The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

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

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

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

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

A novel about a novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His beloved is so special

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Graham Greene paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the bourgeois novel

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

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

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

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two: Ireland and England

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

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

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

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

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

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

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

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

Dead prose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catastrophist

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

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

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Africa-related reviews

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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part two

I first read this book seven years ago and gave a reasonable summary of its content in a blog post.

Now I’m rereading it after reading three other books which cover at least part of the same subject matter, Frank McLynn’s Hearts of Darkness and Tim Jeal’s biography of Henry Morton Stanley and group biography of the five British explorers involved in the quest for the source of the river Nile. This blog post records impressions from reading Hochschild’s book second time round.

Leopold and Stanley

For a start, it’s quite a long time till the account of the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo Free State kicks in. The book has about 320 pages of text and it’s only around page 130 that we begin to hear about the increasingly rapacious organisation of the Congo state and its appalling police service, the Force Publique. In other words, nearly half the book consists of background and buildup. And this mostly consists of a lot of biographical material on the two central figures, King Leopold himself and the explorer Stanley.

Leopold

Leopold II’s childhood was lonely and cold: he had to make appointments to talk to either his father or mother, who didn’t care much for him, so the king grew up aloof, distant, socially maladroit and compensated by obsessing over the minutiae of royal protocol.

During the course of his researches Hochschild has obviously come to loathe Leopold and he clearly relishes dishing the dirt on him, revelling in the fact that the king was a regular visitor to a chain of high-class brothels which traded in young girls, some as young as 12, who were guaranteed virgins to be deflowered by the cream of British and continental society.

But what comes over in spades from Hochschild’s account is what a two-faced, calculating and cunning manipulator Leopold was of all around him, which included ambassadors from all the major nations as well as leading philanthropists. They all fell for his humanitarian rhetoric and pose of selflessness, but there is much more, Hochschild detailing the care with which Leopold and his fixers bribed and cajoled and pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians, journalists and missionaries, inviting them to his palace, flattering and smooth-talking them. When bad news started to leak out about the atrocities being carried out in his colony, Leopold’s techniques for managing the press and damage limitation would put a modern PR company to shame.

Stanley

But it’s the Stanley material which is more striking. Hochschild is accepts the ‘black legend’ of Henry Morton Stanley hook, line and sinker, giving the kind of relentlessly negative account which Tim Jeal set out to single-handedly overthrow in his epic biography. Hochschild takes at face value:

  • Stanley’s own accounts of the size of his expeditions and the number of personnel lost during them (which Jeal shows to both be exaggerations)
  • Stanley’s own accounts of his brutal punishments of deserters and thieves (which Jeal shows to the exceptions rather than the rule, and shows only took place on particular, unusual occasions)
  • the harsh criticism of Stanley by other explorers (which Jeal says were motivated by jealousy, for example Richard Burton’s rancorous envy) and by the British press (which Jeal said was animated by anti-Americanism)

Hochschild goes out of his way to claim that Stanley’s bad luck with a string of failed fiancées (getting engaged to several young women, then breaking it off when he disappeared into Africa for years) was a result of his pathological ‘fear of women’.

He returns to the theme half way through the book when he describes Stanley’s 1890 grand public wedding in Westminster Abbey in considerable detail, noting that Stanley was chronically ill on the day, had to be helped up the aisle, and spent the entire reception lying in a darkened room in agony from gastritis. Hochschild uses his wedding to write confidently about Stanley’s ‘craving for acceptance’ and ‘fear of intimacy’ before going on to repeat Frank McLynn’s speculation that Stanley’s marriage to the society painter Dorothy Tennant was never consummated because of the lifelong revulsion from sex he picked up during his miserable childhood in a public workhouse (p.151).

God, I’d hate to be famous for anything and know that before the earth is cold on my grave rival biographers would be picking over my relationship with my family and every single woman I ever went out with, speculating the character of my mum and dad, using bucket psychology to pin me with their tawdry labels, using every blog post, letter or diary entry I ever wrote to work up their cheap theories about my psychology and sex life. God. The poor victims of the modern biographer.

That it’s all complete speculation leaps out at you when Hochschild concedes that other biographers think that Stanley did consummate his marriage. Some do, some don’t. You might as well flip a coin.

And not only is this all utterly speculative bucket psychology but it’s all out of date, for when Hochschild describes McLynn as Stanley’s ‘most thorough biographer’ the reader realises his book was written before Tim Jeal’s epic biography of Stanley, which benefited from access to thousands of previously unexamined letters, journals and so on in the royal archives in Belgium and so is in a position to paint a much more subtle, nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Stanley the man.

I find it surreal beyond belief that a whole succession of grown men – professional academics and historians – have devoted so much mental energy to the issue of whether Henry Stanley’s erect penis ever entered Dorothy Tennant’s vagina. In the middle of a book about atrocities committed against millions of Africans this dogged speculation about Stanley’s sex life is bizarre beyond belief.

