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

Imagination Dead Imagine by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Although only published in 1965, Imagination mort imaginez (originally written in French) is obviously intimately linked with All Strange Away from the previous year, not least because All Strange Away opens with precisely these three words Imagination dead imagine. Beckett called it ‘a residual precipitate’ of the other work.

Imagination dead imagine is yet another exploration of the theme of the imagination which is dying but aware that it is dying, symbolised by a tiny structure apparently hanging in space, in which lie curled two barely animate humans. The text is wildly fantastical and abstract in its strange cosmic vision, yet down on the ground floor of the text, each sentence contains fragments which fight among themselves between affirmation and negation.

Beckett’s ‘closed space’ fictions

According to The Beckett Companion, in the mid-1960s Beckett’s imagination turned away from the journeys which had featured so much in his earlier prose pieces, and instead turned to the more minimal notion of fixed, enclosed spaces. His characters are not now crawling through mud, grasping handholds of grass to propel themselves forward – they are now confined in cubes or rotunda (as described in All Strange Away). These pieces imagine the collapse of imagination in an almost completely abstract way, rejecting language and imagery – and yet are hopelessly shackled to language, compelled to repeat fixated imagery and gestures, albeit in shreds and patches, phrases and handfuls of key words.

Geometry

It’s surprising the concept of closed spaces didn’t occur earlier to a man obsessed with precise geometrical shapes (evidenced in the detailed diagrams he drew for the production of his plays) and detailing the movements of people as if they were brainless automata (evidence in passages which obsessively catalogue every possible permutation of the smallest physical gesture, which can be found in all his novels).

Thus in this narrative we are invited into the rotunda which the cuboid cell of All Strange Away had morphed into by the end of that text, to discover it is shrunken but still mathematically true:

all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault. Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA.

There are beings within this space but, as in all mid- and late-Beckett, unnamed, unexpressed beings, not really recognisable as human, they have no names, never speak, more the material for a mime or strange choreography, or just images for paintings.

Lying on the ground two white bodies, each in its semicircle. White too the vault and the round wall eighteen inches high from which it springs

The narrating voice instructs itself to go outside the rotunda, view it from a distance, from a height, then re-enter and measure its dimensions again. To register the head. Note the two bodies, each in its semicircle. Play with it, as a space. Carry out thought experiments. Make the lights dim as in a theatre. What would happen if you could make the temperature dim, too?

Go back in. Emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness, wait, the light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached,

The pattern repeats. Light and temperature up… pause… then down again.

More or less long, for there may intervene, experience shows, between end of fall and beginning of rise, pauses of varying length, from the fraction of the second to what would have seemed, in other times, other places, an eternity.

This is abstract enough to, like abstract art, be susceptible to more or less any interpretation you choose. It could be breathing.

But even before it reached the word ‘eternity’ the sentence reminded me of the modern theories about the cyclical origin and destinies of universes, that they may begin in a Big Bang, expand at tremendous speed, slowly slowly slowing down, until they reach the furthest extension of their reach and then… slowly, slowly collapse back in on themselves, contracting and heating up until they reach absolute minimum size and maximum heat, arriving at a hyperdense singularity before – exploding out again in another vast Big Bang. Repeating the cycle forever.

In fact Beckett decides to describe this pulsation from light and hot to dark and cold in some detail, a sequence which takes up the middle part of the text, casting itself as a scientific description of some kind of chemical or physical process in a sort of parody of scientific prose.

The extremes alone are stable as is stressed by the vibration to be observed when a pause occurs at some intermediate stage, no matter what its level and duration. Then all vibrates, ground, wall, vault, bodies, ashen or leaden or between the two, as may be. But on the whole, experience shows, such uncertain passage is not common. And most often, when the light begins to fail, and along with it the heat,the movement continues unbroken until, in the space of some twenty seconds, pitch black is reached and at the same instant say freezing-point.

And indeed this passage has a mildly science fiction feel, these considerations of some kind of universal pulse, which really does invoke the idea of space, planets and worlds:

whatever its uncertainties the return sooner or later to a temporary calm seems assured, for the moment, in the black dark or the great whiteness, with attendant temperature, world still proof against enduring tumult. Rediscovered miraculously after what absence in perfect voids it is no longer quite the same, from this point of view, but there is no other.

