duration, frequency and harrowing nature.

The narrator puts up his hand and asks where he is and is told in ‘a small hut in a grove some two hundred yards away’.

The narrator is, as so often, lying down. (Beckett protagonists rarely do much more than trudge around barren landscapes, or sit cramped in claustrophobic skullscapes, or lie in bed; you can’t help thinking that these are the common physical postures of The Writer – they never, for example, run, shower, bath, drive a car, catch a plane, sit on a train. No. Trudge, Sit or Lying down, preferably in the dark, these are the Beckett positions).

The dimensions of the hut remind him of the summer house he spent so much time in as a boy. Aha. As described in Heard In The Dark 2 and Company. The penny drops and I realise that it is not just the obsession with measuring and counting and calculating displayed by so many Beckett characters which reflects his own coping strategy –

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble

… but that maybe the umpteen cramped spaces in which so many of his figures find themselves – especially in the experimental prose works like Imagination Dead Imagine or All Strange Away or The Lost Ones – are imaginative recreations of the warm and cosy, womb-like feel of the actual summerhouse in the grounds of the big Beckett family home in Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock where he spent so many happy boyhood hours.

Thus the cabin the narrator finds himself in now:

had the same five log walls, the same coloured glass, the same diminutiveness, being not more than ten feet across and so low of ceiling that the average man could not have held himself erect in it, though of course there was no such difficulty for the child.

The narrator describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests, like the man in Fizzle 7 who sits at an open window facing south in a small upright wicker chair with armrests. There is a ripe slice of surrealism or Absurdity when a hand comes through the door and passes him a sheet of paper which he carefully tears into four pieces and gives back to the hand which withdraws.

And the arbitrary or contrived nature of the piece is made overt in the next passage:

A little later the whole scene disappeared. As the story was told me the man succumbed in the end to his ill-treatment, though quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age.

What old man? Only in the last sentences can we maybe piece together that an old man was being subjected to ‘harrowing’ sessions – presumably, tortured – and would have been released if only he could find the right answers to the questions. The narrator asked what the old man was required to say, but no, they cannot tell him.

So there are two familiar Beckett tropes: the confined space or room within which the narrator is, initially lying down, but then finds himself sitting; and someone being tortured, as in Rough For Radio 2.

The Cliff (1975)

La Falaise was a short prose poem Beckett wrote in French in 1975. An English translation was commissioned from Edith Fournier so it could be included as The Cliff in the 1995 Complete Prose. It’s so short I can quote it in full:

Window between sky and earth nowhere known. Opening on a colourless cliff. The crest escapes the eye wherever set. The base as well. Framed by two sections of sky forever white. Any hint in the sky at a land’s end? The yonder ether? Of sea birds no trace. Or too pale to show. And then what proof of a face? None that the eye can find wherever set. It gives up and the bedlam head takes over. At long last first looms the shadow of a ledge. Patience it will be enlivened with mortal remains. A whole skull emerges in the end. One alone from amongst those such residua evince. Still attempting to sink back its coronal into the rock. The old stare half showing within the orbits. At times the cliff vanishes. Then off the eye flies to the whiteness verge upon verge. Or thence away from it all.

It demonstrates several things. First, that although the Faber Companion calls it a prose poem, there is nothing sensual or passionate about the prose. It is a very cold prose poem.

The word ‘skull’ crystallises the mood, and the whiteness of the cliff itself echoes the white skulls and white cells and white rotunda inside which the protagonists of All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine found themselves, and which prompted critics to use the word ‘skullscapes’ to describe them. Although out of doors, this short piece feels like another skullscape.

The use of ‘residua’ (the plural of ‘residuum’ which is simply a more formal way of saying ‘residue’) is like a hangover from his earlier writings which he liked to stuff with arcane and obscure terminology, and has a double effect: insofar as it is a scientific term, it adds to the sense of clinical detachment and unemotion; but as an unnecessarily pedantic word it introduces a whiff of satire, self-deprecating satire against the author.

neither (1976)

Short enough to quote in its entirety:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once turned away from gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

unspeakable home

Another meditation, brief as a prayer, about the gap or space between self and unself, I and not I, the immediate consciousness which experiences and the posterior consciousness which reflects, remembers, re-assembles experience into a permanent flow of memories, thoughts, decisions, neither of which, in Beckett’s bleak phenomenology, can provide a resting place or home.

The word ‘footfalls’ anticipates or echoes the name and the subject of the stage play he wrote in the same year.

In fact, Beckett wrote neither to be set to music by the American modernist composer Morton Feldman and described its subject, living in the shadow between self and non-self as ‘the one theme in his life’.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1966-70) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • Heard in the Dark, One evening and others – Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1980) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

Fizzles by Samuel Beckett (1973 to 1975)

The ‘fizzles’ are eight short prose pieces by Samuel Beckett. He wrote seven of them in French in the early 1960s and translated them into English a decade later, apart from Still, which he wrote straight into English in 1972.

Order and names

Some of the fizzles are unnamed and are identified by their numbers or first few words ‘in speech marks’. There’s no particular logical order and different publications have varied the order and not necessarily included all 8, but they tend to be arranged as per an edition published by Grove Press which Beckett reportedly approved:

  • Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’
  • Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’
  • Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird
  • Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’
  • Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’
  • Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’
  • Fizzle 7 Still
  • Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

Foirades

In French their title is Foirades and a ‘foirade’ translates as ‘squitters’ or ‘jitters’, a flop or failure. According to the Faber Companion to Beckett he himself referred to the Fizzles as ‘wet farts’ or attempts to break wind quietly (you should never underestimate the element of sheer, bucket, gutter, potty-mouthed crudity in lots of Beckett, his obsession with bodily functions and the crudest Anglo-Saxon terminology e.g. the prominence of the c word in How It Is or casual remarks such as ‘I considered kicking her in the cunt’, in First Love).

Going beyond closure

Regarding the content, the Companion spends a lot of time on their publishing history and gives just a one-sentence interpretation, namely that the Fizzles were – when written in the early 60s – attempts to go beyond the closure or ending implied in a work like The Unnamable.

This is certainly a way to think about how the fizzles all concern different personages, are in different voices, appear to be exploring different scenarios. Obviously they are unified by a) being about derelict characters with dysfunctional minds b) conveyed in prose which experiments with various strategies, most notably Beckett’s familiar tactics of i) Repetition of key phrases, and ii) Oblique syntax i.e. missing out verbs or adding multiple phrases without indicating their relationships with punctuation or prepositions.

But within this overall approach, each fizzle is like an experiment with a different approach to his themes. It helps that most of them are relatively short, barely half a page, which adds to the sense that they are offcuts of a larger work, fragments at a tangent from a bigger vision.

Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’

An unnamed male protagonist, ‘destitute of history’ and ‘near to death’, wearing uncomfortable clothes, possibly ‘prison garb’, barefoot, is walking endlessly uphill so his head is bowed, but through a narrow place where he’s constantly banging his shoulders and arms, sometimes it narrows so much that squeezing through hurts his arms and shoulders even draws a little blood, there’s no chance of seeing through the gloom so more and more he closes his eyes, he reviews his body – the legs, the head, the heart – no complaints, he zigs to the left, he zags to the right, sometimes he stops to lick the walls, behind it he hears the sound of an enormous fall or drop, but mostly there is silence; he makes a distinction between the air here which is ‘foul’, and ‘the other, the true life-giving’, suggesting he is underground and heading always upwards towards the surface, towards ‘the open’ (which explains the gloom, the silence, the foul air, the uphill gradient) and his memory endlessly pores over the maxima and minima of his experiences, the loudest fall, the quietest fall, the sweetest wall lick, and so on, indefinitely.

Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’

First person narrator describing how a character named Horn always came in the dark, the narrator would send him away after 5 or 6 minutes, 5 or 6 years since anyone had seen the narrator, it’s some time before s/he has gotten out of bed, it (the body’s injuries) are sure to show, but no-one at any price is to see her face, hence making Horn come at night, Horn’s visits don’t seem to be for sex, the narrator asks Horn questions e.g. ‘And her gown that day?’ Horn gets out his notebook, checks, and answers, once she asked him to turn on the flashlight so she could see his face, as the torchlight faded she was certain it was him, definitely him, but she has only to pass her hand over her eyes or take off her eyeglasses for the image to fade, that’s why she prefers looking at the ceiling, although she did get out of bed the other day and she thought she had long ago ‘made my last journey’, she’s started making little journeys hanging onto the bars of her bed; in a bizarre, surreal and presumably humorous last few sentences she blames her decrepitude on ‘athletics’:

What ruined me at bottom was athletics. With all that jumping and running when I was young, and even long after in the case of certain events, I wore out the machine before its time. My fortieth year had come and gone and I still throwing the javelin.

Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird

A third-person narrator describes the progress of an unnamed character walking, as so often in Beckett, across a ‘ruin-strewn land’, taking little wary steps, resting after every ten steps:

that image, the little heap of hands and head, the trunk horizontal, the jutting elbows, the eyes closed and the face rigid listening, the eyes hidden and the whole face hidden,

Strange phrasing suggests the narrator was ‘inside’ this figure, somehow and somehow was given birth to:

but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside… I’m inside, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light…

More strange phrasing suggests the observer and the actor are one and the same, and when he comes to describe his death it sounds as if the soul is describing the death of the body, boasting that he will survive, certainly it sounds like a psyche or persona split in two:

he is fled, I’m inside, he’ll do himself to death, because of me, I’ll live it with him, I’ll live his death, the end of his life and then his death, step by step, in the present, how he’ll go about it, it’s impossible I should know, I’ll know, step by step, it’s he will die, I won’t die, there will be nothing of him left but bones, I’ll be inside, nothing but a little grit, I’ll be inside

Wow, this obviously echoes the title of Not I but also the duality in one mind or one narrative of The Unnamable, but is genuinely spooky, like a ghost story where the ghost is inside the head of the lead character.

Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’

This appears to be a close variation in number 3. It’s interesting to compare 4 and 3 because the topic is identical, the notion of a narrator being inside a man who he confidently predicts will die by he, the narrator will survive, and a score of other notions stemming from this idea – but version 4 is much more pure, it is much clearer about the plight and its consequences and so, maybe surprisingly, is less effective than 3. 3 is more obscure and contains ambiguous or impenetrable phrases, but for that reason, comes over as the more genuinely deranged of the pair, and therefore more likely what an unhinged soul or body-occupier would actually sound like i.e. deeply worrying.

Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’

Opens with a typically incoherent sentence:

All needed to be known for say is known.

Which indicates it is the speech of yet another character whose mind is collapsing, and at the same time hints at profound meanings which are not immediately translatable into standard prose. In fact, the very next two sentences are considerably clearer:

There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.

This sounds like a Zen Buddhist saying, not that meaningful in itself, but designed to prompt meditation and pondering.  From this abstract opening, the text goes on to become the description of a place rather than a person – a vast ‘arena’ big enough to hold ‘millions’ who spend their time;

wandering and still. Never seeing never hearing one another. Never touching’

This vast space is divided up into millions of equal lots:

Just room for the average sized body. Stretched out diagonally. Bigger it has to curl up.

In other words this ‘arena’ has distinct similarities with the claustrophobic ‘hell’ described in The Lost Ones. It’s also one more example of Beckett’s obsession with conceiving the precise space and geometry of human bodies and the claustrophobically closed spaces they inhabit. The arena is also a ‘ditch’ a few feet deeper than the surrounding surface.

