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

The End by Samuel Beckett (1946)

… and anyway no one understands a tenth of what you say…

Before the war Beckett had begun composing experimental prose pieces in French. After the war he wrote four short monologues entirely in French. Breaking free of English had the effect of cleansing his lexical palate and entire textual approach, so he could start anew. The Beckettian themes –

  • a shambling decrepit protagonist
  • trapped in total solipsism
  • autistically close observation of his own physical gestures
  • obsessive-compulsive repetition of gestures, words and thoughts
  • physical decrepitude, old age, decay
  • memory loss, vagueness about his own name, age, identity, biography
  • the impossibility of communication

emerge cleaner and sharper in these short monologues than in the pre-war books, where they tended to be buried under a welter of mock heroic, mock academic bombast and pedantry.

Things, especially the underlying nihilism, are expressed more clearly and bleakly.

But the biggest single breakthrough is that these are all monologues. In More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had had to create ‘characters’ and ‘dialogue’, no matter how artificial or stained. Now he doesn’t have to bother. Other people come in and out of focus as the half-deranged narrator requires, and fragments of conversation can appear, inconsequentially, puzzlingly, allusively, without any tiresome requirement to delineate a character or further a ‘plot’.

The result was freedom for Beckett’s imagination, freedom to wander, surrealise, dream and spool out endless filaments of free-associating fantasia.

The plot

‘They’ – the same kind of all-powerful faceless ‘they’ as in the other short monologues – give him money, clothes and tell him to push off, this time from some kind of charitable institution rather than his own home.

(It occurs to me that all four of these stories – First Love, The Calmative, The Expelled and The End repeat the same basic premise of someone being ‘kicked out’ – they are large variations on a theme as the texts themselves contain little eddies and whirls of repetition.)

Alas, he has to leave all his favourite furniture, including the stool where he used to sit, immobile, waiting for bed-time. He begs to be allowed to stay in the cloister. Mr Weir lets him but, come 6pm and the end of the rain, he’s kicked out. He walks the streets completely confused, not knowing where he is, before coming across an apartment block where a woman rents him a basement room, feeds him once a day, takes away his chamber pot (the body’s effluvia being a consistent Beckettian concern).

The Turkish or Greek woman extracts six months’ rent in advance then disappears, and the real owner of the house arrives back and kicks our man out. He takes a bus to the countryside, dosses in a barn (apparently – it’s hard to make out) rolls about in animal dung, which explains why he’s thrown off the buses he tries to catch into town the next day.

He tries to track down the Greek woman with predictably useless results.

I don’t know exactly what happened, whether I couldn’t find the address, or whether there was no such address, or whether the Greek woman was unknown there…

He thinks he sees his son, but it is a hairless old man. He meets a man leading an ass. He mounts the ass and is taken to the man’s cave beside the sea, which is described with great moronic lyricism. — All this seems wilfully surreal, with the logic of dream not world.

He is left with a cow which he tries to milk, failing handsomely, before being dragged by the cow out into the open air where he lies by a cart track trying to get a lift or pity, discovers an old pair of glasses in his pocket, begs, with much detail on the size, shape and angle of the begging tin(s) he employed.

He begs, scratches himself, pees, sends a boy for milk. One day he comes across a car in which an orator is talking about Marx and suddenly points our man out to the crowd as a down-and-out, ‘old, lousy, rotten, ripe for the muckheap’, a ‘living corpse’.

He finds a new base in an abandoned estate near a river. Here in the boat shed he adapts a beaten-up old boat for his needs, fitting handholds, boards over  his body, though he can barely be bothered to poo outside it, or pee – the reader imagining it becoming slowly more befouled. In the final pages he appears to have a vision of being at sea, winkles out the plug at the bottom of the boat and, as it begins to sink, takes his ‘calmative’, presumably some kind of suicide pill – the narrator of the previous story had mentioned cyanide – and, presumably, dies.

Back now in the stern-sheets, my legs stretched out, my back well propped against the sack stuffed with grass I used as a cushion, I swallowed my calmative. The sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands closed in and crushed me in a mighty systole, then scattered to the uttermost confines of space. The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.

Nihilism and decay

The estate seemed abandoned. The gates were locked and the paths were overgrown with grass

I understood then that the end was near

Vagueness

It is true I did not know the city very well. Perhaps it was quite a different one. I did not know where I was supposed to be going…

Now I didn’t know where I was. I had a vague vision, not a real vision, I didn’t see anything…

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere…

I knew it would soon be the end, so I played the part, you know, the part of – how shall I say, I don’t know…

I slept very little at this period, I wasn’t sleepy, or I was too sleepy, I don’t know, or I was afraid, I don’t know.

I don’t know how long I stayed there…

Pointless pedantic precision about minute physical actions

It was at this time I perfected a method of doffing my hat at once courteous and discreet, neither servile nor insolent. I slipped it smartly forward, held it a second poised in such a way that the person addressed could not see my skull, then slipped it back. To do that naturally, without creating an unfavorable impression, is no easy matter. When I deemed that to tip my hat would suffice, I naturally did no more than tip it. But to tip one’s hat is no easy matter either. I subsequently solved this problem, always fundamental in time of adversity, by wearing a kepi and saluting in military fashion, no, that must be wrong, I don’t know, I had my hat at the end.

As for holding out my hand, that was quite out of the question. So I got a tin and hung it from a button of my greatcoat, what’s the matter with me, of my coat, at pubis level. It did not hang plumb, it leaned respectfully towards the passer-by, he had only to drop his mite. But that obliged him to come up close to me, he was in danger of touching me. In the end I got a bigger tin, a kind of big tin box, and I placed it on the sidewalk at my feet. But people who give alms don’t much care to toss them, there’s something contemptuous about this gesture which is repugnant to sensitive natures. To say nothing of their having to aim. They are prepared to give, but not for their gift to go rolling under the passing feet or under the passing wheels, to be picked up perhaps by some undeserving person. So they don’t give. There are those, to be sure, who stoop, but generally speaking people who give alms don’t much care to stoop. What they like above all is to sight the wretch from afar, get ready their penny, drop it in their stride and hear the God bless you dying away in the distance. Personally I never said that, nor anything like it, I wasn’t much of a believer, but I did make a noise with my mouth. In the end I got a kind of board or tray and tied it to my neck and waist. It jutted out just at the right height, pocket height, and its edge was far enough from my person for the coin to be bestowed without danger.

Decay, humiliation and abasement

What would I crawl with in future? I lay down on the side of the road and began to writhe each time I heard a cart approaching.

Often at the end of the day I discovered the legs of my trousers all wet. That must have been the dogs.

Penises, poo and psoriasis

The narrator is not shy about mentioning his penis – as in the other three short monologues – but without much affection or interest.

I lay inert on the bed and it took three women to put on my trousers. They didn’t seem to take much interest in my private parts which to tell the truth were nothing to write home about, I didn’t take much interest in them myself. But they might have passed some remark.

Indifference to his pecker is really just part of the wider disgust with human bodily fluids and activities.

The vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls. The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit.

The result is ‘Down and out with Samuel Beckett’:

I unbuttoned my trousers discreetly to scratch myself. I scratched myself in an upward direction, with four nails. I pulled on the hairs, to get relief. It passed the time, time flew when I scratched myself. Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond, but in the end it becomes a mere habit. Whereas to scratch myself properly I would have needed a dozen hands. I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could set raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure. I stuck my forefinger up to the knuckle. Later, if I had to shit, the pain was atrocious. But I hardly shat any more…

So I waited till the desire to shit, or even to piss, lent me wings. I did not want to dirty my nest! And yet it sometimes happened, and even more and more often. Arched and rigid I edged down my trousers and turned a little on my side, just enough to free the hole. To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same..

Back in 1946, presumably, this was shocking. Now, in our unshockable age, it seems just more of the systematic degradation of the image of man, the defecating on human dignity, which these texts so assiduously aim for.