‘World still proof against enduring tumult’ – that’s quite a resonant phrase, isn’t it, lifting us for a moment up out of the endless solipsism of the Beckett voice and into a vaster, more complete, more coherent world.

Then we go back inside the small white rotunda and the positioning of the persons inside is described in very much the same way as in All Strange Away, namely in a distinctive combination of abstract geometric positioning and potty-mouthed swearwords:

Still on the ground, bent in three, the head against the wall at B, the arse against the wall at A, the knees against the wall between B and C, the feet against the wall between C and A, that is to say inscribed in the semicircle ACB, merging in the white ground were it not for the long hair of strangely imperfect whiteness, the white body of a woman finally. Similarly inscribed in the other semicircle, against the wall his head at A, his arse at B, his knees between A and D, his feet between D and B, the partner.

So there are two beings, a woman and her partner, bent in three, each inscribed in their own semicircle within the small, tight, white rotunda. Hold a mirror to their lips, and it mists. They are alive, in their cramped positions. All that moves is their eyes, and their directions of sight only overlap for a few seconds, in another idea which is conceived as a diagram:

They might well pass for inanimate but for the left eyes which at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible. Piercing pale blue the effect is striking, in the beginning. Never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds.

The precision of the ten second overlap matches the precision of the other stage directions given in this text and even more so in its partner, All Strange Away, which gives precise durations for lights to go up, maintain for a given duration, and then fade over a given duration. Everything taking place just so. To the author’s precise instructions.

It is a kind of stage production going on inside his head, or someone’s. And the metaphor of a skull has been hinted at earlier, the notion that, in some way, the hard white rotunda is the human skull, now light and hot, now dark and cold, subject to eternal flux.

Go back out, a plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness, go back in, rap, solid throughout, a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone.

‘The ring of bone’. On this reading, it is another of Beckett’s many ‘skullscapes’, a mindscape which can only exist within the poky confines of the bleached white bony skull, the misadventures of the human mind, the human imagination, as it collapses, revives, collapses again, that again, always.

The text ends when the narrating voice, really a kind of narrative instructor, tells himself to leave them lying there, the two folded-up, silent, blue-eyed forms, for there are ‘better elsewhere’. Better what? But before there’s any explanation of that phrase, he immediately contradicts himself, as is his way:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Although Beckett has this reputation, among scholars if no-one else, for his pitiless gaze and the post-human bleakness of his vision etc, in reality both All Strange Away and this piece end with what could be interpreted as moving or even sentimental images, surprisingly conventional expressions of loss and regret:

no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark… or the great whiteness unchanging

‘The great whiteness unchanging’. These are only short pieces but their strange combination of the bleak and the post-human, the geometrically precise with these occasional flickerings of feeling, makes them very powerful and haunting works.


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

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett (1951)

I wonder why I speak of all this. Ah yes, to relieve the tedium. (Malone Dies p.179)

Malone Dies is the second in a trilogy of novels Beckett wrote after the war, which started with Molloy and ends with The Unnamable, all three quickly coming to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s the title of the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s and which I read it in.

Beckett wrote Malone Dies in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1956, was made by Beckett and introductions and online synopses emphasise that the English version is different from the French version in a number of details.

Introduction

I found Molloy very hard to read:

1. Because it is so verbally boring – Beckett’s style is for long stretches dead and deadening (I asked several friends to try reading some and all gave up after 1 or 2 pages)

2. Because the subject matter is so unrelentingly depressing. Not morbid, as such, it’s just the pointless meanderings of two senile old characters going mad or, more accurately, it’s a hyper-literary playing with the notion of characters going mad or breaking down. It would have a certain documentary interest if it really were the diary of someone going senile, but in fact it’s nothing like that. It is a highly crafted, highly artful, carefully concocted text, stuffed with all kinds of references – literary, philosophical, astrological – along with parodies and pastiches, and the development of stylistic devices to convey the ‘problematics’ of writing itself, the permanently collapsing nature of language, especially when used by a collapsing personality.

What’s depressing is that so much ingenuity has gone into devising texts which are wilfully nonsensical, nonsensical at epic length, and that I am wasting days I will never get back, reading and writing about them.

All went well at first, they all came to me, pleased that someone should want to play with them. If I said, Now I need a hunchback, immediately one came running, proud as punch of his fine hunch that was going to perform. It did not occur to him that I might have to ask him to undress. But it was not long before I found myself alone, in the dark. That is why I gave up trying to play and took to myself for ever shapelessness and speechlessness, incurious wondering, darkness, long stumbling with outstretched arms, hiding. Such is the earnestness from which, for nearly a century now, I have never been able to depart. From now on it will be different. I shall never do anything any more from now on but play.