That Hochschild is simultaneously repelled and bored by Stanley is indicated by his dismissal of everything Stanley did with sardonic repetition:

  • Stanley’s usual two-volume thousand-page bestseller turned out to be only one of many books written about the Emin Pasha expedition…
  • Stanley threw his usual temper tantrums…
  • As always Stanley bungled his choice of subordinates…

But despite his strong anti-Stanley animus, Hochschild can’t directly implicate Stanley in any of the atrocities themselves. The opposite: he shows in some detail how Stanley was edged out of Leopold’s plans as the late 1880s turned into the 1890s, for a number of reasons. 1. Leopold knew Stanley was stroppy and opinionated and would be difficult to manage and manipulate, as he manipulated so many other world leaders, Belgian politicians, missionaries and journalists.

2. More importantly, France. As the 1880s progressed, it became increasingly important to Leopold to placate France, the imperial power which claimed most of the territory to the north of the Congo, represented by the charismatic explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Soon after completing his epic trek along the Congo in 1879, Stanley wrote letters and articles calling for Britain to take control of the Congo, a suggestion he repeated frequently, in public and which risked antagonising the delicate working relationship Leopold was forging with Paris.

The French were obsessed that Leopold’s amateur venture would collapse and that the hated British would then step in to run this huge area of central Africa and that this would amount to yet another slap in the face for the touchy Frogs.

Leopold managed to quell their anxieties for good by signing an agreement in law that if Belgian rule – and the companies he’d set up to manage it – collapsed, the French would legally have first dibs on the vacated territory. Not the hated British. The French were content with that and backed off, allowing Leopold to continue his plans his own way. But Stanley, far from being an accomplice of Leopold’s, represented a risk which is why the king kept him dangling on a retainer but never gave him the governorship he craved or any other significant work to do once the road was built by about 1884. Stanley was sidelined and out of the picture well before any of the atrocities began.

The post 9/11 perspective

As it happens I’m reading this book just after the Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021 and just as we all approach the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September.

King Leopold’s Ghost is littered with Hochschild’s easy sarcasm about Victorian Europe’s claims to be bringing ‘civilisation’ to barbarians, to want to set up schools for the natives, end the slave trade, create a transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Absolutely all of this reads very differently as I watch the TV footage of the last American planes leaving Kabul airport and of hundreds of locals desperately chasing after them as the West i.e. America abandons its attempt to bring civilisation to the locals, to set up schools, end the Taliban’s oppressive rule, improve the transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Hochschild writes with lofty American disdain for 1. the hypocrisy of the European colonial nations who claimed to be bringing ‘civilisation’ but instead brought only hard-headed commercial transactions and exploitation. 2. He says the Europeans rode roughshod over the native culture and the complex web of tribes and traditional political authority which covered the region in multiple complex forms. 3. And his central theme is how quickly so-called ‘enlightened intervention’ descended into barbarism and exploitation, as native uprisings prompted terrible crackdowns and massacres. His book reeks of smug condescension.

But every time he made another sarcastic comment about the discrepancy between the European colonialists’ high-toned claims of bringing ‘civilisation’ and the reality of the crude violence and exploitation they inflicted, I thought: Iraq War. 150,000 dead, at a minimum (Wikipedia). Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ including waterboarding. Extraordinary rendition i.e. kidnapping people and spiriting them away to permanent imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo Bay. The Sunni Insurgency. Improvised explosive devices. An entire nation plunged into violent anarchy for a generation, while a large percentage of the trillion or so dollars America allegedly spent on the country went straight into the pockets of American arms manufacturers and private  security contractors.

Americans show European colonialists how to bring civilisation and respect for human rights to a developing country

And I thought Afghanistan. $2 trillion spent. Vast amounts on training the local security forces to cope with insurgencies. 110,000 Afghans killed or injured, over 3,500 coalition deaths. As many as 30,000 American private contractors making a fortune out of government contracts. And in the end, what was it all for? The security forces which the allies spent hundreds of billions training collapsed like a pack of cards within days of the Americans leaving. And many locals had been permanently alienated from the West and its puppet government by random and unpunished American atrocities. How mass killings by US forces after 9/11 boosted support for the Taliban.

Not as easy as you thought, is it, going into a developing country, overthrowing its government and expecting the locals to love you.

When Stanley flogged members of his caravan who tried to desert or stole precious food supplies in the 1870s, he did it in an age when flogging was still a legal punishment in schools and in the army, such as the Confederate Army which Stanley served in during the American Civil War. When the Americans captured, imprisoned, tortured and waterboarded their Iraqi suspects in the 2000s they were doing it sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to have abolished such practices for ever.

The Wikipedia article about extraordinary rendition quotes former CIA case officer Bob Baer saying:

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.’

This is the mindset of the greatest military force the world has ever seen as it extended its grasp, overt or covert, across the Arab world after 9/11: kidnap, torture, murder and massacre.

All of this was being raked over on the TV and in newspapers and magazines day after day at the exact moment I was reading Hochschild telling me how wicked and hypocritical the nineteenth century European colonisers were, how bigoted against the Arabs, how quick to extreme violence, how hypocritical in cloaking their real commercial motives under high-sounding rhetoric.

