What Where by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.

What Where is Samuel Beckett’s last play. Like many of his later works it was written for a commission, in this case for the 1983 Autumn Festival in Graz, Austria. Beckett wrote it between February and March 1983, initially in French as Quoi où, then translated it into English himself.

Setup

As you might expect What Where is a very minimal work, although quite a bit fuller than its predecessor, Nacht und Träume. In that play there was no dialogue at all and no named characters, so What Where feels positively packed by comparison, with no fewer than five characters, namely:

BAM
BEM
BIM
BOM
VOICE OF BAM (V)

Beckett gives relatively short and simple stage directions:

Players as alike as possible.
Same long grey gown.
Same long grey hair.
V in the shape of a small megaphone at head level

It is set in a confined ‘Playing Area’, for which Beckett, in his original script, characteristically provided a floorplan marked very precisely to indicate the location of the four actors, or the positions they entered, stood at, and exited from.

Note the way the Voice of Bam (V) is different from the actual physical person, Bam, and that the Voice emanates from a megaphone, carefully and distinctly placed apart from the main ‘Playing Area’. As we work through the different versions and interpretations of the play, the ‘apartness’ of this voice will take on larger and larger significance.

TV production

Though conceived and premiered in the theatre in 1983, in 1985 Beckett supervised a made-for-TV adaptation for the German Süddeutscher Rundfunk, assisted by Walter D. Asmus. The producers claim:

This new production of What Where also represents a significant technical updating of the original version with new production techniques adding subtleties and dimensions to the work that were not achievable with the technology that was available when What Where was first adapted for the screen.

In this version the whitened faces of the characters simply appear and disappear with no physical movement whatsoever, either by them or the camera, which remains rigidly in place. Compare this with Beckett’s script which describes both a definite, visible place, and the movements of the characters between very specified locations within it (the letters in the following refer to specific locations in Beckett’s set diagram).

[BOM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head haught.
Pause.
BIM exits at E followed by BOM.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head bowed.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head haught.
Pause.
BEM exits at N followed by BIM.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BAM exits at W followed by BEM.
Pause.
BAM enters at W, halts at 3 head bowed.
Pause]

This sequence at the start has come to be called the ‘opening mime’ of the play. For the German TV version Beckett cut it altogether.

Plot

The four men are all dressed in identical grey gowns with the same long grey hair, similar to the long white hair of the protagonists in Ohio Impromptu and That Time.

The names are incongruously silly, nonsense names – Bam, Bem, Bim, Bom. The opening voice says there are five of them, suggesting one for each of the five vowels in which case the fifth member would be Bum. As my little boy would put it, ‘Daddy, you said a rude world’.

In fact Bim and Bom were the names of real historical personages, two Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were allowed to travel abroad. Beckett saw them perform in Paris and their names or variations on them crop up throughout his works, in the collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks in the novel Murphy (along with Bum), in draft passages deleted from Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Bom and Bem appear in the long gruelling ‘novel’ How It Is before making their final appearance in this, Beckett’s final play.

The silly names contrast with the intense seriousness of the content. This can be divided into two aspects.

First there is the mystery of presence and absence, by which I mean the way the oracular opening voice calls into being the other characters, in a solemn stately, incantatory way, intones solemnly about time passing, calls the other three to him and disapproves (‘No good’) then approves (‘Good’) of their entrance and disposition.

But the second element is quite different. In this, Bam and Bom dialogue on a much more specific topic, namely the violent interrogation of a third, absent, person. By contrast with some other Beckett plays where characters speak at great length, the dialogue in What Where is very clipped, consisting of one short sentence each, like a call and response, making it harsh and brief, almost itself like an interrogation between a menacing interlocutor and someone almost visibly shaking with fear.

BAM: He didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.

Screamed?. So the topic would appear to be torture. This links What Where back to Rough For Radio II, written back in 1961, in which a man is interrogating a prisoner tied to a chair with the help of a stenographer who reads out the previous day’s proceedings and an actual torturer who is periodically ordered to whip the prisoner, who as a result screams. Hmm. Torture. A surprisingly lurid and violent theme not usually identified with Beckett, whose plays rarely feature action of any kind.

And indeed, in this work, the animation of Rough For Radio II – the way we hear the victim actually being whipped and actually screaming – has been muted until it simply consists of Bom and Bem and Bim reporting on the supposed torture of the third party, who is tortured in each instance until he passes out.

What slowly becomes clear is that the person being tortured is one of them, that each of them are tortured, in turn. Each of the Bems presents themselves to Bam, who asks whether they got the desired results and, when they claim their victim passed out, Bam refuses to believe them, accuses them of being a liar, and summons the next in the sequence of Bems and Bims, orders them to take away their predecessor and give them ‘the works’.

Thus, one by one, three others is ordered to be taken away by one of the others to torture his predecessor; when he returns, having failed to get results, he himself is carted off and tortured until he confesses. But confesses to what?

BEM: What must I confess?
BAM: That he said where to you.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: And where.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: Yes.

In fact the thing each torturer is instructed to extract from his victim changes: First it is spring and the Voice of Bam tells Bim that he only wants to know ‘That he said it to him’. Then it is summer and the Voice of Bam orders Bim to take away Bem and to ascertain that ‘he said where to you’. Then it is autumn and Bem returns to report he has been unable to extract ‘where’ from Bim, whereupon Bam accuses Bim of lying and threatens him with ‘the works’. Since there is no one left to carry out this threat, Bam himself escorts Bem away.

That he said it, that he said where – Are these absurdly unspecific and apparently inconsequential concerns meant to highlight the absurdity of torture as a practice?

It is a notable aspect of the play that the ritualistic way each of the four becomes, in turn, the victim to be taken away and ‘given the works’, is preceded by a little passage from the Voice of Bam indicating the passing of the seasons:

V: I am alone.
It is summer.
Time passes.
In the end Bim appears.
Reappears.

Thus the movement of the status of prisoner and torture victim through the four characters is deliberately pegged to the very ancient trope of the passage of the four seasons, and you can see several reasons for this. One is that Beckett is addicted to numbers and patterns, witness the supercomplex choreography of Quad, also featuring four players, although silent fast-moving unspeaking dancers in that case, but also in numerous other works in prose and drama.

The second reason is, presumably, to make the doleful point that humanity’s tendency to persecution and torture is as ancient and unchanging as the cycle of the seasons.

What where

Let’s look again at what’s at stake in the serial interrogation. First of all Bam asks Bom whether the person he interrogated till he passed out (presumably the logical fifth in the sequence, the unnamed Bum) said ‘it’.

BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say it?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say it?
BOM: No.

Then Bam orders Bim to interrogate Bom till he admits that ‘he’ (presumably Bum) did say ‘it’ to Bom, but the latter is refusing to admit it. And when Bim fails in this task, Bam orders Bem to interrogate Bim in turn:

BEM: What must he confess?
BAM: That he said where to him.

So that’s where the What Where of the title come from. The first two interrogations are designed to identify ‘it’ (what?); the third interrogation is designed to identify ‘where’. So What? and Where? are the key subjects of the interrogation.

This has the vagueness of allegory, allowing thousands of critics and commentators to read into this focus on ‘what’ and ‘where’ the issues of their choice. Some have taken a psychological interpretation, focusing on birth and Freudian issues of personal guilt, others on the origin and nature of consciousness.

But maybe a more obvious interpretation is to expand the two questions into the big Meaning of Life ones, namely ‘What is it all about?’ and ‘Where do we come from and where are we headed?’ Thus, without much effort, the play can be turned into an allegory of ‘philosophical enquiry’, or at least of metaphysical enquiry.

An allegory but also, maybe… a parody, a mockery of the pointlessness of asking such questions. From the start of his writing career Beckett expended a lot of energy mocking the Rationalist tradition in philosophy, which he associated with René Descartes, and his entire oeuvre amounts to an attack on the notions that the human mind is rational or knowable, or that it can understand a rational, ordered world. Precisely the opposite.

And yet, we find ourselves over and over asking the same questions of life, of our existence, even though we know that no sensible answer exists, condemned by our natures to endlessly asking unanswerable questions. As Ezra Pound wrote in The Exile’s Letter in 1917:

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

That could almost be Beckett’s motto. What is the point of writing, but there is no end of writing. The writing has to continue even if the writing is doomed to failure. You just have to fail again, fail better.

The Beckett on Film production

In December 1999 Damien O’Donnell directed a filmed version of What Where for the Beckett on Film project with Bam the person and the Voice of Bam-coming-through-the-loudspeaker played by Sean McGinley, and the succession of other Bems and Bims all played by the same actor, Gary Lewis.

This production is, in my opinion, preferable to the Asmus production. It makes a big difference to see the action taking place in an actual location because it clarifies the way each successive character fails in his attempts to get the previous one to confess and is himself hauled off to be given ‘the works’. It makes it a much more political play. It brings out the extreme menace of Bam, placing him up there with O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four, as an embodiment of total, terrifying power:

BAM: It’s a lie. [Pause. ] He said it to you. [Pause.] Confess he said it to you.

The Beckett on Film version dramatically highlights the transformation of each Bem figure from initially smirking torturer to terrified victim. And it brings out an aspect I didn’t get at all from the Asmus production, which is the way the Bems are picked off one by one, until there is only Bam left to escort the last one away and then, in the final scene, none of the clones remain, leaving Bam alone.

Thus this production brings out the way that the text is not cyclical but unidirectional. The way it starts with five characters and ends with one, the implication being that the others have been tortured to death. It paints an image of humanity as having exterminated itself down to a bare handful of survivors. As if in some science fiction apocalypse we witness the tragedy of the last survivors unable to end the ceaseless cycle of suspicion and pointless accusation and torture and death which has brought them to the brink of, and will drive them on to, extinction:

VOICE: We are the last five.

This is one way of interpreting the remark Beckett made for the 1985 production, that the Voice of Bam – which very stagily emits from an onscreen loudspeaker – is to be imagined as coming ‘from beyond the grave’. Maybe the last five have reduced themselves to zero. Mankind has tortured itself to extinction.

The German version, reprise

But this notion of the ghost peaking from beyond the grave brings us back to the 1985 German TV version for, if you watch it again after the Beckett on Film production, the German version may well lack the drama of the various Bems and Bims entering and exiting, and the amoral thrill of McGinley’s menacing presence – but this is because, instead, it has turned the play from a political powerplay into one of Beckett’s late period ghost stories.

The German version brings out, much more than the On Film version, the way that the entire action may be no more than a memory of the speaking voice, V. That the Voice of Bam may be only remembering all the onstage actions which are so carefully annotated.

More than that, more than a living mind remembering all these supposed events – what if Bam himself may be dead! What if the Voice of Bam (V) is so distinct and separate from the onstage actor called Bam, because it is a voice from beyond the grave, another of Beckett’s late-period spectral voices from nowhere.

This appears to have been the understanding encouraged by Beckett himself during the German production which he helped supervise. In the words of director Walter Asmus, we are dealing with:

The ghost Bam, dead Bam, a distorted image of a face in a grave, somewhere not in this world any longer, imagining that he comes back to life in the world, dreaming and seeing himself as a…face on the screen.

What? When? Turns out to be no-one, from nowhere.

The reflexive consciousness

Actually there is a third element, sitting above the way the 1. repeated scenes of accusation are embedded within 2. a frame of the four seasons – and this is the extremely characteristic way the narrative reflects on itself, stopping, pausing, making itself start again, try again, do another take.

Not good.
I switch off.
[Light off P]
I start again.

The way in which his texts comment on themselves or, more precisely, one of the several ‘voices’ in the text will command it to stop, try again, start again and so on – in the words of the famous quote from Worstward Ho, ‘Fail again. Fail better’ – this had been a central characteristic of most of Beckett’s prose from Molloy onwards.

The novel has a long tradition of intrusive narrators right from the start (Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy) but generally they were light, humorous, chatty and inventive. In Beckett, the comic exuberance of the tradition has been pared right back to the bone, right down to this specimen of hard, mechanical, rote repetition, as grimly robotic as every other element of this bleakly automated fable.

There is a God supervising our fates but he has the heart and soul of a robot arm in a Nissan car-making factory.