Things always decline, decay and go downhill in Beckett, with mind-numbing predictability. Thus, whereas the characters in Molloy at least lived and moved about a bit (rode bicycles, hopped about on crutches) the first-person narrator of Malone Dies, the ‘impotent old man’ Malone, is considerably further decayed, is bed-bound and is, well, dying, the key fact stated right at the start:

I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. Perhaps next month… I could die to-day, if I wished, merely by making a little effort. But it is just as well to let myself die, quietly, without rushing things.

But he doesn’t die. He spends a long time spinning stories, making up characters, interspersed with returns to the narrator in bed, bored, speculating about death, fussing about his belongings, visited towards the end by some mysterious visitors.

As to the prose, we are back in the land of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘perhaps’, the two lynchpins of Beckett’s prose style. The easiest way to parody Beckett would be to write a series of trivial rhetorical questions and just put ‘I don’t know’ after them:

  • There it is then divided into five, the time that remains. Into five what? I don’t know.
  • I do not see any fields or hills. And yet they are near. But are they near? I don’t know.
  • No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know.
  • From now on I shall write on both sides of the page. Where does it come from? I don’t know.
  • That’s the style, as if I still had time to kill. And so I have, deep down I know it well. Then why play at being in a hurry? I don’t know.
  • But what if her purpose, in sorting the lentils, were not to rid them of all that was not lentil, but only of the greater part, what then? I don’t know.
  • But l tell myself so many things, what truth is there in all this babble? I don’t know.

Dementia, senility, atrophy, aphasia, I don’t know, perhaps, all that fall, decline, will it ever end, I’ll go on no i can’t go on i will go on, and on and on and on blah blah blah. Here are some of the hundreds of instances of ‘perhaps’:

  • But perhaps I shall not succeed any better than hitherto. Perhaps as hitherto I shall find myself abandoned, in the dark…
  • Perhaps I shall put the man and the woman in the same story, there is so little difference between a man and a woman, between mine I mean. Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon…
  • But perhaps I was stunned with a blow, on the head, in a forest perhaps, yes now that I speak of a forest I vaguely remember a forest…
  • Perhaps she is dead, having pre-deceased – me, perhaps now it is another’s hand that lays and clears my little table. I don’t know how long I have been here, I must have said so. All I know is that I was very old already before I
    found myself here. I call myself an octogenarian, but I cannot prove it. Perhaps I am only a quinquagenarian, or a quadragenarian.
  • Perhaps they think I am dead. Or perhaps they are dead themselves. I say they, though perhaps I should not.

Perhaps he should. Perhaps he shouldn’t. What do you think? I don’t l know.

(Interestingly, Beckett indicates that he is perfectly well aware of his penchant for adding ‘perhaps’ to every other sentence – he has the narrator of The Unnamable say: ‘No more perhapses either, that old trick is worn to a thread’ (p.286) — although he promptly continues to use ‘perhaps’. It really is a lynchpin of his prose style.)

Plot summary

  • while he’s dying Malone decides he will tell himself stories; after some discussion, this settles down into five elements: the present state, three stories and an inventory (p.167)
  • he’s in a room, not he thinks an asylum or a hospital but an institution, for he hears the voices of others and is provided with food – he thinks he got there in an ambulance, which instantly aligns him with Molloy who also doesn’t know how he got there, probably in an ambulance (p.168)
  • he lies in a bed, next to a window, he can see buildings, at night he can see the stars (p.169)
  • every day a hand half opens the door and places food on a table which he then pulls over to the bed using a stick with a hook, the table being on castors, a woman used to do it, come in and fuss around, but now he only sees a withered hand [everything declines and falls] (p.170)
  • he was old when he got there, maybe in his eighties, though he doesn’t know maybe he’s only in his 50s or 60s, who knows (p.171)
  • suddenly we are launched into a story about a man named Saposcat and his son, nicknamed Sapo, the son is good at maths and listens to his parents (his father is a salesman in a shop) discussing ways to earn more money, they want Sapo to become a doctor or surgeon and support them (p.172-3)
  • Malone interrupts his story to comment on his inability to tell this story or any other story (p.174) in fact he keeps interrupting  his own narrative to say ‘this is awful’ – presumably his telling of it, and to explain that bits he gets wrong, facts he’s not sure about, are like fragments of darkness which threaten to swell up and overwhelm him
  • Malone tells us the light has gone out in the building across the way, he imagines a man going for walks with a dog till the dog gets too weak and ill to go, at which point the man realises it’s time to have him put down [everything declines and falls] (p.176)
  • all the time commenting on his own inability to tell the story, Malone carries on painting a portrait of young Sapo as a dreamy, sensitive boy who fails his exams and is hurt overhearing his parents making their plans for him. Long, long passages are gibberish:

