Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

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

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

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

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

Fragments

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

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

The general approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The addenda

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

Experiments

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

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

Banned

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

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

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


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels @ the British Library

Next to the big Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (admission £14 for adults) is a smaller FREE exhibition for children titled Marvellous and Mischievous.

The British Library has a vast collection of children’s literature with examples from the distant past right up to the present day, and they’ve created this bright, inventive, fun exhibition to present a vivid selection of some of the more rebellious or naughty children’s characters from the past three hundred years or so, from a Latin textbook from 1680 containing doodles made by disgruntled schoolboys to The Boy at the Back of the Class, a story about a boy refugee which was winner of best story at the Blue Peter Book Awards 2019.

The exhibition has two elements:

1. A sequence of wall labels giving information about some 40 different heroes and heroines from children’s literature, from the Bash Street Kids to Angry Arthur via Oliver Twist, Matilda, Lizzie Dripping, Pippi Longstocking and many more. Each wall label is accompanied by one or two illustrations from the books the characters appear in, giving a vivid sense of how important good illustration is to the success of children’s books, and showcasing some masters and mistresses of the art, including Axel Scheffler (Zog), Quentin Blake (Matilda), Nick Sharratt (Tracy Beaker), Judith Kerr (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) and many more.

© Zog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler 2010 (Alison Green Books)

So the main experience of the show is strolling past a series of deeply evocative pictures of children’s book ‘rebels’ old and new, each with an interesting and diverting factual accompaniment.

2. And there are three Activity Areas:

  • a reading corner where some mums were reading to small children
  • a wall mirror and some clothes and props where kids can dress up as a rebel character and take selfies in the modern style
  • and a table and chairs with loads of paper and pens, where slightly older children (8?) were creating their own comics, which can then be left on the string lines above for other visitors to read

Leo Baxendales of the future creating their own comics in the Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition at the British Library

So which characters from children’s literature are in included in the exhibition? (The sentences in speech marks are direct quotes from the exhibition wall labels.)

Rebel girls (23)

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers – One day Tilly realises that the characters in her favourite books are encouraging her to enter the pages of the books and join with them to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
  • Zog by Julia Donaldson – a dragon with a sore throat is treated by Pearl, a princess who lives in a castle but wants to escape and become a doctor! – ‘Pearl is heroic because she defies expectations and dares to be herself’
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – ‘mischievous and disobedient Lyra’; ‘Lyra’s rebellious nature leads her to question her place in the world’
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki – In the land of Ingary, oldest children are destined to be least successful but Sophie rebels against her destiny, and sets off to have adventures
  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen – not only is Billy a girl, she is a ‘brown’ girl (as The Bookseller puts it) and she has to stand up to the Terrible Beast who is gathering ingredients for his Terrible Soup. ‘Have you ever confronted someone scary to stand up for what’s right?’
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – ‘Alice isn’t daunted: she’s forthright, inquisitive, courageous and truthful’.
  • Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland – the daughter of refugees, Azzi is ‘resilient and imaginative’
  • Mulan – in ancient China girls rarely went out in public but Mulan challenged convention. ‘Mulan was a courageous young girl who concealed her gender for 12 years in order to serve in the army. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a storybook hero?’
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of young Anna – ‘The story shows the importance of family’
  • The Rebel of the School by L.T. Meades – Kathleen finds the rules at Great Shirley School stifling and struggles to regain the freedom she had before starting school and refuses to conform
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – strong, independent schoolgirl who stands up against bullies, namely the headteacher, the Trunchbull
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – young Jane rebels against her strict schooling, refusing to be afraid and ‘her defiance is a lesson for her schoolmates, and the reader’
  • Jane, The Fox and me by Isabelle Arsenault – Hélène is bullied at school but finds inspiration in the character of Jane Eyre, which gives her hope and confidence
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet – Mary Lennox is a spoilt orphan who’s been raised in India and finds moving back to England difficult, but keeps her rebellious, rule-breaking nature
  • Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne – Rosemary doesn’t want to be a stupid fairy, she wants to be a witch so she goes and builds a new home in the forest, and makes friends with witches. ‘A story about growing up, accepting yourself and finding a place in the world.’
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. ‘Is Goldilocks the most outrageous rule-breaker in fairy tales?… Here the Jolly Postman delivers Goldilocks’ apologies to the three bears.’
  • Wild by Emily Hughes – A little girl grows up wild in the woods, but is then captured and taken to the city where she she can’t understand manners and politeness. ‘Three cheers for misfits and outsiders!’
  • Dare by Lorna Gutierrez (Author), Polly Noakes (Illustrator) – ‘Taking risks, spotting the things others don’t see, supporting those in need, expressing yourself, speaking up for what is right’ – makes her sound like a Young Communist Youth Pioneer.
  • I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan – Muzna dreams of becoming a writer but her controlling parents won’t let her. ‘This coming-of-age novel moves from everyday teenage rebellion to Muzna’s choice between protecting the person she cares about most, or betraying her beliefs.’
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has a healthy disrespect for unreasonable adults. ‘A powerful character who uses her strength for good and is often found protecting children from bullies.’
  • Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson – Tracy is a ten-year-old girl living in a children’s residential care home nicknamed the ‘Dumping Ground’. but is ‘determined to change her life and isn’t going to compromise!’
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery – ‘an imaginative, impulsive character who changes those around her with the force of her personality’
  • What planet are you from, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child – Clarice ‘navigates the complex ethical and social questions children deal with at school and at home’

