The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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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

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