Here truly is the air I needed, a lively tenuous air, far from the nourishing murk that is killing me. I shall never go back into this carcass except to find out its time. I want to be there a little before the plunge, close for the last time the old hatch on top of me, say goodbye to the holds where I have lived, go down with my refuge. I was always sentimental. But between now and then I have time to frolic, ashore, in the brave company I have always longed for, always searched for, and which would never have me. Yes, now my mind is easy, I know the game is won, I lost them all till now, but it’s the last that counts. A very fine achievement I must say, or rather would, if I did not fear to contradict myself. Fear to contradict myself! If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty. (p.178)

  • he has a delirious vision of himself playing with what he insists on calling his playthings, turning, dizzy, falling
  • he tries to struggle on and convey some of Sapo’s ideas, but fails, keeps relapsing into the present and fussing about his current plight, for example the way not all his belongings are in the room as he at first thought, for example the missing boot and a zinc ring (p.181)
  • just like the lush description of Moran getting into bed, Malone describes the weight of his body on the bed, the sheets, the dirty windowpane (p.182)
  • abruptly we are introduce to the Lambert family and the father, Big Lambert, who is a butcher, who loves butchering pigs, who comes back after a hard day at the slaughterhouse to regale his family with descriptions of the slaughter (p.184)
  • and suddenly we discover that young Sapo visits the farm, tells his parents he’s off to the countryside to study, but in fact hides his books and steals off to sit in the Lamberts’ farmhouse kitchen and watch the womenfolk work – the repetition of the silence and the darkness and the dust and the fresh goats milk on the table reminds me of D.H. Lawrence – maybe it’s meant to be a parody of D.H. Lawrence (p.186)
  • sometimes a grey hen comes scumbling into the kitchen – this reminds me of Moran’s concern for his grey hen (p.187)
  • after these encounters Sapo would sneak off leaving a shy present for the Lambert family on their farmhouse table
  • a stream of consciousness description of how he writes, little finger poised to indicate the edge of the page, he didn’t want to write but here he is writing etc (p.190)
  • he becomes aware that it’s a week since he wrote the first words of the book, it’s an exercise book, the pages ruled into square, mathematical symbols at the front, his pencil has five sides and is sharpened at both ends, it has fallen off and rolled under his bed, it takes him a long time to find it and then spear it with the stick with a hook on the end although, phew, it is not too damaged (p.192)
  • Mr and Mrs Saposcat give their son a brand new fountain pen as a good luck present for his exams (p.193)
  • Sapo goes to visit the Lamberts and discovers father and son, Louis and Edward, burying a dead mule and we are given the full story of how Big Lambert bargained it off a farmer at the very gates of the Knackers Yard (p.194)
  • Malone tells us that rabbits sometimes die of fright before you break their necks, whereas chickens have no imagination and carrying on scurrying around even after their head’s been cut off (p.197)
  • after the big family meal, Edward (the son) goes up to his room to masturbate in peace, reminding us of that other masturbator, Moran – incest is in the air since both father and son have considered sleeping with the sister/daughter, Lizzie (p.198)
  • Malone is bored of talking about the bloody Lamberts. What’s the point? He had planned to tell another story about a stone, shall he skip forward to that?

What tedium. If I went on to the stone? No, it would be the same thing. The Lamberts, the Lamberts, does it matter about the Lamberts? No, not particularly…I shall try and go on all the same, a little longer, my thoughts elsewhere, I can’t stay here. I shall hear myself talking, afar off, from my far mind, talking of the Lamberts, talking of myself, my mind wandering, far from here, among its ruins.