Credit

Samuel Beckett wrote The End in French in 1946. It was only published (in French, in Paris) in 1954, some time after the success of Waiting For Godot. It was translated into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver in 1967 and gathered, along with The Expelled and The Calmative, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

These three short pieces – The ExpelledThe Calmative and The End – were reprinted, along with First Love, in a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

Panic

In 1946 Beckett wrote four short prose pieces – The CalmativeThe ExpelledThe End and First Love – which announced the arrival of the post-war Beckett, fully formed in his half-comic nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics.

Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, telling anything, any narrative, any story, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrators’ stories, its decrepitude, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in the way they can only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism was founded in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s, especially in France where Beckett settled, lived and wrote. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining surrealism with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

Note the learned and scholarly terms deployed like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, nuggets of knowingness embedded in a text in which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed as an everyday matter, in which the absurd is carefully weighed like apples at a greengrocer’s.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

No, I didn’t think it would be.

Sexual crudity

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquillity of everyday life with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Note how the narrator is treated as an imbecile and greets all these revelations as a deeply mentally challenged person would. Note how Beckett enjoys using rude words, as he does in all the other stories, in MurphyWatt and Mercier and Camier – he loves to shock the bourgeoisie, in that childish way of the European avant-garde, as if the bourgeoisie didn’t long ago develop a liking for being shocked, in fact they want their money back if their artists don’t ‘shock’ them.

Mottos of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated indefinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967 and published – along with The ExpelledThe End and other shorter works, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

The ExpelledThe End and The Calmative were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett (1946)

Beckett’s big artistic breakthrough was to start writing in French. All four short stories in this volume (First LoveThe ExpelledThe CalmativeThe End) were originally written in French (in 1946) then translated back into English by Beckett alone or (like this one) with Richard Seaver.

I’m glad I read More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy and Watt first, because they give a sense of how Beckett’s writing in English had become an over-filled attic stuffed with arcane terminology and wilful obscurancies. He needed to break free of the tendency to clutter, to aggregate and add to his prose.

Writing in French represented the opposite direction – towards leaner and cleaner. The French language has a fraction of the vocabulary of the great woolly mongrel, English. Writing in it always sounds purer, clearer, more intellectual and more intense.

And Beckett’s translations from French back into English, though they still contain oddities and Irishisms, feel considerably lighter and slicker than his earlier style. (An article about Irishisms.)

The plot

Like the narrator of First Love the first-person narrator of this short text is a man, of apparently very damaged mind, obsessed with the immediate physical presence of his body, who is booted out of the family home now that his father is dead, by ‘them’, ‘they’ – an unnamed host of enemies.

He’s walking away from the house in the gutter when a policeman tells him to walk on the pavement not in the road. He bumps into a fat lady. A funeral passes, with everyone crossing themselves. There’s a hansom cab and he climbs into its snug interior. He gets pally with the cabman who tells him about his life. He treats the cabby to lunch with money he has somehow. The cabby offers to drive him to a few apartments looking for one to rent, with no luck. They light the lamps on the cab. The cabby offers him a bed for the night in his stable, introduces him to his wife. The narrator goes down the ladder to the stable where the horse is munching hay. Unable to sleep in the straw he climbs into the snug cab, but still can’t sleep. He discovers the cab door is jammed and so has to – ridiculously – force his way out of the small cab window, his hands on the stable floor his waist lodged in the small window, while the horse looks on. Then he leaves.

Dawn was just breaking. I did not know where I was. I made towards the rising sun, towards where I thought it should rise, the quicker to come into the light. I would have liked a sea horizon, or a desert one. When I am abroad in the morning I go to meet the sun, and in the evening, when I am abroad, I follow it, till I am down among the dead. I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.

Comedy pessimism

The text is much more ‘about’ decrepitude and decay than First Love, with the result that it becomes a kind of device for turning out hundreds of bleak little pessimistic phrases, like the mottos in existentialist fortune cookies. I imagined I heard a cash machine going ching-ching! every time a new motto appeared:

Memories are killing.

No need then for caution, we may reason on to our heart’s content, the fog won’t lift.

But does one ever know oneself why one laughs?

We did our best, both of us, to understand, to explain.

No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

It wasn’t easy. But what is easy?

I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another.

Reassuring words for the angst-ridden teenager in all of us. Note the way they only have full resonance when appearing in a paragraph about something else. They need to be embedded to really drive home, to be the conclusion or climax of a series of sentences.

They lived above a stable, at the back of a yard. Ideal location, I could have done with it. Having presented me to his wife, extraordinarily full-bottomed, he left us. She was manifestly ill at ease, alone with me. I could understand her, I don’t stand on ceremony on these occasions. No reason for this to end or go on. Then let it end.

The pessimistic phrases need to bubble up out of the everyday situation, suddenly emerging in their sackcloth and ashes, the wisdom of Aspergers.

Asperger’s Syndrome

‘Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, is a developmental disorder characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. As a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from other ASDs by relatively normal language and intelligence. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and unusual use of language are common.’ (Wikipedia)

  • difficulty in social interaction
  • restricted interests
  • repetitive patterns of behavior

This accurately describes all Beckett’s protagonists. Surely thousands of other commentators must have pointed out the similarity between Beckett’s men and the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Surely someone must have speculated whether Beckett himself was on the spectrum.

Hyper-obsession with the simplest physical activities

There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma. In the other direction, I mean from top to bottom, it was the same, the word is not too strong. I did not know where to begin nor where to end, that’s the truth of the matter. I arrived therefore at three totally different figures, without ever knowing which of them was right. And when I say that the figure has gone from my mind, I mean that none of the three figures is with me any more, in my mind. It is true that if I were to find, in my mind, where it is certainly to be found, one of these figures, I would find it and it alone, without being able to deduce from it the other two. And even were I to recover two, I would not know the third. No, I would have to find all three, in my mind, in order to know all three.

If he thinks too much about walking, he falls over.

I set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs, as if nature had denied me knees, extraordinary splaying of the feet to right and left of the line of march. The trunk, on the contrary, as if by the effect of a compensatory mechanism, was as flabby as an old ragbag, tossing wildly to the unpredictable jolts of the pelvis. I have often tried to correct these defects, to stiffen my bust, flex my knees and walk with my feet in front of one another, for I had at least five or six, but it always ended in the same way, I mean with a loss of equilibrium, followed by a fall. A man must walk without paying attention to what he’s doing, as he sighs, and when I walked without paying attention to what I was doing I walked in the way I have just described, and when I began to pay attention I managed a few steps of creditable execution and then fell.

His protagonists are capable only of minute attention to present physical activities or remote rarefied meditations on philosophy and life, and completely lack the vast middle ground most of us inhabit, of chores and showers and buses and jobs and shopping and cleaning. It is nearly, but not quite, obsessive compulsive disorder.

He was lighting the lamps. I love oil lamps, in spite of their having been, with candles, and if I except the stars, the first lights I ever knew. I asked him if I might light the second lamp, since he had already lit the first himself. He gave me his box of matches, I swung open on its hinges the little convex glass, lit and closed at once, so that the wick might burn steady and bright, snug in its little house, sheltered from the wind.

Relishing the crudest physical functions

If you have no mental capacity to formulate rational plans and strategies, then you live in a permanent present where the most pressing concern is the ongoing condition of your body.

I had then the deplorable habit, having pissed in my trousers, or shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning, about ten or half past ten, of persisting in going on and finishing my day as if nothing had happened. The very idea of changing my trousers, or of confiding in mother, who goodness knows asked nothing better than to help me, was unbearable, I don’t know why, and till bedtime I dragged on with burning and stinking between my little thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence. Whence this wary way of walking, with the legs stiff and wide apart, and this desperate rolling of the bust, no doubt intended to put people off the scent, to make them think I was full of gaiety and high spirits, without a care in the world, and to lend plausibility to my explanations concerning my nether rigidity, which I ascribed to hereditary rheumatism.

The horses were farting and shitting as if they were going to the fair.

Not long before the farting horses, the narrator had mentioned Heraclitus, making a sort of joke, implying that the Greek philosopher’s famous nostrum could be rewritten, ‘You can’t bathe in the same gutter twice’. It is fundamental to Beckett’s technique to juxtapose the learnèd and the bathetic: Heraclitus and horse shit. Whether you find this entertaining, or funny, or a bleak comment on ‘the human condition’, depends on your sense of humour.