It says what it means

I’ve a lifelong aversion to seeking symbolic or moral or psychological truths lurking in the depths of literary texts. All too often, when these are dredged to the surface they turn out to be trite and disappointing, blether about Original Sin or the Oedipus Complex or the revelation that all the world’s a stage or money makes the world go around.

I am far more interested in the mechanics of language, and the infinite number of registers, tones and effects it can create. In the detail and precision of the language and in the weird, other-worldly effects language (and light and sound and music and movement) can create in a theatrical context.

Therefore I have every sympathy with the Beckett who loathed being asked what his works ‘meant’. For example, the exasperated author was forced to state explicitly that if he had meant the name Godot to refer to God, he would have written as much.

Over and over Beckett had to tell inquisitive actors that he had no idea what happened to his characters before they make their appearance in the plays, what their ‘back stories’ or ‘personal histories’ consist of. I was delighted when I came upon director George Devine’s 1964 statement regarding the script of Play that even the text itself barely matters, but is merely the dramatic ammunition which enables the performance to take place (quoted in Knowlson, page 516) – a performance which, in Beckett’s vision, is often closer to a kind of moving sculpture, or painterly ballet, than any traditional idea of a ‘play’.

So I am heartened to find Beckett, here at the end of his writing career, repeating the same stance. When he was asked by yet another in a long line of berks what What Where ‘means’, he very reasonably and accurately replied:

I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object.

I think of works of literature as sophisticated devices designed to create certain psychological or aesthetic effects, neurological reactions in the mind. ‘Meaning’ can be among these effects and may well be a component of the work, the author might even think it’s the most important part of the work, but it needn’t be either the most important or the most interesting aspect.

Often asking what the ‘meaning’ of a work is, is as stupid as asking what’s the meaning of vanilla ice cream. It’s a flavour. You like it or don’t like it, it produces a certain reaction on your palette, you may be in or not in the mood for it. It’s an experience not a ‘meaning’.

Same with most poems, novels and plays, in my opinion. They are psychological experiences in which the ostensible or even buried meanings may play a part but don’t account for the entire experience, which is likely to be much richer, stranger, deeper, emotional or aesthetic and so on, than the narrow concept of ‘meaning’ allows. A lot more is going on than we are ever aware of…

Two versions

Having read about What Where in James Knowlson’s brilliant biography of Beckett and in the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett I have now understood that the two YouTube versions I’ve included in this review represent what were, in fact, two distinct versions of the play. The Beckett on Film version is (despite the grandiose Terry Gilliamesque setting in a futuristic library) very loyal to the original script 1983 (as published in the Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett), and so makes clearer the sequence of events Beckett originally conceived, whereby successive Bems and Bims are turned on each other and done away with, until there is only one left.

Whereas the 1985 Asmus version benefited from Beckett’s ongoing amendments to the play, and transformed it into a thorough-going ghost story, in the sense that Bam might well be dead, all the characters in it might be dead, including the physical Bam, and the entire thing might be the staging of a ‘memory’ and the creation of fake personages, who are put through their paces and then put through their paces again in the strange ritualistic way, by the faint volition of a person beyond the grave.

By the time of a 1986 production, Beckett had revised the text so much – dispensing with the opening mime which I quoted at the start of this review, reconceiving the Bems and Bims not as actual people coming and going but as static disembodied faces illuminated only by spotlights, the actors now standing stationary on platforms two feet off the stage with none of the entrances and exits of the original version – that this new iteration came to be known as What Where II. It is, according to the Beckett Companion, nowhere written down or published, for reference we have only the earlier, unamended What Where I version which is what is included in the edition of Collected Shorter Plays which is the text I started off analysing and working from, and which is why it took me a while to even realise that the play exists in two such very different forms.

So the Beckett on Film version presents What Where I and the Asmus production presents What Where II and you’re left reflecting on the immense impact different stagings can have on work which is essentially the same but which, through different visualisations, can create such sharply, such hugely different experiences.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Nacht und Träume by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Nacht und Träume (German for Night and Dreams) is the last television play written and directed by Samuel Beckett. It was written in English in mid-1982 for the German TV channel Süddeutscher Rundfunk, recorded in October 1982 and broadcast on 19 May 1983.

Wordless

Beckett had run out of words, but all is not silence. Although for only a fraction of the time, although only intermittently, the viewer hears the sound of a male voice softly humming, then singing, the last seven bars of Franz Schubert’s song Nacht und Träume and a fragment of the song’s lyrics, ‘Holde Träume, kehret wieder!’ (‘Sweet dreams, come back’). Schubert was one of Beckett’s favourite composers, and this was one of Beckett’s favourite songs.

By this late stage of his career, Beckett aficionados knew that this kind late work would probably dispense with character, plot, realistic setting and all the other conventions of theatre or drama. Instead, it’s better to think about the production as composed from basic elements, or elements of stagecraft reduced to a bare minimum (like the spotlight on the talking mouth in Not I), to the bare minimum of lighting, movement and gesture.

In many respects the late plays or playlets (because they’re generally so short) are more like abstract modernist sculptures except sculptures which exist in time. In his last period Beckett was far more interested in the precision and timing of gestures, movements, lighting effects, than anything remotely resembling character or plot or psychology.

With no characters and no dialogue and no real action, the text for the production really consists of technical instructions. Beckett lists five elements: evening light, the dreamer (A), his dreamt self (B), a pair of dreamt hands and the last seven bars of Schubert’s lied (German for classical art song, pronounced leedt). In fact, they’re so short, why not share the entire text of the instructions?

Full text

Elements

Evening light.
Dreamer (A).
His dreamt self (B).
Dreamt hands R (right) and L (left).
Last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume.

  1. Fade up on a dark empty room lit only by evening light from a window set high in back wall.
    Left foreground, faintly lit, a man seated at a table.
    Right profile, head bowed, grey hair, hands resting on table.
    Clearly visible only head and hands and section of table on which they rest.
  2. Softly hummed, male voice, last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume
  3. Fade out evening light.
  4. Softly sung, with words, last 3 bars of Lied beginning ‘Holde Träume…’
  5. Fade down A as he bows his head further to rest on hands. Thus minimally lit he remains just visible throughout dream as first viewed.
  6. A dreams. Fade up on B on an invisible podium about 4 feet above floor level, middle ground, well right of centre. He is seated at a table in the same posture as A dreaming, bowed head resting on hands, but left profile faintly lit by kinder light than A’s.
  7. From dark beyond and above B’s head L appears and rests gently on it.
  8. B raises his head, L withdraws and disappears.
  9. From same dark R appears with a cup, conveys it gently to B’s lips. B drinks, R disappears.
  10. R reappears with a cloth, wipes gently B’s brow, disappears with cloth.
  11. B raises his head further to gaze up at invisible face.
  12. B raises his right hand, still gazing up , and holds it raised palm upward.
  13. R reappears and rests gently on B ‘s right hand, B still gazing up.
  14. B transfers gaze to joined hands.
  15. B raises his left hand and rests it on joined hands.
  16. Together hands sink to table and on them B’s head.
  17. L reappears and rests gently on B’s head.
  18. Fade out dream.
  19. Fade up A and evening light.
  20. A raises head to its opening position.
  21. Lied as before (2).
  22. Fade out evening light.
  23. Close of Lied as before (4).
  24. Fade down A as before (5).
  25. A dreams. Fade up on B as before (6).
  26. Move in slowly to close-up of B, losing A.
  27. Dream as before (7 to 16) in close-up and slower motion.
  28. Withdraw slowly to opening viewpoint, recovering A.
  29. Fade out dream.
  30. Fade out A.

The action

The action begins with a dreamer sitting alone in a dark empty room, his hands resting on the table before him. He is on the left of the screen and we see his right profile. A male voice hums the last seven bars of the Schubert lied. Then, as we hear the same section sung again, the man rests his head on his hands and the light fades until the words ‘Holde Träume’ at which point the light fades up on the man’s dreamt self who is seated on an invisible podium four feet higher and well to the right of him. We see the dreamed man’s left profile, a mirror image of his waking self. The dreamed self is shown in what the directions describe as a ‘kinder light’. The dreamer is still faintly visible throughout though.

A left hand appears out of the darkness and gently rests on B. As the man raises his head it withdraws. The right hand appears with a cup from which B drinks. The right hand vanishes and then reappears to gently wipe the dreamed man’s brow with a cloth. Then it disappears again.

B raises his head to gaze upon the invisible face and holds out his right hand, palm upward. The bodiless right hand returns and rests on B’s right hand. He looks at the two hands together and adds his left hand. Together the three hands sink to the table and B rests his head on them. Finally the left hand comes out of the darkness and rests gently on B’s head.

The dream fades as A awakens but, as in so many Beckett plays, the entire sequence is then repeated – the music is replayed and the sequence recurs, only this time ‘in close-up and slower motion’.

After this repeat, the camera pulls back, leaving us with the image of A ‘recovering’ before the two visual zones fade out, first the dream space on the right, and then the original image of A at his table.

Themes

A number of things are obvious.

1. Wordless It is wordless, and so linked to Beckett’s several mimes from the 1960s. Lacking character, plot or dialogue the ‘play’ relies entirely upon the visual effects and, to a lesser extent, on the few moments of fragmentary music…

2. Personless A and B are almost the last in a long line of Beckett personages who have been deprived of names or identities and reduced to letters, literally to cyphers, algebraic notations rather than people, since at least Rough For Theatre I and II (c.1960) which both feature characters labelled simply A and B, or Play (1963) which features personages referred to simply as M, W1 and W2.

3. Moving It is sad and sombre and moving. A is an old man, moving in slow motion, requiring care. Having read the Beckett biography I know that he spent a lot of time caring for his ailing mother in her last years, and then being with his elder brother Frank during his final illness. Beckett had done a lot of lifting cups to weak lips, stroking the hair of the ill, resting hands together.

4. Repetition Repetition is Beckett’s key strategy at a meta level many of his pieces take place in a first part, and then are repeated, generally with deterioration, in the second. Classic examples are Waiting For Godot and Happy Days, but also the less well-known Play and Quad, part two of the latter, in particular, repeating part one only more slowly and in black and white. Same here. Life is repetition, over and over, while we wait for the end.

5. Old Master Painting I mentioned sculpture earlier, which is one way of thinking about the late pieces, but probably a more obvious analogy is painting. The two images, A at his table, B in his separate space, at numerous points appear like Old Master paintings. Biographer James Knowlson made the link with Beckett’s fascination with Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching of praying hands, a reproduction of which hung in his room at Cooldrinagh as a child (as it did in one of my school corridors). Then again, Beckett was a lifelong devotee of Dutch seventeenth century painting with its immaculate depictions of calm, motionless interiors, and something of the almost complete stillness of the simple domestic scene possibly invokes them…

6. Consolation Freud wrote in a letter that he was unable to give his patients the one thing which, deep down, they all wanted, which was consolation. Similarly, Beckett made a career out of depicting a comfortless universe or, more precisely, the inside of minds which have collapsed, which can barely sustain a narrative of any kind let alone one which provides any kind of comfort.

But all that said, the helping hands which are offered to B, well they are very powerful images of comfort and consolation. When the three hands are conjoined and B lays his head on them, well, there could hardly be a more moving image of support and basic human comfort.

7. Christian imagery The way the figure of A appears behind a screen, the notion of a screen itself, recalls countless big Christian paintings from the Western tradition, and the image of a chalice, cloth and comforting hand are core Christian iconography. Astonishingly, the English cameraman who worked on the German TV production, Jim Lewis, said that:

…at the moment when the drops of perspiration are wiped from the brow of the character, Beckett simply said that the cloth alluded to the veil that Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on the Way of the Cross. The imprint of Christ’s face remains on the cloth.

Wow. This is an astonishing reversion on Beckett’s part to the core Christian iconography of his boyhood in a God-fearing, church attending Protestant household. Why? Well, one interpretation is that it lay to hand. The Wikipedia article on the play quotes Beckett telling actor Colin Duckworth:

Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar, so I naturally use it.

The artist works with what he or she has to hand. In theory, this doesn’t mean he or she endorses, the narrative structures, iconography and imagery provide raw materials to work with, clay to be shaped, metal fragments to be arranged into post-modern abstract sculpture.