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child © Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 2001)

Rebel boys (8)

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – sent to bed without his supper, Max imagines a wild island full of fierce beasts – ‘a celebration of mischief, anarchy and imaginative play’
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – ran away from his parents to a land where children never grow up. There he lives with the mischievous Lost Boys and has thrilling adventures.
  • The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf – Ahmet is a refugee who’s become separated from his family. The children at his new school befriend him and ask the queen for her help – an adventure which shows ‘the power of friendship, standing up to bullies, and a little bit of bravery’
  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram – Arthur gets angry when his mum insists it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed, so angry that he blows up the universe!
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Oliver asks for more gruel in the poorhouse.
  • Wicked Walter by Catherine Storr – steals a cake from his mother only to discover it contains salt and pepper rather than sugar!
  • Dirty Bertie by David Roberts – Bertie is a likeable boy who tried very hard, generally without success!
  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love – young Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid. ‘An inspirational picture book that celebrates individuality, self-discovery, acceptance, gender identity, beauty and love.’

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love © 2018 Jessica Love

Rebel groups (4)

  • The Bash Street Kids from The Beano drawn by Leo Baxendale – ‘Easily one of the naughtiest groups of children in comic book history’
  • Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – young adult book about race, set in a society where dark-skinned people have power and the friendship-love between a boy and girl across the colour divide
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier – a group of older children are thrown together by the Nazi invasion of Poland – ‘The characters are brave and resilient’
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams – patients living in an unusual hospital with a terrifying matron and a porter who helps them live out their dreams.

1. What is a rebel?

Several trains of thought arise from carefully reading all these wall labels:

First, what is a rebel? The dictionary definition is:

a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader

Well, not many of the characters in this exhibition are taking up arms against an oppressive government. Most of them are refusing to tidy their room or do their homework. And what emerges as you progress around the displays is that most of the ‘rebels’ who are featured represent values which the modern-day curators thoroughly endorse – standing up for yourself, being true to your beliefs, bucking convention, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

After all, what parent wants to read bedtime stories to their little children which actively encourage them to disobey their parents, smash up the furniture and torture the cat? Clearly the notion of ‘rebellion’, as applied to children, exists in a carefully delimited sense. Good children’s books must acknowledge every child’s wayward impulses, but subtly channel them into forms which are acceptable to adults, in which the characters are ‘naughty’ – but stay just this side of the really serious boundaries.

Thus (I’m suggesting) children’s fiction plays a role in indulging rebel impulses, but carefully controlling them and reshaping them into socially acceptable forms.

Matilda and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl 1988 © Roald Dahl Story Company Quentin Blake 2019

And it’s likely that children have a psychological need to read or hear about other children being naughty, misbehaving, getting into trouble but deep down being kind and wanting the best — so that the readers can identify with these naughty children, not feel they are lost, not feel they are alone, not feel they are the only ones who keep getting into trouble and that no-one understands them.

Children need to be shown that these kinds of tantrums, rule-breaking, misunderstandings or conscious disobediences have happened to generations of children before them who turned out alright. It is OK to get into trouble now and then, to be told off by parents or teachers. It is not the end of the world.

So in a way all these books redeem bad behaviour, or show that adults do understand naughtiness. The message is a fundamentally comforting, reassuring one: You can be naughty, break some of the rules – and still be a good person.