Prose poetry

But as often as there are the nihilist sententiae, there appear moments of beautiful perception.

We saw nothing, by the light of these lamps, save the vague outlines of the horse, but the others saw them from afar, two yellow glows sailing slowly through the air. When the equipage turned an eye could be seen, red or green as the case might be, a bossy rhomb as clear and keen as stained glass.

Good, isn’t it? Fragments of sweet sensual Joyce in the arid obsessiveness of Beckett’s brain-damaged vagabonds. And part of the appeal of his poetry is the insertion of show-off lexicon – ‘equipage’, ‘rhomb’ – but anyone who’s read this far knows to take these nuggets of knowledgeableness with a pinch of salt, as part of the package.

The brevity of these pieces certainly helps, but taken as a whole, the weird combination of elements – the retarded narrator, his high-falutin’ style, his oddity of observation, his lack of any normal sense of his predicament, the oddity of the entire vision – makes these short monologues strangely compelling. Very rereadable.

Credit

The Expelled by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. A translation into English by Beckett and Richard Seaver was published in 1967, in a collection along with The Calmative and The End and titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

All three – The Expelled, The Calmative and The End – were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

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

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

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

First Love – the plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a conventional romance, is it?

The style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I considered kicking her in the cunt.

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

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

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

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

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

Learnèd wit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentally challenged or hyper-intellectual?

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

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

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

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

Poetic

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Burrow by Franz Kafka (1924)

Fear is the central theme of this grim, terror-stricken, but very wordy, story.

In The Burrow some kind of mole-like animal spends thirty-seven pages in long-winded agonising whether the elaborate maze of tunnels it has devoted its life to building underground is anywhere near enough to protect it from the hordes of enemies and predators of which it lives in permanent, heart-stopping fear.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger? So the experiments I attempt here are only half-experiments or even less, calculated merely to reassure my fears and by giving me false reassurance to lay me open to great perils. No, I do not watch over my own sleep, as I imagined; rather it is I who sleep, while the destroyer watches.

Deep (literally, deep underground) terror pervades every second of the narrator’s life and thoughts, and the story, such as it is, amounts to a characteristically long-winded, tortuous, self-lacerating exercise in paranoia and terror. The narrator tells us at very great length how he has elaborated his burrow into a maze of fake and deceptive passages to lose enemies, how he built a fake and obvious entrance to divert enemies, how he has created dumps of food scattered round the maze, so he can have rations if forced to retreat under attack from the enemy.

Then about half way through, he begins to hear a low whistling sound (‘ A faint whistling, audible only at long intervals’) and becomes convinced it is emanating from his enemies and attackers.

But whether the sound (and the enemies) are coming from up above – overground – or from somewhere underground but near enough for him to hear, whether it is the sound made by a horde of enemies or by one giant enemy burrowing nearby, whether that enemy knows about his burrow and is planning to break in at some place along the maze of tunnels, or knows about his burrow but is deliberately taunting him by digging close by, or is ignorant of his burrow but might break through into one of his tunnels by mistake – are just some of the scores of scenarios and permutations the narrator runs through in an increasing sweat of fear and paranoia.

The theme of fear

Reading Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across this passage in one of his letters to his girlfriend, Czech journalist and writer, Milena Jesenská.

‘I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing from something greater than all that is fearful.’ (quoted page 96)

‘Fear spread to everything’ – that’s a good summary of the experience of reading this stifling text.

Unfinished

Apparently, The Burrow is unfinished, though I cannot pretend I was anything other than mightily relieved when it ended, almost in mid-sentence.

Allegedly, Kafka did write an ending to the story, detailing a struggle with the encroaching beast, but this completed version was among the works destroyed by Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, following his death. It’s a little surprising that it was meant to end this way, since violent and explicit action is rare in Kafka’s fiction. More often his characters just waste away or the narratives themselves are abandoned as, in the only version we have, this one is.

Officialese

In Ernst Pawel’s biography of Kafka I came across the following quote from one of Franz’s early colleagues in Prague’s literary scene, Oskar Baum, which struck me as being very relevant to this story.

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

‘Utmost objectivity’. Because as I read this stiflingly claustrophobic story, I began to realise that although its subject is animal fear, its form is surprisingly restrained and detached.

In fact, I began to realise that the story is cast in a style almost like an academic presentation or a report by some government official. I began to annotate the many phrases the narrator uses which could come from an official report.

  • It seemed to me advisable…
  • please note, however…
  • It will be objected that I….
  • Prudence demands that I…
  • Indeed in all probability…
  • That is naturally a great advantage…
  • That consideration need not delay me…
  • One cannot but incline to the hypothesis that…

The sense of an old-fashioned and rather pedantic academic is reinforced by the narrators’s repeated use of little barrages of rhetorical questions.

What does this protection which I am looking at here from the outside amount to after all? Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? A certain awareness of me they certainly have, but not full awareness. And is not that full awareness the real definition of a state of danger?

Or:

By what chance can everything have flowed on so quietly and happily for such a long time? Who can have diverted my enemies from their path, and forced them to make a wide detour around my property? Why have I been spared for so long, only to be delivered to such terrors now?

In other words, although the content of the story is the creature’s unremitting fear, its form or style is so pompously cerebral and academic as possibly to be a satire on academic or philosophical writers, on the dry dull lecturers at Kafka’s university, or even of some of his friends and acquaintances in Prague’s literary circles who became high falutin’ philosophers much given to rhetorical questions and orotund phraseology.

Not convinced? Well, here is the animal raising possible theories about the origin of the whistling sound, considering them, dismissing them and moving onto further theorising. Is it not the laboured and endlessly ramifying style of a certain kind of old-fashioned philosophical or aesthetic enquiry? (The Castle Keep he refers to is the big cavern at the centre of the maze of tunnels he has constructed for himself. The ‘small fry’ are the unnamed smaller animals which sometimes scuttle around his tunnels but are too small to present any threat.)

I listen now at the walls of the Castle Keep, and wherever I listen, high or low, at the roof or the floor, at the entrance or in the corners, everywhere, everywhere, I hear the same noise. And how much time, how much care must be wasted in listening to that noise, with its regular pauses. One can, if one wishes, find a tiny deceitful comfort in the fact that here in the Castle Keep, because of its vastness, one hears nothing at all, as distinguished from the passages, when one stands back from the walls. Simply as a rest and a means to regain my composure I often make this experiment, listen intently and am overjoyed when I hear nothing. But the question still remains, what can have happened? Confronted with this phenomenon my original explanation completely falls to the ground. But I must also reject other explanations which present themselves to me. One could assume, for instance, that the noise I hear is simply that of the small fry themselves at their work. But all my experience contradicts this; I cannot suddenly begin to hear now a thing that I have never heard before though it was always there. My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years, yet my hearing has by no means grown keener. It is of the very nature of small fry not to be heard. Would I have tolerated them otherwise? Even at the risk of starvation I would have exterminated them. But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me. That is possible. True, I have observed the life down here long and carefully enough, but the world is full of diversity and is never wanting in painful surprises. Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures, which, as they are audible, must certainly be bigger than the small fry, but yet cannot be very much bigger, for the sound of their labors is itself very faint. It may be, then, a swarm of unknown creatures on their wanderings, who happen to be passing by my way, who disturb me, but will presently cease to do so. So I could really wait for them to pass, and need not put myself to the trouble of work that will be needless in the end. Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them?

And so, wordily, verbosely, and tortuously, on.

So is it a prolonged exercise in the description of gnawing anxiety, projected onto an unnamed animal? Or a lengthy satire on the high-phrased and wandering divagations of a boring old philosophy lecturer? Or is it both, combined, to make something new and very strange?


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Dates are dates of composition.

The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1917)

my investigation is purely historical

I remember this story giving me a funny feeling when I read it as a teenager because of the heady, sweeping vision of history it gives you. I was too young to realise that any ‘history’ it contains is used for purely aesthetic reasons, to feed the purposes of the parable and of Kafka’s distinctive take on human existence.