Yes, but despite all that, it still feels mighty religious, doesn’t it? It feels like an image of hope.

But then again, the way the music appears only as fragments, lost forlorn fragments of an abandoned or ruined civilisation, and the way the action is mechanically repeated with a strong suggestion of steady entropy and decay, those are emphatically not images of hope.

Therefore, we can observe a simple tension between the structure of degradation and decay, against which silent images of consolation are set. A dynamic tension or interaction.

TV production

As far as I can tell, this is the original German TV production. Haunting, though, as so much late Beckett is haunting, is a matter of ghosts and ghostly memories.

Thoughts

Once again I am struck by the contrast, or contradiction, between the way Beckett has evolved a highly avant-garde, experimental, out-on-the-edge approach to a theatrical production, to creating productions which aren’t really plays in any meaningful sense – and the way that what content you can make out is surprisingly old fashioned, conservative. Schubert and Christian imagery, both have been twisted and mashed into something utterly weird and strange, and yet Schubert and Durer are almost as traditional and old school as you can imagine.

As it happens I’ve recently been reading cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, and Gibson’s work just seems to come from another world, a world where there is absolutely no concern or acknowledgement of Western culture, or Christianity, or the classics or icons of either, an internationalised consumer world of shiny chrome surfaces and hi-tech digital gadgets.

The comparison really brings out how Beckett, for all his hyper-modernism, for all his ostensible rejection of it, nonetheless, at his core, derives from an old, conservative, deeply Christian, highly traditional view of Western culture – a slow, sombre, reverential, poignant quality that Nacht und Träume, probably more than any other of his works, feels soaked in.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Worstward Ho is a short piece of prose published by Samuel Beckett towards the end of his life. The title is a parody of the adventure novel Westward Ho! by Victorian novelist, Charles Kingsley, which itself is a reference to the Elizabethan play Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster.

Regarded with a detached eye, the title is almost a parody of Beckett’s notorious miserabilism, but the title doesn’t begin to capture the apocalyptic evisceration of language which characterises the text.

Along with other late prose pieces, Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho was collected in a volume with the equally parody-worthy title, Nohow On, which is actually one of the recurrent phrases in WO, in 1989.

On the first page the text includes what is probably Beckett’s most famous quote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

By this late stage in his career, Beckett had moved far beyond conventional categories such as novel, novella or short story. In fact he had moved beyond what most people probably think of as literature or even meaningful language.

The piece takes his late prose mannerisms to extremes. The following analysis relies on the excellent summary of the piece given by James Knowlson in his biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, because Knowlson has read and thought about this difficult piece far more than I will ever have time to.

Shakespearean source

Beckett began writing Worstward Ho on 9 August 1981 (we know all this kind of detail because these notebooks were left, in good condition, to university archives). Beckett wrote out three quotes from King Lear to the effect that, if you can say we’ve reached the worst, you have not reached the worst. It is Edgar who says, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1:

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

The worst is unsayable, inexpressible. Therefore, the mere fact of being able to speak or write, by definition, means you’re not there yet. The piece therefore approaches the final collapse of language, repeatedly enacting it, but failing to cross the threshold into silence. Language can’t. It can only try and try again. Hence the repetitive nature of the motto: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Language games

In the attempt to approach the edge of expressibility, Beckett experiments with language’s potential and Knowlson gives a useful little summary of the tactics employed:

Paring away

Most obviously the English language has been pared right back to a handful of words, brought together to create small phrases or lexical units.

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none.

Combinations

These tiny units, the handful of words and short phrases, are then combined, recombined, repeated with variations. The strategy of ‘enumeration’ which had been part of his prose since Watt.

On back to unsay void can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go. All not already gone. Till dim back. Then all back. All not still gone. The one can go. The twain can go. Dim can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go.

New coinages

Paradoxically, having reduced English to almost the bare minimum, Beckett generates a number of new words, coinages, especially around the core idea of ‘worse’.

unworsenable, unmoreable, unlessenable, evermost, meremost, dimmost, unlestening, unnullable

This much messing about with words is unusual in Beckett. And there’s lots of it, it’s a conspicuous feature of this piece:

invain, unasking, missaid, whosesoever, hindtrunk, astand, nohow, vastatween, inletting, outletting, ununsaid, unreceding, unsay, unsunk, unmoreable

As you can see, most of them are created by adding un- to perfectly normal words to create their opposite. Matter and anti-matter. Inventions in the desert of language. Tinkerings on the verge of the void.

Swapping parts of speech

In the same spirit, words change their usual syntactical function. Thus nouns are used as verbs, verbs as nouns, adverbs as adjectives and so on.

Alliteration

Playing with these last few counters of a mind on the brink of collapse throws up a surprising number of alliterative phrases, which possess a hard, chiselled beauty:

Skull and lidless stare. Where in the narrow vast? Say only vasts apart. In that narrow void vasts of void apart.

Tongue twisters

Knowlson makes the point that Beckett loved crossword puzzles, word games, tongue twisters and there turns out to be surprising capacity for such games even when playing with a handful of dead counters:

  • Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.
  • With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.

The intrusive narrator

Beckett took the tradition of the intrusive narrator, who had been used for comic effect in 18th and 19th century novels, and turns him into an unsmiling director of the action whose presence is indicated by the imperative form of the verb ‘say’. Say this. Say that. The word ‘say’ occurs 100 times in the text. Could be paraphrased as ‘take a…’ or Let’s assume the existence of…’ only pared right back to the shortest possible verbal gesture:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none.

Or this longer quotation gives a flavour of how the text creates itself through a series of orders or suggestions:

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Or better worse remains. Say remains of mind where none to permit of pain.

And what is it all this ‘saying’ is labouring to conjure into words, into reading, into being?

Content

Autobiographical memories

There is no ‘plot’, Good God, what an idea! But quite a few shapes or patterns emerge from this careful series of patterned paragraphs.

Beneath the dense wordplay, and forest of repetitions two images seem to emerge vaguely, as if through a fog, an old man walking hand in hand with a boy:

Bit by bit an old man and child. In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child. Any other would do as ill… Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands – no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede turned. Both bowed. Joined by held joining hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.

Having read Knowlson’s biography, both of these central images strike me as having direct autobiographical roots. Beckett’s father loved going for walks in the Dublin hills, and took his son as often as possible, hence old man and boy hand in hand. The second recurring image is of an old woman:

Somehow again on back to the bowed back alone. Nothing to show a woman’s and yet a woman’s. Oozed from softening soft the word woman’s. The words old woman’s. The words nothing to show bowed back alone a woman’s and yet a woman’s. So better worse from now that shade a woman’s. An old woman’s.

And after his father died, Knowlson describes the way, on his increasingly infrequent returns to Ireland the family home, Beckett would accompany his mother to lay flowers on his father’s grave.

Nothing and yet a woman. Old and yet old. On unseen knees. Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none.

Physical extremity

As so often, Beckett’s places his characters in extreme physical situations – not atop burning buildings or such, but caught in tight, taut, claustrophobic poses which mimic the tight, taut nature of the psychological conception and are reflected in the tight, taut, claustrophobic prose.

  • It stands. See in the dim void how at last it stands. In the dim light source unknown. Before the downcast eyes. Clenched eyes. Staring eyes. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Head sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Clenched eyes clamped to it alone. Alone? No. Too. To it too. The sunken skull. The crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.

Cramped, crippled, clenched. No wonder Beckett found it physically exhausting to write texts which require the reader not only to clench his body, but in some respect to clench your mind while reading. Knowlson tells us it took Beckett seven months just to write the first draft of Worstward Ho and that, over the winter of 1981 to 1982 he told friends that writing the piece was making him physically sick. As he wrote to long-time American collaborator, Alan Schneider, in his characteristically clipped and telegraphic style:

Struggling with impossible prose. English. With loathing.

Worstward Ho took Beckett a lot of effort to write and takes us a lot of effort to read, but I think it repays the effort. I think the major mistake that most people make who struggle with Beckett is thinking there is some grand hidden meaning behind it all. I think the truth is the opposite. There is no deep and hidden meaning, no powerful allegory or network of symbols which, if you could only decipher, would suddenly unlock these difficult texts, somehow make them easier to read and process.

They are what they are. The words mean what they say. Any reader or critic is at liberty to read into them any meaning they like, but all such readings looking for hidden meanings take you away from the immediate presence of the actual words themselves and their genuinely strange, haunting, beguiling, rigorously unsentimental, anti-romantic, hard, spare impact. And their difficulty.

First the bones. On back to them. Preying since first said on foresaid remains. The ground. The pain. No bones. No ground. No pain. Why up unknown. At all costs unknown. If ever down. No choice but up if ever down. Or never down. Forever kneeling. Better forever kneeling. Better worse forever kneeling. Say from now forever kneeling. So far from now forever kneeling. So far.

If the words are ‘about’ anything, if there is a ‘plot’ (and there isn’t) it’s to do with the way the text talks to itself, manipulates itself, positions, poses then immediately questions and subverts itself.

The dim. The void. Gone too? Back too? No. Say no. Never gone. Never back. Till yes. Till say yes. Gone too. Back too. The dim. The void. Now the one. Now the other. Now both. Sudden gone. Sudden back. Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.

It is the record of the narrator shaping and unshaping and anti-shaping the words and patterns and whatever they refer to, or unrefer to, as it goes along, or doesn’t go along, says or unsays, changes or unchanges, neverending, nevermoving, until it brings itself to a sudden and abrupt end:

Enough. Sudden enough. Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther. Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.

If you let go the reflex need to find ‘meaning’, if you recalibrate your mind to just go with the words in front of you and let them in, let them do their work, not strain for meaning and over-read them, but take them at face value, then they take you on an amazing journey to a very strange place, then they do something wierd to your mind. This is one of my favourite Beckett works because one of the purest, like The Unnamable, it is one of the least referential and therefore feels like a difficult, rebarbative, but deeply rewarding adventure in the possibilities of language and strange psychological effects.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Company by Samuel Beckett (1980)

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past.

For someone whose life’s work is about loss, abandonment, futility, decay, entropy, collapse and failure, Beckett not only wrote a devil of a lot of works, but carried on writing them into deep old age. He was 74 when he published Company, a short story (well, the critics call it a novella) of only 30 pages or so on the modern Faber paperback edition. You can read it online:

Someone is lying in the dark…

Although written in the late 1970s, Company feels like a direct extension of The Beckett Trilogy, in particular of Malone Dies, written thirty years earlier in 1948. In the early piece Malone lies in bed in either a hospital or asylum, dying and describing his immediate surroundings and the stream of inconsequential thoughts which flow through his head, to ‘the voice’ which tells him stories, in an effort to pass the time till he expires.

Well, the character in Company is also lying on his back in the dark, also apparently letting memories drift through his mind to pass the time, many memories deriving fairly transparently from Beckett’s own boyhood in semi-rural Ireland. But at least two things have changed:

1. The prose style seems much more rarefied. It is sparer, more colourless.

2. In this tauter or bleaker prose, the text seems to spend much more time exploring notions around exactly who is telling the stories, where they come from, who is ‘telling’ them and who is ‘listening’. There are certainly the memories I mentioned above, but they are like oases of colour in the otherwise colourless prose devoted to discussing truth and narrative, philosophical conjectures whether anything can be true or known.

Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified

The word ‘verification’ recalls the Logical Positivists and their Verification Principle, namely: ‘a set of criteria that determined what constitutes meaningful language’. But this is literature not philosophy. If it includes references to philosophy it is only to play with it or arrange it for literary ends. Although it is written in a deliberately clinical style, as of a philosophy textbook.

That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional
allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company.

Is the ‘another’ in the dark a reference to the author, to the writer who ‘devises it all’ ‘for company‘? Well, there’s the title of your piece and slowly, through repetition, the idea emerges of this ‘another’, also in the dark, and of a ‘company’ of voices or memories, which the text creates as it proceeds.

And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company… Another devising it all for company. In the same dark as his creature or in another…

This may seem strikingly anti-literary – for the author or the narrator to open by discussing the status and verifiability of the text we’re reading, but it isn’t new. Malone and then The Unnamable, written back in the late 1940s, were both explicit about how the texts were telling themselves stories in order to pass the time, as this one is telling itself stories, for company.