While all around me the serious British media were reflecting on 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Which Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim nations have not benefited from the carefully planned and skillfully executed interventions of peace-loving America?

In this respect, Hochschild’s book is a good example of the hubris shown by so many contemporary historians who feel free to glibly patronise people in the past and point out their manifold failings on the assumption that we, in our super-digital 21st century, are oh-so-morally superior to our ancestors. But are we?

And it’s all the more vexatious when the historian patronising European colonialists for their wretched interventions in developing countries is an American, writing from amid the ruins of American foreign policy and the beacon of enlightened democracy which was the Trump administration.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

‘Arab’ slave traders?

Hochschild also deploys his trademark sarcasm whenever the subject of ‘Arab’ slave traders comes up. Unlike the McLynn and Jeal books, and all the passages about the wickedness of the Arab slave trade they quote from the writings of Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley – Hochschild goes out of his way to assert that hardly any of the slave traders were, in fact, Arab. He claims most were ‘Afro-Arab’ at best, ‘Swahili-speaking Africans’ who adopted Arab dress and Islam but ‘only some of them were of partly Arab descent’ (p.28).

Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious ‘Arab’ slavers – and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonised by someone other than Europeans. (p.28)

Note the tell-tale sarcastic swipe at European amour propre in the final sentence. Anyway, this assertion is completely contrary to everything I’ve read in the other books on the subject.

1. Consider the most famous slaver of the era, Tippu Tip. According to Wikipedia:

Tippu Tip, or Tippu Tib (1832 to 1905), real name Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī (Arabic: حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎), was an Afro-Arab ivory and slave trader, explorer, governor and plantation owner…His father and paternal grandfather were coastal Arabs of the Swahili Coast who had taken part in the earliest trading expeditions to the interior. His paternal great-grandmother, wife of Rajab bin Mohammed bin Said el Murgebi, was the daughter of Juma bin Mohammed el Nebhani, a member of a respected Muscat (Oman) family, and a Bantu woman from the village of Mbwa Maji, a small village south of what would later become the German capital of Dar es Salaam.

So Tippu had a soupçon of African blood in an otherwise solidly Arab geneology.

2. Zanzibar became the centre of the East African slave trade when it was annexed by pureblood Arabs:

In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town [on Zanzibar]. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession…Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. (Wikipedia)

3. Or take the famous massacre of some 400 Congolese women and children at the village of Nyangwe the river Lualaba which Livingstone witnessed on 15 July 1871. This was carried out by armed men at the command of the notorious Arab slaver Dugumbé ben Habib.

Hochschild may have germs of truth in that some or many of the slave traders might have had African blood. But all the accounts I’ve read and the three salient facts I’ve just quoted tend to confirm that the majority of the trade was solidly in the hand of Muslim Arabs, Arabs who, moreover, I’ve read quotes from saying how much they despised Africans, how Africans’ live meant nothing until they could be sold in the slave markets of Zanzibar, and scores of accounts of Arab slave caravan captains shooting, tying to trees or burning alive slaves too sick to make the long trek from the villages where they were captured to the coast.

So why does Hochschild go out of his way to make his claim that the Arab slave traders weren’t really Arabs and for the rest of the book refer to ‘Arab’ slave traders in quote marks? Because it allows him one more way of slagging off the European nations and the ‘white man’. The tendency of his sarcastic comments is that Britain’s anti-slavery rhetoric was a hollow sham dressing up the fact that it allowed the white man to indulge his anti-Islamic bigotry. It justified rampant Islamophobia. Of those wicked wicked nineteenth century Europeans!

a) This is so contrary to the quotes from Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and even Baker that depict in great detail the genuinely evil ways of what all the witnesses unanimously agree was the Arab slave trade that it comes over as a slightly ludicrous twisting of the facts to fit Californian Hochschild’s anti-European bias. Livingstone really was disgusted and appalled by the wickedness of the slave traders, he wrote heartfelt letters back to England saying something must be done to save the Africans, and this prompted thousands of brave missionaries and educators to set off for darkest Africa to set up schools and guilted the British government into doing more to crack down on slavery, including forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to close down its famous slave market.

b) His claim of anti-Arab bigotry sits oddly with the evidence that most of the British explorers and later colonial administrators were biased in favour of Arabs. Richard Burton spoke Arabic and admired the Arabs for their culture and religion, as did Samuel Baker, as did Sir Harold MacMichael, administrator of Sudan in the 1920s who respected the Arabs in the north and despised the Africans of the south – all part of a strand of pro-Arab British feeling which continued down to Lawrence of Arabia and bedevilled British attempts to manage their inter-war mandate in Palestine.

c) Hochschild’s defence of – by implication – the innocent ‘Arabs’ so horribly wronged in European accounts of the region reads very amusingly in a post-9/11 world, particularly in the early years after 2001 when you could read some very ripe comments from previously liberal and progressive American commentators about Arabs and Islam. Nothing any Victorian author wrote about Islam was as vitriolic as the opinions of scores of Yankee commentators after the twin towers were bombed.