Some of these ‘lots’ are bright, some are dark, making a patchwork quilt. Above the arena, light is shed down onto the bright squares. ‘In the black air towers of pale light. So many bright lots so many towers.’ There is a track all around the ditch, a step up from it and just wide enough for one to walk. That’s it.

The precision of the imagining makes it very close to Dante’s imagining of the afterlife, except without any of Dante’s personality, humanity, characters, dialogue, interactions, and religious, legal and moral symbolism.

Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’

Flavour is conveyed by quoting:

Old earth, no more lies, I’ve seen you, it was me, with my other’s ravening eyes, too late. You’ll be on me, it will be you, it will be me, it will be us, it was never us.

With a kind of surreal or delirious inconsequentiality the narrator abruptly declares:

It’s a cockchafer year, next year there won’t be any, nor the year after, gaze your fill.

The narrator appears to turn on the light to watch them flying towards the river. And this morphs into surprisingly obvious and sentimental memories:

For an instant I see the sky, the different skies, then they turn to faces, agonies, loves, the different loves, happiness too, yes, there was that too, unhappily. Moments of life, of mine too, among others, no denying, all said and done.

Fizzle 7 Still

Another surprisingly naturalistic description of someone sitting quite still at a window watching the sun set in the south west. The phrase ‘quite still’ is repeated to create that intensity.

As so often what comes over is Beckett’s intense imagining of the precise position of the human figure and of its movements. We don’t get a name or spoken words or thoughts or emotions. None of that interests him.

Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair with armrests. Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement some time past… Normally turn head now ninety degrees to watch sun… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… Eyes then open again while still light and close again in what if not quite a single movement almost…

Except the figure is not still. On closer examination he, she or it is trembling all over. This sets up a dynamic opposition which then rings through the rest of the short text which goes on to describe the position or positions of this human in the usual excruciating detail:

Legs side by side broken right angles at the knees… Trunk likewise dead plumb right up to top of skull seen from behind including nape clear of chairback. Arms likewise broken right angles at the elbows forearms along armrests just right length fore arms and rests for hands clenched lightly to rest on ends…

It makes you realise that these descriptions of precise bodily movements and the super-precise stage directions he gave for his later plays, are all cut from the same cloth:

The right hand slowly opening leaves the armrest taking with it the whole forearm complete with elbow and slowly rises opening further as it goes and turning a little deasil till midway to the head it hesitates and hangs half open trembling in mid air. Hangs there as if half inclined to return that is sink back slowly closing as it goes and turning the other way tillas and where it began clenched lightly on end of rest.

These could almost be stage directions for one of his hyper-minimalist late dramaticules. The poetry or the drama is in these very limited, small-scale but super-precisely described physical gestures.

Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

It is quite ironic that one his post-war short stories was titled The End because, of course, Beckett never finished ending, he was endlessly ending. Or was compelled to end endlessly, over and over again, the sentences trying to assemble meaning from broken fragments at odds with each other, incomplete, trying to reach an end:

For to end yet again skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin.

Like so much of Beckett’s prose it works by the incantatory repetition of certain key words phrases which build up a strange, not a romantic power, something more modern and metallic and baleful.

  • skull
  • alone in the dark, alone in a dark place
  • grey sand as far as eye can see
  • leaden dawn

To our surprise the narrator mentions that here in this waste of sand as dawn arrives over a leaden grey sky, ‘amidst his ruins the expelled‘! The Expelled is of course the title of one of the four long short stories wrote right at the end of the war, and all the stories rotate around the same figure who has been ‘expelled’ from his home by ‘them’. Is this ‘expelled’ the same guy? Or is everyone expelled in Beckettworld? Is everyone condemned to the same eternal trudging across grey dusty landscapes or circling round rubber cylinders (The Lost Ones), bent double climbing endless hills (Enough), haunting the ruined refuge of Lessness?

As usual there is no name, no character, no personality, no psychology, no dialogue, no thoughts, no humanity; it’s all about the bodies:

Same grey all that little body from head to feet sunk ankle deep were it not for the eyes last bright of all. The arms still cleave to the trunk and to each other the legs made for flight.

It’s odd that he specifically uses the word ‘hell’ and then goes on to mention the ‘refuge’. Is this meant to be a kind of summary, pulling together themes scattered through the fizzles (and other texts, the ‘refuge’ which appears throughout Lessness – this and Lessness seem very closely linked)?

Astonishingly two white dwarfs appear. They are trudging through the dust, inevitably, with the just as inevitable bowed backs. No-one walks with a spring in their step and a song in their heart in Beckettworld. The dwarfs are so alike the eye cannot tell them apart and they are carrying, between them, a litter, such as the rich rode in in Roman times. They are not pretty dwarfs:

Monstrous extremities including skulls stunted legs and trunks monstrous arms stunted faces… Atop the cyclopean dome rising sheer from jut of brow yearns white to the grey sky the bump of habitativity or love of home

Can he see it, this scene, ‘the expelled [person] amid his ruins’? Is it him regarding the two dwarfs carrying their litter. This scenario gives the text more key words and phrases to repeat and circle:

  • litter
  • dwarfs
  • ruins
  • little body

‘The expelled’ falls amid his ruins in the white dust, the dwarfs let drop their litter once again. Is this hell:

hell air not a breath? And dream of a way in a space with neither here nor there where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away?

No.

No for in the end for to end yet again by degrees or as though switched on dark falls there again that certain dark that alone certain ashes can

It can’t be the end because the end is endless. It can never end.

One thing leads to another

Apart from the obvious aspects of these pieces – they are very unlike anyone else’s ‘stories’ or prose pieces, the lack of character or dialogue or plot – one thing that comes over strongly in most of them is the sense of free association. What I mean is one thing leads to another, one idea throws up a phrase or notion which the text then moves onto with no real, external logic, no logic of events, certainly, but the logic of association.

As Tristram Shandy had shown 200 years earlier (1759) the idea of building a fictional text by letting one idea suggest another which suggests another was hardly new, and prose which tried to capture the so-called stream-of-consciousness had been developed in their different ways by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce during and just after the Great War.

Hard-hearted prose

What makes these pieces’ use of a sort of stream-of-conscious approach so different is their hard quality. There is a hard, stiff quality about Beckett’s prose. And there is a hard quality about the descriptions. They are more often than not descriptions of people in some kind of mental or physical extremis, and yet there is never any softening of the style or of the attitude. There is no compassion. Everything is described in a kind of forced, compelled way which sometimes verges on the mechanical or robotic.

This is most obvious, maybe, in Beckett’s obsessive concern with the body of his characters, not just with the tortured contortions or trials he often puts it through, but the mechanical way he lists body parts and enumerates actions, with the detachment of an anthropologist.

Some day he’ll see himself, his whole front, from the chest down, and the arms, and finally the hands, first rigid at arm’s length, then close up, trembling, to his eyes. He halts, for the first time since he knows he’s under way, one foot before the other, the higher flat, the lower on its toes…

You can read into the pieces a certain compassion for these figures, but it isn’t actually there in the pieces themselves. They are hard to the verge of being feeling brittle.

Unfree association

Back to the free association idea, take Fizzle 2, ‘Horn came at night’, it’s tempting to think that Beckett simply free associated it. The progress of ideas is: ‘Horn always came at night’. So straightaway you suspect that is a rude pun, ‘horn’ being slang for erect penis, ‘came’ being the common verb describing orgasm, all helped along by the night-time setting. Then you can see Beckett thinking this is far too obvious and immediately intruding a bit of Beckett business, a kind of spurious precision, by saying that the narrator only hosts Horn for 5 or 6 minutes, and going one step further to remove it from the world of porn or even faintly sensual writing by stating that Horn always switches on his torch to consult his notes. What torch? What notes? Why is he taking notes?

And the thought that she only lets him visit for 5 or 6 minutes leads to the question why the short intervals – which prompts Beckett to concoct the idea that it’s because the narrator is ashamed of how she looks. ‘It was five or six years since anyone had seen me’. Which leads onto the thought that she is changing her mind, emerging from her self-imposed exile, and determined to let herself be seen again.

That all happens in the first paragraph, but the point I’m making isn’t about the subject matter, it’s about Beckett’s process of moving quickly from one idea to another. And I’m trying to bring out the way the ideas don’t exactly flow. It isn’t stream of consciousness in the way Woolf or Joyce were trying to capture what thinking actually feels like, were trying to give a realistic description of the way our thoughts endlessly link together.

Beckett’s version is much more contrived and hard-hearted than that. It’s more like a deliberate attempt to avoid realistic stream of consciousness, and replace it with a sequence of arbitrary and unexpected developments. The same sense of arbitrary develops characterises the end of fizzle 2 when the character suddenly starts blaming their physical decrepitude on athletics, all that running or jumping when they were young.

Or take the equally incongruous and ‘random’ appearance of two dwarfs carrying a litter across a bone dry plain in fizzle 8. This and other odd and arbitrary developments, like the sudden appearance of the cockchafers in fizzle 6, arise from no known logic, no realistic depiction of the world or of the mind, but reflect a kind of contorted, unfree association.

What appears to be a random arbitrary thought occurs, and then directs the text down along a new course.

And no sooner has he thought of them, these random features, than they are subjected to the usual tough-minded treatment of Beckett’s prose strategies:

  • obsession with the body and its precise posture and movements
  • obsessive enumeration or listing of activities or attributes
  • above all the obsessive, meaning-draining incantation of a handful of key words or phrases which either deepen and intensify the reading experience, or drive you nuts with frustration, depending on your mood and inclinations

Luxury literature

Beckett is usually promoted as the purveyor of world-class pessimism, bleakness and nihilism, a poet laureate of impoverishment, decay and collapse.

But by the time I began reading serious literature in the mid-1970s, he was already a world-famous figure, with a Nobel Prize to his name. Any play he wrote was immediately put on at the Royal Court Theatre with a massive press fanfare, and any prose he wrote was liable to be printed in full in the most prestigious journals or newspapers. It was impossible, in other words, for anyone to be more famous or successful in the field of literature than Samuel Beckett was.

Not only that, but by the mid-70s Beckett was also becoming known for collaborating in high-end, elite de luxe editions of his works and Fizzles is a good case in point. In 1973, soon after the Froisades were published in French, Beckett was introduced to American artist Jasper Johns and they agreed to work together on an illustrated version of the English translation, Fizzles.

Johns chose just five fizzles and to create a little ‘artist’s book’ containing both French and English versions (he chose fizzles 2, 5, 1, 6, and 4). Johns created 33 images plus the book’s end papers. The resulting book was published with the title Foirades/Fizzles in an edition of 250 copies, signed by both creators. I saw some of the illustrations at the big 2017 Jasper Johns retrospective at the Royal Academy.

What the exhibition showed is that although Johns is famous for painting the American flag and other everyday artifacts, he went through a big black and white phase and that’s when the fizzles project took place. The rather grim, rough-hewn, black and white abstract shapes, or shapes made of black and white letters of the alphabet, are appropriate for the semi-abstract texts, with their lack of colour and repetition of black (fizzles 1, 5, 8) and in particular grey, which dominates fizzle 8 (‘Grey cloudless sky grey sand as far as eye can see’).

Many of these limited editions found their way into the collections of the V&A or Museum of Modern Art and so on, or into the hands of the usual art market investors. Nowadays they change hands for $30,000 or more.