The Great Wall of China imagines what it was like to be one of the builders of the Great Wall. It is told from the point of view of an articulate member of the generation who were raised to build it, trained to build it, and indoctrinated to build it, a man from a southeast Chinese province ‘almost on the borders of the Tibetan Highlands’.

The first half of the text describes the excited and patriotic ‘spirit of the times’, the narrator being lucky enough to have turned twenty and graduated from school just as the mammoth project was commencing.

And goes on to describe the wall less as a engineering and logistical challenge but more, as you might imagine from a creative writer, as a psychological challenge. Thus, according to the narrator, the main challenge to be overcome was exhaustion and despair. It would take a gang of workers and supervisors about five years to build five miles of wall by which time

the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the wall, and in the world.

And so after five years they were moved to a new region hundreds of miles away, the sole purpose being to show them other sections of the completed wall and parade them past cheering fellow citizens to bolster their morale.

The wistful tone

But rereading it now I think what appealed to me was the tone of the narrator. Most of Kafka’s other stories are told in real time – this happens then this happens then this. But the narrator of the Great Wall is looking back, wistfully and nostalgically to the early days of the wall which coincided with his flush of youth. He wants to ‘convey the ideas and experiences of that time and make them intelligible’ and the story is littered with phrases which hark back to that hopeful and optimistic era:

  • In those days the book was in everyone’s hands…
  • At that time for many people, even the best, there was a secret principle…

The whole text is bathed in an unusually warm and humane tone of voice.

The mysterious high command

The legendary vastness of China gives Kafka a new location to situate what you could call the core essence of the Kafkaesque, the notion of an endlessly ramifying hierarchy of unknowable authorities:

It is possible that even these considerations, which argued against building the wall in the first place, were not ignored by the leadership when they decided on piecemeal construction. We—and here I’m really speaking on behalf of many – actually first found out about it by spelling out the orders from the highest levels of management and learned for ourselves that without the leadership neither our school learning nor our human understanding would have been adequate for the small position we had within the enormous totality.

In the office of the leadership—where it was and who sat there no one I asked knows or knew—in this office I imagine that all human thoughts and wishes revolve in a circle, and all human aims and fulfilments in a circle going in the opposite direction.

Note the litotes in the first line – ‘It is possible that even these considerations… were not ignored by the leadership – which he uses to create a characteristic sense of uncertainty and speculation…

Slowly we realise that the story is in fact cast as an essay, a historical enquiry, into one odd fact, the fact that the wall was built in standalone sections which were often not linked up for decades or ever. Pondering the wisdom of the high command, the author talks himself into believing that the wall was in fact never a practical defence against invaders from the north: it was more a categorical imperative to unite Chinese society. More than that, it had an almost supernatural source.

I imagine that the high command has existed from all eternity, and the decision to construct the wall likewise. Unwitting northern people believed they were the cause; unwitting emperor who imagined he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.

This I found a breath-taking and vast and mysterious vision.

The remoteness of the emperor

In the second half of the short text the author goes on to expand it by subjecting the figure of the Emperor to a thorough Kafka-isation i.e. turning him into a figure so remote and mysterious, that no one knows or can know about him. The same idea he’s applied to the notional ‘Court’ in The Trial. 

We would think about the present emperor if we knew who he was or anything definite about him. We were naturally always trying… to find out something or other about him, but, no matter how strange this sounds, it was almost impossible to learn anything, either from pilgrims, even though they wandered through much of our land, or from near or remote villages, or from boatmen, although they have travelled not merely on our little waterways but also on the sacred rivers. One hears a great many things, true, but can gather nothing definite.

The idea is developed to visionary or phantasmagorical lengths, with the author stating that the empire is so vast that it is impossible ever to hear anything about the emperor, malicious court conspiracies may overthrow him, but the author’s people, far in the distant south, will never hear about this. Nobody knows the name of the current emperor resulting in ‘universal uncertainty’.

In fact the text contains a one-page-long parable of haunting beauty.

The parable of the emperor’s message

The Emperor has sent a message to you, his humble subject, a tiny shadow cowering in the furthest distance from the imperial sun; the emperor on his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He ordered the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it so important that he had the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death – for all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs – in front of all of them he dispatches his messenger.

The messenger sets off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he encounters resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else.

But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years.

And if he finally did burst through the outermost door – but that can never, never happen – the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, crammed to bursting with its own refuse. Nobody could pushes his way through here, even with a message from a dead man.

It is Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, redone in a mystical fictional form. If this had been in The Trial both teller and auditor of the fable would have reflected (at length) on how impossible it is to ever establish any truth or knowledge, to ever receive the message, to ever find out what is going on.

But The Great Wall of China is different. It has, as I mentioned, an unusually warm and mellow tone about it. And thus this page-long parable ends not on a note of hopelessness, but with an image of acceptance.

But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream that message to yourself.

Kafka is rarely this forgiving to himself or his readers. It is this twilight, nostalgic and forgiving tone which makes The Great Wall of China stand out among all his other works.

And it also makes you realise that his fundamental tropes of distant rulers and unknowable hierarchies and universal uncertainty need not necessarily be negative. Precisely the metaphors and tropes which make Kafka a patron saint of existentialist angst can give just as much support to a mellow, almost Zen-like air of detachment and mellowness.


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Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1912)

Five years ago Gregor Samsa’s family fell on hard times when his father’s business went bust, owing a lot of money. Gregor had been working as a clerk, but stepped into the breach by becoming a travelling salesman and was soon earning enough money to cover all the family’s costs. During those years his father grew old and fat and used to trudging round the apartment in his dressing gown, his mother grew frail and increasingly prone to asthma attacks, and his little sister, Grete, went from being a schoolgirl to a young woman of 17. Only Gregor’s hard work and iron discipline kept the little family afloat, financially.

Then, one morning, Gregory awoke from a bad night’s sleep to discover he had been transformed into a man-sized insect, something like a wood louse.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933)

Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug. (J.A. Underwood, 1981)

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (David Wyllie, 2002)

Thus begins one of the most famous short stories ever written, The Metamorphosis. The plot, as such, is easily summarised. His family is horrified at his transformation but, once they’ve overcome their initial shock and repugnance, the main impact is financial: they realise they’ll have to go out to out to work, and so Grete takes a job as a shop assistant, Gregor’s father gets a job as a bank commissionaire and his mother takes in lingerie to darn and repair.

Gregor, for his part, on the first day of his change, is mostly concerned that he’s going to be late for work i.e. keeps on thinking the harassed thoughts of a much put-upon employee in a big firm. So he is mortified when the Chief Clerk from his office turns up to find out why he’s late. The striking feature of this early section, as of the work as a whole, is how everyone accepts the miraculous fact of the metamorphosis, and continues thinking their mundane anxious thoughts.

Quite quickly a pattern settles onto the little household: Gregor’s sister brings in leftover food for him to eat before leaving for work, then removes the leftovers in the evenings. (Kafka gives some thought to what a giant insect would eat, thus he completely ignores the initial offering of bread in milk, and he, and they, learn that he prefers rotten vegetables.)

The Samsa’s cleaning woman quits in horror, but another, more working class one is brought in, who treats Gregory phlegmatically, threatening him with a broom or a chair if he comes out from under his sofa (his favourite hiding place) when she’s trying to clean his room.

Although Gregory can perfectly understand what everyone else is saying about him, when he tries to speak it comes out as an unpleasant squeaking sound and they understand nothing. Thus, from the moment of waking that fateful morning, he continues to have entirely human thoughts and feelings but can express them to no-one. They think he has become an animal and thinks like an animal.

The third-person narrator continually explains Gregory’s feelings to us, and the striking thing about them is how little he is changed, how utterly unfreaked-out he is by what’s happened to him, but instead how he tries to make it up to his family, continues to feel guilty that he is no longer the bread-winner, wishes he could join them at the family dinner table like in the old days, and so on.

But in reality, his new body has other plans. Just as it prevents him from speaking and from expressing his human thoughts, so it foils his human wishes. Only slowly does Gregor learn what makes it happy, namely scurrying all over the walls and even the ceiling of his room, leaving sticky tracks everywhere.