  • Cut to memories of talking to a Jew named Jackson who kept a parrot (which reminds me of the parrot in Molloy and of the parrot in Mercier and Camier – I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t written a paper about parrots in Beckett) (p.200)
  • reverting to thoughts about whereabouts in the building he is and on which floor, it crosses Malone’s mind that he might be dead already and not noticed the difference (p.201)
  • he considers the quality of light in his room, and the darkness, and this disintegrates into a Nausea-style hyper-awareness of his own body of his perceptions processed within his skull
  • he lost his pencil for two days – he is only called Malone now i.e. might have been called something else once (p.204) in fact refers to ‘the other’ (p.206)
  • a hallucinatory passage where he remembers becoming soft and liquid as mud or hard and contracted as thread – then fantasises that he not yet born, that he will be born into a charnel house, at other times it seems he has had a long life, wandered in town and country and spent time on a beach, washed by surf (echoing the experiences of Molloy) (p.207)

But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am.

  • then there seems to be a sequence where the narrator slips down into the body of someone else, of ‘he’, sitting on a bench by the river wearing a greatcoat buttoned up to his throat – he’s going to call him Sapo but that’s no long appropriate so renames him ‘Macmann’, not much better, but we’re in a hurry (p.210)
  • Macmann sits with his back to the river watching the tide of humanity in the city, many of them hastening to rendezvous with lovers, and a page long description of the horse of cabs, sad amid the frames, then trotting briskly to their destinations (p.212)
  • turns into a delirious fantasia about age, about the days passing compared to the liquidation of old age, to having to pull yourself along the ground to allotments where grow brambles, rather acid, and frightening off birds and small mammals – the prose becomes visionary:

All strains towards the nearest deeps, and notably my feet, which even in the ordinary way are so much further from me than all the rest, from my head I mean, for that is where I am fled, my feet are leagues away. And to call them in, to be cleaned for example, would I think take me over a month, exclusive of the time required to locate them. Strange, I don’t feel my feet any more, my feet feel nothing any more, and a mercy it is. And yet I feel they are beyond the range of the most powerful telescope. Is that what is known as having a foot in the grave? And similarly for the rest. For a mere local phenomenon is something I would not have noticed, having been nothing but a series or rather a succession of local phenomena all my life, without any result. But my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is not the air of this second-last abode, and a mercy it is.

