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

The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett (1953)

The Unnamable is the third and final part of Beckett’s Trilogy of novels, which begins with Molloy followed by Malone Dies. It was originally published in French as L’Innommable and later adapted by the author into English. Grove Press published the English edition in 1958.

To begin with it feels like the best of the three because it really does do what the others promised to, and drops the traditional novelistic apparatus of plot and character, story and events and dialogue.

Instead, it is one massive unbroken monologue by an unnamed character. What is immediately appealing about it is that whereas Molloy and Malone Dies have a real-world setting, and characters (the named narrator and then various people he interacts with) and quite a few locations (townscape, family farm, Moran’s nice house with its beehives and chicken run, mysterious forests, an asylum on a hilltop, a beach, the sea, an island and so on) The Unnamable is right from the start far more abstract.

The language is extremely abstract and pseudo-academic. The text proceeds by asking questions, as in an academic paper and then seeking to answer them, which is made perfectly clear from the opening sentences:

Where now? Who now? When now? … Questions, hypotheses

The narrator is embedded in some kind of physical structure and spends some time debating what this might be. He knows all about Molloy, Murphy and Moran, protagonists of the previous novel, and he keeps seeing Molloy progress like a clockwork toy past his present position and spends a huge amount of time debating how and why this comes about.

Having struggled hard to read the previous two books, I thought this one would be murder but it turns out to be the easiest and most enjoyable. I think it’s because it is the most Beckettian. Probably I’m thinking and reading this with the benefit of massive historical hindsight, but The Unnamable feels the closest in style to Beckett’s plays, with a bereft, degraded, mad narrator analysing his situation with disconcerting clarity and rigour and at interminable, repetitive length.

But it didn’t happen like that, it happened like this, the way it’s happening now, that is to say, I don’t know, you mustn’t believe what I’m saying, I don’t know what I’m saying, I’m doing as I always did, I’m going on as best I can…

It feels more of a piece, fully integrated. The style matches the ‘subject matter’ such as it is. It feels pure. The Unnamable is Peak Beckett.

The attack on the sustainability of language is there right from the start. ‘I say this, but what am I? Is there an I? Is there a this? Is there an is? It has been here forever, or at least since I started. But when did I start?’ The whole book is set in that style, and I struggle to put into words why I like it. I think the first two novels, despite all claims to the contrary, incorporated a surprisingly large amount of story, plot and character – whereas The Unnamable really has happily jettisoned everything except the meandering consciousness endlessly unfolding in an unending stream of discourse.

In a peculiar way, it’s liberating. Insofar as there was a plot in the former two novels, the plot-detecting part of your mind had to focus on characters and events and puzzle out how they fit together and found it frustrating when the plot was interrupted by the narrator’s numerous divagations and distractions. The Unnamable is purer. Devoid of plot or significant incidents it simply flows, an endless and undemanding stream of rhetorical questions amiably undermining the possibility of questions or language or the narrator himself.

I get the impression that critics in the 1950s and the over-excitable 1960s thought Beckett was asking Big Questions about Human Life and Language and Being. Now that we post-modernists aren’t much bothered about such grandiose projects, and only worry about gender and the colour of people’s skin, Beckett feels more like a relaxing current of intelligent background noise.

The way the text continually stops to question itself might once have been taken as strict and stern expressions of Deep Integrity and a profound examination of blah blah, about language and identity, probably, or the possibility of communication, maybe the contingency of fiction or – as the narrator puts it – ‘all their balls about being and existing’ (p.320) or ‘all their ballocks about life and death’ (p.354).

  • It, say it, not knowing what.
  • I seem to speak (it is not I) about me (it is not about me).
  • it’s not I speaking, it’s not I hearing
  • it’s not I, not I, I can’t say it, it came like that, it comes like that, it’s not I
  • The subject doesn’t matter, there is none (p.331)
  • The fact is they no longer know where they’ve got to in their affair, where they’ve got me to, I never knew, I’m where I always was, wherever that is… (p.354)
  • But I really mustn’t ask myself any more questions (if it’s I) I really must not… (p.359)
  • But it’s not I, it’s not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered…

Once upon a time, back in the avant-garde 1950s, this must have felt wildly experimental but now, on this hot coronavirus afternoon, it feels like reassuring murmurs.

I remember the old joke that a lecturer is a person who talks in someone else’s sleep. Well, this text is driven forward by exactly the kind of rhetorical questions which a lecturer or academic delivers in order to drive their paper or lecture onwards, in order to structure it, in order to create it. The narrator himself comments on the process whereby discourse is created through a succession of questions.

But the discourse must go on. So one invents obscurities. Rhetoric.

The discourse must be created and continued, no-one knows why, and so one invents obscurities, questions everything, multiple questions requiring multiple answers, which must themselves be considered and refined and lead to further questions, ad infinitum. And all because the discourse must go on.

I have to speak, whatever that means. (p.288)

He asks some footling questions about the lights in the place where he appears to be, and then goes on to comment that he’s only doing so to keep things going, to have something to talk about.

But I shall remark without further delay, in order to be sure of doing so, that I am relying on those lights, as indeed on all other similar sources of credible perplexity, to help me continue…

And he is grateful when a new thought, a new line of enquiry, gives him a topic from which to spin more text

  • This represents at least a thousand words I was not counting on.
  • The search for the means to put an end to things, an end to speech is what enables the discourse to continue.
  • Nothing like issues. There are a few to be going on with…
  • let us first suppose, in order to get on a little, then we’ll suppose something else, in order to get on a little further…
  • would it not suffice to, to what, the thread is lost, no matter, here’s another…
  • My halts do not count. Their purpose was to enable me to go on…

He addresses topics in turn. He considers the ‘light’ in this place. Then he turns to the air, ‘that old chestnut’. He is scrabbling around for subject matter to keep it going, it, the discourse, the text itself

I know no more questions and they keep on pouring out of my mouth. I think I know what it is, it’s to prevent the discourse from coming to an end…

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that he introduces new subjects or scenes very casually, just as part of the flow of the enormous paragraphs, the wall of text. Topic changes are easy to miss. But I learned to spot them at the end of Malone Dies, where they become obvious, he simply flags them up by tagging a subject at the end of a long rambling paragraph. Here’s an example which tells the reader that the next subject is going to be ‘the noise’.