In one scene half way through, his sister realises he’ll be happier if they remove all the furniture getting in his way and so gets their frail old mother to give her a hand manoeuvring heavy wardrobes and tables out of his room. Although it is also marks a psychological turning point, marking the moment when he and his family realise the old Gregor is never coming back.

It’s during the furniture moving that Gregor unwisely comes out of the bedroom, the sight of him making his mother hysterical (she has mostly refused to enter his room or accept what’s happened). And it’s at this moment that his father, much revived and invigorated by his new job as a bank commissionaire, arrives home from work, and chases Gregory round the family living room, before starting to pelt him with apples from the fruit bowl.

One of these apples lodges in Gregory’s back (it’s not explicitly described how but this fact only really makes sense if Gregory has a highly segmented shell like a woodlouse) and, over the coming weeks, rots and seems to spread infection through his body.

In the final act the Samsa family take in three lodgers, and there is some characteristically dry Kafka humour at the expense of these three pompous, formal, grey-bearded old men, exactly the kind of dry pompous nitwits he satirises in the later novels. Their role here is to demand that breakfast and dinner are served precisely on time and exactly as they like it, while the Samsa family are forced to go and eat their meals in the kitchen.

One evening Gregory’s sister Grete starts practicing her violin in her bedroom, which prompts the three worthies to ask Mr Samsa to ask her to come out and perform for them in the living room (everyone dressed, remember, in Edwardian frocks and top hats). Unfortunately, the door to Gregory’s room has been left open and he lets himself be so entranced by the music that he inches into the living room on numerous scrappy little woodlouse legs.

Suddenly the lodgers spot him. Now what makes this moment very Kafkaesque is that you or I, if we were in a room listening or playing music with friends, and a giant, human-sized insect slowly nudged its way through the door, you or I might start screaming and run for the window. But I think the most telling fact I know about all Kafka’s work is that, when he read his stories out loud to his small coterie of literary friends, they would often laugh out loud at various incidents and Kafka himself often had tears of laughter streaming down his face.

Kafka didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust, that the Bolshevik experiment would lead to mass famine and show trials, that concentration camps would be set up across Europe from Alsace to Archangel within a few years of his death. In other words Kafka wasn’t privy to the enormous weight of historical, sociological, political and cultural weight which was going to be assigned to his writings by later, especially post-war, critics and readers.

If you do read all this catalogue of disaster back into his writings then it is easy to make them prophetic of the bureaucratic dehumanisation of human beings which was the central characteristic of the twentieth century, and make him into a prophet of anxiety and alienation.

On the other hand, if you try to put to one side the enormous freight of existential angst with which the works are now cluttered, then that allows you to be more flexible in your response – for example, to see that it is genuinely funny that the three pompous old men don’t run screaming out the room when they see a giant insect aproaching, but immediately turn to Mr Samsa senior and, not only give him formal notice that they are quitting his rooms, but also insist that they are not going to pay a penny of the rent they owe, knowing as they now do, that they have been living next to a monster!

In the end Gregory dies. He stops eating and wastes away. Is it due to the infection caused by the rotten apple lodged in the plates of his back? Or to the subtler process, which Kafka records slowly coming over him, whereby he slowly loses his vision and becomes more and more insect-like in his behaviour?

Or is it because, after the three tenants serve notice to quit, Gregor for the first time overhears his family discussing what to do with it, and realises that for the first time his sister, who had been so quietly sympathetic and thoughtful (realising what kind of food a giant insect would want, clearing the furniture out of his room) has given up on him, no longer recognises the inset as Gregor, and now regards him as just an insect, a piece of vermin which needs to be eradicated.

Whatever the reason, the story has to end and the only way Kafka can think of doing so is by killing off his protagonist. As he does in The Trial and intended to do in The Castle.

Summary

So what does the Metamorphosis tell us about the ‘Kafkaesque’, what does it have in common with The Trial or The Castle?

  1. It has one central male protagonist.
  2. He is lower-middle-class but has a respectable white collar job (i.e. is not a writer or poet etc).
  3. He is oppressed by the squabbles and rivalries and office politics and pressures of his job.
  4. One day his life is changed by a catastrophic event.
  5. But the nature and meaning and character of this event remain puzzlingly obscure.
  6. But what is almost more puzzling is the way everyone carries on acting as if things are more or less normal. For example, Gregory’s main thoughts aren’t at all about finding a ‘cure’ for his condition, but, initially, are guilt about being late for work, or not turning up day after day as he has become so used to doing – and then almost entirely about wishing he could help the family with the ensuing financial crisis. So the ‘Kafkaesque’ is something to do with the clash or juxtaposition between the Weird and the extremely mundane, boring, quotidian setting and concern of the characters. For example, I was struck by the way the Samsa family doesn’t consider consulting a doctor, let alone bringing in scientists or informing the authorities – no, they just carry on life as before except that, irritatingly, they now have to go out and get jobs and, oh yes, there’s a giant insect living in one of their bed rooms.

And 6. as mentioned above, the only way the story can really end – as with most of his other stories – is with the death of the protagonist because the plights they are condemned to are lifelong, are existential, are unalterable.

Kafka’s verbosity

One of the other really consistent characteristics of Kafka’s fiction is the astonishing verbosity of the characters. They never say something in a sentence when they could take a page and a half.

This extreme verbosity also allows for another Kafkaesque quality, which is the hand-wringing-, hyper-sensitive way the characters over-think and super-worry about even simple situations, even about whether to speak to someone else, or what someone else meant when they just said something, they can agonise for paragraphs.

For example, on the first day of the transformation, a few hours after Gregory has failed to turn up for work, the Chief Clerk from his office pays the Samsa family a visit. As soon as Gregory hears the Chief Clerk’s voice through the door, he is thrown into a (characteristic) state of anxiety and resentment:

Gregor only needed to hear the visitor’s first words of greeting and he knew who it was – the chief clerk himself. Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries – assuming enquiries were even necessary – did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it? And more because these thoughts had made him upset than through any proper decision, he swung himself with all his force out of the bed.

Wherever you look it up, you’ll find definitions of the ‘Kafkaesque’ invoking ideas of the nightmareish struggle of the individual against a huge, faceless bureaucracy.

Kafkaesque – characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

But just as important and intrinsic to his style is the extreme long-windedness of the dialogue, the extraordinary inability of the characters to say in a sentence what can’t be stretched out into a couple of pages of tortuous, shifting, ambiguous and anxiously self-interrogating prose. It’s this quality more than anything else – more than the ‘meaning’ or the symbolism or even the oppressive atmosphere – which makes the novels so hard to read.

Here is (part of) the exchange between the Chief Clerk speaking through the door to Gregory.

The chief clerk now raised his voice, ‘Mr. Samsa,’ he called to him, ‘what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents and you fail – and I mention this just by the way – you fail to carry out your business duties in a way that is quite unheard of. I’m speaking here on behalf of your parents and of your employer, and really must request a clear and immediate explanation. I am astonished, quite astonished. I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims. This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honour that that could not be the right explanation. But now that I see your incomprehensible stubbornness I no longer feel any wish whatsoever to intercede on your behalf. And nor is your position all that secure. I had originally intended to say all this to you in private, but since you cause me to waste my time here for no good reason I don’t see why your parents should not also learn of it. Your turnover has been very unsatisfactory of late; I grant you that it’s not the time of year to do especially good business, we recognise that; but there simply is no time of year to do no business at all, Mr. Samsa, we cannot allow there to be.’

‘But Sir’, called Gregor, beside himself and forgetting all else in the excitement, ‘I’ll open up immediately, just a moment. I’m slightly unwell, an attack of dizziness, I haven’t been able to get up. I’m still in bed now. I’m quite fresh again now, though. I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though. It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person! I was quite alright last night, my parents know about it, perhaps better than me, I had a small symptom of it last night already. They must have noticed it. I don’t know why I didn’t let you know at work! But you always think you can get over an illness without staying at home. Please, don’t make my parents suffer! There’s no basis for any of the accusations you’re making; nobody’s ever said a word to me about any of these things. Maybe you haven’t read the latest contracts I sent in. I’ll set off with the eight o’clock train, as well, these few hours of rest have given me strength. You don’t need to wait, sir; I’ll be in the office soon after you, and please be so good as to tell that to the boss and recommend me to him!’