  • they banged his head on the doorframe taking him out on a stretcher, where was he, oh yes passing the 3 or 4 days til he hope he dies, he remembers murdering four, no five men, notably the butler (p.217)
  • he hallucinates light and shade outside the window are those really stars or are they painted not they’re twinkling lights come on he can see people silhouetted
  • back to Macmann, it starts to rain so he lies on the ground to keep his front dry, then clutches at tufts of grass to move, just as Molloy and Moran did (p.219)
  • suddenly he is in a plain far from town or woods, in ‘a wild and practically illimitable part of the country’, exposed to the elements, but thanking his stars his semen never harmed anyone i.e. he’s never had progeny (p.221)
  • a detailed description of the postures Macmann adopts in the rain on the earth, where the mud mixes with his long hair while the author reflects on his strong constitution (p.225)
  • and thrusting himself about in a restless frenzy he takes to rolling, like a cylinder, an indefinite distance (p.226)
  • back in the present, in bed, Malone reviews his possessions, starting with his two pencils and his exercise book and going on to fondly remember the bowl of a pipe he picked up somewhere and the other worn-smooth objects he’s always like holding in his hand as he falls asleep
  • he weighs various systems of defining what are, and are not, his possessions, and whether he possesses them
  • an old photograph of a donkey on a beach wearing a hat, leads into thoughts about decomposition and the fact his poo pot and his urine pot are filling up and no-one’s changed them (p.231)
  • he has lost his stick! overnight! now he is bereft – does he have any possessions left? (p.233)
  • while he considers whether ‘they’ are trying to poison him among other conundrums, he resumes the story of Macmann, namely he wakes up to find himself in an asylum, the House of St John, and is instructed in its regulations (p.235) reminding us of the asylums where both Murphy and Watt end up
  • he is put in the charge of Moll, an old crazy lady who feeds him, washes him, tells him what is and isn’t allowed (p.236)
  • though both old and impotent, Macmann and Moll have a go at sex, he folding up his penis into a package and trying to insert into her dry vagina like stuffing in a sock (p.238)
  • an example of one of Moll’s comically bizarre love letters to Macmann; it genuinely is funny (p.239)
  • Moll wears earring with a small crucifix of Jesus Christ, then shows Macmann more or less the only tooth on her crone’s mouth is an enormous canine craved with the image of Christ on the cross (p.243)
  • they have a passionate physical affair of two old crones, until Moll falls away, starts rubbing her tummy, her hair falls out, and one day a man – Lemuel – comes to tell Macmann Moll is dead (p.244) this man Lemuel often has fits where he dances, screams and hits himself on the head with a hammer
  • cut to Malone having a memory, he is with his mother at a racecourse watching one of the first airplanes loop the loop
  • suddenly someone is there by his bedside, and hits him on the head (p.247)
  • the man in black attends Malone all the time, he has an umbrella which he leans his weight on, he uses it to poke through Malone’s belongings scattered all over the floor, lift up his bedclothes, the man has muddy boots – I begin to wonder if it is Jacques Moran (p.248)
  • when the man in black leaves, softly closing the door and walking away down the corridor whistling, Malone speculates if a whole series of visitors will come over the following days, and fantasises about ‘a little girl’, who he can teach to strip for him, fondle him, fetch him soup, empty his slop buckets and finally close his eyes, put a bung up his arse when he dies, and follow the hearse to the cemetery: ‘Easy, Malone, take it easy you old whore’ (p.251)
  • Malone finds it harder to breathe or hear anything – he cuts away to the Macmann narrative: since Moll’s death Macmann has been leaving the asylum grounds; sometimes he brings back brambles or an entire hyacinth he had pulled up by the root and then Lemuel hands it to Pat who whips Macmann with it (p.53)
  • a poetic description of the location and grounds of the St John asylum behind its walls topped with broken glass, the big lodges by the gates full of deserving families and their swarming brats (p.255)
  • Macmann carried round a photograph Moll gave him of herself as a 14-year-old girl – one day a group outing is announced led by a Lady Pedal – Lemuel goes to the kitchen and orders six portions of excursion soup which is like normal soup but with chunks of bacon in it – then he visits six cells, each with a florid lunatic in it (p.258)
  • Malone feels the end coming but goes back to the Macmann story – Lemuel assembles the five inmates on the terrace ready for Lady Pedal’s outing – they clamber into a wagonette which sets off down the hill and through the lodge gates at a dangerous pace, being overloaded (p.261)
  • the asylum patients, Lemuel, Lady Pedal and two ‘colossi’ dressed in sailor suits and named Ernest and Maurice alight from the wagonette at a quay and take a ferry to an island for a picnic
  • this ends horribly when Lemuel briskly murders the two sailors who brought them there with his hatchet, Lady Pedal on returning faints and breaks her hip, the narrative collapses on the last page, sentences starting in mid word, paragraphs breaking, Lemuel gets Macmann and the other prisoners into the ferry and they set off somewhere, he raises his hatchet but not to kill nobody, nevermore, no, not no-one

And the narrative breaks off like that into a last few lines of prose poetry or maybe fragments.

Maybe this abrupt ending is meant to represent Malone finally bloody dying, although it would be funnier if, à la Tristram Shandy, the last page had had a jagged ink line running down and off the page as of someone dying and their pen sliding across the page.


Arcana

The prose itself is rarely difficult to understand. It’s just the sentences the words are organised into are so often stupefyingly dull. It kept me going through the arid wasteland of his dessicated prose to look for out-of-the-way and rarefied vocabulary, but there are notably few juicy words. Beckett has come a long way since the show-off, arcana-packed diction of the 1930s novel, Murphy.

  • Perhaps I shall not have time to finish. On the other hand perhaps I shall finish too soon. There I am back at my old aporetics.
  • I shall not finish this inventory either, a little bird tells me so, the paraclete perhaps, psittaceously named.
  • Then with clasped hands and tears in my eyes I would have begged it of him as a favour. This humiliation has been denied to me thanks to my aphony.

Rudery

A surprising but regular component of Beckett’s style is his frequent descent into blunt anglo-saxon vulgarity.