Overall it now reads like rich, fat hypocrisy for Hochschild to accuse the late Victorians of dressing up commercially-motivated imperialism under anti-Islamic rhetoric, given everything which his country has done in Iraq and Afghanistan over the 20 years following 9/11.

George Washington Williams (1849 to 1891)

Williams was a rare example of a free black man in nineteenth century America who made his mark in an impressive variety of professions and ended up hobnobbing with the president. During his 41 year life Williams managed to serve as a soldier in the American Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer.

He appears in this narrative because during the late 1880s he developed a plan for returning Afro-Americans who were suffering under the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of the American South back to Africa. The publicity surrounding the great philanthropist Leopold’s plans for the Congo spurred Williams to make the pilgrimage to Brussels (funding himself by contracting to write travel articles for an American magazine) for an audience with the great humanitarian himself who was, as usual, all smooth words and assurances.

So Williams then sailed on to the Congo which he travelled up slowly, taking extensive notes. What he saw shocked and horrified him. Scene after scene of violence, brutality and corruption. Many of the Congolese had been reduced to the level of slaves, whipped with the notorious chicotte and brutally intimidated into collecting what was, at that point, the colony’s key export, ivory.

From Stanley Falls Williams wrote ‘An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo’ in July 1890. Hochschild says it gave a good summary of the methods of exploitation and slave labour the Belgians were already using, as well as laying down the framework of criticism which was to be used by all later campaigners: that everything was done in the king’s name and so he was completely responsible for the mass mutilations and murders. Williams called for an international commission to investigate.

His letter was published as a pamphlet and caused a furore (p.112). Hochschild shows how Leopold set his tame pets in the press and positions of power to rubbish all the accusations. Travelling back to Europe up the Nile, Williams became ill in Cairo, and managed to get as far as Blackpool in north-west England where he died on August 2, 1891, aged 41. By that time over 1,000 Europeans had visited and worked in the Congo but Williams was the only one with the guts, and morality, to be horrified and tell the truth.

And he was, contrary to Hochschild’s sarcasms about the hypocrisy of the Western Christian concern for the African, a Western Christian, a devout and earnest Baptist, for it was Protestant missionaries who were to provide most of the testimony and evidence for the global campaign against Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo which I will describe in my next blog post.

Notes and details

I’d forgotten that after the Mahdi and his army of Islamic fundamentalists took Khartoum (in January 1885), killed General Gordon and massacred the city’s army garrison and civilian population, he went on to rule the city and region uninterrupted for the next 12 years. And that – here’s the thing – soon after the conquest, the Mahdi sent a message to Queen Victoria demanding that she come to the Sudan, convert to Islam and submit to his rule (p.97).

Now that is a counter-factual scenario worth imagining! I’d love to see a painting in the realist late-Victorian style of a fat Queen Victoria kneeling and bending her forehead right down to the ground before the magnificently robed Mahdi who graciously accepts the obeisance of the queen-empress and the conversion of all her peoples to the True Religion.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

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Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

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Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 2

…his view that suffering is the norm of human life, that will represents an unwelcome intrusion, and that real consciousness lies beyond human understanding
(Knowlson summarising how Beckett found his deepest beliefs reinforced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, page 268)

This is a truly excellent literary biography. Knowlson documents Beckett’s life with immense thoroughness but shows a completely sure touch, a very satisfying sense of taste and tact throughout, not only regarding the complexities of Beckett’s private life (a lifelong companion and a small cadre of mistresses) but in tracing the sources and gestation of his many works, and lightly, intelligently bringing out their important aspects.

I summarised the first third of the book, up to the 1930s, in my last blog post. But that only covered 200 of the Damned To Fame‘s 700 or so pages and, as I tried to summarise the rest, I found there was simply too much material, it was overwhelming.

And so I abandoned a chronological summary in favour of looking at topics from Beckett’s life and works, some big and serious, others short and frivolous, as the fancy took me, to create a mosaic or collage of a review.

Affairs of the heart

Ethna MacCarthy Beckett was a slow starter, which was traditional for his time and place (1920s Ireland). As a tall but timid student at Trinity College, Dublin, he fell in love with Ethna MacCarthy, also studying modern languages, a strong, independent-minded feminist (p.58 to 60). He was swept off his feet by her intelligence and charisma but she had plenty of other admirers and it emerged she was having an affair with an older man, a married college professor (plus ça change…). A few years later, just before he quit his job at Trinity College, Dublin and left Ireland for the last time, he took Ethna for a night out in his car and, whether drunk or showing off, crashed it down at the docks, escaping with bruises himself but seriously injuring Ethna who had to be taken to hospital. The guilt never left him (p.143).

They kept in touch and remained good friends though Beckett was discombobulated when she embarked on a long affair with one of his best friends from college, Con Leventhal (even though Con was married). This affair continued until Con’s wife died, in 1956, at which point he immediately married Ethna. But fulfilment turned to tragedy when she was stricken with cancer and died in 1959. Beckett remained close friends with both of them.

Later on, we are told that the happy memories of love which haunt Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape are likely reworkings of his memories of Ethna.