It seems to me that the oppressive or nightmareish quality of the stories is conveyed just as much by the long-winded verbosity and over-elaborate articulacy and self-justifying loquaciousness of the dialogue as it is by the actual ‘plots’.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Max Brod’s postscript to The Trial

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1883. Despite being born in what would become the capital of Czechoslovakia after the Great War, he was educated, spoke and wrote in German. Kafka died in June 1924 at the age of 40 from laryngeal tuberculosis. By the time of his death Kafka had published three collections of short stories, but he left behind a vast collection of manuscripts, notes and sketches, including the drafts of three book-length novels. Knowing he was dying, Kafka appointed his best friend, the successful literary journalist Max Brod, as his executor and asked him, verbally, and in writing, to burn every scrap of his notes and manuscripts.

Famously, Brod ignored the request and went on to meticulously organise and edit the (often unfinished) manuscripts, arranging for their publication, and thus ensuring that Kafka went on, after his death, to ultimately become one of the most famous authors of the twentieth century.

Why did Brod ignore his friend’s final request? The Penguin edition of The Trial prints the short epilogue in which Brod justifies ignoring Kafka’s last wishes, and explains why he instead preserved them all, edited them, and published them as the three novels – The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and America (1927) – and then a short story collection in 1931.

This is a detailed précis of that note.

Kafka’s reluctance to publish his writings

Brod tells us that nearly everything that Kafka published during his lifetime had to be extracted from him by (Brod’s) extensive persuasion and guile.

Kafka always referred to his writings as his ‘scribblings’ and other self-deprecating terms.

Kafka frequently read his writings to his small circle of friends ‘with a rhythmic sweep, a dramatic fire, a spontaneity such as no actor ever achieves.’

But he was reluctant to publish anything due to:

  • ‘certain unhappy experiences which drove him to a form of self-sabotage and a nihilistic attitude to his work
  • he always applied the highest religious standards to his own work and felt it fell short

(‘Religious’!? Yes, Brod thinks Kafka was a seeker ‘for faith, naturalness, and spiritual wholeness’. Many later critics have interpreted Kafka’s writings in all kinds of ways: Brod is the founder and chief proponent of seeing them as religious works.)

Kafka once told him that false hands were reaching out to (mis)lead him, while writing.

Kafka told him that what he had published so far had ‘led him astray in his further work’.

Kafka’s wish to have his writings burnt

Kafka left no will. Among his papers were found two documents in which he asked Brod to burn everything. One was a folded note which contained the following sentences:

Everything I leave behind me… in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s sketches and so on, is to be burned unread and to the last page, as well as all writings of mine or notes which either you may have or other people, from whom you are to beg them in my name.

There was also a yellowed and much older piece of piece of paper with a hand-written note. In it Kafka acknowledges that some of his stories are in print and so unavoidably in the public domain, then goes on to say:

Everything else of mine that I have written (printed in magazines or newspapers, written in manuscripts or letters) without exception, so far as it can be got hold of, or begged from the addressees… all this, without exception and preferably unread (although I don’t mind you looking into it, but I would much prefer that you didn’t, and in any case no one else is to look at it) – all this, without exception, is to be burned, and that you should do it as soon as possible is what I beg of you.

Brod’s reasons for refusing Kafka’s request

First, Brod says that some of his reasons for refusing the request are ‘private’. (Well, that’s frustrating, it would be good to know what they were, I wonder if he ever revealed them anywhere else…)

As to the ‘public’ reasons which Brod is minded to share with us, these are:

1. Once, during a jokey conversation about wills, Kafka had shown Brod the same folded note quoted above, and explained his wish to have all his writings burned, to which Brod had jokily given him fair warning, that if it came to it, he would refuse to follow these instructions. Franz made a joke of it, they both laughed, but as a result, Brod is convinced that Kafka knew in advance that his wishes would not be carried out. Thus, if he had truly wanted the papers burned, he would have appointed a different literary executor, a relative, a lawyer, someone with no interest in them as literature.

2. Brod tells us that, after this conversation in which he’d said that he wanted no more of his works to be published, Kafka had contradicted himself by allowing further works to be published, including four short stories in a volume titled The Hunger Artist.

3. Brod says that both the notes were written at a time in Kafka’s life when Brod knows that he was full of ‘self-hatred and Nihilism’. But in his last few years, according to Brod, Kafka’s life took an unexpected turn for the better, and he became much more happy and positive. The entire mind-set in which he wrote the notes became redundant.

4. As Brod stated at the start, every single piece of Kafka’s which was ever published had to be extracted from him by Brod’s persuasion and guile. But in every case, after they were published, Kafka was always pleased with the results. I.e. Brod had first-hand experience of seeing that, deep down, and no matter how much he publicly dismissed his works, Kafka did enjoy seeing his work in print, but was just hyper-sensitively shy about it.

5. All the arguments Kafka gave as to the negative personal and professional effect publishing had on him – such as that they created bad examples which misled his muse, or expectations which he couldn’t live up to – were rendered void by his death. Their publication would have no more effect on him.

These are the five ‘public’ reasons Brod gives for ignoring Kafka’s written wish that all his works be burned ‘unread’.

Max Brod and The Trial

Brod tells us that he came into possession of the manuscript of The Trial in 1920. [From another source I discover that Kafka wrote the book in a sustained burst of activity from August to December 1914, then in January 1915 dropped it, never to return.)

Kafka never actually wrote a title on the manuscript, but always referred to it as The Trial in conversation, so we can be confident about the title. The division into chapters, and the chapter headings are also Kafka’s. (Each of the chapters was neatly stored in a folder, even the unfinished ones.)

But The Trial is unfinished. The chapters themselves were never arranged in a final order. There is an obvious beginning (in which Joseph K is arrested), and a chapter titled The End (which he wrote early on, apparently, and in which Joseph K is murdered), but the order of all chapters in between was fluid.

To order them Brod tells us that used his own judgement, heavily based on the fact that Kafka had read a lot of the novel out loud to him and other friends, so he had a good feel for the intended order of most of it.

Before the final chapter, which features the death of the protagonist, Brod tells us that Kafka planned to include many more stages of the agonisingly uncertain processes and encounters described in the existing text, but Brod tells us that Kafka told him that the case was never to reach the supposed ‘highest Court’, and so:

in a certain sense the novel was interminable, it could be prolonged into infinity.

He tells us that the writing of the book wasn’t cut off by Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924, but that Kafka had abandoned it earlier [1915, as mentioned above], when ‘his life entered an entirely new atmosphere’. It was abandoned, and after a few years Kafka felt unable to return to its mood and story, unable ever to complete it. Hence his written wish to have it (and the other unfinished novels) destroyed. You can understand Kafka’s motivation: he knew what his original intention had been, knew that he had nowhere near completed it, and knew that he would never again be in the frame of mind, to re-enter the text and complete it.

So, we conclude, Brod’s labour on the manuscript of The Trial amounted simply to:

  • separating the obviously finished from the obviously unfinished chapters
  • placing the finished ones in the correct order according to internal logic and what he remembered of Kafka’s readings
  • then approaching publishers to get it published

Which it was, in 1925, the year after Kafka’s death, bringing its dead author a trickle and then a flood of posthumous recognition.

Pretty obviously, the literary world owes Brod a vast debt of gratitude for his act of friendly disobedience.


Related links

  • Metamorphosis (1915)
  • The Trial (1925)
  • The Castle (1926)
  • America (1927)

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)

This is a sometimes hauntingly beautiful,sometimes thumpingly obvious, collection of visions, fables, dreams and nightmares. It consists of 26 linked short stories arranged in chronological order to describe mankind’s first expeditions to Mars, the colonisation of Mars, strange encounters with Martians, and then the abrupt abandonment of the planet as almost all the settlers fly back to earth in response to a catastrophic nuclear war.