But let us close this parenthesis and, with a light heart, open the next. The noise.

I’m not reading the parodies of academic-speak into the text; its academic tone is emphasised right from the opening words, which are not even parodies of but might simply be quotes from a standard university lecture or presentation:

These few general remarks to begin with… I should mention before going any further…

As well as numerous other quotes from the academic stylebook:

Let us try and see where these considerations lead.

And mention of the fact that he attended a series of lectures or course (p.273). And thereafter follow hundreds and hundreds of amiably rhetorical questions, some answered, some not, all contributing to the gentle lulling rhythm.

What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later?

Am I being irreverent to a Great Work of Art? Only as irreverent as the narrator himself.

Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know. With the yesses and noes it is different, they will come back to me as I go along and now, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception.

According to Wikipedia, ephectic means ‘the general state of being given to suspense of judgement’. As far as I can tell, the sentence: ‘Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares?’ means ‘can one practice consistent suspension of judgement in any other mode of mind than being unaware?’. To try to be more precise: ‘is utter suspension of judgement only possible if you are unaware of the thing you are trying not to judge’ or: ‘Is the human mind so structured as to judge everything it perceives and so the only way to achieve the condition of not judging anything is simply to be unaware of it?’ Does being aware of something instantly prompt judgement?

This is all very entertaining and/or thought-provoking, maybe, but the effort required to really understand many of these statements tends to be undermined by the narrator’s characteristically Beckettian answer – ‘I don’t know’, which has the tendency of throwing away any effort you made trying to answer the question. Thus negated, the sentence can be considered for its sound alone, and on this level it is delightfully euphonious because of its alliteration, because the open vowel sounds of ‘ephectic otherwise than unawares’, especially the last three words, are wonderfully lulling. And then Beckett’s favourite phrase, ‘I don’t know’, closes down discussion and rolls us along to the next rhetorical question.

So I am well aware that the text contains all kinds of questions, invokes all kinds of philosophical issues and probably makes countless literary references which I don’t, personally, recognise. But it is patently obvious that the text sets them up in order to knock them down, that at any point the degraded and forgetful narrator will lose track of his argument and stumble to a halt.

The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter…

Not only is he a long-winded professor droning on, but he devotes a lot of time to wondering whether he even exists, whether what he says is worth saying, and then stumbles and forgets whatever he was going to say. The result is an entertaining drone, an unending sequence of lulling and soothing repetitions and inversions.

And things, what is the correct attitude to adopt towards things? And, to begin with, are they necessary? What a question. But I have few illusions, things are to be expected.

He’s so right. Things are to be expected, lots of things, but are they necessary? And what is the correct attitude we should take towards things? I forget. No matter. Relax.

People with things, people without things, things without people, what does it matter…

Exactly. Relax.

He mentions other ‘people’ but maybe these are just more ‘things’ he’s attached names to, whatever a ‘name’ is. Thus he refers to characters from the previous two novels, Molloy and Moran and Malone, as well as from the earlier novels Murphy, Mercier and Camier, and Watt. He thinks they ‘are are all here’, he thinks they’ve all been there forever. And he mentions a few other elements from the novels, for example that it was at Bally that ‘the inestimable gift of life had been rammed down my gullet’, Bally featuring in part two of Molloy.

For some readers no doubt this creates an interesting dynamic, a complex intertextuality. But it is also rather cosy, like meeting old friends. Murphy is blown up in the novel of the same name, Molloy isn’t in great shape when we left him and there’s the strong suggestion that Malone died at the end of his book. Maybe they’re all dead. Maybe they’re in the afterlife? There are no days here, he tells us. So where is ‘here’? I don’t know. No matter. The narrator mentions a few ‘puppets’ he will play with. Maybe all these ‘characters’ are toys, the toys of a collapsing mind.

The inconsequential contradiction

Which made me notice a major component of Beckett’s style, which is to state something then immediately negate it.

  • The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin.
  • Here all is clear. No, all is not clear. (p.269)

Learned critics may associate this with the via negativa, ‘a philosophical approach to theology which asserts that no finite concepts or attributes can be adequately used of God, but only negative terms’. But since there is no God there can be no approach to him or her or it, and so the technique or mannerism of stating something then immediately negating it, instead contributes to the sense of Zen inconsequentiality.

  • if I were never to see the two of them at once, then it would follow, or should follow, that between their respective
    appearances the interval never varies. No, wrong. (p.274)
  • So it is I who speak, all alone, since I can’t do otherwise. No, I am speechless.
  • I’ll try again, quick before it goes again. Try what? I don’t know

Or sly negations, negations negating negation, such as when he writes ‘No more questions’ and immediately asks a barrage of four questions.

Or just not giving a damn.

A short time, a long time, it’s all the same.

I’ll go on

Which all leads up to the book’s famous final phrases:

if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

This ‘can’t go on’ phrase actually occurs numerous times before it appears here, right at the end of the book i.e. it is a deliberate statement, carefully prepared for and repeated and so the reader is prepared for its use here at the book’s end. It has traditionally been seen as almost a cry of desperation, and it can certainly be read like that.

I am suggesting, however, that along with the text’s hundreds of other examples of negation, contradiction, uncertainty, hesitation, unknowing, forgetfulness and amnesia, these final phrases are not any kind of cry of despair, they are just more part of the flow and continuum, they contribute to the background hum. It is not a climactic cry, it is just the latest iteration of one of the many many oblique negative phrases which make up the text.