Peggy Sinclair In summer 1928, having returned home after having graduated from Trinity College Dublin and a brief abortive spell as a teacher at a boarding school in the North, Beckett returned to Dublin and fell deeply in love with his second cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, generally referred to as Peggy, daughter of his aunt Cissie and the Jewish art dealer William ‘Boss’ Sinclair with whom she had moved to the town of Kassel in north Germany. Peggy was only 17 and on her first visit to Ireland. 22-year-old Sam drove her around in his dinky sports car, took her to galleries and the theatre, she was overawed. After a few months she returned to her parents in Germany, but they exchanged letters, he visited her in Kassel a few times over the coming years, and when she went to dance  school in Austria (in Laxenberg, south of Vienna, pages 83 to 86), visited her there, too, all this despite the very strong disapproval of Beckett’s parents for whom 1. Boss’s notorious poverty 2. Boss’s Jewishness 3. the fact Sam and Peg were cousins, all resulted in strong opposition to the relationship. He visited Kassel quite a few more times over the coming years, although the affair with Peggy came to an end and she became engaged to another man. But Beckett was devastated when she died terribly young of tuberculosis in May 1933.

Lucia Joyce When Beckett took up the post of exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, his predecessor Tom MacGreevey introduced him to James Joyce and his circle in February 1928. This included Joyce’s wife, Nora, son, Giorgio, and daughter Lucia. Born in 1907, so just a year younger than Beckett, she was clever, creative and wilful and fell in love with the tall, quiet Irishman whom her father used as a secretary and assistant. She asked him to take her out for meals, for walks and so on and generally hoped they would fall in love. She was slender and had some training as a dancer. According to Beckett, even at this stage, she was bulimic (p.150). When it became clear Beckett wasn’t interested, Lucia accused him to her parents of leading her on. Nora never liked Beckett, had taken against him, and Lucia’s accusation was all it took to force Joyce to drop Beckett, much to the latter’s devastation (pages 103 to 105). Later Lucia was to suffer a mental breakdown into irreparable mental illness. Beckett, reconciled with Joyce at the start of 1932 (p.156), went on to watch his mentor devote huge energy and money to trying to find a cure which, slowly, friends and family realised would never work.

Mary Manning Howe In summer 1936, back in Dublin staying at the family home, after failing to get an affair going with a woman named Betty Stockton, Beckett had a brief whirlwind sexual affair with a friend since childhood, the now married Mary Manning Howe (p.229).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil While in hospital after being stabbed in Paris in January 1937, he was visited by Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and a friendship slowly grew which was to become the key relationship of his life. She was austere, intellectual, puritanical – not unlike his mother in many respects, although maybe not insofar as, being a good post-war French intellectual, she was a fervent communist. Profile of her character page 296.

Suzanne shared with Beckett their panic flight from Paris after the initial Nazi invasion in 1940 (pages 297 to 302). Then, when they returned, the risks of his life as an operative for the Resistance until they were forced to flee Paris a second time when their cell was betrayed August 1942, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

In the bleak post-war period she doggedly supported his writing and hawked his manuscripts from publisher to publisher. Despite his many infidelities to her, in the conversation with Knowlson at the end of his life, Beckett repeated that he owed her ‘everything’ (p.473).

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 to 1979) At the time the relationship with Suzanne began, Beckett was involved in a passionate affair with heiress Peggy Guggenheim who was madly in love with him and nicknamed him ‘Oblomov’. The mismatch between the super-rich socialite heiress and the frugal, moody Irish intellectual is amusingly detailed by Knowlson, pages 281 to 288. She was obsessed with him for a good year, although Knowlson suspects Beckett mainly kept things going because of the influence she could bring to bear on promoting his artist friends such as Geer van Velde.

Pamela Mitchell 32-year-old American working for Beckett’s American publisher, arrived in Paris to meet with Beckett in September 1953 to discuss rights and editions. He showed her the town and they had a brief fling, with follow-up letters after she returned to New York and further visits and meetings until January 1955 (pages 398 to 403).

Barbara Bray (1924 to 2010) In 1957, on a trip to London to supervise the premiere of Endgame and the radio production of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett met Barbara Bray, 18 years his junior, a widow with two small children, who had been working as a script editor for the BBC Third Programme. Knowlson writes:

She was small and attractive, but, above all, keenly intelligent and well-read. Beckett seems to have been immediately attracted by her and she to him. Their encounter was highly significant for them both, for it represented the beginning of a relationship that was to last, in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life. (p.458)

In 1961 Bray quit her job in London and moved to Paris, taking an apartment in the Rue Séguier where Beckett regularly visited her. She had a piano. He played Schubert, Haydn or Beethoven on it (p.595). He routinely visited her, she came to see him on his trips directing abroad, they were in most respects an item for the rest of his life. Which is interesting because he continued to live with Suzanne and go with her on increasing numbers of foreign holidays which Knowlson describes in winning detail (Lake Como, Sardinia, Tunisia, Morocco, the Canaries).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil part 2 When Bray announced in 1961 that she was packing in her career with the BBC in London and moving to Paris, Beckett’s reaction was unusual. He promptly married Déchevaux-Dumesnil in March 1961 in a civil ceremony in Folkestone (pages 480 to 484). This was ostensibly to ensure that, if he predeceased her, Déchevaux-Dumesnil would inherit the rights to his work, because there was no common-law marriage under French law – but maybe also because he wanted to affirm his primary loyalty to her. But as soon as they were back in Paris he went to visit Barbara and spend much of his free time with her. Barbara outlived Sam and Suzanne (who both died in 1989) only passing away, in Edinburgh, in February 2010.