In fact that figure of 26 breaks down into about 13 substantial stores, interspersed with 13 very short linking passages or free-standing vignettes. But whereas in, say, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, the linking passages between the stories provide important factual information – Bradbury’s linkers are much softer, gentler, more evocative; if they introduce a theme it is often done only obliquely. Sometimes they are almost prose poems in their own right.

Although they come from the era of hard sci-fi, and were all first published in classic sci-fi magazines, most of the stories have an uncanny, sometimes hallucinatory effect. These two effects – dreaminess, and a concern for prose poetry over ‘facts’ – are well conveyed by the very first opening link section, itself barely a page long, and titled Rocket Summer.

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer’s ancient green lawns.

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.

Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky.

The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and oven heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land…

That’s it. Blank faced prose, super simplified, to create an often fairy tale effect, or sound like a fable, or as if translated from a simpler language. Note the use of repetition to create the dreamy effect – ‘The rocket lay… the rocket stood… the rocket made…’

For this level of simplicity is deceptive. Simple sentences can contain strange, unexpected effects, odd juxtapositions of the homely and the eerie.

The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts.

What’s true of individual sentences is true of entire stories. Bradbury’s simple diction can be really simplified down to a kind of Biblical portentousness, or lifted to a fairy tale simplicity, it can have oddities added to turn it into something strange and unexpected. But just as easily, it can topple over into stereotypes and clichés. In the story The Earth Men, the men climbing out of the shiny rocket ship are 1950s Hollywood. The Martians taking them perfectly for granted is satire. The Martians then locking them up in a lunatic asylum is Swiftian satire. Then the Martians executing them all crosses a line into horror.

Bradbury’s deceptively simple prose is capacious and flexible enough to convey enormous shifts in tone and register in consecutive sentences, or within one story.

This is one of the things which makes the stories so disconcerting. Their changeableness.

Future history

The dates and even the events are not really the point of the stories, but despite their hallucinatory weirdness, there is a coherent timeline of sorts, which Bradbury emphasises by placing precise year dates next to each story – and which can be divided into three sections.

The first six stories (January 1999 to April 2000) describes a succession of expeditions to Mars in which the Martians kill each successive little party of earth intruders.

The pivotal story, ‘—And the Moon be Still as Bright’, describes the fourth mission to Mars, which discovers that almost all the Martians have been wiped out by a plague of chicken pox brought by one of the earlier earth missions.

In the middle bloc of stories (December 2001 to November 2005) humans proceed to colonise Mars with no interference – although there are a few eerie encounters with the remaining Martian survivors. Despite the presence of the spookily empty canals and the deserted Martian cities, Mars turns out to have pretty much the same gravity as earth, albeit the air is thinner and sometimes harder to breathe. but the human settlers quick turn it into a second earth, complete with earth agriculture, earth towns with earth names, and populations and prejudices.

The second pivot comes in the story, The Off Season, in which a dumb and violent working class earthman, who has set up a hot dog stall on the main highway from the rocket landing fields to the main colonial city (a hot dog stall? – yes the stories are that American, and the earth settlers make it into that much of a replica of home) hoping to make a killing from the next big influx of settlers — watches, with his pissed-off wife, as the earth is devastated by a nuclear holocaust. They both happen to be looking at distant earth, up in the Martian sky, when –

Earth changed in the black sky. It caught fire. Part of it seemed to come apart in a million pieces, as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded. It burned with an unholy dripping glare for a minute, three times normal size, then dwindled.
‘What was that?’ Sam looked at the green fire in the sky.
‘Earth,’ said Elma, holding her hands together.
‘That can’t be Earth, that’s not Earth! No, that ain’t Earth! It can’t be.’

‘as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded’. See how simple, but dramatically effective, Bradbury’s prose can be.

Driven by overwhelming nostalgia, all the Mars colonists pack into their spaceships and head off back to earth, leaving Mars almost abandoned. A handful of earthlings remain among the now-derelict earth settlements, which are themselves built next to the long-abandoned Martian settlements. A double layer of abandonment and melancholy.

The third section (December 2005 to October 2026) describes the experiences of these last few human survivors scattered across Mars. The very last story describes the arrival of the last-but-one spaceship from earth – bringing an all-American nuclear family, Mom, Dad and three boys. They expect one other family group to follow, a family with four girls. Between them, the adults plan that these children will leave behind all the destructive values of earth and found a new civilisation, becoming ‘the new Martians’.

The stories with nominal dates and lengths

The substantial stories in bold.

  • Rocket Summer (January 1999) 2 pages
  • Ylla (February 1999) 20 pages
  • The Summer Night (August 1999) 4 pages
  • The Earth Men (August 1999) 24 pages
  • The Taxpayer (March 2000) 2 pages
  • The Third Expedition (April 2000) 26 pages
  • —And the Moon Be Still as Bright (June 2001) 39 pages
  • The Settlers (August 2001) 2 pages
  • The Green Morning (December 2001) 8 pages
  • The Locusts (February 2002) 2 pages
  • Night Meeting (August 2002) 13 pages
  • The Shore (October 2002) 2 pages
  • The Fire Balloons (November 2002) 28 pages
  • Interim (February 2003) 2 pages
  • The Musicians (April 2003) 3 pages
  • Way in the Middle of the Air (June 2003) 21 pages
  • The Naming of Names (2004-05) 2 pages
  • The Old Ones (August 2005) 1 page
  • The Martian (September 2005) 21 pages
  • The Luggage Store (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Off Season (November 2005) 18 pages
  • The Watchers (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Silent Towns (December 2005) 16 pages
  • The Long Years (April 2026) 17 pages
  • There Will Come Soft Rains (August 4, 2026) 10 pages
  • The Million-Year Picnic (October 2026) 16 pages

Dying falls

As this brief synopsis indicates, it is not an optimistic narrative. We witness the extermination of not one, but two civilisations. Hence many of the stories have a plangent, dying tone. Hence there are a good number of atmospheric moments when people find themselves alone, marooned, isolated, standing amid the ruins of a Martian city, or at the edge of a dried-up Martian sea.

There Will Come Soft Rains,

The story, There Will Come Soft Rains, epitomises this sense of abandonment, although it’s one of the few set on earth. It describes the automatic functioning of a 21st century house – alarm clocks going off, breakfast automatically prepared, little robot cleaners tidying everything away – long after its human inhabitants have been vaporised by the atomic blast which destroyed the whole of the rest of the city the house stands in.

The nuclear war left only this one house standing, with one, city-facing wall charred black by the blast, except, that is, for the silhouettes of the Mom and Pop and the two kids who were playing on the lawn when the bomb detonated and whose vaporised outlines are preserved on the crumbling wall.

You could characterise a story like that as blunt, meaning it is a creative embroidering around a basically hard, crude subject. What’s more, a hyper-clichéd subject. I wonder how many teenage stories and poems and songs describe the horrors of a nuclear war in despairing detail.

The gag, or twist in Bradbury’s story, which lifts it above the utterly clichéd, is the humorous precision with which he describes the continued functioning of all the little futuristic gadgets in the house, creating a wan sense of pathos, once we realise all the humans they work for are long dead.

The Earth Men

A similarly blunt story is the satire The Earth Men, which describes how the second spaceship full of earth explores arrives, and they are disconcerted to find the Martians taking them in their stride. ‘Yes yes,’ the Martians communicate telepathically, ‘I’m busy right now, run along to see Mr Aaa,’ so they go along to another Martian dwelling, to find a harassed official too busy with his paperwork to give them full attention.

The increasingly exasperated explorers are eventually passed onto an official who can barely be bothered to look up from his paperwork before handing them a big silver key and telling them to go down the corridor and open the door.

When the men do as told, they enter a big dome to find loads of excitable Martians who lift them on their shoulders, and hurrah and toast them. ‘This is more like it,’ say the gee whizz space crew, until it slowly dawns on the captain that this is a Martian lunatic asylum. All the Martians who sent them along to Dr so and so who referred them to Mr Aaa who told them to come to this dome – they all thought they were run-of-the-mill Martians having telepathic hallucinations, that’s to say, faking a human (alien) appearance. The Martians who greet them in the dome quickly reveal themselves as suffering from all kinds of delusions, claiming to be explorers from earth or Nepture on the sun.