  • there was never anyone, anyone but me, anything but me, talking to me of me, impossible to stop, impossible to go on, but I must go on, I’ll go on…
  • perhaps I went silent, no, I say that in order to say something, in order to go on a little more, you must go on a little more, you must go on a long time more, you must go on evermore…
  • I notice nothing, I go on as best I can…
  • I can’t suppose anything, I have to go on, that’s what I’m doing…
  • it’s a question of going on, it goes on, hypotheses are like everything else, they help you on, as if there were need of help, that’s right, impersonal, as if there were any need of help to go on with a thing that can’t stop…
  • perhaps it’s azure, blank words, but I use them, they keep coming back, all those they showed me, all those I remember, I need them all, to be able to go on…
  • … I’m doing my best, I can’t understand, I stop doing my best, I can’t do my best, I can’t go on, poor devil…
  • Perhaps there go I after all. I can’t go on in any case. But I must go on…

Compare it to monks chanting. Or the chanting in a Catholic church. (Obviously the text isn’t quite as homogeneous as I’m making out, the more you look at it the more you see a riot of styles cropping up and disappearing all the way through, with quite a lot of crude swearwords, and droll Irish humour scattered about.) But the very fact that the ‘go on’ phrase occurs so many times before throughout the text can be turned against the ‘cry of anguish’ argument, the very fact the phrase has cropped up so many times means there is nothing particularly unique or special about it – that it can be seen as one among many components of the endless flow of repetitive devices and phrases which make up the unnamable narrator’s ramblings or monologue or stream of consciousness.

I.e. the text doesn’t build up to anything, it just ends… and the ending is quite arbitrary… it could have gone on forever. You could sellotape the end back to the beginning and create an eternal loop, which would just, well… go on…

I wait for my turn, my turn to go there, my turn to talk there, my turn to listen there, my turn to wait there for my turn to go, to be as gone, it’s unending, it will be unending, gone where, where do you go from there, you must go somewhere else, wait somewhere else, for your turn to go again, and so on, a whole people, or I alone, and come back, and begin again, no, go on, go on again, it’s a circuit, a long circuit…

Some ‘things’

That said, a discourse made out of words does, almost unavoidably, have to contain some meaning, refer to at least some things. So here are some of the ‘things’, discernable facts, that it contains.

The narrator remarks that Malone passes by at regular intervals. At least he thinks it’s Malone. It might be Molloy, though it’s wearing Malone’s hat.

Was there a time when I too revolved thus? No, I have always been sitting here, at this selfsame spot, my hands on my knees, gazing before me like a great horn-owl in an aviary.

The place is vast, It has pits. Is it hell? Apparently not, as he refers to hell as another place. But he does refer to his life ‘up there in their world’ (p.273)

He attended a series of lectures on love and intelligence. One of the lecturers was called Basil (p.273).

He appears to be in bed naked (aren’t all Beckett’s narrators, sooner or later?) and continually crying. All Beckett’s texts give extremely detailed descriptions of the precise posture of the body, with mock satirical intent, mocking the detailed descriptions of ‘realistic’ fiction, while, on another, philosophical level, asserting the crude primacy of the body over the endlessly-meandering mind.

I mention these details to make sure I am not lying on my back, my legs raised and bent, my eyes closed. It is well to establish the position of the body from the outset, before passing on to more important matters.

In fact, does he even have a body?

no, no beard, no hair either, it is a great smooth ball I carry on my shoulders, featureless, but for the eyes, of which only the sockets remain. And were it not for the distant testimony of my palms, my soles, which I have not yet been able to quash, would gladly give myself the shape, if not the consistency, of an egg, with two holes no matter where to prevent it from bursting, for the consistency is more like that of mucilage…I’m a big talking ball, talking about things that do not exist, or that exist perhaps, impossible to know, beside the point.

After much divagation, the narrator decides to rename Basil Mahood and tells us that Mahood’s voice has often mingled with his own. In some obscure way Mahood appears to be his master and the narrator develops references to a series of ‘them’ who administered lectures and courses to him.

He tries out some fictions, appearing in fictions, first as a one-armed, one-legged wayfarer on crutches, then as a bodiless head in a bucket kept by a woman who runs a restaurant and puts a tarpaulin over the bucket when it snows – but claims these fictions are imposed on him by ‘them’, the ‘others’.

For an extended period he appears to become this character ‘Mahood’, among other things being told off in class. Arbitrarily he renames Mahood, Worm.

Then he is the head in a bucket again. His protectress, Madeleine or Marguerite, keeps a restaurant. There is a brief and lovely, lyrical passage about the twilight hour in, presumably, Paris, as the first customers arrive at this restaurant for an aperitif (p.312).

He says he has died many times, but ‘they’ keep resurrecting him, dragging him back to life. In fact by the middle of the text, ‘they’ have become really dominant, a chorus of tormentors who the narrator is seeking to appease, both himself and in the form of the various avatars, Mahood and Worm. It is ‘they’ who seem to be putting him through all these torments, orchestrating his experiences, ‘they’ are the source of the endless requirement for there to be a voice, the ceaseless babble

  • If only this voice would stop, for a second, it would seem long to me, a second of silence.
  • Ah if only this voice could stop, this meaningless voice which prevents you from being nothing, just barely prevents you from being nothing and nowhere, just enough to keep alight this little yellow flame feebly darting from side to side, panting, as if straining to tear itself from its wick, it should never have been lit, or it should never have been fed, or it should have been put out, put out, it should have been let go out.

‘They’ loathe him, ‘they know how to cause suffering, the master explained to them’ (p.337).

I have endured, that must be it, I shouldn’t have endured, but I feel nothing, yes, yes, this voice, I have endured it, I didn’t fly from it, I should have fled,

He hopes one day they will leave, in Indian file, going up above to meet their master who will punish them (p.335), as he, the proper authority, will judge whether he’s said the correct words to be released.