  • Lambert was feared and in a position to do as he pleased. And even his young wife had abandoned all hope of bringing him to heel, by means of her cunt, that trump card of young wives. For she knew what he would do to her if she did not open it to him. (p.184)
  • For my arse for example, which can hardly be accused of being the end of anything, if my arse suddenly started to shit at the present moment, which God forbid, I firmly believe the lumps would fall out in Australia.
  • They think they can confuse me and make me lose sight of my programmes. Proper cunts whoever they are. (p.246)
  • Those are men and women, you know, people, without being able to specify further. A stream at long intervals bestrid — but to hell with all this fucking scenery. (p.354)
  • All is ready. Except me. I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth to into death, such is my impression. The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence. (p.260)

Some critics speak high-mindedly about Beckett’s quest to probe the limits of the text or writing. They tend to gloss over the consistent, chest-poking use of cunt and fuck.

Poetic prose

But the point of the novels isn’t their characters, it isn’t even the characters’ quests or journeys or intentions which can be made into metaphors of ‘man’s struggle to find meaning in a meaningless universe’. It’s Beckett’s way with prose.

Weary with my weariness, white last moon, sole regret, not even. To be dead, before her, on her, with her, and turn, dead on dead, about poor mankind, and never have to die any more, from among the living. Not even, not even that. My moon was here below, far below, the little I was able to desire. And one day, soon, soon, one earthlit night, beneath the earth, a dying being will say, like me, in the earthlight, Not even, not even that, and die, without having been able to find a regret.

And he has lots of ways, uses lots of techniques, creates new ways of combining words and sentences, overlays meanings. Thus all the mini-narratives in Malone Dies – about Sapo and Macmann and Moll and Lemuel – exist in counterpoint with the passages where we revert to Malone’s first-person narrative, or the stream of his obsessions.

But absolutely all discussion of Beckett’s work makes it sound too sane and approachable, whereas the whole point is its rebarbatively unapproachable attitude.

And I must say that to me at least and for as long as I can remember the sensation is familiar of a blind and tired hand delving feebly in my particles and letting them trickle between its fingers. And sometimes, when all is quiet, I feel it plunged in me up to the elbow, but gentle, and as though sleeping. But soon it stirs, wakes, fondles, clutches,
ransacks, ravages, avenging its failure to scatter me with one sweep. (p.206)

All the way from this kind of weird poetry to ‘Proper cunts whoever they are.’ It feels like the multiple layers or registers of the book could be taken to pieces like blocks of coloured Lego and you could identify different strands and building blocks. Once you start, I bet you’d find hundreds.

Pontificating

To pontificate is to ‘express one’s opinions in a pompous and dogmatic way’.

Wikipedia tells me this text contains the famous line, ‘Nothing is more real than nothing’. Is that line famous? Is it worth remembering? Does it mean anything? To quote Beckett – I don’t know. Perhaps.

But once it was pointed out, I realised a key component of Beckett’s style is a taste for delivering resonant and grand-sounding generalisations, not about life and a variety of subjects, that would be too interesting: about Beckett’s one subject – the decay and collapse of the mind and the inability of the mind, the narrator or language to convey it, the thing, the collapse of language, of writing… but the determination to keep on writing…

  • The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness.

It is a style designed to create acolytes and followers, and these are indeed what Beckett created, from his breakthrough in the 1950s, through the 60s, 70s and 80s, in larger and larger numbers.

Humour

Some passages, taken in isolation, as standalone passages, and read aloud, have power and coherence and are bizarrely funny, a prize example being the love affair of Macmann and Moll. This points forward to the plays where the simple fact of dialogue breaks up the novels’ walls of prose into much more quotable snippets.

But taken as huge, 100-page walls of solid prose, the novels are very difficult to read or process. Selections, snippets, little passages or episodes – it makes sense that this was how they were broken up in the earliest BBC radio or TV adaptations, into something more like speeches. Vastly more accessible.

Thus a reading of selected passages from Malone Dies was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 18 June 1958. Beckett selected the passages, which were read by the actor Patrick Magee, and incidental music was composed by Samuel’s cousin John S. Beckett.

Trouble is, you can’t read the entire book like that. Or maybe you need to read the entire thing, marking up shorter passages, and then go back to review and reread just those. To consider these long texts as sort of anthologies of shorter, self-contained passages, more than novels. Perhaps. I don’t know.