Finally the earth explorers are attended by Mr Xxx, a psychologist, who diagnoses them as normal Martians who happen to possess abnormal powers of telepathic projection with which they have changed their appearance. He finds their story of being ‘from earth’ very amusing and, when they insist, agrees to be escorted out to their ‘spaceship’.

Mr Xxx enters the ship, pokes and prods around, but remains fixed in his beliefs that it is a remarkable hallucination. Then he pronounces the only cure Martians know for this level of brain sickness i.e. execution.

He took out a little gun. ‘Incurable, of course. You poor, wonderful man. You will be happier dead. Have you any last words?’
‘Stop, for God’s sake! Don’t shoot!’
‘You sad creature. I shall put you out of this misery which has driven you to imagine this rocket and these three men. It will be most engrossing to watch your friends and your rocket vanish once I have killed you. I will write a neat paper on the dissolvement of neurotic images from what I perceive here today.’
‘I’m from Earth! My name is Jonathan Williams, and these — ‘
‘Yes, I know,’ soothed Mr. Xxx, and fired his gun.
The captain fell with a bullet in his heart. The other three men screamed.
Mr. Xxx stared at them. ‘You continue to exist? This is superb! Hallucinations with time and spatial persistence!’ He pointed the gun at them. ‘Well, I’ll scare you into dissolving.’
‘No!’ cried the three men.
‘An auditory appeal, even with the patient dead,’ observed Mr. Xxx as he shot the three men down.

The satire is swift and brutal. It has barely anything to do with science fiction, more a use of science fiction tropes to satirise the self-satisfied lack of imagination of the American psychiatric profession circa 1950. The story doesn’t tap deep emotional roots, although it is effective burlesque.

Night meeting

You could compare the blunt stories in the collection with the many others which are a bit more subtle or poetic in intention.

In Night Meeting an earthman on his way to a party suddenly encounters in the bleak bare Martian landscape, a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed Martian who is on his way to a Martian festival.

Both can hear the music in the distance of their respective parties, can anticipate the warmth, the wine, the beautiful women they will meet there. But when they go to touch each other, their hands go through each other’s bodies. They are both there, but not there. Two moments in time, which are equally as unreal to each other, have somehow overlapped.

Now, even though this story has a vague sense of déjà vu about it – as if I’ve seen it in an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek or somewhere – you can straightaway see that it aims to capture something more eerie and uncanny than the blunt stories. All the details and dialogue of the story are focused on creating a mood of weirdness.

And it’s often true of these more poetic stories that, although they’re set on Mars, they could be set anywhere: this one is basically a ghost story and could just as well have been describing an encounter between, say a modern character and an 18th century highwayman on some remote midnight heath in Cornwall, as an event on planet Mars.

The Fire Balloons

Something of the same yearning, evocative quality dominates The Fire Balloons in which a Catholic priest and his colleagues come to Mars, determined to convert the rare and obscure Martians to Christianity. (For the purposes of this story, we are told that the previous species of Martians, the ones who have been wiped out, lived alongside a much smaller and rarer species, beings which look to us like luminous blue globes).

The priests have several eerie encounters with these strange, remote, hovering globes who, at a key moment, indicate their good intentions by saving the earthmen from a mountain avalanche.

Bu at the finale of the story, the blue globes communicate telepathically that they are perfectly happy, at peace, know no sin and so need no redemption.

This story contains some pretty blunt satire on religion, on Christianity, on Catholic superstition and dogma. But at its core is the wistful memories of the protagonist, Father Peregrine, of being a small boy and watching his grandfather light red, white and blue balloons to send off into the air on Independence Day. I suspected these warm happy memories would mislead the Father into trusting the blue globes who would then savagely let him down – but no, the mood of warm contentment continues right to the end as the happy, fulfilled globes float out of the story.

Civil rights

The Other Foot

Unexpectedly, there is a story strongly redolent of the Civil Rights movement in that it unmistakably set in the Deep South of America, and powerfully supports black characters against the narrow-minded hick racism of white bigots.

This us the second Bradbury story I’ve read which is fiercely critical of white prejudice against black people in America – The Illustrated Man contains the story The Other Foot, in which Mars has been entirely settled by black people, more or less exiled there from America, who have settled and made their own life and are happy. No spaceship has come from earth for twenty years and they think they have been ignored and forgotten.

When a spaceship is sighted, a black man named Willie Johnson recalls all the injustices black people suffered in 1920s and 1930s and 1950s America and whips the crowd up into a frenzy ready to lynch and string up the white folks who emerge from it.

There is real bite and anger in the story which lists in some detail the everyday social, cultural, political, economic and psychological oppression which black people have suffered in America.

Anyway, when the spaceship lands, the knackered old white man who appears in the door tells them there has been a nuclear apocalypse and earth has completely destroyed itself, nothing of civilisation remains. He and his team have patched together the last spaceship on earth and come to ask their forgiveness, come to ask if they will use their (the black peoples’) spaceships, and return to earth and help rebuild civilisation.

The plot sounds pretty silly, but the descriptions of black humiliation left me more shaken than anything else in the book.

Way in the Middle of the Air

Same goes for the ‘black’ story in this collection, Way in the Middle of the Air. It describes a bunch of hard-core, red-neck, southern bigots assembled on the porch of the hardware store owned by Samuel Teece. It describes in full their bigoted comments as a great tide of black humanity sweeps through the high street in front of them on their way to the rocket fields, where the entire black population of the South is going to take ship to Mars.

Teece, the big bully bigot, attempts to prevent two individuals going, a man named Belter riding a horse, who owes him $50. As the crowd gets wind of what’s going in they politely have a whip round and pay Teece his $50 and he is forced to let Belter go. And then Teece spots ‘Silly’, his shop boy, and pulls him over and refuses to let him go, even though the car with the rest of his family is impatient to get going and not to miss the spaceships. he begs, he pleads, he weeps, and eventually some of the other white men on the porch start feeling guilty and uneasy and one old dude says he’ll step in and replace ‘Silly’ and, eventually, Teece is shamed into letting him go, and off he roars in his family car.

Teece gets his gun and waves it around in rage and for a while there’s a real risk he’ll start shooting people in the great crowd at random. By God, he remembers the good old days, riding with the Klan and the lynchings, and Bradbury gives him some paragraphs of reminiscence.

He remembered nights when men drove to his house, their knees sticking up sharp and their shotguns sticking up sharper, like a carful of cranes under the night trees of summer, their eyes mean. Honking the horn and him slamming his door, a gun in his hand, laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s, driving off down the summer-night road, a ring of hemp rope coiled on the car floor, fresh shell boxes making every man’s coat look bunchy. How many nights over the years, how many nights of the wind rushing in the car, flopping their hair over their mean eyes, roaring, as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!

Enraged, Teece gets in his car with a few of the others, and drives off after the crowd. But they come to a great area where the entire black population of the South has abandoned all its unnecessary goods and belongings, a wasteland of trash and memorabilia. And then they hear the roar of the rockets and watch the little silver fins fly up into the sky.

In the cotton fields the wind blew idly among the snow dusters. In still farther meadows the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted, striped like tortoise cats lying in the sun.

The men on the porch sat down, looked at each other, looked at the yellow rope piled neat on the store shelves, glanced at the gun shells glinting shiny brass in their cartons, saw the silver pistols and long black metal shotguns hung high and quiet in the shadows. Somebody put a straw in his mouth, Someone else drew a figure in the dust.

Finally Samuel Teece held his empty shoe up in triumph, turned it over, stared at it, and said, ‘Did you notice? Right up to the very last, by God, he said “Mister”!’

Like The Other Foot, this is a really fierce, penetrating story and utterly unexpected in a book of otherwise quite hokey science fiction stories. It has a science fiction basis or trope, but is really all about earth and injustice in 1950. Even if you don’t like science fiction, you should give The Other Foot and this story a read, this one is the better, I think, because of the intensity with which it recreates the personality and psychology of its central character, the brute bigot Teece.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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