And Company is much more aggressively theoretical throughout, playing with grammar, , shifting pronouns, messing with its categories:

Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that cankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You shall not.

Who hears a voice…

The subject appears to be visited by a Voice. This visitation of a voice, so far from being new is a very well-established Beckett strategy. His prose pieces and some of the plays are infested with Voices (often named, simply, VOICE) whose precise source is mysterious but who dominate the entire proceedings – as, for example, the disembodied woman’s voice who haunts and accuses Joe in Eh Joe or the voice of the non-appearing mother in Footfalls.

The Voice comes in many forms:

The voice comes to him now from one quarter and now from another. Now faint from afar and now a murmur in his ear. In the course of a single sentence it may change place and tone. Thus for example clear from above his upturned face, You first saw the light at Easter and now. Then a murmur in his ear…

The categories Voice and Company are combined or weighed against each other. The Voice is a sort of company ‘but not enough’. Whose is the voice, where does it come from, what authority does it have, is it meant for him, the listener, the person lying on his back in the dark – or is he overhearing it by mistake? The text examines the voice, turning it over for our inspection.

Another trait its long silences when he dare almost hope it is at an end…

Exactly as Joe waits for the woman’s punishing vengeful voice to finally cease tormenting him.

Another trait its repetitiousness…

In Company as in all Beckett, repetition, repetition with slight variations, slightly varied repetitions, is one of the most fundamental of his prose strategies.

Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more. To darkness visible to close the eyes and hear if only that. Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more.

And the tone is flat, monotone, monochrome – exactly as Beckett told so many of his actors to recite his words, without any ‘acting’ or colour, drab and grey as the set in Ghost Trio.

Another trait the flat tone. No life. Same flat tone at all times. For its affirmations. For its negations. For its interrogations. For its exclamations. For its imperations. Same flat tone.

We learn that another rather magical, or eerie, quality of the Voice is that it lightens the darkness, makes the darkness less dark. This voice. Whose voice? Talking to someone lying in the dark. Who is lying in the dark? And is the voice made up by ‘another’, by ‘another’ lying in the dark. Making up voices. For ‘company’.

And experiences boyhood memories…

Just when I thought the entire text was going to be an extended and repetitive incantation on this theme of Voice, it is suddenly punctuated by a memory, a vignette. From now on the abstract and abstruse reflections made by the text about its own provisionality and contingency are punctuated by vivid and sharp and above all entirely naturalistic memories of boyhood. These memories include:

  • walking with his mother out of a shop, Connolly’s Stores, and asking why the sky is so far away
  • the day of his own birth, at home in the room with the big bay window, and the story that his father went for a long walk in the mountains only to be told when he returned, ten hours later, that the labour was still continuing, so he went to sit in his De Dion Bouton motor car in the coachhouse to sit it out
  • he imagines himself an old man out trudging the country roads, and computes how many yards, how many miles he was walked since in all his life, walking the back roads like the protagonist of …but the clouds…
  • memory of being very small and helping an old mad beggarwoman scrabbling to open a gate
  • standing on the top diving board at a swimming pool looking down on his father encouraging him to jump
  • watching as a boy from the garden as thin sour old Mrs Coote arrives on a visit to his mother and playing his favourite game of jumping off the top of the tall fir trees and letting the branches beneath cushion his fall
  • walking the Ballyogan road, one time out of thousands, the long backroads, before dodging between a hedge and away across the fields
  • as a boy heading off for his favourite hiding place in the gorse and staring east out over the Irish Sea, convinced he can see mountains in England
  • as a boy he finds a hedgehog, carries it home, puts it in a cardboard box with worms for food, then returning weeks later to find the poor thing dead and rotting

Is maybe in a cramped physical posture…

Beckett’s texts are obsessed with the physical positioning of the human protagonists, with imagining them in all manner of uncomfortable bent and contorted postures. Company is no exception:

Whether standing or sitting or lying or in some other position in the dark…Which of all imaginable positions has the most to offer in the way of company…Let him for example after due imagination decide in favour of the supine position or prone and this in practice prove less companionable than anticipated. May he then or may he not replace it by another? Such as huddled with his legs drawn up within the semicircle of his arms and his head on his knees. Or in motion. Crawling on all fours. Another in another dark or in the same crawling on all fours devising it all for company. Or some other form of motion…

Much as he imagined the cramped contorted figure in All Strange Away, the bent double figure in Enough. So many Beckett characters, cramped and contorted, bent and folded.

Head resting mainly on occipital bump aforesaid. Legs joined at attention. Feet splayed ninety degrees. Hands invisibly manacled crossed on pubis. Other details as need felt. Leave him at that for the moment.

Expressed in paragraph blocks…

It was obvious from first turning to the text, that its paragraphs are not printed close together in the manner of a consecutive story, but are spaced out, as if each one is conveying a distinct message – approaching the problem of narrative, of the voice, of the many voices and the many memories and the way they create a host, a throng, a company via a series of what are so separated and distinct as almost to be prose poems. Poem paragraphs.

Half-way through the text considers giving ‘him’, the person lying in the dark, a name. Call him H. This initially seems like a good idea, but then the text, the narrative,m has second thoughts. Changes its mind. Rows back. Rejects.

Is it desirable? No. Would he gain thereby in companionability? No. Then let him not be named H. Let him be again as he was. The hearer. Unnamable. You.

You doesn’t refer to the reader, but to the floating pronoun of the subject of the text, sometimes referred to as ‘he’, in the third person, sometimes as ‘you’

The voice maybe comes from a hemispherical chamber…

Remember the tremendous detail Beckett went into in describing the interior of the cell in All Strange Away and the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine and the cylinder of the dead in The Lost Ones? Same here. One odd paragraph abruptly imagines these events, this lying in the dark, is taking place in a kind of science fiction interior. The tone of the Voice has a certain quality,

Suggesting one lying on the floor of a hemispherical chamber of generous diameter with ear dead centre. How generous? Given faintness of voice at its least faint some sixty feet should suffice or thirty from ear to any given point of encompassing surface. So much for form and dimensions. And composition? What and where clue to that if any anywhere. Reserve for the moment. Basalt is tempting. Black basalt. But reserve for the moment…

It’s a detailed diagram, for sure, but provisional. Invented, as it is all invented, as it is all made up, to suit, to fit, to match, to provide more company.

  • he has an extended memory of one day setting off for a walk across the snowy fields near his home, the point of the story being he knows the route by heart but on this one occasion, expecting to see the usual straight line in the snow, looking back he is surprised that his footprints describe a great arc, ‘as if all at once the heart too heavy. In
    the end too heavy.’ (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 1)
  • he remembers being a boy in the family summerhouse one summer and being visited by a girl his age, a scene Beckett characteristically drains of all emotional or psychological significance and reduces to a set of queries about the dimensions of the summerhouse and envisioning her body as a set of parts or components. (This short passage was excerpted and published separately as Heard In The Dark 2)

Shall we name these ‘people’?

The memories exhaust him. He will give them new names. Name the hearer M and himself (the deviser, the writer) W. Yes, he names them, out of the need for company.

Devised deviser devising it all for company…

But these, too, are figments. The man, M, obviously so. But so also I, W, who writes the text. there is no way to escape the endless self-reflexiveness of consciousness, always able to watch itself watching itself watching itself write something.

What visions in the dark of light! Who exclaims thus? Who asks who exclaims, What visions in the shadeless dark of light and shade! Yet another still? Devising it all for company. What a further addition to company that would be! Yet another still devising it all for company…

Or make them crawl…

It is characteristic – you might almost say it is THE Beckett prose manoeuvre – that these passages about narrative are barely expressed before Beckett reconceives them in terms of physical postures. Beckett invokes plenty of philosophers and philosophical ideas about consciousness, for example the Verification Principle which is alluded to on the first page, but he rarely if ever follows them up, explains or explores them.

His habit is to invoke this or that grand philosophical notion but, barely has he done so before he throws himself into conceiving a physical posture for the product of the thinking subject. And that that posture is invariably one of humiliation and abasement. Abstract discourse > cultural reference > bent and contorted body.

Thus, within seconds of a teasing passage about consciousness, Beckett switches to imagining what it would be like if he let his creature, the personage lying in the dark, actually move.

Then let him move. Within reason. On all fours. A moderate crawl torso well clear of the ground eyes front alert. If this no better than nothing cancel. If possible. And in the void regained another motion. Or none. Leaving only the most helpful posture to be devised. But to be going on with let him crawl. Crawl and fall. Crawl again and fall again. In the same figment dark as his other figments.

So many Beckett texts hint at philosophical ideas about perception, consciousness and the mind but, in the place where some actual statement about them, some actual thinking ought to then take place… there are only immiserated creatures crawling through the mud, as in the unforgettable vision of How It Is.

That said, the text now digresses off to more memories, which prompt the thought that these later texts, as Beckett got well into his 70s, are full of an old man’s memories, many unavoidably poignant, no matter how hard he tries to transmute them via his strange post-modernist apparatus into mechanised and drained snapshots.

  • he has a memory of father stooping over his cradle
  • he remember in his young manhood, leaning back against an aspen tree with his true love who tells him to listen to the leaves

Or cramp them into postures and measure and count…

The text cuts back suddenly from the rather halcyon memories to this image he has just conjured from nothing of a man crawling and falling. With super-predictable Beckettness, it’s not the oddity or incongruity or horror of the imagined crawling man which strikes him; what strikes Beckett is calculating the exact dimensions of his crawl.

First what is the unit of crawl? Corresponding to the footstep of erect locomotion. He rises to all fours and makes ready to set out. Hands and knees angles of an oblong two foot long width irrelevant. Finally say left knee moves forward six inches thus half halving distance between it and homologous hand. Which then in due course in its turn moves forward by as much. Oblong now rhomboid. But for no longer than it takes right knee and hand to follow suit. Oblong restored. So on till he drops.

Very similar to the large amount of text devoted to describing exactly the length and dimension and regularity of movement of arms and legs of the protagonist of How It Is crawling endlessly through the mud. And the obsession with arranging body parts in geometric shapes is matched by the large amount of text devoted to counting and measuring. The world changes but Beckett’s obsession with the precise measurement of the misery he puts his invented figures through never changes.

So as he crawls the mute count. Grain by grain in the mind. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. One foot. Till say after five he falls. Then sooner or later on from nought anew. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. Six. So on. In what he wills a beeline. Till having encountered no obstacle discouraged he heads back the way he came. From nought anew. Or in some quite different direction. In what he hopes a beeline. Till again with no dead end for his pains he renounces and embarks on yet another course.

The changing meaning of the word ‘company’

All this and other macabre imaginings have been done in the name of creating ‘company’. By this stage the common English word ‘company’ has lost a lot of its everyday meaning and come to mean something more like motivation, the creator’s motivation not just to create for company, but for a kind of higher purpose named Company, the bizarre motivation for this twisted flight – or crawl – of fantasy.

One phrase is repeated over and over, in that compulsive way of Beckett’s, till it becomes a talisman:

What an addition to company that would be!

Not ‘to the‘ company; just ‘to company’, as if ‘company’ isn’t a number of human beings but more an abstract quality. Confirmed when the narrator ponders the different ways M could crawl and fall, wondering aloud which one would provide better ‘company’, where company has ceased to mean other human beings but become an abstract quality like karma or virtù.

But at other moments ‘company’ can be reduced to mean just the voice. It is better to suffer the voice than have nothing, to be a nothingness lying in the darkness. The voice adds… something. Light, of a sort, tone, albeit flat, images, albe they drained and mechanical. The voice is some kind of company. Better than none. Hence the need to hear the voice again. The creator, or his creature, or both, are voice addicts.

  • he has a memory of standing on the beach wearing boots and greatcoat on a starless moonless night

The clock is always ticking

The text draws to a close with a spectacular example of Beckett’s Asperger’s Syndrome-like obsession with numbers and geometry, as he describes in mind-numbing detail the visual aspect of watching the second hand tick round on his pocket watch, something a million authors must have looked at before but none had ever considered describing, in detail, as a subject in itself.