I know I’m being naive, but for me aged 17, there was something very off-putting about knowing that this supposed prophet of immiseration and the extremity of human consciousness, was in reality fawned on by cultural elites around the world who fought like ferrets for the privilege of staging his latest 10-minute play or publishing his latest 3-page prose masterpiece, and that the the supposed poet laureate of impoverishment and collapse in reality collaborated in creating luxury collectors’ items designed to find their way into the hands of the super rich and the art elite.

It’s taken me all this time to overcome my antipathy to Beckett because of his association with the Art and Theatrical and Financial Elite, and to try and read his works objectively, for what they are.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1966-70) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1960 to 1973) Short prose
  • Heard in the Dark, One evening and others – Short prose
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Novella
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

The Lost Ones by Samuel Beckett (1970)

So true it is that when in the cylinder what little is possible is not so it is merely no longer so and in the least less the all of nothing if this notion is maintained.

The last half dozen Beckett prose pieces I’ve read take their lead from his 1953 novel The Unnameable in being extreme close-up descriptions of individuals, either the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or highly self-centred, solipsistic descriptions of trapped consciousnesses, in which sentences come apart at the seams and cluster or blocks of words are endlessly recirculated, in the case of Lessness using chance processes to order prefabricated sentences.

The Lost Ones is significantly different from its predecessors. For a start almost all the sentences make sense, albeit many are long-winded and with sometimes demanding word order. But they are not like the conglomerations of phrases joined together without any punctuation which you find in its half dozen predecessors, which demand a lot of interpretation or which you can relax for the effort of parsing and let create a kind of dynamic alternative to traditional prose, a kind of poetry of repetition in your mind.

The Lost Ones is more like a report, an anthropological study, of a particular environment and its inhabitants. It’s almost like a piece of science fiction, the kind of sci fi story which gives a detailed account of a new and bizarre alien society. It is definitely not a story: there are no characters, no events and no dialogue. But it is laid out in a logical structure and the sentences make sense.

The abode

The cylinder Beckett describes a cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high, populated by about 200 human beings. The cylinder is all they have ever known. It is their life. He refers to the cylinder throughout as ‘the abode’. If you do the math you discover that each of these individuals is allotted ‘a little under one square metre’ of space.

One body per square metre of available surface.

This explains why ‘lying down is unheard of in the cylinder’.

The light The text (about 20 pages of a normal Word document, 8,240 words)  moves on to give precise description of the interior of the cylinder. One of the main features is that the permanent yellow light which suffuses it (from no identifiable source) grows dimmer and then brighter on a regular cycle. Long term exposure to these oscillations of light leads to blindness.

The temperature The oscillations of light are accompanied by changes in temperature from 25°C down to 5°C, occasionally as low as 1°C, the changes happening within four seconds! These drastic alterations have the effect of destroying the skin and drying up the mucus membranes, rendering sex (sex appears in most of Beckett’s texts, no matter how degraded) very uncomfortable, although some lost souls still fling themselves at it.

The walls are made of a rubber-like substance:

Floor and wall are of solid rubber or suchlike. Dash against them foot or fist or head and the sound is scarcely heard. Imagine then the silence of the steps.

The niches The next thing to note is the existence of 20 niches set in the walls:

cavities sunk in that part of the wall which lies above an imaginary line running midway between floor and ceiling.

The tunnels They are arranged in a cunning pattern of quincunxes (‘a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center’, like the number 5 on a dice) but are undetectable from floor level. Some of the niches are connected by tunnels. There is one long unfinished tunnel which many have set off crawling along only to reach the blockage and have to shuffle backwards all the way back to the opening.

The ladders For those who want to find the niches, who are called searchers, there are fifteen ladders ranged along the cylinder walls. They vary in length but are all broken and missing some of their rungs. Some of the inhabitants not interested in ‘searching’ use them to hit each other or defend themselves.

The queues Those who want to mount the ladders have to queue because there are only fifteen ladders. Beckett goes into the rules of queueing for the ladders in great detail, but then he goes into great, obsessive detail about every aspect of the cylinder and its inhabitants.

This tendency to not be at all interested in character, psychology, plot or dialogue but to give obsessively precise descriptions of the physical aspect of a location and, above all, to give long and complete enumerations of every possible permutation of a particular physical activity (the classic example is the two pages devoted to describing all the different ways Molloy could transfer 16 stones from one pocket of his jacket to the other, giving each a good sucking on the way) is a core and central characteristic of Beckett’s prose. It’s odd that it is so overlooked, critics and commentators much preferring to focus on his schoolboy nihilism.

Categories of inhabitant This compulsion to categorise and enumerate comes into play when Beckett turns to describing the inhabitants of the cylinder, which include:

  • the searchers, keen to find a way out
  • the carriers (of ladders)
  • the climbers
  • the sedentary (‘if they never stir from the coign they have won it is because they have calculated their best chance is there and if they seldom or never ascend to the niches and tunnels it is because they have done so too often in vain or come there too often to grief.’)
  • the vanquished who, as the name suggests, have given up, who believe that ‘For in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery’ — the narrator estimates there are about 185 searchers which means about 15 vanquished
  • the watchers, who only sit and watch
  • the blind, their eyes worn out by the fluctuations in light

Wall space Because the ceaseless motion of the milling crowd would seriously interfere with the activity of the searchers moving ladders from one position to another up against the walls of the cylinder a convention has arisen to leave the yard or so closest to the walls free, creating a space for the searchers. In fact, Beckett quickly categorises the types of floor space available within ‘the abode’:

  1. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished.
  2. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery.
  3. Finally the arena proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres round numbers and chosen hunting ground of the majority.

Escape And why this endless effort to climb ladders, find niches and crawl along the tunnels? Because some of the inhabitants believe the tunnels are a way out, and will lead to a wider world:

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.

Although here, as in everything else, things fall into sets or series although, in this case, only two:

  1. One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries.
  2. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining.

These can be taken as allegories of religions, in the way you encounter strange religious sects in all manner of science fiction stories – one sect is seeking Nature, the other Heaven,

Law of ladders There’s quite a bit more detail about the laws and conventions governing the moving of the ladders, and the climbing of the ladders (only one at a time; if someone is coming down any ascender has to go back down to the floor to let them), the timing of the fluctuation of the lights and the temperatures, the behaviour and beliefs of the different types of inhabitant, but that’s the main gist.

True north A bizarre aspect of the abode is the way the first woman to give up all hope, and squat down, head down, naked, not caring any more about anything, has come to be taken by the others as a kind of lodestar, the only fixed point in the endless shuffling round the arena of all the other inhabitants.

There does none the less exist a north in the guise of one of the vanquished or better one of the women vanquished or better still the woman vanquished. She squats against the wall with her head between her knees and her legs in her arms. The left hand clasps the right shinbone and the right the left forearm. The red hair tarnished by the light hangs to the ground. It hides the face and whole front of the body down to the crutch. The left foot is crossed on the right. She is the north.

Hell

The abode is, of course, a version of hell, and Beckett brings out one or two hellish aspects, for example the way the inhabitants are filled with the horror of contact and yet are compelled all their lives by lack of space ‘to brush together without ceasing’.

Beckett also makes no bones about namechecking the chief imaginer of hell in the Western tradition, Dante. Dante also had a very mathematical, geometric, categorising kind of mind, clearly imagining the geography of the nine descending circles of hell and carefully categorising all the different types of sin, before imagining all manner of colourful punishments for them. You could say he co-ordinated the confused host of punishments his Christian predecessors had imagined for various sins into one huge and coherent system whose comprehensive structure combined with vivid poetic touches and a sympathetic insight into human nature in all its many manifestations has impressed everyone who’s read his great work, The Divine Comedy, for the past 700 years.

Maybe Beckett imagined himself doing something similar, he was certainly a lifelong devotee of Dante – except that the wonderful cohesiveness of medieval philosophy, medieval theology, medieval society and medieval culture had long since been lost and fragmented by the mid-20th century.

Maybe a modern approach to the same problem – a deeper analysis of the human condition which seeks to probe beneath the superficial details of character, plot and dialogue – can only be achieved via fragments, offcuts, shards and that explains Beckett’s approach.

Hence the shortness of Beckett’s later prose pieces, along with the sense that they are approaching the same thing over and over again, but each time from a slightly different angle. ‘Fail again fail better,’ as one of his t-shirt mottos has it.

So the cylinder of The Lost Ones may well be a vision of hell but there are no flames or demons and it is a weirdly modern, almost absurdist, hell – a hell of rubber walls, damaged ladders and tunnels which don’t lead anywhere.

Sentiment

Beckett clearly set out, in both his prose and plays, to reject bourgeois conventions of plot, psychology or character. Difficult to achieve in plays where the human actors generally require at least some kind of identification, even if they’re three mannekins in jars, as in Play, or three old ladies on a bench, as in Come and Go. Much easier to achieve in prose, which is one of the things which makes his run of prose works during the 1960s so interesting:

  • All Strange Away (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Enough (1965)
  • Ping (1966)
  • Lessness (1970)

But something that’s often overlooked by critics who focus on his fifth-form nihilism, is the way many of these texts include unexpectedly sentimental passages, especially at the end. He fights it, he resists it, but endings are difficult, just ending, point blank, somehow feels crude.

Thus it is that, rather than concluding The Lost Ones after he has exhaustively described the inside of the cylinder, Beckett provides a kind of coda, in which he imagines the behaviour of the very last survivor. Some time in the remote future all the other inhabitants will not exactly have died, but been worn down to immobility. Leaving just one (male) survivor) to totter over to the sitting woman who represents ‘north’.

There is nothing at first sight to distinguish him from the others dead still where they stand or sit in abandonment beyond recall… And sure enough there he stirs this last of all if a man and slowly draws himself up and some time later opens his burnt eyes. At the foot of the ladders propped against the wall with scant regard to harmony no climber waits his turn. The aged vanquished of the third zone has none about him now but others in his image motionless and bowed…

There he opens then his eyes this last of all if a man and some time later threads his way to that first among the vanquished so often taken for a guide. On his knees he parts the heavy hair and raises the unresisting head. Once devoured the face thus laid bare the eyes at a touch of the thumbs open without demur. In those calm wastes he lets his wander till they are the first to close and the head relinquished falls back into its place. He himself after a pause impossible to time finds at last his place and pose whereupon dark descends and at the same instant the temperature comes to rest not far from freezing point.

Hushed in the same breath the faint stridulence mentioned above whence suddenly such silence as to drown all the faint breathings put together. So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers one first of whom if a man in some unthinkable past for the first time bowed his head if this notion is maintained.

This final sentimental scene wasn’t at all necessary. It reminds me of the scene at the end of The Time Traveller where the protagonist stings our imaginations by describing the final, expiring days of the dead earth; or any other science fiction story which portrays the last survivor of some tribe or group (‘this little people of searchers’) that the reader has become attached to, and so tugs a bit at our heartstrings. This sentimental coda is strangely at odds with the clinical reportage of so much else of the text.