Self referentiality and creating a fictional universe

In all three novels the narrators refer, at some point, to protagonists of other Beckett texts:

  • Oh the stories I could tell you if I were easy. What a rabble in my head, what a gallery of moribunds. Murphy, Watt, Yerk, Mercier and all the others.
  • But let us leave these morbid matters and get on with that of my demise, in two or three days if I remember rightly. Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave.
  • They fell and I saw them no more. I naturally thought of the pseudocouple Mercier-Camier.
  • I am neither, I needn’t say, Murphy, nor Watt, nor Mercier, nor — no, I can’t even bring myself to name them, nor any of the others whose very names I forget,
  • they taught him thinking, it’s always he who speaks, Mercier never spoke, Moran never spoke, I never spoke
  • All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing,
  • Am I clothed? I have often asked
    myself this question, then suddenly started talking about Malone’s
    hat, or Molloy’s greatcoat, or Murphy’s suit.

Presumably references in each novel of the trilogy to protagonists from the other novels helps ‘bind’ them together and also brings out the theme of shifting and very unstable identities.

But there is also a mythologising aspect to it, which reminds me of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes? Yes, quite early in the Holmes stories, Dr Watson starts referring to numerous other cases, giving them florid titles, promising to tell us more about them sometime, before he settles on the one he’s going to describe this time. It creates a sense of spaciousness, it makes it feel like the Holmes texts aren’t just a handful of stories, but ramify out in all directions to create the sense of an entire imaginative universe.

Same here.

The Spanish Civil War

In 1937 Nancy Cunard sent out a questionnaire to famous artists and writers asking them to state their position on the Spanish Civil War. 148 writers sent in their replies which were published in a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for refugees. Beckett sent back the shortest contribution – ¡UPTHEREPUBLIC! – which continues to divide critics, undecided whether to interpret it as passionate or ironic.

Half way through Malone Dies Malone writes:

Yes, that’s what I like about me, at least one of the things, that I can say Up the Republic! for example, or Sweetheart!, for example, without having to wonder if I should not rather have cut my tongue out, or said
something else. (p.216)

So the book contains sneaky references to Beckett’s life as well as works. I wonder how many. I bet hundreds of scholars have spotted thousands of such references.

‘What tedium’

The bottom line is that Malone isn’t dying or anything as grandiose. In my experience, people who know they are going to die are shit scared, whereas Malone is just bored. His phrase ‘what tedium’ clangs throughout the text like that of a bored aristocrat. He confesses to being ‘bored to howls’ (p.206). The text is a way for him to impose his insufferable boredom on the reader. It is an extraordinarily complex labyrinth of language and lexical and literary experimentation. But God, reading it was like having my teeth pulled out. In small selected chunks, yes, a page or so can be attractive, particularly if read aloud. But the full-on hundred pages are a challenge.

But still.. once you’ve made it through… scattered, isolated passages stay in the mind, and many passages repay rereading to relive the peculiar, mind-bending place the book takes you to.

M

Commentators have pointed out that Beckett was attached to the letter M. His protagonists include Murphy, Mercier, Molloy and Malone and one commentator pointed out that Watt’s name begins with an M upside down. In the same jokey, tricksy spirit, Malone can be simply read a ‘M alone’.


Credit

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1951. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1956. Page references are to the 1979 Picador paperback edition of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, doing enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance after the war.

While in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, Beckett worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories – First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more of a dramatic monologue than a story.

The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has a male adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins.

There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

To quote Leslie Fiedler, Beckett enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’, often in quite a childish way.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.

He reminds me a bit of Benjy the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be… what? Taken away and put in a home? (As Murphy is, as Watt ends up.)

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia. Men are useless solipsists until rescued by a practical woman is one way of interpreting this common narrative structure.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to writing out Lulu’s name in cow pats.

He returns to the city and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure, he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside.

He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think the narrator and Lulu have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Lulu-Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and the cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?

The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with have vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ here, as in so much Beckett, is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is, by and large, much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout. But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the register of poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the fairly recurrent tone of schoolboy crudity.

The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.

Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

I considered kicking her in the cunt.

These are examples of what Fiedler called Beckett’s bourgeois-baiting, but also, maybe, a crudity, an aggressiveness, which can be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is still the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and thus difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs despite his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start).

Te remedy the getting-to-the-toilet issue, he and Anna decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail – the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with arcane historical terminology – a classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learnèd wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining, categorising and defining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions.

This is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

It seems to me Beckett is firmly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own erudition.

One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style. In English probably the greatest example is the experimental comic novel, Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing in Latin or 16th century vocabulary is slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

As is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. Or both at once. You can never be sure.

Mentally challenged or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, regularly using a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of an autistic savant expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing.

To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like an antiquated Cambridge professor, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


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