At 60 seconds and 30 seconds shadow hidden by hand. From 60 to 30 shadow precedes hand at a distance increasing from zero at 60 to maximum at 15 and thence decreasing to new zero at 30. From 30 to 60 shadow follows hand at a distance increasing from zero at 30 to maximum at 45 and thence decreasing to new zero at 60. Slant light now to dial by moving either to either side and hand hides shadow at two quite different points as for example 50 and 20. Indeed at any two quite different points whatever depending on degree of slant. But however great or small the slant and more or less remote from initial 60 and 30 the new points of zero shadow the space between the two remains one of 30 seconds. The shadow emerges from under hand at any point whatever of its
circuit to follow or precede it for the space of 30 seconds. Then disappears infinitely briefly before emerging again to precede or follow it for the space of 30 seconds again. And so on and on…

The end

And then a long and winding paragraph which sort of summarises much of what has gone before, which manages to mention his father, Dante, give a great deal more description of the precise angle and posture of the body when placed in two different positions, one ‘supine’, how it shifts from one to the other, how it gets used tom shifting from one to the other, and:

So in the dark now huddled and now supine you toil in vain. And just as from the former position to the latter the shift grows easier in time and more alacrious so from the latter to the former the reverse is true. Till from the occasional relief it was supineness becomes habitual and finally the rule. You now on your back in the dark shall not rise to your arse again to clasp your legs in your arms and bow down your head till it can bow down no further. But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable.

(Note the characteristic Beckett achievement of smuggling at least one potty-mouthed swearword into this text). Sometimes just imagining your body into the postures Beckett describes gets quite exhausting. I find myself half adopting these impossible postures, in my mind at any rate, and feeling slightly hysterical.

And then the piece ends with a kind of flourish of the great man’s trademark nihilism, in its final bleak, one-word sentence.

Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.

Alone.

Thoughts

A climax of heart-breaking bleakness – if you are an alienated teenager. It you take a rather more detached view, Company is clearly a late exercise in a number of familiar Beckett themes, but with the distinction that the two main strands – the mulling over the nature of writing and narration, and the rather sentimental boyhood memories – oddly fail to gel. And you can possibly define a third category, the familiar obsessions with bent and contorted bodies and the obsessive enumeration of simple iterative processes. For me, these elements don’t meld together but sit obstinately separate.

Something else, the boyhood memories are told in a disconcertingly straightforward, easy accessible way, and I found that this profoundly undermined the narrative analytical parts. What I mean is, the passages where he mulls over who is saying what to whom and why are often written in sentences which themselves become rarefied and barely graspable and reading them takes you to a delicate, otherworldly place in your mind which feels genuinely strange and new.

Unfortunately, if the next passage is about old Mrs Coote and his mother yacking on while young Sam hides up a tree, the banality brings your mind right back down to earth with a thump. So, in my opinion, the weakness of Company is not only that the different types of discourse, of subject matter and register, don’t hang together – it’s that the sentimental memories, in their great big obviousness, severely undermine the experimental narrative sections, which require a kind of delicacy of mind to entertain, to follow into their strange ghostly mindscape.

I much preferred a work like How It Is which is completely homogenous, tonally consistent, and transports you to a weird and eerie otherplace.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ghost Trio by Samuel Beckett (1976)

Ghost Trio is a short television play by Samuel Beckett, which lasts about twenty minutes. Beckett wrote it in English in 1975 and it was first televised on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977.

Ghost Trio has fantastically detailed stage directions specifying the exact layout of the room the action is set in and the position of the male figure at various points of the action. As with most later Beckett plays it includes a diagram of the set, showing a room 5 metres by 6 metres, with a window at the far end, a pallet on the left and a door leading into a corridor on the right. Near this door, for most of the action, the solitary protagonist, a silent man, sits hunched over on a small bench. Here’s the diagram:

Schematic diagram of the stage set and camera positions for Ghost Trio

And here’s the key to the diagram:

  1. Door
  2. Window.
  3. Mirror.
  4. Pallet.
  5. Male figure (F) seated by door.
  6. F at window.
  7. F at head of pallet.

A and B and C represent successive points of view of the TV camera:

A. Position general view.
B. Position medium shot.
C. Position near shot of 5 and 1, 6 and 2, 7 and 3.

Colour? Lighting? Well, as the mysterious woman’s voice who narrates the text tells us:

The light: faint, omnipresent. No visible source. As if all luminous. Faintly luminous. No shadow. [Pause.] No shadow. Colour : none. All grey. Shades of grey. [Pause.] The colour grey if you wish, shades of the colour grey.

A trio in three parts

As the name suggests, the play itself is divided into three parts and within each section further sub-divided into a set of numbered steps or directions, specifying not only the actor’s movements and words, but which of the 3 camera positions should be used, A, B or C.

I. Pre-action, contains 34 numbered actions or snippets of monologue
II. Action, contains 38 numbered directions or steps
III. Re-action, contains 41 numbered directions or steps

It is called Ghost Trio because the action is interspersed with excerpts from the Largo of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Trio, Opus 70 #1, which was given the nickname ‘The Ghost’ because of the spooky feel of some passages. And because, like Footfalls before it and …but for clouds.. after it, the play itself feels ghostly, feels as if the protagonist is not really there at all. The human figure is a kind of pretext for things which go on around him, but not real physical things: he is the kind of locus for a succession of psychological states.

Typically, Beckett doesn’t leave the selection of passages from Beethoven’s work to the director, but is hyper-specific, giving the part number and direction number from his play and then specifying exactly which excerpt from the Ghost Trio should be used, right down to the  exact bar number:

I.13 beginning bar 47
I.23 beginning bar 49
I.31 to 34 beginning bar 19
II.26 to 29 beginning bar 64
II.35 to 36 beginning bar 71
III.1 to 2, 4 to 5 beginning bar 26
III.29 beginning bar 64
III.36 to end beginning bar 82

The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett suggests that the extraordinary detail of the directions make this a kind of ‘post-literary’ work in the sense that the text of the play is almost unreadable. By which the authors mean that you have to see and hear the entire thing in an integrated production to really ‘get’ the entire effect. The Companion says it is, in this respect, a ghostly descendant of the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk proposed by Wagner in which all the arts are combined in harmony, which demands to be read and heard and seen.

As the Wagner reference suggests, the Companion goes on to suggest that the work can be said to be Beckett’s only attempt at an opera. Personally, I think that’s misleading: if opera means anything it is the singing of lyrics to music throughout an extended work which features characters and a plot, none of which is true of Ghost Trio. If anything is Beckett’s attempt at an opera, I’d have thought it was the 1961 radio play Words and Music which doesn’t actually feature sung lyrics, words and music of the title place in apposition i.e. next to each other, but for which various composers have written specially composed music. But even that is more accurately thought of as an allegorical masque.

Synopsis

The reader of these complex stage directions, with their diagrams and numbered steps, might easily be intimidated. But when you actually watch or listen to a production of Ghost Trio it is disarmingly simple.

Part one In part one a woman’s voice formally introduces herself and then describes the room we’re looking at, pointing out the features mentioned above, namely door, window and palette, then asks us to look in detail at the wall and floor, which are grey and dusty. She then asks us to look again as if there is value in really scrutinising these sparse elements. Part one ends with a clipped sentence stating that: ‘Sole sign of life a sitting figure’. A shambling, decrepit-looking man sitting on a bench, hunched forward over what the directions specify might be a ‘cassette’.

He is not named. He never speaks. Only the Voice speaks.

Part two There is no formal differentiation between parts one and two, no dipping of the lights to black as in other plays of this time. Instead, part two sets the tone or defines the theme in the opening sentence when the same woman’s voice says:

‘He will now think he hears her.’

Aha. Her. So the piece turns into a depiction of a silent, shuffling man who appears to be haunted by memories of ‘her’, a woman, an absent woman. In this it is very close to …but the clouds… which followed it, but also harks back to the surprisingly sentimental core of a piece like Krapp’s Last Tape which uses the innovative idea of an old man listening to tapes made by his younger self, but which focuses on a repeated memory of being a young man lying in a field in summer with his true love.

In other words, for all the disconcertingly modernist and anti-humanist apparatus of the text, the mise-en-scène, the long pauses between the fragmented and robotic voice etc – arguably, the piece is at heart shockingly sentimental, a man recalls his lost love. After all, Beethoven was the Romantic composer par excellence and Beckett (apparently) never abandoned his youthful attachment to German Romanticism.

A very recurrent Beckett trope is introduced at the end of part two where the woman’s voice says simply. ‘Stop. Repeat.’ which is what most Beckett characters and most Beckett texts do.

Part 3 has the most written instructions so is likely to be the longest in a production, but features no speaking voice at all, just a sequence of 41 stage directions, which require the figure onstage to go to the window and look out to the sound of rain falling, go to the palette and look at it, goes to a mirror hanging on the wall and stares into it for a while, all interspersed with snippets of the music being played, before these cut out and the action returns to silence.

Part 3 ‘builds up to’ a moment of pregnant symbolism, when we hear a faint knock on the door into the corridor. The protagonist slowly opens it and the camera cuts to his point of view. In the long empty corridor he sees what appears to be the figure of a boy ‘Dressed in black oilskin with hood glistening with rain. White face raised to invisible [figure]’.

The boy slowly shakes his head, twice, very slowly, then slowly withdraws back down the corridor. Is he saying, ‘Not today, she is not coming today, your lover, your Muse, not today’, much as the boy in Godot says Godot isn’t coming today. Tomorrow, maybe. Stop. Repeat.

If you keep a straight face, the image of the boy in the narrow corridor slowly shaking his head at all the old man’s hopes and wishes is a poignant symbol of loss and abandonment. If you have a sense of humour, this feels like Peak Beckett.

Ghost Trio ends with the door slowly closing and the figure withdrawing to sit on the nearby bench where we see him, again, hunched over, an eternal image of loss and abandonment.

Productions

Irksomely, it doesn’t seem possible to view the original 1977 BBC production. The closest we can get is the video below which appears to consist of just part 3, from a production Samuel Beckett himself directed in May 1977 at the television studios of the Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Stuttgart. So it’s presumably as close to the author’s intention as possible.

It certainly brings out the greyness, the bleakness, the slowness, and the hauntedness of the piece.

Conversely, here is a high-tech production featuring Nicholas Johnson as the figure and Hannah Grady as the Voice, adapted, filmed and edited by M. Dixon Causey.

If you can overcome an aversion to the American accent, it raises a few questions about the use of modern techno music or white noise as background to the narrator, and the funky ways the tape is treated and distorted to make it look like a modern cyber-thriller – all of which come from a different technical universe than Beckett knew. The male figure is hardly the decrepit, wasted, long-haired old geezer of the Beckett version, but a shaven-headed, snappy young American film studies graduate, clutching an ipod docking station and mini-speakers rather than a ‘cassette’.

And, most strikingly, when the Voice says ‘Repeat’, the film does in fact repeat all the figure’s actions from the first two parts, speeded up to a techno soundtrack with heavily treated (sepia-ed) visuals.

Is this radical updating valid and appropriate?

Personally, I think so. I positively like the superimposition of the huge Roman numerals I, II and III to introduce the three parts, and the big captions indicating DOOR and WINDOW in part one. These seem as suitably blunt and brain-damaged as the entire text is made to feel in this production. Whereas the German production accurately portrays a small grey enclosed space, much like a shabby boarding house room, this American production – with its bright white interiors, walls painted clinical white, and the man’s shaven head, all these elements make it feel as if the figure is an inmate in a medical facility, maybe an asylum.

Thoughts

Beethoven Is Ghost Trio an interpretation of the Beethoven work? A commentary on it? Or a reworking? Is the Beethoven piece intrinsic to the work or purely illustrative? Could it have been more or less any piece of work with a haunting theme which could have been cut up and sampled like this?

The boy In the German production I only knew the face was that of a boy because the text told me so. It could be interpreted as that of a young androgynous woman, maybe the woman the man appears to be listening out for.

Choosing a boy to deliver the head shake is reminiscent of the boy who makes two unexpected, and often overlooked, appearances at the end of each of the two acts of Waiting For Godot, and tells Vladimir and Estragon that, no, Godot will not be coming today. Tomorrow, maybe. Mañana.

Shades of grey The woman’s voice describing the entire room being bereft of colour, and even of an obvious light source, but consisting only of:

‘All grey. Shades of grey. [Pause.] The colour grey if you wish, shades of the colour grey…

to the modern reader prompts association quite different from what Beckett intended. How many shades of grey, the reader wants to ask.