Notes from The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett

  • Beckett wrote the original work in French with the title Le Dépeupleur then translated it himself.
  • The Lost Ones is Beckett’s longest later prose work.
  • He began it in 1965 and worked on it intermittently till publication in 1970.
  • The final paragraph which, as I point out, brings out a plangent, sentimental mood, was written separately from most of the text, just before publication.
  • This ‘softening’ is also detectable in the change from the French to the English title. The French title means ‘The Depopulator’ which suggests Death and that the entire work is a sort of allegory of being dead. Whereas the English title, ‘The Lost Ones’, is much softer, more romantic, echoes the sentimental name of ‘the lost boys’ in Peter Pan. I doubt if Beckett consciously intended this, but I think it is there in the finished work.
  • The cylinder has 205 inhabitants: 120 climbers, 60 remaining on the floor looking for their loved ones; 20 sedentary searchers; five vanquished, chief among them the woman known as The North.

What are we to make of The Lost Ones?

I don’t think you need to think about it too much. I’ve read hundreds of science fiction and other types of tales which give you the exact dimensions of a spaceship or room, give a detailed description of its contents, which is all preparation for moving onto the human action. Phrasing it like that makes you realise that a lot of these Beckett prose works amount to an obsessively detailed description of the mise en scène and then… a kind of walking away before what you could call the human or humanistic element begins.

That said, The Lost Ones differs significantly from his other prose works of the period because it is so readable. The sentences work, and contain the familiar elements of subject, verb and object. The following passage is typical of many and extraordinarily accessible for Beckett:

The ladders. These are the only objects. They are single without exception and vary greatly in size. The shortest measure not less than six metres. Some are fitted with a sliding extension.

What does it all mean? Well, the reference to Dante is an unmistakable nod to the notion of hell and the afterlife, but pretty much all the other details militate anything like a conventional idea of hell. And I don’t think there are any (and the Beckett Companion doesn’t mention any) riffs or references to any other traditional aspects of hell or Christian theology.

No, it feels more like a standalone imagining which we, the readers, can situate anywhere we want to. It reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant science fiction novel, Rendezvous With Rama, which is about a mysterious hollow cylinder full of strange artefacts. And the constantly circulating crowd jostling against each other remind me of two of J.G. Ballard’s short stories about an overpopulated world, Billennium (1962) and The Concentration City (1957). And the last man standing who staggers over to the barely alive last woman remind me of countless ‘last survivor’ stories.

For these reasons, although The Lost Ones is weird, it is at least readable, and that alone makes it quite a bit less weird than all the other prose works Beckett was writing at the time.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1970) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • neither (1976)
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

How It Is by Samuel Beckett (1964)

warmth of primeval mud impenetrable dark

Although he is meant to be the poet laureate of impoverishment and paucity and minds reduced to tatters, it never ceases to amaze me how much Samuel Beckett managed to write on more or less this one subject, and how ironic it is that he was so copiously prolific on the subject of the poverty, collapse and failure of imagination, language and writing.

Not only that, but as soon as you begin reading any criticism of any particular Beckett text, you realise all his critics and scholars are addicted to referring off to other Beckett texts, to referencing the structure of other similar works, to exploring how the theme of collapse, for example, is dealt with in related texts, pointing out how specific imagery like bowler hats or rocking chairs recur in so many of the texts and plays, or the image of the sea, the beach, the shingle and the waves, which recurs throughout his radio plays and later prose.

As an example, we’re barely three sentences into the introduction to How It Is before the editor (the improbably named Édouard Magessa O’Reilly) is making references to Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable because How It Is ‘recapitulates the themes of reduced circumstance and the search for self that are the focus of the earlier novels’. Soon afterwards we’re being pointed towards the Texts For Nothing and Stirrings Still as references and comparisons.

In other words, a key aspect of Beckett’s work is that, not only did he write so much – so many dramaticules, so many novels, short stories and scattered prose pieces – but that they all build up into a massive system of endlessly echoing self-references and correspondences. Beckett’s oeuvre is like some Gothic cathedral, you can get lost in the wings and extensions and aisles and apses, each of which repeats the same dominant themes (as a cathedral endlessly repeats the iconography of the Cross and stories from the Bible) but with an apparent infinity of variations in structure, tone and treatment. That’s why The Beckett Companion is nearly 700 pages long and contains over a thousand detailed entries on a huge range of subjects. A handful of themes, but hundreds of variations.

Commencer

How It Is is the English translation of a novel Beckett first published in French in 1961 as Comment c’est. This is a pun because the phrase ‘comment c’est’ (how it is) and the verb ‘commencer’ (to begin) sound the same in French. Beckett’s English translation was published in 1964.

As the introduction by Édouard Magessa O’Reilly puts it:

We have a character alone, in constant darkness, able to subsist. Which is all that is needed for the narration to proceed and, in the end, is all we are given. This is How It Is. Realism, causality and explanation are written out of the text. The narrator crawls through mud and darkness without knowing where he comes from or where he is going, and certainly not why. He drags with him a sack containing tins of food, the origin of which is a mystery to him. On his journey he meets another whom he calls Pim and with whom he has a brief, abusive relationship.

That’s how it is.

Explanatory letter

Or, as Beckett put it in a letter dated 6 April 1960 to Donald McWhinnie of the BBC Radio Drama Company, the text is the product of a:

‘man’ lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him… The noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmur forth a fragment of what is being stated within… It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from the outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.

Comment c’est

I see me on my face close my eyes not the blue the others at the back and see me on my face the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no question of thirst either no question of dying of thirst either all this time vast stretch of time

The novel is a monologue told by a narrator who seems to be crawling through mud dragging a coal sack full of tins of food, which he periodically hugs, lugs behind him, opens and rummages in or folds up to sleep on. It performs the function of a comfort blanket to a child, it is all he has:

I say it as I hear it in this position the hands suddenly empty still nipping the sack never let go the sack otherwise suddenly empty

The narrator’s mind continually wanders off to include fragments (‘bits and scraps’) of memories of brief shining moments scattered throughout his life. He seems to be driven by a voice, hearing a voice which is speaking through him but which he can only hear periodically when he ceases his movements and rests from his loud panting:

in me that were without when the panting stops scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine

Repeatedly he repeats the catchphrase, ‘I say it as I hear it’, as it comes to him, the voice, in the quiet between the panting, as if the text is being dictated by this external force or internal force over which he has no control.

The text is separated into three distinct periods, indeed the first sentence or ‘word block’ lays out the structure:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

and the text obsessively recurs to this claim, that there was an era before Pim, a period with Pim, and now he is in the era after Pim, and is formally divided into Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Having read the text carefully, I’m not sure this division matters that much, I mean it doesn’t make much difference to the quality of the memory fragments he appears to have, nor does it really change anything, but texts need a structure, and ‘before and after’ is among the most basic, minimal viable structures you can imagine, cognate with the before and after structure of both Waiting For Godot and Happy Days.

The narrator crawls through the mud by flinging his arm out and then inserting his fingers like grapnels into the mud and painfully pulling himself forward. He uses his right arm and right leg the most.

right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards

a gesture or technique he describes at length, repeatedly, to ram home the immiseration of his condition. As does his repeated use of swearwords to refer to bodily functions, namely that he pisses, farts and shits there, in the mud, wiping his arse with the mud. Beckett is addicted to potty language, and sprinkles his texts with the crudest Anglo-Saxon obscenities, it’s a mental tic, like the theme of mental collapse and ruined memory, the obsessive repetitions of words and phrases, the use of diagrams with mathematical keys or symbols, the obsessively detailed descriptions of humans performing actions like robots.

Overall, it is not a pretty picture, an old man in rags, a shadow of his former self (a ‘little dead weight’, ‘four stone five stone’) clutching into the mud, crawling through mud fouled by his own faeces. At one point he appears to say he has covered four hundred miles in this fashion:

and so in the mud the dark on the belly in a straight line as near as no matter four hundred miles

and what do you say to yourself as you labour on, day and night, through the mud, clinging to your sack of tinned provisions, hugging it close at night, your mind subjected to a chaos of half memories and fragments of education, ruined Latin tags or moments from philosophers or poets. For example, he remembers Belacqua, a minor character from Dante’s Purgatorio, who makes his first appearance in Beckett’s pre-war collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, and then pops up periodically as a one-word reference at odd moments in later texts:

asleep I see me asleep on my side or on my face it’s one or the other on my side it’s preferable which side the right it’s preferable the sack under my head or clasped to my belly clasped to my belly the knees drawn up the back bent in a hoop the tiny head near the knees curled round the sack Belacqua fallen over on his side tired of waiting forgotten of the hearts where grace abides asleep

In the mud, on his side, clasping, bent, what words can comfort you in such a plight?

what can one say to oneself possibly say at such a time a little pearl of forlorn solace so much the better so much the worse

Part 1 – before Pim

The solitary narrator journeys in the mud-dark hag-ridden by the ‘the voice’ dictating his broken memories:

I say it as I hear it natural order more or less bits and scraps in the mud my life murmur it to the mud

His journey, if it is a journey, is really a montage of memories from his life, including moving reminiscences of his mother, of his childhood of being taught to pray, of the many visitors who came to dandle him on their knees. Suddenly, as so often happens, out of the swirl of avant-garde disjecta comes a perfectly plain memory, of a morning in April or May when he and a girlfriend took her dog for a walk on a leash, near a racecourse, near fields full of lambs.

we are if I may believe the colours that deck the emerald grass if I may believe them we are old dream of flowers and seasons we are in April or in May and certain accessories if I may believe them white rails a grandstand colour of old rose we are on a racecourse in April or in May

But it is just as characteristically ruined by Beckettian subversions: he suddenly realises how grotesque he looks, the dog lowers its head to its black and pink penis, the couple eat food in an increasingly surreal mechanical, way:

suddenly we are eating sandwiches alternate bites I mine she hers and exchanging endearments my sweet girl I bite she swallows my sweet boy she bites I swallow we don’t yet coo with our bills full

and then the vision collapses, and he is back in the mud.

Part 2 – with Pim

Part 2 opens, bizarrely, Proceeding through the mud the narrator appears to catch a man in a similar situation on the buttocks. He tries to turn him over but fat chance of that, no:

I’ll never know Pim but on his belly…and having rummaged in the mud between his legs I bring up finally what seems to me a testicle or two

he’s a little old man we’re two little old men something wrong here

like two old jades harnessed together

He feels the back of the man’s head, all white hair, then the man starts up a little tune. Slowly painfully he pulls himself abreast of the man, pulls his arm back, it has a watch on, holds it to his ear, vast vistas of memory, open, lets the arm go, it returns to its former position. The narrator decides to call him Pim, it’s not his ‘real’ name, then says he likes it because it’s his, the narrator’s name, too,

when this has sunk in I let him know that I too Pim my name Pim there he has more difficulty a moment of confusion irritation it’s understandable it’s a noble name then it calms down

Mind you, the man he’s waiting for can call him Bom if he wants to.

m at the end and one syllable the rest indifferent

Pim the narrator decides to teach Pim the other a few lessons. They’re not nice lessons:

first lesson theme song I dig my nails into his armpit right hand right pit he cries I withdraw them thump with fist on skull his face sinks in the mud his cries cease end of first lesson

second lesson same theme nails in armpit cries thump on skull silence end of second lesson all that beyond my strength

The narrator learns if he digs his nails into Pim’s armpit, Pim sings. If he thumps him on the skull, he stops, for the simple reason that the thump drives Pi’s eyes, nose and mouth under the mud. The narrator tries to grab Pim’s sack but he won’t let go, narrator tears Pim’s wrist to the bone, the blood he lost. He clasps him to his right side, ‘fear of being abandoned’, he takes the can opening and drives it into Pim’s buttock, Pim screams, the narrator thumps his skulls, pushing Pim’s face under the mud. Stabs his buttocks so many times it becomes an open wound, stabs him so many times the initial cry becomes a dulled murmur, so then the narrator uses the tin opener to bang hard on Pim’s kidney, a new source of torment. In fact the narrator works out a repertoire of getting sounds out of Pim:

  1. gouging Pim’s armpit with his nails makes him sing
  2. tin opener in the arse makes him speak
  3. thump on skull makes him stop
  4. banging opener on kidney makes him louder
  5. index finger in his anus makes him softer
  6. smack across arse makes him say bravo

All this with his right hand. Why? Because his left is clinging onto his old coalsack full of tins, of course!