This stuff about they and their master and the word ‘suffering’ dominate the middle of the piece, inescapably raising ideas of hell. And when he goes on to talk about being judged and feeling guilty, it drifts into Kafka territory, maybe he’s in a dungeon, always been in a dungeon (p.339).

Repetition

He repeatedly says he’ll ask no more questions, then promptly asks more questions –

  • I know no more questions and they keep on pouring out of my mouth.
  • Enough questions, enough reasoning…

Above all there is repetition, endless repetition with variations of the basic idea, a degenerated, degraded consciousness going on and on and on, struggling to speak, trying to talk, saying nothing. It’s amazing how many way he finds to express the same basic idea:

  • I feel nothing, know nothing, and as far as thinking is concerned I do just enough to preserve me from going silent, you can’t call that thinking.
  • it is I who speak, all alone, since I can’t do otherwise.
  • I have no voice and must speak, that’s all I know… (p.281)
  • I am doing my best, and failing again, yet again. (p.284)
  • And now let us think no more about it, think no more about anything, think no more. (p.309)
  • Having won, shall I be left in peace? It doesn’t look like it, I seem to be going on talking. (p.317)
  • Is there a single word of mine in all I say? No, I have no voice, in this matter I have none.
  • But why keep on saying the same thing?
  • Where I am there is no one but me, who am not. (p.326)
  • Yes, so much the worse, he knows it is a voice, how is not known, nothing is known, he understands nothing it says, just a little, almost nothing, it’s inexplicable, but it’s necessary (p.330)
  • Tears gush from it practically without ceasing, why is not known, nothing is known
  • Forward! That’s soon said. But where is forward? And why? (p.338)
  • What can you expect, they don’t know who they are either, nor where they are, nor what they’re doing, nor why everything is going so badly, so abominably badly
  • between them would be the place to be, where you suffer, rejoice, at being bereft of speech, bereft of thought, and feel nothing, hear nothing, know nothing, say nothing, are nothing, that would be a blessed place to be
  • you have only to wait, without doing anything, it’s no good doing anything, and without understanding, there’s no help in understanding, and all comes right, nothing comes right, nothing, nothing, this will never end, this voice will never stop, I’m alone here… (p.350)

Can you see how the precise semantic context of the sentences may vary a bit, but the basic form or structure doesn’t. Necessary impossibility. It’s impossible but I must do it. Now I will be silent. No, I can’t be silent. Now I will stop asking questions. No I won’t.

And he is humorously aware of it, too:

If only I knew what I have been saying. Bah, no need to worry, it can only have been one thing, the same as ever. I have my faults, but changing my tune is not one of them.

The funny thing about Beckett is that he made an entire career out of the notion that it is impossible to write, impossible to communicate, language is always failing and collapsing. The paradox is that he managed to wring half a dozen long dense novels, and scores of plays out of this idea, 20 or more plays in which the characters speak at length about how impossible it is to speak.

And this is the way he does it. In the latter part of The Unnamable the syntax cracks and crumbles. There are some epic sentences made of 50 or more clauses, leading on from each other, contradicting, suggesting, denying, forgetting, one after the other, pell mell:

but it’s too difficult, too difficult, for one bereft of purpose, not to look forward to his end, and bereft of all reason to exist, back to a time he did not. Difficult too not to forget, in your thirst for something to do, in order to be done with it, and have that much less to do, that there is nothing to be done, nothing special to be done, nothing doable to be done. No point either, in your thirst, your hunger, no, no need of hunger, thirst is enough, no point in telling yourself stories, to pass the time, stories don’t pass the time, nothing passes the time, that doesn’t matter, that’s how it is, you tell yourself stories, then any old thing, saying, No more stories from this day forth, and the stories go on, it’s stories still, or it was never stories, always any old thing, for as long as you can remember, no, longer than that, any old thing, the same old thing, to pass the time, then, as time didn’t pass, for no reason at all, in your thirst, trying to cease and never ceasing, seeking the cause, the cause of talking and never ceasing, finding the cause, losing it again, finding it again, not finding it again, seeking no longer, seeking again, finding again, losing again, finding nothing, finding at last, losing again, talking without ceasing, thirstier than ever, seeking as usual, losing as usual, blathering away, wondering what it’s all about, seeking what it can be you are seeking, exclaiming, Ah yes, sighing, No no, crying, Enough, ejaculating, Not yet, talking incessantly, any old thing, seeking once more, any old thing, thirsting away, you don’t know what for, ah yes, something to do, no no, nothing to be done, and now enough of that, unless perhaps, that’s an idea, let’s seek over there, one last little effort, seek what, pertinent objection, let us try and determine, before we seek, what it can be, before we seek over there, over where, talking unceasingly, seeking incessantly, in yourself, outside yourself, cursing man, cursing God, stopping cursing, past bearing it, going on bearing it, seeking indefatigably, in the world of nature, the world of man, where is nature, where is man, where are you, what are you seeking, who is seeking, seeking who you are, supreme aberration, where you are, what you’re doing, what you’ve done to them, what they’ve done to you, prattling along, where are the others, who is talking…

And that’s less than one of the 110 or so pages of the Picador edition of The Unnamable. The motor, the engine for producing this vast amount of verbiage is remarkable.

Ezra Pound summed the same idea up in just one line back in 1917, a line translated from an old poem by the Chinese poet Li Po, from the 8th century:

What is the use of talking? And there is no end of talking…

(Exile’s Letter by Ezra Pound)

The whole ‘message’ can be summed up in a sentence, so it’s clearly not about the sentence. It’s about the extraordinary range and diversity of prose techniques Beckett uses to create this vast incantation, this huge, ramifying, multi-referential, prose leviathan which – I would argue – if you let your mind drift with it, if you are lulled and coaxed inside its endless flow – takes you to an entirely new place, a place never before known in literature.