Mr Bleaney To the average viewer it looks a lot like a depressed old man sitting in a room. More than ever, it seems like a Portrait of the Artist As A Writer Sitting In A Small Room Mulling Over What It Is Like To Be A Writer Sitting In A Small Room Mulling Over What It Is Like To Be A Writer Sitting In A Small Room Mulling Over What It Is Like To Be… and so on. Stop. Repeat.

Hammer horror I showed the German version to my daughter. She said what’s the old man so depressed about? When the door in the wall opened painfully slowly with its stagey Hammer Horror creaking sound effect, she burst out laughing and asked me whether it was a rejected episode of Scooby Doo. The younger generation – no soul.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

That Time by Samuel Beckett (1975)

A man is onstage standing high up and unnaturally still. Only his head is lit by a spotlight, a mature face with long flowing white hair. The audience hears a voice coming from somewhere, presumably his voice, although his lips don’t move, and after a minute or so the tone of the voice changes, then later for a third time, so that the audience slowly realises we are listening to three voices. Or are they three aspects of his own mind, specifically three trains or types of memory, gentle, wistful, and harsh (‘ah for God’s sake’) or from different periods of his life, young, mature and old man?

Stage directions

As usual, Beckett gives very precise stage directions in the script:

Curtain. Stage in darkness. Fade up to LISTENER’s FACE about 10 feet above stage level midstage off centre.
Old white face, long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread
Voices A B C are his own coming to him from both sides and above. They modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence indicated. See note.
Silence 7 seconds. LISTENER’s EYES are open. His breath audible, slow and regular.

And as to the NOTE mentioned, it says:

Moments of one and the same voice A B C relay one another without solution of continuity-apart from the two 10-second breaks. Yet the switch from one to another must be clearly faintly perceptible. If threefold source and context prove insufficient to produce this effect it should be assisted mechanically (e.g. threefold pitch).

Power of three

Three is, of course, a profoundly lucky number, three wishes, three bears, three billy goats gruff, a symbolic number, a theological number, the Trinity, and a very manageable number, a very practical number to arrange into any conversation or short play – witness the three heads in jars in Play or the three old women in Come and Go. Most of Beckett’s works can be sorted into solos, duos and trios. This combines two: a solo figure assailed by a trio of voices, which are all variations on his voice.

Beckett’s heads and the reflexive self

Visually, it is another Beckett head, disembodied, like the three heads activated by spotlights in Play or the jabbering woman’s head in Not I (where the head is positioned 8 feet above the stage, compared to the ten feet above stage level or That Time), or Winnie’s head sticking up out of the midden in part two of Happy Days.

Beckett’s obsession with heads can be simply explained because the head is the location of the human subject’s puzzlingly split consciousness, which is Beckett’s deepest, most enduring theme – the problem of being a self which observes the self observing the self thinking about the self, processing the things happening to the self now even as the self remembers events which happened to the self in the past – and so on and so on into an indefinitely recursive abyss of self-reflexive uncertainty, where first the sense of ‘self’ disintegrates into doubt and uncertainty, and then language itself begins to fall apart. That’s what happens in many of Beckett’s prose works.

After all, what is this ‘I’ that claims to be in control of the endlessly fissiparous mind? What a preposterous claim! How ridiculous! As one of the three voices puts it:

Did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now? [Eyes close.] could you ever say I to yourself in your life?

We all say ‘I’ all the time, but none of us really knows what that means, once we start pondering what consciousness is, or appears to be, or how it thinks, or tries to think. Two and a half thousand years of philosophy and psychology have produced all manner of florid theories, but no-one really knows what the mind is or how it works.

Performance

That Time was specifically written for the actor Patrick Magee, who we have seen starring in productions of Krapp’s Last Tape and Cascando. Magee gave That Time‘s first performance, timed to mark Beckett’s seventieth birthday celebration, at the Royal Court Theatre on 20 May 1976.

Here’s the production made for the Beckett on Film project, with the Listener and the three Voices performed by Niall Buggy, directed by Charles Garrad.

Isolation

On a close reading you realise all three voices are describing scenes which, in their different ways, describe a life of self-induced isolation and retrospection. Solitude and isolation are what ooze out of the incantations. Alone alone alone.

alone in the same the same scenes making it up that way to keep it going keep it out on the stone [Eyes close.]
– alone on the end of the stone with the wheat and blue or the towpath alone on the towpath with the ghosts

The importance of memory, but even more of his isolation, is somehow rammed home by the insistent repetition of the title phrase ‘that time’:

  • that time you went back that last time to look…
  • that time in the Portrait Gallery in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time curled up worm in slime…
  • muttering that time altogether on the stone in the sun or that time together on the towpath or that time together in the sand that time that time…
  • stock still like that time on the stone or that time in the sand…
  • that time in the Post Office all bustle Christmas bustle…
  • was that the time or was that another time…?
  • that time in the sand the glider passing over that time you went back soon after long after…
  • like that time on the stone the child on the stone where none ever came…
  • the Library that was another place another time that time you slipped in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time in the end when you tried and couldn’t…

But that said (over and over again), the insistence and the implicit accusations… listening a bit more, I found the play slowly becoming, well, more nostalgic and comforting (if in a rather gritty way).

None of the three difference voices recall any horror, physical violence or abuse, nothing really disturbing. The first time I listened, I caught just random details – the protagonist remembering going into the portrait gallery, huddled in a doorstep, sitting together on a stone in the sunshine on the edge of a little wood with his sweetheart, hiding in some old ruins as a child, making up stories and voices when a child, by moonlight, on the towpath, on the sand ran away from home and everyone out looking for him…

Maybe it’s meant to be harrowing, and some bits are rather chilling, but overall I found the stories and the memories and the imagery (grittily) nostalgic. It sounds like your man had, in its way, quite a colourful life, a rather wonderful childhood in the country, exciting ruins, Foley’s Folly, woods and fields of wheat, a pretty girl with blue eyes, a night ferry, a portrait gallery. To a listener stuck inside during a COVID lockdown, it bespeaks a big wide wonderful world.

Structure

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett, as is its wont, emphasises the structural aspects of the piece and the history of its careful assembling by Beckett. This has at least two obvious features. 1. The piece is divided into three parts of exactly five minutes each, the parts divided by the breaks consisting of ten seconds of silence when you can hear his breathing quite audibly. 2. More subtly, the three voices alternate in alternating patterns. In the first two parts, these are: ACB, ACB, ACB, CAB and CBA, CBA, CBA, BCA. So a triplet with the same order and a fourth trio in a different order. However, the third part has a consistent pattern all the way through, namely BAC, BAC, BAC, BAC, thus creating a subliminal sense of order and what the Companion calls ‘serenity’.

Does it? Is this very calculated structuring of the piece what creates, at an unconscious level, the sense of a lulling rhythm of memory and reminiscence which is strangely, incongruously, comforting? Almost like… a lullaby.

The final smile

The main character is, in accordance with Beckett’s anti-humanist requirements, unnamed. In fact he is referred to simply LISTENER, along the lines of OPENER, VOICE and MUSIC in Cascando or HE and SHE in Rough For Radio, or W1 and W2 in Play or READER and LISTENER in Ohio Impromptu (I wonder if someone’s done the simple exercise of totting up all the ‘characters’ in all Beckett’s plays and figuring out whether there are more unnamed than named ones).

For most of the performance the actor is required to stand quite still, his only action being opening or closing his eyes. The text is punctuated by three ten-second silences (much as the jabbering monologue of Not I is punctuated four times by abrupt pauses, when the mysterious ‘other figure’ raises and lowers its arms).

So far so schematic and familiar as the three voices punish, criticise and assail the stricken, immobile, silent figure, very much as the silent figure of Joe is harangued with all his past betrayals and adulteries by WOMAN’S VOICE in Eh Joe.

But there’s a big surprise at the end, when the play requires that the LISTENER, right at the very end of the 20-minute play, when all the voices have finished… breaks into a smile. Now, Beckett being Beckett, the author tries to disavow any sentimental or romantic interpretation by requiring that the smile should be ‘toothless for preference’. Still. It’s a smile.

And it’s not the first one, because after tormenting Joe for eighteen minutes or so in the play Eh Joe, right at the very bitter end of that play, after having his life and bad behaviour and betrayals thrown in his face as if under an intense interrogation, the voice eventually ceases and… Joe breaks into a big smile. So that’s two plays which end, very unexpectedly, with smiles.

Why? Why do both these plays showing a middle-aged man being assailed by bad memories or an external accuser, suddenly end with this enigmatic smile? The shortest answer is that it is a smile of relief, certainly in Joe’s case, because the nagging accusing woman’s voice has finally ceased punishing him, at least for this evening.

But maybe the smiles hint at something subtler, which is a sense of psychological closure. Nowadays we all know a lot more about therapy and counselling than people did 50 years ago, about the need to talk, to get it out, to express the hurt, to be listened to, and so on. And the notion that, eventually, by dint of this process, you achieve closure, a word which has become more and more common currency in recent decades.

So the smiles might be both: smiles of simple relief – and also smiles indicating the process of self-accusation is in some sense, in this dramatic representation, something approaching ‘over’.

That Time and Not I

So That Time has a pretty close resemblance to Eh Joe in that both consist of a wordless, speechless man being persecuted by bad memories from the past but who, in the plays’ dying moments breaks into a broad smile. But Beckett also highlighted links with another of his works, Not I. In a letter he described That Time as a ‘brother to Not I‘.

He wrote to George Reavey [in his characteristic clipped style]:

Have written a short piece (theatre): That Time. Not I family.

The fact that Beckett described That Time as ‘cut out of the same texture’ as Not I explains why he didn’t want them on the same theatre bill.

As you enter the final phase of Beckett’s career, the gathering linkages between the plays and prose, the recurring topics, setups, themes and images, build up to create a kind of meta-structure – a Beckett cathedral of correspondences and connections which ramify out in all directions, reinforcing and complexifying each other.

… after that never looked back after that was that the time or was that another time… or was that another time all that another time was there ever any other time but that time…


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ping by Samuel Beckett (1966)

Ping is a very short text, just 908 words long. Beckett wrote it in French with the title Bing then translated it into English.

It is in one continuous block of prose, like The Unnamable. It uses a fanatical amount of verbal repetition like How It Is does, taking a handful of key phrases and repeating them in almost every sentence to build up a sense of hysteria.

As so often the vocabulary is plain and simple except for a handful of distractingly unusual words, in this case ‘haught’ (7 instances), ‘unover’ (6 instances) and, of course, the title word, ‘ping’ (37 instances).

The word ‘white’ is particularly repeated and the work’s original title in French was, apparently, Blanc, reminding us of various attempts to create pure white poetry unstained by meaning by the likes of the French poet Stephane Mallarmé. The word ‘white’ is repeated 93 times, making up over 10% of the words used. Ping occurs 37 times, 4%.

The text

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head haught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Legs joined like sewn heels together right angle. Traces alone unover given black light grey almost white on white. Light heat white walls shining white one yard by two. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle invisible. Eyes alone unover given blue light blue almost white. Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible. All white all known murmurs only just almost never always the same all known. Light heat hands hanging palms front white on white invisible. Bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white fixed front. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out. Head haught eyes light blue almost white fixed front ping murmur ping silence. Eyes holes light blue almost white mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmur perhaps a nature one second almost never that much memory almost never. Whitewalls each its trace grey blur signs no meaning light grey almost white. Light heat all known all white planes meeting invisible. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a meaning that much memory almost never. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle ping elsewhere no sound. Hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Eyes holes light blue alone unover given blue light blue almost white only colour fixed front. All white all known white planes shining white ping murmur only just almost never one second light time that much memory almost never. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere white on white invisible heart breath no sound.Only the eyes given blue light blue almost white fixed front only colour alone unover. Planes meeting invisible one only shining white infinite but that known not. Nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmurs only just almost never one second always the same all known. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard invisible all known without within. Ping perhaps a nature one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. White ceiling shining white one square yard never seen ping perhaps way out there one second ping silence. Traces alone unover given black grey blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white always the same. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image always the same same time a little less that much memory almost never ping silence.Given rose only just nails fallen white over. Long hair fallen white invisible over. White scars invisible same white as flesh torn of old given rose only just. Ping image only just almost never one second light time blue and white in the wind. Head haught nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over. Only the eyes given blue fixed front light blue almost white only colour alone unover. Light heat white planes shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Ping a nature only just almost never one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. Traces blurs light grey eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front ping a meaning only just almost never ping silence. Bare white one yard fixed ping fixed elsewhere no sound legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image same time a little less dim eye black and white half closed long lashes imploring that much memory almost never. Afar flash of time all white all over all of old ping flash white walls shining white no trace eyes holes light blue almost white last colour ping white over. Ping fixed last elsewhere legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front over. Given rose only just one yard invisible bare white all known without within over. White ceiling never seen ping of old only just almost never one second light time white floor never seen ping of old perhaps there. Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature one second almost never blue and white in the wind that much memory henceforth never. White planes no trace shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Light heat all known all white heart breath no sound. Head haught eyes white fixed front old ping last murmur one second perhaps not alone eye unlustrous black and white half closed long lashes imploring ping silence ping over.