With the sharp nails of his right hand he carves letters into Pim’s bare back. He seems to be carving YOU PIM into Pim’s back in an effort to teach him that that’s his name. Takes a long time. Hard lessons. Pim becomes the narrator’s ‘unbutcherable brother’.

I’ll stay where I am yes glued to him yes tormenting him yes eternally yes

glued together like a single body in the dark the mud

About now I began to really notice the references to ‘up above’, to people up above, coming from above, as if the mud is on the lower level of something.

sky and earth yes people poking about yes all over the place yes… and he calls that life above yes as against life here

to those under whom and all above and all about the earth turns and all turns who hasten so from one goal to the next that but for this breath I would fancy I hear their hastening feet

days of great gaiety thicker than on earth since the age of gold above in the light the leaves fallen dead

Is it an underworld, then, this mudworld? It’s certainly not the underworld of either classical or Christian myth, but Pim had a life up there and the narrator had a life up there which he strains to remember. Is he ‘down here’ as a punishment?

two more years to put in a little more then back to the surface…

We learn the narrator had a wife, Pam Prim. They had sex every day, then a few times a week, then once a week, then he tried to revive interest by sodomising her. She used to shave her mound i.e. her mons veneris. She jumped out the second floor window. He visited her in hospital, took flowers.

We are introduced to the witness Kram and the scribe Krim, their silly names not far from Bim and Bom* and the egregious Pim. These Krims seem to have come in generations and been given numbers, thus Krim the Seventh, Krim the Ninth, men of consequence, the narrator wishes he’d known them, his grandfather did, his grandfather is suddenly a presence in the narrative.

He remembers a dog, named Skum or Skom, these names are obviously jokes. There’s pages more essentially repeating the notion of his eternal tormenting of Pim and the latter’s apparent references to ‘up there’, before the clusters of phrases begin to indicate we are nearing the end of part two, and the voice needs to describe what happened after Pim but before Bom.

Part 3 – after Pim

The narrator returns to his earlier solitude and considers in more detail the details of his situation, down here in the mud world, rehashing phrases about moving right arm right leg, advancing a few yards, but there is more focus now on the voice which gives him the words, few pitiful words, to say it, tell it, describe it.

try and hear a few old words on and off string them together in a phrase a few phrases try and see how it can possibly have been

but without motion in the mud-dark. Pim is gone but someone else comes up behind him as he came up behind Pim, he thinks he’s called Bim or Bem, word ending in m.

together then life in common me Bem he Bem we Bem vast stretch of time

This Bom performs the same function towards the narrator as the narrator performed towards Pim i.e. a tormentor.

instead of me sticking the opener into Pim’s arse Bom sticking it into mine

Or is it that he left Bem in order to find Pim, and at the same moment another left Pim to move on, thousands of them, a vast relay?

at the instant I leave Bem another leaves Pim and let us be at that instant one hundred thousand strong then fifty thousand departures fifty thousand abandoned no sun no earth nothing turning the same instant always everywhere

Millions, the whole world caught in this mud, endless relay, series of pointless movements, encounters and tortures:

millions millions there are millions of us and there are there I place myself at my point of view Bem is Bom Bom Bem let us say Bom it’s preferable Bom then me and Pim me in the middle

a million then if a million strong a million Pims now motionless agglutinated two by two in the interests of torment too strong five hundred thousand little heaps colour of mud and now a thousand thousand nameless solitaries half abandoned half abandoning

He theorises about the experience, about the endless relay which heads from left to right or east to west. Maybe its stages can be categorised:

one the journey two the couple three the abandon

This expands into a characteristically geometric way of conceiving the shape made by all the people in the mud, he uses algebraic symbols to depict the shape of the journey, and a mathematical-sounding consideration of the relationship between any three or four people taken at random in this vast sequence of people who are victims to the one coming up behind but tormentors of the one ahead in the endless sequence. Then he picks a number at random, hypothesising the numbers to entities in the endless chain of mud creatures:

number 814327 may speak misnomer the tormentors being mute as we have seen part two may speak of number 814326 to number 814328 who may speak of him to number 814329 who may speak of him to number 814330 and so on to number 814345 who in this way may know number 814326 by repute

And the only relationship these endlessly forming and breaking couples can have in each other is of torment and torture:

always two strangers uniting in the interests of torment

Are there only one of him, or millions?

in other words in simple words I quote on either I am alone and no further problem or else we are innumerable and no further problem either

In other words, this final section, part 3, after Pim, brings together various fragmented speculations about the overall context, the situation, the plight, individual or communal or global, of all these ‘people’ in the mud, their slow crawling advance, reaching and gripping handholds in the mud, clasping their sacks, until they encounter the one ahead of them, clambering themselves over their bodies and then systematically torturing them till they get away, a pause, and then someone behind catches up and clambers over them and tortures them.

Skullscape Critics invented the word skullscape to describe the narratives of these mid-period prose pieces in which the events seem to be occurring entirely within the narrator’s head, which is itself described or referenced, a small claustrophobic space made of white bone. The image recurs in All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine which were written around the same time, and crops up here in part 3.

the voice quaqua on all sides then within in the little vault empty closed eight planes bone-white

my life a voice without quaqua on all sides words scraps then nothing then again more words more scraps the same ill-spoken ill-heard then nothing vast stretch of time then in me in the vault bone-white

if we are innumerable then murmurs innumerable all alike our justice one life everywhere ill-told ill-heard quaqua on all sides then within when the panting stops ten seconds fifteen seconds in the little chamber all bone-white

Final negation On the last page the narrator comes to consider that everything he’s said, everything about Krim and Kram and Bim and Bem and Pim and millions of others, it’s all ‘balls’, it’s all lies, it’s all rubbish, there are no others, only him in the mud, alone.

all this business of sacks deposited yes at the end of a cord no doubt yes of an ear listening to me yes a care for me yes an ability to note yes all that all balls yes Krim and Kram yes all balls yes

and all this business of above yes light yes skies yes a little blue yes a little white yes the earth turning yes bright and less bright yes little scenes yes all balls yes the women yes the dog yes the prayers yes the homes yes all balls yes

and this business of a procession no answer this business of a procession yes never any procession no nor any journey no never any Pim no nor any Bom no never anyone no only me no answer only me

‘Only me’ ‘and the mud yes the dark yes the mud and the dark are true’ not even the sack, no, the sack balls too, only him, only me, yes, even the moving the crawling the right arm right leg ten yards fifteen yards, all balls, untrue, no movement, fixity, stasis, consciousness in the mud, the voice, in the mud, yes.

How it is’s prose style

in a word my voice otherwise nothing therefore nothing otherwise my voice therefore my voice so many words strung together

First and foremost the work is an assault on any normal person’s expectations of what a ‘novel’ or even proper prose should be. In the introduction Édouard Magessa O’Reilly describes how the work moved through four revisions as Beckett struggled to find a format for what he meant to say. With the fourth revision he had the brainwave of abandoning the entire notion of conventional sentences and instead using forward slashes to subdivide and break up the prose. And once it had been written through like that, to take one further step and abandon the slashes, creating blocks of prose with no punctuation whatsoever.

you are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more then again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark

The fundamental decision which underpins the entire text is to break it up not into units of meaning but units of breath. The distinct fragments do not correspond to fragments of meaning or symbolism or semantic coherence, but to the length of the narrator’s ability to speak without taking a breath.

‘A voice is talking non-stop, yet uncertain of what needs to be said, repeating itself, pausing only to take in air.’

The result is Beckett’s only work which genuinely has no punctuation except for gaps and spaces. And not only punctuation is omitted but copulas, the verbs and adverbs and prepositions which normally help us understand the logical connection between words and phrases. With these left out the text becomes a thing of repeated repetition as the narrator tries again and again to find the right word or phrase, and these fragments work not by logical flow but by juxtaposition, their placing next to each other creating a distinctive kind of prose poetry.

my hand won’t come words won’t come no word not even soundless I’m in need of a word of my hand dire need I can’t they won’t

Because it clearly lacks sentences and traditional punctuation, some critics claim How It Is cannot be a novel. Well, why not, novels can be more or less anything you want them to, including graphic cartoon novels or novels in verse. Closer in spirit were the canny French critics who pointed out how each block of prose could be considered ‘versets’:

suddenly afar the step the voice nothing then suddenly something something then suddenly nothing suddenly afar the silence

Others have pointed out the similarities with the Bible, that the text, like much of the Old Testament in particular, works through juxtaposition, of phrases in parallel rather than placed in consecutive logic.

my memory obviously the panting stops and question of my memory obviously that too all-important too most important this voice is truly changeable of which so little left in me bits and scraps barely audible when the panting stops so little so faint not the millionth part I say it as I hear it murmur it to the mud every word always

But it’s more radical than that. The text progresses through ‘clumps’ or word groups which, with most of the syntax removed, take on a really powerful and obscure charge of their own. Meaning is built up by apposition, by repetition of phrases with variation which create a kind of local vortex of implied meaning before shuttling onto the next vortex.

Vortices of repetition

Key phrases are repeated with variations. Maybe you could say this is a musical technique – themes with variations – but it’s a lot of other things too. From a psychological view, it could be said to be the demented repetitions of a mind gone right off its hinges. But it’s also a purely literary strategy, the way Beckett repeats these key phrases create little local eddies on the flow of the disconnected prose, stirs up eddies as in a stream stirred by a stick, stirring up the mud on the bottom, creating little local focuses, for a moment. It’s a different way of creating meaning: instead of standard prose proceeding in an orderly fashion from left to right in definite sentences characterised by the correct structure of subject verb object, accompanied by clarifying adverbs, prepositions and adjectives, having discarded all of that, instead the text creates meaning through these localised vortices. And each time one is invoked again the effect is more powerful, more creepy, more deranged, more… something, more taking you to a new place, a new type of prose.