The Unnamable feels to me hugely bigger and more mysterious than either Molloy or Malone Dies. They share many of its mannerisms but The Unnamable takes them to new heights. It really feels like a work of genius.

Someone speaks, someone hears, no need to go any further, it is not he, it’s I, or another, or others, what does it matter, the case is clear, it is not he, he who I know I am, that’s all I know, who I cannot say I am, I can’t say anything, I’ve tried, I’m trying, he knows nothing, knows of nothing, neither what it is to speak, nor what it is to
hear, to know nothing, to be capable of nothing, and to have to try, you don’t try any more, no need to try, it goes on by itself, it drags on by itself, from word to word, a labouring whirl, you are in it somewhere, everywhere, not he, if only I could forget him, have one second of this noise that carries me away, without having to say, I don’t, I haven’t time, It’s not I, I am he, after all, why not, why not say it, I must have said it, as well that as anything else, it’s not I, not I, I can’t say it, it came like that, it comes like that, it’s not I, if only it could be about him, if only it could come about him, I’d deny him, with pleasure, if that could help, it’s I, here it’s I, speak to me of him, let me speak of him, that’s all I ask, I never asked for anything, make me speak of him, what a mess, now there is no one left, long may it last


Credit

The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1953. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1958. Page references are to the 1979 Picador paperback edition of The Beckett Trilogy.

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

Reflections on the monotony of poetry

Reading Poetry In the Thirties and then The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, an unexpected theme emerges which is:

The boring repetitiveness of so much of the poetry; the extraordinarily narrow range of language and the incredibly restricted vocabulary it uses.

When I was at school they told me English had the biggest vocabulary of any European language. You wouldn’t have thought so from reading these poems.

So many of the poems seem like the result of moving an extremely limited number of verbal counters into slightly varying combinations.

The monotonous repetition of a handful of ‘poetic’ buzzwords eventually drains them of all meaning and makes many of the poems feel very samey.

Here’s an A-list of the key, numbingly repeated, buzzwords, at least some of which appear in every poem in these collections:

blood, breast, death, dream, eye, heart, love, pain, red, star, sun, tears, time

What would happen to poetry if these words were simply banned? Or if poets were fined for using them? Almost all the poems in both anthologies would disappear in a puff of banality.

It’s odd, it’s a bit mad even, that poets like to swank about fighting cliché and dead language when in fact reading poetry often feels like being force-fed whole boxfulls of dusty old clichés.

A B-list of overused ‘poetic’ words would include:

bone, breath, clock, dark, dream, earth, fate, flesh, future, grave, life, light, memory, moon, night, road, sorrow, space, year, world

Well over a hundred thousand words to choose from and the poets bang on with the same 20, round and round like a donkey tied to a well.

So many of the poets think they’ve done their job if they’ve strung together ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘time’ in a vaguely novel arrangement but in a way, as I read the hundredth poem about ‘blood’ flowing from the ‘red’ ‘rose’ of the dying ‘earth’ etc, I began to think they were undoing something, draining these words of power, and draining their own indignation and compassion by failing to find new words, new vocabulary to express it.

Spender manages, all by himself, to drain the word ‘world’ of any meaning, overtones or symbolism by his obsessive use of it in almost every poem he wrote (and his autobiography is titled World Within World).

The pleasure of older poetry This is why it’s more enjoyable to read old poetry, the more enjoyable the further back in time you go, because you are increasingly likely to be pleasantly surprised by odd and unexpected vocabulary or by different meanings attached to words which have been bled dry in our time.

The success of W.H. Auden Looking at the poetry of the thirties from this angle – on the question of lexical variety – also sheds a different light on Auden’s success. Put simply, Auden had a larger vocabulary than anyone else. In his poetry you can hear Auden continually reaching for unexpected and novel words and combinations. Sometimes they feel contrived, but at least he’s making an effort to refresh poetry from new sources.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

‘Nip’ and ‘solder’ and ‘tableland’, God what a relief not to be reading about ‘blood’ and ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ and ‘time’ and ‘tears’ and ‘graves’. To be fair Auden uses these latter poetic keywords as much as anyone else – but he goes beyond what you could call Baseline Poetic Vocabulary, to deliberately refresh and expand its possibilities.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle…

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing…

‘Octaves of radiation’, nobody could accuse that of being poetic cliché.

I’m not saying both books don’t contain good poems, lots of them, the Val Cunningham anthology is a marvel of diligent research in the archives turning up all kinds of obscure treasures and is a huge cornucopia of delights. BUT the downside of such profusion is the reader can’t help noting the obsessive repetition of the same images and phrases again and again and eventually longs for real variety of diction and phrasing.


Examples

At five the man fell under the trees
The watch flew off stopped at a moon
Of time staring from the dead wrist (Stephen Spender)

World world O world
Youth without promise in our long days
A sun reflected in the muddy stream
An eye duller than last night’s dream (Edgar Foxall)

Death stalked the olive trees picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned again and again (John Lepper)

Backed to the brown walls of the square
The lightless lorry headlamps stare
With glinting reflectors through the night
At our gliding star of light (Stephen Spender)

And on the hillside
That is the colour of peasant bread
Is the rectangular
White village of the dead (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Why do you not take comfort then, my heart? (Ewart Milne)

It is night like a red rag
drawn across the eyes

the flesh is bitterly pinned
to desperate vigilance

the blood is stuttering with fear  (Laurie Lee)

Time stops when the bullet strikes
Or moves to a new rhyme;
No longer measured by the eyes
Leap, pulse-beat, thought-flow  (Tom Wintringham)

Our enemies can praise death and adore death
For us endurance, the sun; and now in the night…  (Tom Wintringham)

My life confronts my life with eyes, the world
The world with microscopes; and the self-image
Lifted in light against the lens
Stares back with my dumb wall of eyes (Stephen Spender)

Light, light with that lunar death our fate;
Make more dazzling with your agony’s gold
The death that lays us all in the sand.
Gaze with that gutted eye on our endeavour
To be the human brute, not the brute human;
And if I feel your gaze upon me, ever,
I’ll wear the robe of blood that love illumines. (George Barker)

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold. (C. Day-Lewis)

Who would think the Spanish war
Flared like new tenure of a star,
The way our rhymes and writings are?
That Hilliard spilled his boxer’s blood
Through Albecete’s snow and mud
And smiled to comrade death, Salud?  (Blanaid Salkeld)

The horror of the nightmare is that it evades
Your steady look, steals past the corner of the eye,
Lurks in the sides of pictures. Death
Is fearful for the fifth part of a second,
A fear that shakes the heart: and that fear lost
As soon, yet leaves and sickness and a chill,
Heavy hands and the weight of another day.