There appear to have been other, more fleeting dalliances: Jacoba van Velde, older than Beckett, literary agent and novelist (p.519). Mira Averech attractive young journalist, who interviewed him (p.553).

The BBC

The BBC played a key role in commissioning and producing and broadcasting Beckett’s work to a vastly wider audience than it would have reached via the theatre alone. The second half of Knowlson’s book is stuffed with accounts of commissions and productions overseen by Donald MacWhinnie, radio director and then director of TV drama, Head of BBC Radio Drama 1963 to 1977 Martin Esslin. In other words, Beckett had very powerful supporters within the national broadcaster, who supported him at every step of his career. There’s a book on the subject. Its blurb states:

This book is the first sustained examination of Samuel Beckett’s pivotal engagements with post-war BBC radio. The BBC acted as a key interpreter and promoter of Beckett’s work during this crucial period of his ‘getting known’ in the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 1960s, especially through the culturally ambitious Third Programme, but also by the intermediary of the house magazine, The Listener. The BBC ensured a sizeable but also informed reception for Beckett’s radio plays and various ‘adaptations’ (including his stage plays, prose, and even poetry); the audience that Beckett’s works reached by radio almost certainly exceeded in size his readership or theatre audiences at the time.

Beach

As a boy Beckett went on summer holidays with his parents to Greystones, a seaside resort village just down the coast from Dublin, complete with fishermen, cliffs and a pebbly beach. He played with his brother but also spent hours skimming stones across the waves or staring out to sea. Beaches and the sound of the sea figure heavily in works like Embers and Cascando and the protagonist of Molloy famously spends a couple of pages working out which order to suck a collection of 16 pebbles he’s gathered from the beach (p.28).

Beckett, the surname

Beckett is originally a French name. The family are descended from French Huguenots who fled persecution in the 18th century, first to England and then on to Dublin (p.6) – a fact which adds colour to:

  1. the way Beckett subsequently returned to live in France
  2. the several of his texts which are ‘about’ refugees, namely Lessness (p.564)

Breath

Beckett’s fury at Kenneth Tynan for letting the super-short, absurdist theatre piece, Breath, which he contributed as a personal favour to Tynan’s ‘ground-breaking’ 1969 extravaganza, Oh Calcutta!, be festooned with naked actors, and then going on to print his name in the published script opposite photos of the naked men cavorting onstage during the production. He owed Tynan a big debt of gratitude for writing a rave review of the first English production of Waiting For Godot which helped turn critical opinion in its favour back in 1953. But his behaviour over Breath infuriated Beckett who called Tynan a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheat’ (pages 565 to 566).

Censorship

Lifelong opponent of censorship, whether it was the Irish Free State banning Joyce in the 1920s, the Nazis banning Jewish and degenerate art in the 1930s, or the British Lord Chamberlain insisting on stupid edits to his plays before they could be performed in London in the 1950s and 60s. He banned his own works from being performed in apartheid South Africa, and publicly supported writers suffering from state censorship or persecution.

Chess

Beckett was a serious chess player (p.9). He was taught to play by his brother Frank, and then learned more from his Uncle Howard who once beat the reigning world champion, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, when the latter visited Dublin. He was a noted chess player at his private school (p.43). He inherited a Staunton chess set from his father (p.627).

His first published story, Assumption, contains allusions to chess. Murphy plays a game of chess against the mental patient Mr Endon in Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (p.210). In fact Beckett really wanted the cover of Murphy to be a photo he’d seen of two apes playing chess (p.293).

Later in life Beckett played against Marcel Duchamp (p.289), he played against his friend the painter Henri Hayden, when the latter came to live in a village near Beckett’s rural retreat. Beckett built up a large collection of chess books, many given as gifts by friends who knew his interest or on sets like the magnetised chess set given to him by the artist Avigdor Arikha (p.595). When ill or isolated at his country bungalow at Ussy, he played against himself or played through famous games of the grandmasters.

Damned to fame

At first glance this seems like a melodramatic title, but it’s a quotation, from Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic comic poem, The Dunciad, whose subject is the fantastic lengths utterly talentless writers will go to to become famous. The short phrase thus contains multiple ironies, and Beckett used it of himself with maximum irony (p.644), and again (p.672).

Drinking

Teetotal as a youth and student, discovered alcohol in Paris and never looked back. In adult life, especially socialising in Paris, he often became drunk in the evening. Knowlson details numerous evenings of hard drinking with certain cronies, notably the two Irishmen Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Suzanne hated his drinking: she had to cope with him rolling home in the early hours, disturbing her sleep, his late start the next morning, and resultant bad mood and depression.