  • part one before Pim – a few figures to wind up with part one before Pim the golden age, golden age so it ends part one before Pim my travelling days vast stretch of time
  • vast tracts of time – where I have my life where I had it where I’ll have it vast tracts of time, with Pim after Pim how it was how it is vast tracts of time when I see nothing, how long thus without motion or sound of any kind were it but of breath vast a vast stretch of time, the day comes that word again we come to the day at the end of how long no figures vast stretch of time, and Pim all this time vast stretch of time not a movement, all this time vast stretch of time all that beyond my strength, silence more and more longer and longer silences vast tracts of time, monster silences vast tracts of time perfect nothingness, before Pim long before with Pim vast tracts of time, how it was after Pim how it is vast stretch of time before Pim with Pim vast tracts of time, loss of the noble name of Bem part one before Pim how it was vast stretch of time it’s done
  • something wrong there – to have Pim’s timepiece something wrong there, I fleshed them indistinctly something wrong there, head up rick in the neck hands tense in the mud something wrong there, in the mud the dark the face in the mud the hands anyhow something wrong there, how it was after Pim how it is something wrong there, not me Pim you Pim we Pim but me Bom you Pim something very wrong there
  • panting stops – then in me when the panting stops bits and scraps I murmur them, always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, how it was with Pim vast stretch of time murmur it in the mud to the mud when the panting stops, the voice of us all quaqua on all sides then in us when the panting stops, the panting stops I murmur it, an image too of this voice ten words fifteen words long silence ten words fifteen words long silence long solitude once without quaqua on all sides vast stretch of time then in me when the panting stops scraps
  • the voice – the voice said so the voice in me that was without quaqua, every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua the voice of us all when the panting stops and murmur in the mud to the mud
  • murmured to this mud –  murmur it to the mud, as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, how it was with Pim vast stretch of time murmur it in the mud to the mud when the panting stops, vast tracts of time part three and last in the dark the mud my life murmur it bits and scraps, the way I murmur in the mud what I hear in me when the panting stops bits and scraps, always every word as I hear it in me that was without when the panting stops and murmur it in the mud bits and scraps, all alone and yet I hear it murmur it all alone in the dark the mud and yet, no more time I say it as I hear it murmur it in the mud
  • right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards towards Pim – set forth forth again ten yards fifteen yards right leg right arm push pull, before Pim the journey part one right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards, right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards halt, as I depart right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards towards Pim
  • I say it as I hear it – unspeakable flurry in the mud it’s me I say it as I hear it, you mustn’t too weak agreed if you want weaker no you must as weak as possible then weaker still I say it as I hear it every word always, but the cord a burst sack a cord I say it as I hear it murmur it to the mud, I was young all that all those words chevrons golden vertices every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, that was the point to be made I say it as I hear it, no nothing I said nothing I say it as I hear it, no more time I say it as I hear it murmur it in the mud
  • life above – only one life above from age to age, YOUR LIFE ABOVE, had a life up above down here I’ll see my things again, the good moments I’ll have had up there down here nothing left, samples my life above, a few more little scenes life above in the light, in my twenties iron constitution above in the light, my life again above in the light, life along with it above in the light
  • ten yards fifteen yards – the old road towards my next mortal ten yards fifteen yards push pull
  • good moments – before Pim the golden age the good moments, part two with Pim how it was good moments, we lie thus a good moment they are good moments good for me, it does you good now and then they are good moments, a distant ticking I listen a good moment they are good moments, our life in common we had good moments they were good moments drivel, my side glued to his my right arm round his shoulders his cries have ceased we lie thus a good moment they are good moments, they were good moments there will be good moments less good, the next much better much safer that will be good good moments the good moments, life as we say little scene one minute two minutes good moments then nothing

What paying attention to these repeated phrases indicates is a) just how often they are repeated and b) how relatively few there are. I probably missed some but we’re talking in the region of ten or a dozen of these key phrases.

What do they tell us? Precious little. Poets from Homer to T.S. Eliot draw upon traditional imagery, lace their works with symbolism, drawing on a common myth kitty or sets of archetypes or religious or political ideology. Even the most obscure of symbolist poets works with images and metaphors which, you feel, would mean something if only you could unlock the clue to their system.

Empty phrases Not Beckett. These word clusters form vortexes around which the text swirls and accumulates and builds up and yet each of them is, ultimately, empty. Refers to nothing but itself. They are sui generis, invented, made up for the occasion phrases and images. A phrase ‘right arm right leg’ means nothing more than it says, but by dint of being repeated 40 or 50 times, acquires a certain incantatory power.

Word zones Not only that, but phrases cluster in certain parts of the text more than others so that reading through the text means, in part, moving from the magnetic field of a certain group of repeated phrases into the zone of a different group. Each group provides a different verbal landscape or ambience. If we used a musical analogy the slow decrease in use of one phrase-set and rise in usage of a new one is like the way classical music progresses through treatment of one motif or theme before moving to a secondary or tertiary theme, which is itself explored through variations, inversions and so on. And then old themes reappear, maybe slightly reworked, restructured.

The major difference between music and Beckett’s text being that these word clusters or motifs are so densely repeated. Word block after block is made up of nothing but key phrases, the text is supersaturated with his chosen phrases.

every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua the voice of us all when the panting stops and murmur in the mud to the mud

Potty mouth

  • a dream what a hope death of sack arse of Pim end of part one
  • under me convulsed the mud goes guggle-guggle I fart and piss in the same breath
  • from the murmurs of my mother shat into the incredible tohu-bohu
  • the hand dips clawing for the take instead of the familiar slime an arse two cries one mute
  • quick a supposition if this so-called mud were nothing more than all our shit yes all if there are not billions of us at the moment and why not the moment there are two there were yes billions of us crawling and shitting in their shit hugging like a treasure in their arms the wherewithal to crawl and shit a little more now my nails
  • it’s as I thought then back left just the same just to clinch it and there to be sure there’s the arse again
  • BOM scored by finger-nail athwart the arse the vowel in the hole I would say in a scene from my life he would oblige me to have had a life the Boms sir you don’t know the Boms sir you can shit on a Bom sir you can’t humiliate him a Bom sir the Boms sir
  • all I hear leave out more leave out all hear no more lie there in my arms the ancient without end me we’re talking of me without end that buries all mankind to the last cunt
  • the urethra perhaps after piss the last drop
  • between the cheeks of his arse not very elastic
  • when stabbed in the arse instead of crying he sings his song what a cunt this Pim
  • no stopping him thump thump all his fat-headed meatus in the shit no holding him thump thump
  • a thing you don’t know the threat the bleeding arse
  • YOUR LIFE CUNT ABOVE CUNT HERE CUNT
  • my wife above Pam Prim can’t remember can’t see her she shaved her mound
  • Pam Prim we made love every day then every third then the Saturday then just the odd time to get rid of it tried to revive it through the arse
  • papa no idea building trade perhaps some branch or other fell off the scaffolding on his arse no the scaffolding that fell and he with it landed on his arse dead burst
  • efforts to resuscitate through the arse joint vain through the cunt
  • what age my God fifty sixty eighty shrunken kneeling arse on heels hands on ground splayed like feet very clear picture thighs aching the arse rises the head drops touches the straw
  • DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT [this is one of the phrases the narrator carves into Pim’s naked back with his fingernails]
  • two there were two of us his hand on my arse
  • and when on the unpredictable arse for the millionth time the groping hand descends that for the hand it is the first arse for the arse the first hand
  • with that of a slowness difficult to conceive the procession we are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts
  • or emotions sensations take a sudden interest in them and even then what the fuck I quote does it matter who suffers
  • who drinks that drop of piss of being and who with his last gasp pisses it to drink

There are plenty of academic books with titles like ‘Beckett and Negation’, ‘Beckett and Identity’, ‘Beckett and Gender’, polite titles, respectful titles, utterly conforming to contemporary requirements for gender, race and identity to be included in every work in the humanities.

Not so many with titles like ‘Beckett and Shit’ or ‘Beckett and Cunt’, but Beckett uses the coarsest swearwords surprisingly often in all his works. Partly it may have been a childish enjoyment in ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out 70 years ago, seeing how far he could go before his books were banned or censored, especially in his own Roman Catholic Church-dominated Eire. Partly, maybe. But Beckett is more serious than that. The widespread use of the coarsest swearwords is also something to do with the central topic of his works, the death of the mind, its collapse into dementia, a wreckage of fragmented memories.

In this state of being reduced to having hardly any mind, what his various protagonists do retain is two things: bodies, which he describes in unnecessary minute detail, particularly their postures and gestures and positions and angles; and the fragments of language across its full range, from recondite and arcane vocabulary through to the crudest cuss words.

Interestingly, it is a common observation of dementia patients that they lose inhibitions and restraints and revert to extreme language.

One common complaint and concern that is frequently expressed by the loved ones of a dementia patient is the use of swear words and foul language.
(Dementia & Foul Language – Why Some People with Dementia Develop Problems with Swearing)

I’d suggest two things are going on here.

1. Beckett’s texts to some extent reflect his own observation of the elderly and senile, that they lose physical inhibitions, fart and, above all, swear at will.

2. But the language, rude or otherwise, always exists to serve the work, it is part of the project to create the literary artefact, and in this respect, the crudity of the language reflects the crudity of the condition to which his protagonists have been reduced, reduced to decrepit, knackered bodies crawling through the mud, occasionally encountering and torturing any other bodies they meet, their language is reduced to the same state, sometimes melliflous, studded with shreds and tatters of learning, punctuated by the crudest swearwords the English language can offer.

Still it is funny, the extent to which Beckett does twit the bourgeoisie, including the sages of Academe. Many academic commentaries linger on the numerous variations of his catchphrase ‘I can’t go on, I will go on’. That is what you could call officially-approved Beckett nihilism, sanctioned by high-minded theatre goers and literary critics, a rather heroic vision of battling on against all the odds.

Not so many academic papers dwell on that other Beckett catchphrase ‘DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT’. Hm. This kind of language is not so officially sanctioned, not so beloved of high-minded theatre goers and critics. Cunt arse shit says Beckett.

Cultural references

You could argue that each work erects its own system of correspondences, with unique dynamics and tensions between the names, the people, their works or connotations. But you could also argue that this is also one of Beckett’s tics or tricks, one of the half dozen or so literary devices he uses in virtually all his works, along with pauses, repetition and graphic swearwords. Since the beginning of his career as a writer he has namedropped and referenced classic literature and philosophy in each of the works. The effect is always the same: the professors may investigate the works of Malebranche or Haeckel and note the immense relevance to one or other aspect of their huge bodies of work to this or that aspect of the present text. But there’s a simpler motive. Beckett’s characters reference classic literature or Latin tags or quotes or names to show that they were once young and well-educated and to highlight how utterly prostrate, low and abject their current situation has become. The literary references may contain subtexts and shed light up to a point on a particular text. But in a more general sense all such quotes and namedropping are an indicator of the narrator or character’s utter collapse into wretched, broken-minded, senile mind-fail.

  • Belacqua, character in Dante’s Purgatorio
  • Malebranche, rationalist philosopher
  • Haeckel, German naturalist and philosopher
  • Klopstock, German poet

Recondite diction

Another Beckett tic, present since the start of his career is that, in among the for the most part pretty straightforward language and lexicon of his works, Beckett will from time to time lob an artfully positioned rare or arcane term. I suggest that its primary function is to help create that distinctive Beckett flavour, like a chef who puts coriander in every dish. But it has at least two other functions. One is obviously related to the tactic of occasional namedropping or quoting i.e. it indicates how low the once well-educated and fluent protagonist has fallen. But it also impinges on Beckett’s liking for the pedantic and the precise, most evident in his fanatical attention to the precise positioning and posture of the bodies he often describes with geometric accuracy often invoking algebraic terms or even drawing diagrams to be mathematically precise. Well, the pedantic preciseness of the occasional arcane term he drops into the text serves the same purpose. It is a sort of pedantic positioning of language which mimics the author’s pedantic positioning of the bodies.