Here in Madrid, facing death
my narrow heart keeps hidden
a love which grieves me but which I cannot
even reveal to this night   (Stephen Spender)

Enemies hidden in ambush
Hidden among the branches;
Weeping comes to the eyes,
Harvests go up in flames,
And hysterical Death
Over the puddles of blood
Howls and dances in rage,
Leaps and fastens on flesh.  (Pla y Bektrana translated by Rolfe Humphries)

You are stalwart, strong;
Young generations of sturdy miners
Have forged you – iron is in your blood.  (Charlotte Haldane)

Dark falls the afternoon,
Dark amid rain and mud…  (José Moreno Villa translated by Stanley Richardson)

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time…  (Clive Branson)

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets
Thoughts simple as death…  (Tom Wintringham)

In the night, the cause I fight for
Draws a mist of horror up, damps me with blood..  (Miles Tomalin)

There, in the frond, the instant lurks
With its metal fang planned for my heart
When the finger tugs and the clock strikes.  (Stephen Spender)

Searchlights now wipe the windscreen of the sky,
Which once was clear,
When from the garden we saw planes go by
Not dulled by fear.  (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why are there only three emotions, love or hate or fear? The whole world of subtle feelings and emotion in between these extremes – shyness, demurral, shrugging, hesitation, indignation, humour – is absent.

Out of the singing and the dancing came
Civil dissension, bitter deeds, and cruel;
Out of the poet and the murdered fool
The blood leapt rigid in a rage of shame.  (J.C. Hall)

Why is it either primal day or night?

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the universe
Singing the ‘Internationale’  (Clive Branson)

Why is every other thought about death? I appreciate they’re poems about war, but other things happen in war apart from just death.

Too many people are in love with Death (Tom Wintringham)

The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation
and valleyed with these moaning winds of death.  (Jack Lindsay)

But even now reproaching stars can sound
from death‘s horizon into which they dive…  (Kathleen Raine)

Fear will alight on each like a dunce’s cap
Or an unguessed disease unless death drops
Quicker than the sirens or the traffic stops  (Bernard Gutteridge)

It’s not that it’s inappropriate to write of death during a war, it’s that the word is just bandied around too easily and too glibly, it’s the monotony of this one boring word which becomes so grinding.

Now we can walk into the picture easily
To be the unknown hero and the death…  (Bernard Gutteridge)

Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.  (Jack Lindsay)

And any more poets who rhyme ‘death’ with ‘breath’ deserve to be shot.

Why are the only parts of the human body the heart, the eye and blood?

Men, worlds, nations,
pay heed, listen to my cry pouring out blood,
gather together the pulses of my breaking heart
into your spacious hearts,
because I clutch the soul when I sing.  (Miguel Hernandez translated by Stephen Spender)

Scorched and splintered lie its stones,
Blood is dust with flesh and hair…  (Miles Tomalin)

There are over 650 named muscles in the human body, over 200 bones, and scores of other fluids besides blood and tears. But only blood and heart and eye are ever mentioned, and not just occasionally, but over and over again, three body parts endlessly re-arranged by a madman.

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view. (John Cornford)

Why are the only things above us the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars? The clouds come in a hundred forms, the weather is complex and changeable, constellations and stars twinkle.

The sun warmed the valley but no birds sang
The sky was rent with shrapnel and metallic clang.

Ten years of sun and shadow. Ten years of the premonition of love and the omen of death… (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why is the only flower any of them have heard of ‘the rose’?

Can’t you smell the rose held in their teeth
Tighter than death?  (Clive Branson)

The centre of my heart like a red tree
Puts forth a hand and indicates the common red rose  (George Barker)

Why are there only two colours, red or black? It’s extraordinary, when we know that the human eyes can distinguish between about ten million shades of colour, that all the colours the poets in this collection refer to are red and black.

Out of the newsprint blows this wind of honour,
pause reading amid the traffic blast. Seal down,
red as the heart, the oath that we must swear
if we are still to live on such an earth  (Jack Lindsay)

Why is the only animal the dog? OK, the ox also appears a few times. There might be a few chickens. Are they all the animal species which exist in Spain or which poets can imagine?

The world is full, full of millions of things, hundreds of thousands of plants and animals and fungi, the entire range of modern machinery and technology, thousands of colours or moods of weather or human feelings, the thousands of words for the millions of intricate specificities of life.

It’s amazing how much of all that is left out of these poems, excluded by their narrow notions of poetic correctness, by their over-concern with a handful of ideas and images, with their incredible poverty of vocabulary and imagination.


Related links

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka (1922)

What is there actually except our own species? To whom but it can one appeal in the wide and empty world? All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog.

Kafka wrote this ‘story’ in September and October 1922, soon after abandoning work on his unfinished novel, The Castle. Like A Report to an Academy (narrated by an ape), Josephine the Singer (narrated by a mouse) and The Burrow (narrated by a mole), the narrator is an animal, in this case, as the name suggests, a dog.