Lastly, there is the obvious point that – it’s just more fun reading about naughty characters, whether you’re a child or an adult.

The reading area at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

2. What about boys?

The second thing which became fairly obvious as I read my way round the exhibition was the surprising under-representation of rebel boys.

The exhibition contains nearly three times as many books for girls as for boys, and it became increasingly clear that the curators (three women: Lucy Evans, Anna Lobbenberg, Nicola Pomery) are promoting a heavily feminist view of what a rebel is – namely a heroic girl who bucks society’s expectations and escapes from gender stereotypes, but is, deep down, kind and helpful to the weak and bullied – in other words, a feminist paragon.

It’s a narrative which is very on-trend and comfortably sits alongside the great tsunami of girl-supporting books and films and government initiatives which currently flood our culture. A quick search on Amazon suggests there is no shortage of books on the subject:

  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions
  • Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls
  • Rebel Colouring For Girls: Motivating Messages & Marvellous Mantras To Colour & Create
  • ‘Rebel Girls Say…’ Positive Colouring For Girls age 7-10
  • Star Wars Feminist Princess Leia T-Shirt for Rebel Little Girls
  • Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades

I suppose all schoolchildren need help and support and encouragement – that’s a core element of education, in fact almost a definition of education. Pondering the obvious bias in this exhibition, though, I couldn’t help wondering why girls seem to need so much more encouragement than boys, especially in light of three well-known facts:

1. Boys read less than girls

2. Girls now outperform boys at every level of education

Girls are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests.

Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys.

This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys.

Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams.

A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college.

This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men.

And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

(Further Education news)

3. White working class boys are the worst performing group in the UK

In the comprehensive list of books featured in the exhibition, where are the realistic role models for young boys? Peter Pan? Oliver Twist? Angry Arthur?

Why are there so many positive role models for girls and hardly any for boys? (In the press images for the exhibition, there are six images of rebel girls and none of rebel boys [with the exception of transgender Julian]. Why?)

In this exhibition, as in so much of British cultural life, white working class boys are written out of the story.

So it seemed to me that in so heavily promoting reading for girls this exhibition was pushing at an open door but, at the same time, sadly missing an opportunity to reach out to notoriously reluctant-to-read boys.

© Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen (2019) Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House Children’s

3. Can children’s fiction ever be value-free?

And, finally, this exhibition made me wonder whether it’s possible to write a children’s story without filling it with positive, uplifting, socially approved messages.

Modern curators and academics tend to mock the Victorians and Edwardians for producing literature with ‘improving’ messages, or which crudely promoted the values needed to support the now-utterly-discredited British Empire – ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’ etc.

But is the children’s literature of our day so very different, with its barrage of socially aware, woke messaging – with its gentle but persistent insistence that we must help girls break free of their gendered roles, and we must understand boys like Julian who want to dress up as mermaids, and we must be supportive of refugees like Ahmet?

I’m not querying these values. I’m just wondering whether modern children’s fiction isn’t every bit as nakedly propagandist for our contemporary social values as Victorian children’s books were for theirs. We live in our age and so find our values natural and inevitable. But then, so did the Victorians, and the Georgians, and every generation before them…

The merchandise

Lastly, all the books referenced in the exhibition are on sale in the bookshop by the exit. ‘Rebel as much as you like – so long as you keep on buying our products!’ The ultimate rebellion – the extinction rebellion – to cease consuming, to opt out of the planet-destroying compulsion to buy, buy, buy – is mentioned by the curators in their introduction but nowhere (surprisingly) by any of the authors they’ve chosen.

Children’s books on sale at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

Summary

I’m vastly over-thinking an exhibition which is, after all, designed for infant and junior school-age children, designed to give them a selection of interesting characters to inspire them and get them reading, and asking interesting questions about fictional characters and about themselves.

The show is obviously designed to showcase highlights from the Library’s huge collection, to serve as a book-filled venue for school trips, and also just to provide an opportunity for kids to dress up and make their own comics. It’s meant to be fun and is predominantly aimed at the very young, as the introductory text clearly indicates:

In our exhibition you’ll meet all kinds of storybook rebels from the last 300 years – in their homes, at school, or on a journey.

Who’s your favourite and what would you stand up for?

And after all, these are valid questions: Who is your favourite children’s book character – and what would you stand up for?


Related links

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

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