  • malar = relating to the cheek
  • buccinator = a thin, flat muscle lining the cheek, the action of which contracts and compresses the cheek
  • Lied = German song from the classical era
  • sparsim = sparsely; scatteredly; here and there
  • piriform = pear-shaped
  • serotines = a medium-sized insectivorous bat
  • felly = the outer rim of a wheel, to which the spokes are fixed
  • latrinal = of or relating to tears
  • scissiparous = of or relating to reproduction by means of fission
  • prepensely = arranged in advance, premeditated
  • sithence = thereupon; subsequently, afterwards
  • acervation = a heaping up, accumulation

The geometry of human bodies

As touched on above, most of Beckett’s fictions contain super-precise descriptions of the bodies involved, often describing them more like an architect’s blueprints or an engineering plan than humans, as in the prose works closely related to How It Is, All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine which assign algebraic symbols to different parts of the body in order to then map out different postures and folding and contortions of the human form. How It Is doesn’t quite go that far but, in the descriptions of the precise method whereby the narrator pulls himself forward through the mud, and then the super-precise descriptions of how he aligns his own body with Pim’s, this text clearly comes from the same mind, deploying the same set of textual tactics.

  • sudden swerve therefore left it’s preferable forty-five degrees and two yards straight line such is the force of habit then right right angle and straight ahead four yards dear figures then left right angle and beeline four yards then right right angle so on till Pim
  • thus north and south of the abandoned arrow effect of hope series of sawteeth or chevrons sides two yards base three a little less this the base we’re talking of the base in the old line of march which I thus revisit an instant between two vertices one yard and a half a little less
  • semi-side right left leg left arm push pull flat on the face mute imprecations scrabble in the mud every half-yard eight times per chevron or three yards of headway
  • my arm bends therefore my right it’s preferable which reduces from very obtuse to very acute the angle between the humerus and the other the anatomy the geometry
  • semi-side left right leg right arm push pull right right don’t lose him round his head hairpin turn right right straighten up across his arm along his side close in and halt my head to his feet his to mine

How far how fast does this technique advance him and the others, the maybe millions of others trapped in the mud? In part 3 the voice works it out

knowing furthermore by the same courtesy that the journey is accomplished in stages ten yards fifteen yards at the rate of say it’s reasonable to say one stage per month this word these words months years I murmur them

four by twenty eighty twelve and half by twelve one hundred and fifty by twenty three thousand divided by eighty thirty-seven and a half thirty-seven to thirty-eight say forty yards a year we advance

correct

from left to right we advance each one advances and all advance from west to east year in year out in the dark the mud in torment and solitude at the speed of thirty-seven to thirty-eight say forty yards a year we advance

The old tune

The previous half dozen sections have shown how Beckett deploys his familiar box of half a dozen or so tricks to great advantage in this text. Obviously the central theme of a human being reduced to utter wretched mental collapse and physical humiliation is the core Beckett idea, it appears here, too, and so we aren’t surprised that at several moments, variations on Beckett’s basic and much-repeated motto float into view, namely the need to go on, the impossibility of going on, I can’t go on, I will go on – an idea which was brought to perfection in The Unnameable and was then repeated in an impressive number of variations ever afterwards:

one can’t go on one goes on as before can one ever stop put a stop that’s more like it one can’t go on one can’t stop put a stop

Or, alternatively, the slightly less soulful and spiritual:

DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT

Ah, my darling, I thought you’d never ask.

———————————————-

* The Beckett Companion tells me that Bim and Bom were the names of two well-known Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were promoted by the Soviet regime. But Beckett saw them as emblems of ‘cruelty under a comic garb’. Their names appear in Murphy, in draft passages deleted from both Waiting For Godot and Endgame, before cropping up here in How It Is and making a final appearance in What Where.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970)
  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • neither (1976)
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

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

More Beckett reviews

An asterisk indicates that a work was part of the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays and were released as a set in 2002.

The Second World War 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett (1934)

‘You and your sad and serious,’ she said. ‘Will you never come off it?’ (p.24)

Beckett biography

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906 into a middle-class Anglican family (they had a tennis court in the garden). He went to private school, where he excelled at cricket, and people who like arty anecdotes will tell you he is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who is also mentioned in Wisden, ‘the Bible of cricket’, for his several appearances in county-level cricket teams.

From 1923 to 1927 Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, which goes a long way to explaining the polyglot nature of his texts. In 1929, while living in Paris, the young Anglo-Irishman was introduced to the great Modernist writer, James Joyce, famous for his vast rewriting of the English language in the experimental novel, Ulysses, and became his secretary for a while.

In 1931 Beckett returned to Dublin to take up an appointment as a lecturer, but in 1931 resigned, packing in academic life to travel on the Continent. He published a study of Proust, miscellaneous poems and tried to find a publisher for his first novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the title being a ponderously jocose reference to Tennyson’s poem, A Dream of Fair Women.

All the publishers rejected it, but Beckett reworked passages of it into this collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks. In fact, the failed novel is referred to by title as the long-pondered work of a character in the seventh story, What a Misfortune, the would-be poet and cuckold of Mr Otto Olaf bboggs, Walter Draffin.

The tilted kepi of the attendant, its green band and gilt harp, and the clang beneath in black and white of his riotous hair and brow, so ravished Walter that he merely had to close his eyes to be back in Pisa. The powers of evocation of this Italianate Irishman were simply immense, and if his Dream of Fair to Middling Women, held up in the limae labor stage for the past ten or fifteen years, ever reaches the public, and Walter says it is bound to, we ought all be sure to get it and have a look at it anyway. (p.128)

More pricks than kicks

So this collection is Beckett’s first published work of fiction. It’s a sequence of ten interlocking stories (with a few author’s footnotes explaining the linkages, where necessary), set in Dublin and describing the super-bookish, über-erudite but shiftless anti-hero, Belacqua Shuah – ‘a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow’ (p.156) – who has a series of mostly pretty mundane encounters and adventures around Dublin and in the neighbouring countryside.

(Nowhere in the text does it explain that the name Belacqua Shuah comes from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness, who has given up on ever reaching heaven. ‘Samuel Beckett, whose favorite reading was Dante, closely identified with Belacqua and his indolence.’ I mean Beckett mentions Dante, the medieval Italian poet’s name is in the title of the first story, but it’s left to the enterprising reader either to look up the connection or, one assumes, to erudite enough to spot it straightaway. – We have Wikipedia to thank for this information.)

Like most Modernist texts More Pricks than Kicks assumes you have a good working knowledge of European literary classics and are fluent in at least the key modern languages (not only the French and Italian which Beckett himself studied, but German also) as the text is sprinkled with quotes like the following, with no translation:

Meine Ruh ist hin mein Herz ist schwer
Ich finde Sie nimmer und nimmer mehr.

You only have to read a few sentences to realise that Beckett has a very tangential relationship to the English language. His prose wilfully combines:

  • Irish idioms and phrases (‘It would take off the rough wet’)
  • Latin tags and phrases (obiter, pro tem, tempus edax)
  • worn-out English proverbs and clichés:
    • better late than never
    • the things people come out with sometimes!
  • pompous Biblical phraseology:
    • ‘Who shall silence them, at last?’
  • and clichés from popular fiction treated with elaborate academic condescension:
    • The effect of this was to send what is called a glow of warmth what is called coursing through his veins
    •  … and no mistake!
    • well, to make a long story short
    • Hairy was as snug as a bug in a rug
  • archly direct address to the reader:
    • ‘Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard…’
    • ‘Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy.’

along with:

  • a liberal sprinkling of the three main European languages
  • sly quotes from literary classics
  • rebarbatively arcane words
  • an elaborately Euphuistic register
  • deliberately obscure phrasing and sentence structure

The book has a strong sense of humour but of a very distinct and idiosyncratic kind. Three pages are devoted to describing Belacqua’s extremely pedantic way of toasting bread for lunch which – it appears – involves burning each of the two slices of bread to a smouldering crisp.

When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other… Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. (p.11)

Because:

This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

This is certainly pretentious (the sledded Polacks are from Hamlet), but is it funny? Or just student-type self-indulgence? The show-off antics of a top-of-the-class ephebe?

These questions hover over the entire book, which treads all kinds of knife-edges. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is, frankly, incomprehensible. Most of it is painfully arch and contrived. You get the sense that a lot of it – whether the use of Irish idioms or obvious proverbs, the learned disquisitions about Italian poets or the sentences which feel like they’re walking on stilts – they all seem to be mocking their respective registers, styles and conventions.

Take this portrait of a lady, ‘the Frica’, which, beneath the glossolalia, seems to be comparing her, caustically, to a horse:

Behold the Frica, she visits talent in the Service Flats. In she lands, singing Havelock Ellis in a deep voice, frankly itching to work that which is not seemly. Open upon her concave breast as on a lectern lies Portigliotti’s Penombre Claustrali, bound in tawed caul. In her talons earnestly she grasps Sade’s 120 Days and the Anterotica of Aliosha G. Brignole-Sale, unopened, bound in shagreened caul. 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. Keyholes have wrung the unfriendly withers, the osseous rump screams behind the hobble-skirt. Wastes of woad worsted advertise the pasterns. Aïe! (p.46)

It comes from the longest ‘story’, A Wet Night which seems to be about a soirée for poets and literary layabouts held by this same Frica.

It’s as if the entire text is held at an angle from normal human perception, and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional narrative conventions. Maybe it’s intended to have the same deliberately angular feel as Wyndham Lewis’s consciously Modernist prose. Maybe its sentences are intended to contain lots of jagged edges, like a Vorticist painting.

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of Kate Lechmere by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis’s prose was generally satirical in intention. This book feels like it is not only satirising the ‘grotesque’ and apparently ageing anti-hero, his solemn monologues and pettifogging concerns, and also many of the traditions of conventional narrative – plot, dialogue, description – but is also satirising the reader for wanting to read it and the author for ever writing it. The whole enterprise is a right boggins.

Some occasional phrases appear legible and funny, and ring with a Joycean poetry:

  • ‘Oh Winnie’ he made a vague clutch at her sincerities, for she was all anyway on the grass. (p.25)
  • Chastening the cat with little skelps she took herself off. The grey hairs of her maidenhead
    screamed at Belacqua. A devout, virginal blue-stocking, honing after a penny’s worth of scandal. (p.17)
  • Though he might be only able to afford a safety-bicycle he was nevertheless a man of few words.
  • Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. (p.164)

But many, many, many other passages are purposely obtuse and circumlocutory, wilfully repelling and discomforting comprehension.

At this all-important juncture of his delirium Belacqua found himself blinking his eyes rapidly, a regular nictation, so that little flaws of dawn gushed into his mind. This had not been done with intent, but when he found that it seemed to be benefiting him in some curious way he kept it up, until gradually the inside of his skull began to feel sore. Then he desisted and went back to the dilemma. Here, as indeed at every crux of the enterprise, he sacrificed sense of what was personal and proper to himself to the desirability of making a certain impression on other people, an impression almost of gallantry. He must efface himself altogether and do the little soldier. It was this paramount consideration that made him decide in favour of Bim and Bom, Grock, Democritus, whatever you are pleased to call it, and postpone its dark converse to a less public occasion. This was an abnegation if you like, for Belacqua could not resist a lachrymose philosopher and still less when, as was the case with Heraclitus, he was obscure at the same time. He was in his element in dingy tears and luxuriously so when these were furnished by a pre-Socratic man of acknowledged distinction. How often had he not exclaimed, skies being grey: “Another minute of this and I consecrate the remnant of my life to Heraclitus of Ephesus, I shall be that Delian diver who, after the third or fourth submersion, returns no more to the surface!” (p.149)

For long stretches the text is an omnium-gatherum of obfuscation. But despite its post-graduate knick-knackery – I liked it. I read many passages twice, getting to know them better. The Lobster, Lethe, Walking out and Yellow repay rereading.