Obsession with posture

There is, as usual with Beckett, obsessive and obsessively repeated concern for the precise configuration of the human body. What happens if you extract the phrases solely describing the body?

white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn…
bare white body fixed only the eyes only just…
hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
hands hanging palms front…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
mouth white seam like sewn…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn…
head haught…
bare white body fixed one yard…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white body fixed one yard invisible…
long hair fallen white invisible…
head haught…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white one yard fixed…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front…
head haught…

Well if you do this the quality of repetition becomes more obvious, as does the importance of the precise physical posture of the figure.

Physical posture as the seed of the pieces

It’s never really clear that these postures relate to anything else at all, no known symbolism, whether astrology or yoga or the kama sutra. Beckett just seems to have conceived of (generally old and decrepit) human bodies in different contorted and uncomfortable postures, and then built texts around them (All Strange Away, Imagination Dead ImagineHow It Is, Enough).

For example, once he had conceived of a decrepit old human body crawling through mud and imagined the right leg moving up along with the right arm in a kind of crab-like movement to shunt itself forward through the mud, then virtually the whole of How It Is follows fairly logically.

Or once he had conceived of a decrepit old man so spavined that he walks literally bent double and can only see the little patch of grass and flowers at his feet, then the text of Enough flows fairly logically.

In each case the positions need to be described in as concentrated and abstract way as possible to achieve the writing degree zero minimalism he was aiming at and this creates a kind of basic mantra or chant which will be repeated ad nauseam, with tiny variations, and will form the scaffold of the piece.

Then, like a christmas tree, the various baubles and bangles can be added – the blue eyes, the white hair, the confined space (as is so frequent in these so-called ‘closed space’ works) and then just the bare minimum possible of sputtering mind or consciousness, in this case the half dozen references to the almost obliterated faculty of memory to suggest the last gasping ghostly operation of something which was once ‘mind’.

Other strands

A shorter extract could be made focusing on the colours because, despite the emphasis on white, there are other colours, namely black, grey, blue, rose. A slightly longer one focusing on the references to eyes. Or the half dozen references to memory. The references to Ping, whatever he, she or it is. So the text can be parsed out into blocks around each of this handful of themes. Or into strands of spaghetti, a whole plateful of text woven out of what, when you single them out, are only ten or so separate strands.

David Lodge tries to salvage the piece for the tradition

Novelist and critic David Lodge, in a 1968 review of Ping, suggests that the ‘consciousness’ depicted in the piece makes repeated efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory and another person’s presence, only to collapse each time into the acceptance of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, amnesia and solitude. He suggests Ping is:

the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.

Maybe. It’s one approach. It’s an attempt to situate Beckett or a Beckett text within the tradition of realistic or psychologically coherent fiction, as if it was in any way about anything like a human being depicted in anything like the way one is usually depicted in realist fiction.

Ping seen as incantation

Personally, I wouldn’t bother. I think Ping and the other short prose works of the period are more like incantations, spells or chants. Certainly they all benefit from being read out loud. Words can never escape having meanings (well, words in a language you understand). But they are also susceptible to rhythm and pattern, the pattern of sounds (vowel, consonant, long or short sounds, plosives and sibilants) and the rhythm of the way the same words place in different orders or interactions, take different weight or rhythm.

The ostensible meaning may well be the depiction of yet another Beckett protagonist, speaker or ‘voice’ on the verge of conking out. But the text is also, quite obviously, an assemblage of sounds, arranged with obsessive repetition with variations and the continual addition of small new details, to give the thing a dynamic, a sense of a continually changing, rather shimmering surface.

The crucifixion

Lastly, I won’t make a big deal out of it, because I don’t think the text fully intends it, but when I read:

bare white body fixed… hands hanging palms front white feet heels together

I had a vision of the crucifixion and thereafter couldn’t get it out of my mind, despite the repeated references to some kind of container ‘one yard by two’, the characteristic ‘closed space’ of these mid-1960s prose pieces.

And having highlighted the importance of the central physical posture to all of these mid-60s prose pieces, and the obsessive way Beckett repeats descriptions of the contorted, painful position at the centre of each text, it dawned on me that the great Positioned Body in our tradition, the archetypal image of a human body bent into an agonising posture in Western civilisation is, of course, the body of Christ nailed to the cross.

I’m not familiar with Beckett’s biography, I’ve no idea whether he was ever a Christian believer, but he was born and bred in Ireland which is a land dominated by churches and Catholic imagery. So I’ll leave it at just the simple thought: maybe all the contorted, painfully positioned and obsessively described bodies which haunt Beckett’s prose are aftershocks, knackered variations in a different mode, in a modernist style, in a post-nuclear lens, of the original contorted, painfully positioned body which underpins our civilisation.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels like the reason for this is simply that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ in the title of the book not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if Kundera’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera describes both Irena’s experience after her husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002. All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Slowness by Milan Kundera (1995)

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. (p.34)

The novel open with the narrator driving down a French highway to a weekend away with his wife in a chateau-turned-hotel. He reflects on the meaning of these little oases of green in a sea of concrete, but another car is breathing down his neck which leads him to reflect on the cult of Speed in modern society (‘speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man’)

This leads him to lament the extinction of walking (‘Ah, where have they gone the amblers of yesteryear?’), which makes him remember another journey out of Paris, that of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier in a favourite novel of Kundera’s, Point de Lendemain (‘No Tomorrow’), by Vivant Denon, published in 1777.

Ah, it is an exquisite work, mon cher, in which the young gentleman is hoodwinked into acting as a front for Madame de T’s real lover, the Marquis. And the plot of No Tomorrow brings to the narrator’s mind that other great masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which he adores not because of its amorality, but because it is such a forensic and acute analysis of the powerplays of love, and for the fact it is an epistolary novel, i.e. told via letters. This format highlights the way its characters act the way they do partly so they can tell others about it.

Thus the first eight pages of Slowness, the first novel Kundera wrote entirely in French and in his adopted country, France. Some obvious points emerge. It is split between 1. the ‘present’, where the narrator is on holiday with his wife, scattering thoughts about the crappiness of modern life, and 2. references to literary works of the 18th century, allowing him to scatter thoughts and ideas about the novel and that era.

That’s the basic ‘structure’ of the text, but as you can tell, the actual experience of reading the book is to be subjected to an almost stream-of-consciousness series of brief meditations about speed – car crashes on the French roads – the precise definition of Hedonism – the 18th century novel – the epistolary novel, and so on and so on.

The hotel is nice but where there was once a pretty rose garden, the management have put in a swanky swimming pool. Alas.

They go for a walk through the grounds but are surprised to come across a new road cutting through them with roaring traffic, Alas.

Dinner is ruined by badly behaved children at the next table playing up (standing on their chairs and singing) while their parents beam on proudly. Alas.

Turning on the TV as they retire to bed, they come across ads with loads of starving black children because of some famine and reflect, acidly, that obviously no old people are dying in the famine, only children. Or could it be that the mass media only present images of children in order to jerk our heart-strings? Alas.

This reminds him of two French celebrities, Duberques of the National Assembly, and Berck the intellectual, who are always trying to outdo each other in front of the cameras to display their compassion – Duberques holding a dinner for HIV+ people and rising to kiss them as the cameras zoomed in, while, not to be outdone, Berck flew off to some famine-ridden country in Africa and got himself photographed surrounded by starving black children. Sick children trump sick old people, Rule Number One of the media age. Alas, thinks the narrator.

It makes him think of his acquaintance Pontevin, a history PhD (who is a pompous ass by the sound of it) and likes developing elaborate and stupid theories for the benefit of his hushed coterie of friends at the Café Gascon, in this case the ‘theory’ that those exhibitionists who like performing for the media are like dancers. That’s the theory. Either as satire or reportage this character fails, because he comes over as a shallow smartarse.

Kundera cuts to a précis of Point de Lendemain, namely the highly contrived lovemaking of Madame de T. who seduces the Chevalier in a whole succession of locations, the garden, the pavilion, a room inside the chateau, her secret room of mirrors, and then, finally, in a dark room full of cushions. It is slow and staged and artful. For, as he has said:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

The 18th century author Denon was never identified during his lifetime, and was probably quite content to win the approbation of a small group of intimate friends. Alas how very different from our modern world besieged by fame, where everybody is either over-famous appearing on TV, in magazines and newspapers, or dreams of becoming famous.

Berck is seen on TV shooing flies away from a dying girl’s eyes by an old flame of his at school, who he nicknamed Immaculata. Now she stalks him with a series of letters, and worthy causes, until he is horrified to discover that she is a TV producer and is planning to make a documentary about him.

This reminds the narrator of a book his friend Goujard showed him by a woman journalist who undertook a photobiography of Henry Kissinger, convinced all the time that she was fated to have a love affair with the great man who twigged to her intention and began systematically putting her off, which only made the flames of her passion rise higher.

This woman journalist believes she is one of the ‘elect’, which leads the narrator to a rambling meditation on the nature of the elect in a secular society, to the rise of celebrity and fame, and how everyone dreams of it to lift their lives above the everyday.

Berck has gone to an international conference on entomology where we are told at length the story of a Czech expert on flies who was kicked out of his scientific job by the repressive regime installed in Prague after the Russian tanks rolled in in 1968, and has spent 20 years as a construction worker. Having read Kundera’s essays on the novel I suspect this character derives from the concept of ‘melancholy pride’, which is repeated about him. He is melancholically proud that the woman ticking off names at the entrance to the conference has no idea about the Czech circumflex, the caron which, when placed over a ‘c’ turns it into a tch sound. And melancholically proud that the woman has never heard of Jan Hus, the great Czech religious reformer.

And when he is called to the stage to present his modest scientific paper he is so overcome with emotion that instead he speaks about how he was kicked out of the Czech academy of sciences and forced to work as a labourer, and he starts weeping and the audience applauds wildly. And so he walks back to his seat on the stage having completely forgotten to deliver his paper.

Pontevin’s sidekick tries to repeat a funny story Pontevin told his gang, starting with the statement that his girlfriend wants him to treat her ‘rough’, which, for some reason, made everyone who heard Pontevin say it burst into laughter. Why is it funny?

Berck sidles up to the Czech scientist and, in a sequence which is clearly meant to be very funny, sets off to patronisingly thank him for his speech and being so brave for standing up to the authorities – but makes howling errors, including saying the capital of Czechoslovakia is Budapest and thinking the Czechs’ great poet was Adam Mickiewicz (who was, in fact Polish). Symbolic of the patronising superficiality of ‘the Western intellectual’.

He’s half way through doing this when Immaculata arrives with a cameraman, to capture him for her documentary (having made a number of documentaries, I was struck how utterly unlike documentary TV-making this random attack actually was). Immaculata and the cameraman capture Berck in full flood, and the bar-full of entomologists applaud his speech. This gives him the confidence to take Immaculata to one side and tell her to fuck off, the evil old bag of piss.

From a distance Pontevin’s jealous sidekick Vincent watches all this and launches into a loud speech mocking Berck and his addiction to the TV camera, fame, repeating Pontevin’s idea about extrovert performers for the media being like ‘dancers’. At the end of which a self-possessed young man rounds on Vincent for being a Luddite and reactionary and suggesting he goes back to the 12th century where he belongs.