Favourite dish

Mackerel (p.416).

Finney, Albert

Finney was cast in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court in 1972. He was completely miscast and Beckett found it hard to hide his boredom and impatience, at one point falling asleep. The more Finney tried his full range of colours and emotions the more impatient Beckett became. At one point, with unusual bluntness, Beckett held up his little finger and declared there was more poetry in it than in Finney’s entire body (p.596).

Foxrock

Village south of Dublin where, in 1902, William Beckett bought some land and had a family house built for him and his wife, Maria Jones Roe (widely known as May), named it ‘Cooldrinagh’, where Sam’s older brother, Frank, was born in 1902, and where Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906. He was named Samuel after his maternal grandfather. According to Knowlson, nobody alive knows where his middle name came from. The house was named Cooldrinagh after the family home of Beckett’s mother, May, which was named Cooldrinagh House. The name is from the Gaelic and means ‘ back of the blackthorn hedge’ (p.3). There was an acre of land, a summerhouse, a double garage and outbuildings (p.14).

French

Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because — as he himself claimed — it was easier for him thus to write ‘without style’. English had become overcrowded with allusions and memories. He had experimentally written a few poems in French before the war, but it was only on his return to post-War Paris that he began to write in French prose.

By adopting another language, he gained a greater simplicity and objectivity. French offered him the freedom to concentrate on a more direct expression of the search for ‘being’ and on an exploration of ignorance, impotence and indigence. (p.357)

However, this had an unintended consequence which becomes abundantly clear as Knowlson’s book progresses into the 1950s and Beckett acquires more writing in either French or English, which is the effort required by translating his work from one language to the other. Knowlson quotes countless letters in which Beckett complains to friends about having to translate monster texts such as L’Innomable or Mercier et Camier from French into English.

He in effect gave himself twice the labour of an ordinary writer who sticks to just one language.

This explains the complexity of a timeline of Beckett publications because very often there is a lag, sometimes a significant lag, between the publication of a work in French (or English) and then of its translation into the other language, which makes his publishing record complex and sometimes pretty confusing. And then there was German.  Beckett took it on himself to translate, or at least supervise translations, of all his plays into German scripts. The biography brings home how this turned out to be a vast burden.

Generosity

Legendary. ‘Few writers have distributed their cash with as much liberality as Beckett’ (p.603). Knowlson quotes Claude Jamet’s story of being in a bar with Beckett when a tramp asked him for his coat and Beckett simply took it off and handed it over, without even checking the pockets! (p.408). Jack Emery met him in La Coupole bar and watched as a beggar approached Beckett with a tray of shabby postcards and Beckett promptly bought the lot (p.642). He gave money and support without stint to almost anyone who asked for it. He supported actor Jack MacGowran’s family after he died, and numerous relatives after spouses died. He gave away most of the money from the Nobel Prize, supporting friends and relatives in times of grief and difficulty.

An outstanding example of this is the support Beckett gave to an American convict, Rick Cluchey, serving time in San Quentin gaol, California, for robbery and murder. In prison, Cluchey became a changed man, who read widely and began to direct and act in plays. He wrote to Beckett asking permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot, and this was the start of a friendship which lasted the rest of his life, as Cluchey, once released on probation,  put on further Beckett productions, securing the great man’s artistic and financial aid (p.611, 613).

Late in life his friends worried that Beckett was a soft touch. He was unable to refuse requests for help

Germany

In September 1937 Beckett left for what turned into a seven-month trip to Germany. It is possibly a scoop for this biography (I don’t know, I haven’t read the others) that Knowlson has obtained access to the detailed diary Beckett kept of this seven-month cultural jaunt which saw him tour the great cultural centres of Germany, and so is in a position to give us a day-by-day account of the visit, which is almost all about art. Beckett systematically visited the great art galleries of Germany, public and private, as well as getting to know a number of German (and Dutch) artists personally. As well as experiencing at first hand the impact on individual artists, of galleries and ordinary people of Nazi repression. He loathed and despised the Nazis and is quoted quite a few times mocking and ridiculing the Nazi leaders (pages 230 to 261).

Ghosts

At one point I thought I’d spotted that Beckett’s use of memories, of voices and characters from the past amounted to ghost stories, shivers. But then they kept on coming, one entire play is named Ghost Trio and the ghost theme rises to a kind of climax in A Piece of Monologue:

and head rests on wall. But no. Stock still head naught staring beyond. Nothing stirring. Faintly stirring. Thirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost … he all but said ghost loved ones…

When Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls (1976) he told her to make the third section ‘ghostly’ (p.624). In other words, everyone and their mother has been well aware for decades that Beckett’s final period can is largely defined by his interest in ghosts, ghostly memories, apparition, and voices from beyond the grave (as in What Where).