The stories

Dante and the Lobster (11 pages)

Introducing Belacqua, who makes burned toast for lunch, stops in a pub till chucking out time (2.30), picks up the lobster his aunt ordered from a fishmonger, goes to his Italian lesson, where the lobster is attacked by the French tutor’s cat, and arrives with the lobster at his aunt’s, who boils it alive.

Fingal (10 pages)

Belacqua takes his lady love to Fingal, a viewing point outside Dublin, where they colloquise almost incomprehensibly before walking over to enjoy the view of the lunatic asylum, where Belacqua is replaced in the lady’s affections by Dr Sholto, sidles off, then nicks a labourer’s bicycle and scarpers back to Dublin where the story ends with him happily ensconced in a warm snug downing a pint of porter.

Ding-Dong (9 pages)

Restlessly moving from pub to pub, Belacqua witnesses a child being run over by a cart, though that’s not the point, the point seems to be a woman approaching him to sell theatre tickets in yet another pub.

A Wet Night (30 pages)

Belacqua is dragged along to a party hosted by ‘the Finca’, and attended by the ‘homespun Poet’, ‘the Alba’, the Polar Bear (P.B.), a Jesuit (S.J.), Chas and his girl (‘a Shetland Shawny’), the ‘arty Countess of Parambini’, the Student, the Caleken, a Galway Gael, the Man of Law escorting three tarts, two banned novelists, a bibliomaniac and his mistress, a paleographer, a violist d’amore with his instrument in a bag, a popular parodist with his sister and six daughters, a still more popular Professor of Bullscrit and Comparative Ovoidology, the saprophile the better for drink, a communist painter and decorator fresh back from the Moscow reserves, a merchant prince, two grave Jews, a rising strumpet, three more poets with Lauras to match, a disaffected cicisbeo, a chorus of playwrights, the inevitable envoy of the Fourth Estate, a phalanx of Grafton Street Stürmers and Jemmy Higgins. I dare say these are all hilarious portraits of characters from 1920s literary Dublin.

Love and Lethe (12 pages)

A slightly more comprehensible ‘story’, complete with satirical asides to the reader, in which Belacqua has persuaded the fading 33-year-old Ruby to accompany him in a suicide attempt. They drive out to a hill, climb it, sit to admire the view, drink a whole bottle of spirits, the gun goes off by accident harming neither – at which they fall to urgent rumpy-pumpy in the ling.

Walking Out (10 pages)

‘Walking out’ is the phrase used to describe courting couples back in D.H. Lawrence days (the 1910s and 20s) This is a brutal subversion of the convention. Belacqua is walking in fields when he is caught up by his lady love and fiancée, Lucy, on horseback. An obscure Latin phrase in their conversation somehow conveys to Lucy what we then find out, which is that Belacqua has come this way to spy on a ‘courting couple’ who, apparently, have sex in the nearby woods. She rides off in a huff, and is trotting blind with anger along a narrow country lane when a car driven by a drunken lord hurtles round the corner, kills her horse outright and cripples her for life. Oblivious of all this Belacqua has continued on his way to the gloomy woods where he sneaks about till he finds his (German) couple in flagrente delicto, but steps on a dry branch and the enraged Tanzherr chases him, catches him, and administers a good flogging. Belacqua crawls home. In a cruel postscript we learn that he and the crippled Lucy are now married and regularly play records on the phonogram :).

What a Misfortune (30 pages)

Lucy conveniently dies, two years after her accident, and Belacqua is free to become engaged to Thelma bboggs, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs Otto Olaf bboggs, who has made his pile from toiletries. Beckett’s humour is not… subtle. This is an extended Beckettian satire on all the embarrassments and confusions of a bourgeois marriage, complete with unwilling bride’s father, his wife’s lover, the hairy best man, a crippled nymphomaniac and a drooling cretin. But this makes it sound too comprehensible. It is the usual onomasticon of oneiromancies:

The hyperaesthesia of Hairy was so great that the mere fact of standing on licensed ground, without the least reference to its liberties, was of force sufficient to exhilarate him. Now therefore, under the influence of his situation, he dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. (p.118)

The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux (5 pages)

The shortest section, this is told entirely in the first person, as a letter written by an illiterate German girl who appears to be madly in love with Belacqua, who she refers to as Bel. Presumably, he’s had some kind of affair with her.

[The central importance of women, or a Woman – Only at this point in my reading did I finally realise that every one of these stories revolves around Belacqua’s encounter with a specific woman – Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi in Dante and the Lobster, Winnie in Fingal, the unnamed woman who sells him theatre tickets in Ding-Dong, ‘the’ Alba in Wet Night, Ruby in Love and Lethe, Lucy in Walking Out, Thelma in What a Misfortune and ‘the’ Smeraldina in this story. And that these are presumably the fair to middling women of his unpublished novel, reworked into freestanding stories. It’s hard to see what purpose or meaning to give to their central role except as a plot device, the device being that each of them represents the opposite pole to Belacqua’s well-developed solipsism and self-absorption, each of them yanks our hero out of his seamless subjectivity. And each one of them is then the butt of humour, satire and scorn.]

Yellow (13 pages)

Belacqua is in hospital awaiting an operation on a tumour the size of a brick growing out of his neck. Now that I’ve identified the woman-theme in the previous stories, this one confirmed what I see as the fundamental dynamic of the stories, which is the way Belacqua’s leaden solipsism is punctured and alleviated, lightened, amused or irritated, by the intrusion of women – one per story, generally, but in this one it is a small regiment of nurses, fussing and trimming him. They are quite personable. Some bits – like the nurse bursting out laughing at the ugliness of his toes – are quite funny. In the last few sentences, it appears that Belacqua dies on the operating table.

Draff (13 pages)

This final story reviews, or at least namechecks, all the fair to middling women who featured in its predecessors, before pointing out that Belacqua’s widow was his final amour, no other than ‘the Smerladina’ whose letter we read a few sections earlier. Now she attends to Belacqua’s corpse, laid out in the parlour, and deals with sundry visitors (Nick Malacoda the undertaker, the Church of Ireland padre, friend Capper). She and Hairy dress the burial plot with moss then go through the interment, next day. On the way back Hairy argues with the padre and dumps him in the middle of nowhere. Arriving home, they find Smeraldina and Belacqua’s house in flames. Apparently the gardener ran amok, raped the serving girl and torched it. A policeman points out he is now under arrest. Hairy takes the Smeraldina driving up into the mountains where – I think – they have sex which – I think – she seems to like rather rough. The groundsman back at the cemetery finishes his bottle of stout.

So it goes in the world. (p.173)

So it goes, eh? That immediately makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut, who has the same mocking attitude to human existence, and actually uses the catchphrase ‘so it goes’ throughout his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.


Conclusion

So what do we take from all this? That Beckett:

  1. has swallowed not only an English dictionary of rare and obscure words, but an Italian and French and German dictionary as well
  2. has little new or interesting to say but says it with supernumerary logorrhoea, or with the smart, ironic use of worn-out clichés
    • (‘what a splendid thing it is when all is said and done to be young and vigorous’)
  3. occasionally takes recourse to Catholic theology, but with no feel at all for the numinous
    • (‘He did not know the French for lobster. Fish would do very well. Fish had been good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. It was good enough for Mlle Glain.’)
  4. is not much interested in plot or story
  5. and finds all humans risible, but has a particular itch against old crones – like ‘his lousy old bitch of an aunt’

But most of all, that Beckett’s prose – stitched together from a diverse range of sources and languages – is not sensual. It is certainly variegated – a rackety gallimaufrey of idiolects, langues and locutions – but it is always rather grey.

Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of [Ruby’s] garment and gutting his raptures with great complacency at a safe remove, represented precisely the ineffable long-distance paramour to whom as a homesick meteorite abounding in IT she had sacrificed her innumerable gallants. And now, the metal of stars smothered in earth, the IT run dry and the gallants departed, he appeared, like the agent of an ironical Fortune, to put her in mind of what she had missed and rowel her sorrow for what she was missing. Yet she tolerated him in the hope that sooner or later, in a fit of ebriety or of common or garden incontinence, he would so far forget himself as to take her in his arms.

The ghost of Joyce hangs heavily over Beckett. Joyce, a genuine world class genius, wrote sensitively and sensuously with a God-given inhabitation of language. Beckett is trying something similar – deploying an obfuscation of orotundity – but it doesn’t roll or rise. He has all the fandango and fol-de-rol, but no feel.

Clever, but dead. Beckett’s prose is assembled with tweezers. It is like a chemistry set, constructed with a chemist’s detachment. You can see why, later in the 1930s, he began to write in French. The over-clotted English style displayed here was a dead end, as was the entire approach of clotting and cluttering, additioning and complexifying. He had to completely purge his approach and his langue, in order to find his metier as the prophet of paucity.

Stray thoughts

The stories were written between 1931 and 1934, at the same time that Christopher Isherwood (b.1904 and therefore two years older than Beckett, b,1906) was working as an English teacher in Berlin, keeping his diary and working up the stories which were to appear in Mr Norris Changes Trains. There are suggestive points of comparison:

  • Isherwood’s prose is self-consciously crisp and clear and modern, like modernist architecture, completely unlike Beckett’s mongrel, multilingual, playing-with-registers gallimaufrey
  • similarly, Isherwood’s stories are stories in the utterly traditional sense, with characters and plots, although the ‘plots’ are often thin, the obvious working-up of everyday incidents – whereas Beckett has no plots, but instead sequences of trivial incidents on which he can hang his philosophical and linguistic games
  • although many details in both are harsh, they are both, arguably, comic writers
  • and if you consider how totally Isherwood commits himself to describing the foreign city where he was living, and its troubled politics i.e. the rise of Hitler, it makes you realise how, by contrast, Beckett never writes about Paris or the France he lived in, about the rise of fascism or the entire Second World War. Instead his imagination, in all his works, remains utterly rooted in the Dublin streets and pubs and characters and slang and songs of his boyhood. Although he was later hailed as a member of the international post-war avant-garde, a really close reading of Beckett (and hearing, of the radio plays, and watching, of the made-for-TV plays) brings out Beckett’s essential parochialness.

Credit

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett was published in 1934 by Chatto and Windus, London. All page references are to the 1974 Picador paperback edition.

Related links

More Beckett reviews

An asterisk indicates that a work was part of the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays and were released as a set in 2002.

The Second World War 1939-45

*Waiting For Godot 1953

  • All That Fall (1957) Radio play
  • *Act Without Words I & II (1957) Stage plays
  • *Endgame (1958) Stage play
  • *Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) Stage play
  • *Rough for Theatre I & II – Stage plays
  • Embers (1959) – Radio play
  • *Happy Days (1961) – Stage play
  • Rough for Radio I & II (1961) Radio plays
  • Words and Music (1961) Radio play
  • Cascando (1961) Radio play
  • *Play (1963) Stage play
  • How it Is (1964) Novel
  • *Come and Go (1965) Stage play
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) Short story
  • Eh Joe (1967) Television play
  • *Breath (1969) Stage play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • All Strange Away (1976) Short story
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1989) Short prose

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


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William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


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Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


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