These later stories are perplexing because there is a great weight of verbiage and little actual plot. I wonder if anyone’s compared late Kafka to late Henry James (died 1916). There are the same very long, sesquipedalian sentences, printed in solid blocks of text, whose sole point seems to be the pleasure of seeing how long you can stretch out a sentence for, by inserting qualifications and hesitations and subordinate clauses, and deploying numerous other tricks of rhetoric.

When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs, I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes,
but very often, the mere look of some fellow dog of my own circle that I was fond of, the mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair.

Little or nothing ‘happens’ in these stories – the text is more like an adventure in pure language. These later stories sound like lectures given by a particularly pompous academic, or parodies of lectures given by a particularly pompous academic, as the title A Report to an Academy suggests.

Now that is, if you like, by no means a simple question, of course; it has occupied us since the dawn of time, it is the chief object of all our meditation, countless observations and essays and views on this subject have been published, it has grown into a province of knowledge which in its prodigious compass is not only beyond the comprehension of any single scholar, but of all our scholars collectively…

And indeed the Investigations do in fact consist not in any physical investigations of the real world, but a series of ‘philosophical’ investigations which are rendered ‘absurd’ to the reader because it becomes clear that many of what the dog takes to be the strange and insoluble problems of canine existence are accounted for by the simple fact that it is humans who breed and feed and look after them.

But because he omits this simple fact, all the dog’s investigations are filled with puzzlement and confusion. For example, he remembers seeing what we, the readers, slowly realise is a pack of performing dogs, presumably at a circus but – omitting the presence of humans altogether from his account – the narrator is bewildered by why the pack of dogs is going through such unnatural motions:

Why were they afraid? Who then forced them to do what they were doing?.. Was the world standing on its head? Where could I be? What could have happened?

A common tactic of these late stories is to exhaust all the possibilities of one way of considering a subject… and then to say, ‘but the converse is also true’ and set off to spend another page considering the precise opposite. The text proceeds by negations and reversals.

A striking example occurs in Josephine where the narrator spends some time telling us that mice have a short intense childhood which often leaves them giggly and immature, subject to an ‘unexpended, ineradicable childishness’. Only when he’s utterly finished and exhausted this trope does he abruptly tell us that the other important thing about mice is that they are also prematurely old and decrepit – and then spends a page explaining the reason and consequences of this.

Same happens here. Early on he goes to some lengths to describe dogs as sociable animals who stick together, who live all in a heap. Then, abruptly, comes the volte face.

But now consider the other side of the picture. No creatures to my knowledge live in such wide dispersion as we dogs…

It feels a little as if Kafka is teasing the reader, seeing how many contradictions, changes of track and tack he can get away with.

The lack of tangible content also explains why these stories which he wrote towards the end of his life (he died in 1924 at the age of forty), despite being fairly long (Investigations is 16,000 words long, 40 pages in the Penguin edition) are so difficult to remember.

I remember what happens in The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony because something does, indeed, take place (the transformation and the grisly punishment, respectively). Whereas texts like Investigations and The Burrow can be summarised in a few sentences but defy longer description because nothing at all happens in them except for the extended, mock scholarly meditations of the ageing and rambling narrator.

Even the so-called ‘ideas’ which the animals consider, the hypotheses and postulates and theories and speculations which their author makes them lay out and weigh with such straight-faced seriousness, can’t really survive outside of the stories.

  • Thus the ‘story’ begins with the dog narrator recounting a puppyhood memory of coming across seven dogs behaving oddly to music; only slowly do we realise he’s at a circus watching performing dogs
  • Then he addresses the great and mysterious subject of dog food, which seems to appear as a result of certain magical rituals such as scratching the ground

In these cases the humour, such as it is, is in the puzzlement caused by the dog’s failure to acknowledge, or even realise, the prime role played in the existence of all dogs, by their human owners. At no point does he realise that dog food is given to dogs by owners. In the doggyverse various theories abound as to what produces it, and why it appears, sometimes ready-placed on the ground, at other moments descending out of the air (as a human places a bowl before its pet). Half the story or more is devoted to the dog-narrator’s tortured and endlessly convoluted engagement with various doggy scholars as to how these mysteries come about, all of them, of course, a complete waste of time.

And there is a certain humour in Kafka’s invention of a handful of doggy sayings which his dogged investigator subjects to much mock-learnèd scrutiny:

  • “Water the ground as much as you can.”
  • “If you have food in your jaws you have solved all questions for the time being.”
  • “If you haven’t enough to eat, we’ll give you some of ours.”

But what are we to make of his lengthy pondering on the mystery of the soaring dogs who spend most of their lives suspended in mid-air? I didn’t understand this, maybe it is a satire on dogs who live on pampered cushions.

Or the even more inconsequential and prolonged ruminations about his neighbour dog and whether he is, or isn’t, or might be, or might not be, a worthy companion in his doggish investigations.

Naturally I do not talk to my neighbor of these things, but often I cannot but think of them when I am sitting opposite him — that typical old dog — or bury my nose in his coat, which already has a whiff of the smell of cast-off hides. To talk to him, or even to any of the others, about such things would be pointless. I know what course the conversation would take. He would urge a slight objection now and then, but finally he would agree — agreement is the best weapon of defense — and the matter would be buried: why indeed trouble to exhume it at all? And in spite of this there is a profounder understanding between my neighbor and me, going deeper than mere words. I shall never cease to maintain that, though I have no proof of it and perhaps am merely suffering from an ordinary delusion, caused by the fact that for a long time this dog has been the only one with whom I have held any communication, and so I am bound to cling to him. ‘Are you after all my colleague in your own fashion? And ashamed because everything has miscarried with you? Look, the same fate has been mine. When I am alone I weep over it; come, it is sweeter to weep in company. I often have such thoughts as these and then I give him a prolonged look. He does not lower his glance, but neither can one read anything from it; he gazes at me dully, wondering why I am silent and why I have broken off the conversation. But perhaps that very glance is his way of questioning me, and I disappoint him just as he disappoints me.