Is this all meant to be funny? A farce? Vincent had begun chatting up a girl, a secretary at the conference miffed because everyone’s ignored her. Now he returns from the bar with some whiskeys, chats her up, takes her back into the bar to buy some more, swigs them down and takes her for a walk in the moonlight, stopping for more kisses and then deciding to tell her about the Marquis de Sade and his classic, Philosophy in the Boudoir.

The narrator looks out the window of his bedroom in the chateau. He sees a couple strolling in the moonlight. They remind him of the lovers in that book, Point de lemdemain. He is knocked out of his reverie by his wife, Véra, waking from a nightmare. In it a madman was rushing down the corridor towards her yelling, ‘Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech! Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech!’

The comic ‘novel’ Kundera is writing is infecting his wife’s dreams. (It’s worth pausing a moment to acknowledge how important dreams are in Kundera’s fiction.)

The Czech scientist is in his room, feeling humiliated by the laughter against him in the bar, but reflects that one benefit of working on a building site all that time was his excellent physique. He decides to go for a midnight swim in the hotel pool and put these pissy French scientists to shame.

On his walk with her round the chateau grounds Vincent has had a sudden pornographic vision of timid Julie’s anus. He is bewitched. He is transfixed. Characteristically, this allows Kundera to digress about the poem about the nine orifices of woman written by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the trenches during the Great War. In fact, Apollinaire sent two versions, one to one lover, another, rewritten four months later, to another. Kundera makes much of the fact that in the first one the vulva is the ninth and peak of the poem, but in the second one, after four months of meditating in the trenches, Apollinaire has decided the anus is the darkest and most profound erotic site of all.

Vincent, drunk on his vision of Julie’s anus, apostrophises the full moon as the anus of the sky etc, while drunk Julie hangs on his every word and decides to ‘give herself’ to Vincent. Thinking it will be too easy just to go to their room, he decides they will go down to the hotel pool for a skinny dip.

Berck whispered his insults to Immaculata that no-one heard them but her and she staggers up to her bedroom. In comes the cameraman who is – inevitably for KunderaWorld – also her lover, asks her what is wrong and changes into his pyjamas ready to go to bed with her, but she is seething, furious, and takes it out on him, declaring their affair is over, and dresses in a virginal white dress to go back down into the hotel and brave the scorn of the world.

Initially the cameraman stands in her way getting more and more angry, pointing out that they fucked only this morning, and they fucked last night, in fact she begged him to Fuck me Fuck me Fuck me (I am using the words Kundera uses: this is – I think – the first book of his which uses lots of demotic swearwords).

At which point Immaculata becomes incandescent and tells him the cameraman is a useless shit and his breath smells, and she storms past him, leaving him, after a few moments of stunned immobility, to follow after her, still dressed in his pyjamas, like a dog with its tail between his legs.

Vincent has stripped off under the high glass dome of the hotel swimming pool. Being naked intoxicates him and he dives in. Thus he misses shy Julie slipping out of her dress and very tentatively descending the steps into the cold water till it is touching her ‘pubic thatch’ (p.99). She looks exquisite, and with only the all-seeing eye of the narrator to appreciate her naked womanly charms.

Nudity! The thought sets Kundera off on a typical digression wherein he remembers an opinion poll from an October 1993 edition of Nouvel Observateur which asked 1,200 eminent left-wing people to underline key words from a choice of 210 words. In a poll ten years earlier, 18 words had been selected by all of them, representing common ground. In 1993? Just three – revolt, red and nudity. Revolt because of its long association with the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, red for obvious reasons, but nudity? Kundera speculates on the role of nudity in ‘radical’ protest, remembering various groups who’ve stripped off to make a ‘political’ point and what nudity means, in that kind of context.

Drunk Vincent wildly declares he’s going to fuck Julie. He says he’s going to pin her body to the wall. He says he’s going to rip her ass hole wide with his mighty cock. He chases her round the pool, then flings her to the floor and she spreads her legs ready for the deflowering she is so anticipating. Except that:

The penetration did not take place. It did not take place because Vincent’s member is as small as a wilted wild strawberry, as a great-grandmother’s thimble. (p.102)

Now that, I admit, did make me laugh out loud. Not only the unexpected reversal but the vividness of the similes. On the whole Kundera’s writing is dry and factual and grey. There is little colour and little or no imaginative use of language. This little flurry of similes stood out like an oasis of colour in the desert of his over-cerebral prose.

Kundera goes on to give Vincent’s penis a speech in which it justifies its small appearance, reminding me of other comic novels.

Anyway, in a surreal moment of agreement Vincent decides to ‘dry hump’ Julie simply by moving his hips up and down, and Julie silently agrees to play along, making increasingly loud moaning noises.

Onto this odd scene comes the melancholy Czech entomologist who’s come for his swim and determines to go ahead while quietly ignoring the couple dry humping on the poolside.

He’s in the middle of doing some warm-up calisthenics when a woman in an elaborate white dress arrives, and jumps into the pool, obviously intending to kill herself. Unfortunately it is the shallow end and the water only comes up to her waist, so she slowly (held back by the dress) walks into the deeper end, periodically ducking down under the surface in a feeble effort to drown, but always reappearing.

The melancholy Czech dives into the water to rescue her. But the cameraman in pyjamas screams at him to take his hands off her, and jumps in as well. They fight, both in their frenzy forgetting the woman in white, who comes to her senses, climbs out of the pool and waits for the cameraman to join her.

The cameraman punches the Czech who is enraged because it seems to have loosened a front tooth which he had very expensively screwed into place by a Prague dentist.

Suddenly, all the anger and frustration of twenty years or more rise up in the Czech, and he whacks the cameraman so hard he at first thinks he’s killed him, the man disappearing under the waves in the little hotel swimming pool. But when he lifts him back up, the cameraman comes to, shakes himself loose, and also exits the pool.

He climbs out and catches up with the woman in white, who is stalking rather grandly through the now-empty hotel corridors – and Kundera explains how they will be condemned to relive this moment for the rest of their lives, she demanding he leave, he begging forgiveness, she execrating him, he getting angry and smashing stuff, then falling at her knees and begging forgiveness. And then both falling into bed for joyless sex. Again and again forever.

In a passage like this you can see the Jean-Paul Sartre of Huis Clos, the Sartre for whom hell is other people, peeking through the text, underpinning a lot of Kundera’s worldview.

Meanwhile, at the first approach of the other guests, Julie had wriggled out from beneath Vincent, slipped on her panties, grabbed her other clothes and scarpered. Vincent is slower to get dressed and by the time he follows her into the hotel she is nowhere to be found. Feeling tragic he pads damply back to his bedroom where is now – now! – assaulted by an enormous inappropriate erection. For no very good reason the narrator says it is standing up against a hostile universe like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For the second time, the narrator’s wife, Véra, awakes from her sleep insisting she is deafened by a full-volume rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and asking him to turn it down. But there is no sound. Once again the fictions of author are invading her sleeping mind. She declares they must leave this haunted chateau.

It is early morning and he is thinking about the last scene of the Denon novella, where the unfaithful Madame de T. takes her farewell of the young Chevalier she has spent the night having sex with. Kundera the literature professor gives the novella a number of possible interpretations:

Is it possible to live in pleasure and for pleasure and to be happy? Can the ideal of hedonism be realised? Does that hope exist? Or at least some feeble gleam of that hope? (p.121)

And in a flash I realised the weakness of Kundera’s position. He identifies ‘pleasure’ entirely with heterosexual penetrative sex. Maybe this is why, reading steadily through his works, I’ve felt increasingly claustrophobic. There is no mention of the ten billion other ways of finding pleasure, having pleasure, of being a hedonist. Even some fairly obvious clichéd ones, such as being a connoisseur of fine wine or fine art, make no appearance. There is no mention of that or any other kind of physical pleasure. Only sex. Only sex stands as Kundera’s notion of ‘pleasure’. It is a stiflingly narrow definition.

The last few pages are the only real ones which lift off, for me, which have that sense of mystery which I look for, or value, in literature.

For Vincent is sneaking out the back of the hotel, trying to concoct a plausible story he will be able to tell his gang back in Paris – inventing the idea that he really nailed Julie and not only that, but triggered off an orgy by the hotel pool! – when he realises that a man in eighteenth century costume is walking towards him. The two men meet and regard each other, then speak and explain that one is from the eighteenth, one from the twentieth centuries.

A moment of mystery. But within a minute they are rubbing each other up the wrong way. The Chevalier can’t believe how scruffy Vincent is. Vincent can’t believe what a ridiculously complicated fig the Chevalier is wearing. When Vincent playfully fingers one of the Chevalier’s ribbons, the latter nearly slaps him, but merely turns and stalks off.

Vincent feels the need to obliterate his night of humiliation with speed. He rams on his helmet and climbs astride his motorcycle.

The Chevalier, in simple contrast, climbs up into his chaise, and prepares to spend the long slow journey back to Paris reminiscing about his night of love, reliving every moment of pleasure and savouring every one, for:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Quite explicitly, in the book’s last lines, Kundera states that our ‘hope’ hangs on the Chevalier and his slowness.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope. (p.132)

Hope for what? Hope to hold back, fight back against, all the forces of stupidity, nonbeing, the ‘dancers’ who dominate the media and play to the crowd, the amnesia of popular culture and everything else which makes modern life, in Kundera’s view, such a moronic inferno? Is that what the slow savouring of pleasure can resist?

Credit

Slowness by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Faber and Faber in 1996. All references are to the 1996 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

I Was There: Room of Voices @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I reviewed the biggest and most conventional of the four exhibitions – Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs – yesterday. Next door to it is a ‘room of voices’ which does exactly what it says on the tin.

I Was There: Room of Voices

Quite obviously the sudden end of four gruelling years of sacrifice, austerity and loss was a major moment for the nation (the exhibition focuses solely on British voices). But people experienced and reacted to it in many different ways.

In this immersive sound installation, 32 people who fought and lived through the First World War share their personal stories of the Armistice. Their voices were recorded by IWM between 1973 and 2013, and form part of the larger IWM archive, which contains a staggering 33,000 recordings relating to the conflict.

The ‘immersive sound installation’ amounts, in practice, to a darkened ‘room’ dominated visually by space age, vertical, fluorescent white tubes embedded in the black walls, a little like a set from Star Wars. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you realise there are also several big black metal columns containing loud speakers, and it is from these that the disembodied voices emanate.

A school trip of 10 and 11 year old girls was in the room when I visited, notebooks scattered across the floor as they listened to these voices from a distant age.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

The selection of 32 voices tries to present a cross-section of society, featuring personal testimonies from people who in 1918 were soldiers, civilians or children, who all had different reactions to the end of the First World War, from the solemn to the celebratory.

There are benches so you can sit and close your eyes and really pay attention to the voices. Listening to the variations in recording quality, in the confidence and education of the voices, made me think less about the specific event and more about the yawning inequalities in 1918 Britain, and the way people accepted conventions of class and deference which we have long since abandoned.

Beyond the dark room, is another, more conventionally lit, space whose wall is dominated by a grid of photos and squares of card. Some of these are photos from the era, but some of them are blank cards inviting you to fill them in with any family memories you might have of the war. A surprising number had been written on by people recalling their grandparent or great-grandparents’ experiences.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

There’s also information about a website which has been set up so that people can contribute their own stories – via photos, texts or audio recordings – to ‘the First World War digital memorial’.

Reflections

I couldn’t help reflecting that, from all that I’ve read, many soldiers in both the first and second world wars returned home and never spoke of their experiences. They came from cultures which respected reticence and restraint. The thing that gave their lives meaning was not to be publicly shared.

And then reflecting on the enormous contrast with our own times, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to speak out and speak up and have their voices heard and share their experiences, to like on Facebook, to tweet their opinions, to call out, to name and shame, to take a video of it, take selfies in front of it, instagram it, pinterest it, to text and sext it and leave no stone of our passing thoughts unshared and unpublished.

That’s what these voices from the past made me think about – about the events they were describing, of course – but also about the immensely different mindset, culture, conventions and values with which they conceptualised and processed these events.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

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