These stories don’t consider anything which is applicable to actual life; the content can only subsist within the matrix of the text. (Unlike the Metamorphosis, the glaring exception to this rule, which does contain a massive, central event which anyone can summarise and explain to anyone else, and which explains why it has been adapted countless times for stage and screen. Investigations of a Dog couldn’t be adapted for anything, or it would make for a very dull play – a pompous orotund dog pondering the insoluble mysteries of the doggy world.)

This is what I mean by adventures in pure language – that when you try to extract a ‘meaning’ from these texts, it’s difficult or impossible to find one. They are more like long-winded, meandering and strangely empty ‘meditations’ whose nominal subject or theme is not the actual point.

This one doesn’t even manage to say anything at all ‘useful’ or quotable about dogs. Because it isn’t in fact about dogs at all. The following passage is typical: what does it tell us about anything?

How much intelligence is needed even by an ordinary dog even in average and not unfavorable circumstances, if he is to live out his life and defend himself against the greater of life’s customary dangers. True, knowledge provides the rules one must follow, but even to grasp them imperfectly and in rough outline is by no means easy, and when one has actually grasped them the real difficulty still remains, namely to apply them to local conditions — here almost nobody can help, almost every hour
brings new tasks, and every new patch of earth its specific problems; no one can maintain that he has settled everything for good and that henceforth his life will go on, so to speak, of itself, not even I myself, though my needs shrink literally from day to day. And all this ceaseless labor — to what end? Merely to entomb oneself deeper and deeper in silence, it seems, so deep that one can never be dragged out of it again by anybody.

In its last quarter or so the story wanders off topic because the dog narrator, as part of ‘scientific’ investigations into the mysterious appearance of dog food at regular intervals, determines to fast, to go without food and see what happens to the mysterious appearances. In fact the description of fasting and its psychological affects last for several pages, and reminds the reader very much of the near-contemporary story, The Hunger Artist, and also – if we’ve read the biography – that Kafka submitted to a number of food fads and dietary regimes which all anticipated his death, which was actually due to the closing up of his larynx and the prevention of swallowing, even liquids. This is gruesome and horrible and nothing to do with dogs, although cast in a doggy context.

My beautiful fancies fled one by one before the increasing urgency of my hunger; a little longer and I was, after an abrupt farewell to all my imaginations and my sublime feelings, totally alone with the hunger burning in my entrails. ‘That is my hunger,’ I told myself countless times during this stage, as if I wanted to convince myself that my hunger and I were still two things and I could shake it off like a burdensome lover; but in reality we were very painfully one, and when I explained to myself: ‘That is my hunger,’ it was really my hunger that was speaking and having its joke at my expense. A bad, bad time! I still shudder to think of it, and not merely on account of the suffering I endured then, but mainly because I was unable to finish it then and consequently shall have to live through that suffering once more if I am ever to achieve anything; for today I still hold fasting to be the final and most potent means
of my research. The way goes through fasting; the highest, if it is attainable, is attainable only by the highest effort, and the highest effort among us is voluntary fasting.

This rather random straying into psychopathological territory, the point, if any, seems to be that late stories like this are very pure exercises in the possibilities of thought and language. And hence my comparison with the dense, difficult but – if you have a taste for that sort of thing – wonderfully, elaborately and curiously crafted works of the later Henry James. Maybe.

Tropes

The narrator is remote in space and attitude

Like several other of the ‘scholarly’ narrators, the dog narrator gives the impression of being very, very detached from the run of his society, utterly detached, alienated and ignored by all the other members of his species.

It seemed to me as if I were separated from all my fellows, not by a quite short stretch, but by an infinite distance, and as if I would die less of hunger than of neglect. For it was clear that nobody troubled about me, nobody beneath the earth, on it, or above it; I was dying of their indifference…

Messages rarely penetrate through to what, by implication, is his remote distance from dogkind.

Solitary and withdrawn, with nothing to occupy me save my hopeless but, as far as I am concerned,
indispensable little investigations, that is how I live; yet in my distant isolation I have not lost sight of my people, news often penetrates to me, and now and then I even let news of myself reach them.

This all feels like the narrator of The Burrow who lives vastly remote from all other creatures, and the conditions described in The Great Wall of China where the vast distances mean that remote villages go through their entire existences worshiping a particular emperor without even realising that not only the emperor but his entire dynasty has perished.

The narrator is very old

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

wrote T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, published in 1920 when he was 32. Similarly, Kafka, another hypsersensitive hypochondriac, creates narrators in these final stories who also lament (or boast) about their advanced age, poor memories and general decrepitude.

How, indeed, without these breathing spells, could I have reached the age that I enjoy at present; how could I have fought my way through to the serenity with which I contemplate the terrors of youth and endure the terrors of age…

… all our laws and institutions, the few that I still know and the many that I have forgotten…

I can recall an incident in my youth…

In itself it was nothing very extraordinary, for I have seen many such things, and more remarkable things too, often enough since…

in the course of a long life one encounters all sorts of things…

And I have preserved my childlike qualities, and in spite of that have grown to be an old dog…

Perhaps I have the prospect of far more childlike happiness, earned by a life of hard work, in my old age than any actual child would have the strength to bear…

I shall very likely die in silence and surrounded by silence, indeed almost peacefully, and I look forward to that with composure…

the diligent labor of a long life

But I have seen much, listened to much, spoken with dogs of all sorts and conditions…

Or, as Eliot put it in The Waste Land:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead…

Something about Modernism which aspirates to a sort of global, primeval wisdom. The generations of novelists before were content to tell a tale, either of fantasy or social realism, to entertain like Balzac, to craft a work of art like Flaubert or to waken the reader’s conscience like Zola.

Kafka’s generation thought they were struggling with the nature of being, and of language, itself, an endeavour which required the adoption of a pose of great, almost superhuman, antiquity.


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