Maybe the only contribution I can make is to point out that it’s not just the style and presentation of many of the later plays which brings to mind ghosts and faint presences, but there’s a sense in which much of the actual content is very old. What I mean is that about ten of Beckett’s total of 19 plays date from the 1970s and 80s – out in the real world we had fast cars, speedboats, supersonic jets, ocean liners and rockets flying to the moon, but you’d never have known it from Beckett’s plays. In those plays an ageing man listens to memories of himself as a boy in rural Ireland (That Time), an ageing woman paces the floor ridden by memories of herself in rural Ireland (Footfalls), an old man alone in a room waits for a message from his lost love (Ghost Trio), an ageing man remembers walking the back roads while he waits for the appearance of his lost love (…but the clouds…), an ageing man remembers back to his parents and funerals in rural Ireland (A Piece of Monologue), an ageing woman sits in a rocking chair remembering how her old mother died (Rockaby), an ageing man sits in a room listening to a doppelgänger read about his younger life (Ohio Impromptu), an autocratic director poses an old man on a stage (Catastrophe).

My point is that although the form of all these plays was radically experimental and inventive, often staggeringly so, the actual verbal and image content of most of the late works is very old, Edwardian or late Victorian, ghostly memories of a world that vanished long ago, 50 or 60 years before the plays were first performed. Hence the widespread sense that Beckett was the ‘last of his kind’, emblem of a vanished generation (hence the title of Isaac Cronin’s biography, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist). It was because the actual content of almost all the later plays and prose more or less ignores every technological advance of the 20th century in favour of memories of trudging round rural back roads, walking hand in hand with his father, walking along a riverbank, of a small girl struck dumb till she became uncontrollably voluble (Rockaby), of dismal rainy rural funerals. Watching A Piece of a Monologue again, I am struck by how the central action is lighting an old-style lantern by fiddling with the wick, chimney and shade. All of this stuff could straight from the time of Thomas Hardy.

Illness

For someone so phenomenally sporty (rugby, cricket, swimming, long distance running, boxing and motorbike racing) Beckett was frequently ill. As a boy he suffered from night anxiety and as an undergraduate from insomnia combined with night sweats and a racing heart (p.64). He was knocked out one term by a bout of pneumonia (p.63). On his first return from Paris in 1930 he presented his parents with the sight of a young man stricken by a rash on his face and scalp (p.118).

  • May 1931 struck down with a case of pleurisy (p.130).
  • a painful cyst that developed on his neck required an operation in December 1932 (p.166)
  • May 1933 the same cyst had to be treated again (p.168)
  • July 1933 an abscess on his palm needed treating. Following the death of his father he developed night sweats and panic attacks (p.172)
  • August 1934 acute abdominal paints (p.185)
  • throughout 1935 the night sweats and heart which had triggered his psychotherapy persisted (p.200). Knowlson points out that Beckett gives the antihero of his first novel, Murphy, a vivid description of these heart problems (p.215)
  • Christmas 1935 bed-ridden with an attack of pleurisy (p.222)
  • 1936 on his German trip he developed a painfully festering finger and thumb (p.241)
  • January 1937, still in Germany, a lump developed on his scrotum that became so painful he was confined to bed (p.243)
  • September 1937 confined to bed with gastric flu
  • 1946 cyst lanced and drained (p.366)
  • 1947 abscess in his mouth and tooth problems (p.366)
  • August 1950 takes to his bed with a high temperature and raging toothache (p.380)
  • 1956 several teeth removed and bridges built (p.438)
  • 1957 abscess in the roof of his mouth (p.438)
  • 1958 persistent insomnia (p.456)
  • June 1959 bad attack of bronchial flu; exacerbation of the intra-osseous cyst in his upper jaw (p.464)
  • November 1964 operation on the abscess in the roof of his mouth, creating a hole into his nose (p.530)
  • July 1965 surgical graft to close the hole in the roof of his mouth (p.535)
  • 1965 extraction of numerous teeth and creation of a dental plate (p.535)
  • April 1966 diagnosis of double cataracts (p.540)
  • 1967 treatments for cataracts included eye drops, suppositories and homeopathic remedies (p.547)
  • February 1967 fell into the garage pit at a local garage and fractured several ribs (p.547)
  • April 1968 severe abscess on the lung, which had been making him breathless and weak, required prolonged treatment (p.558)
  • end 1970 – February 1971 operations on the cataracts in his left and right eye (pages 579 to 581)
  • April 1971 nasty bout of viral flu (p.582)
  • 1971 periodic bouts of lumbago (p.587)
  • November 1972 has eight teeth extracted and impressions made for dental plates (p.596)
  • 1970s – continued depression, enlarged prostate (p.645)
  • 1980 muscular contraction of the hand diagnosed as Dupuytren’s Contracture (p.660 and 679)
  • April 1984 bedbound with a bad viral infection (p.696)

Illustrated editions

An aspect of Beckett’s lifelong interest in art was the way many of his later texts, for all the lack of colour and description in the prose, turned out to be tremendously inspirational for a whole range of artists, who created illustrations for them. The volume of Collected Shorter prose gives an impressive list indicating the extensive nature of this overlooked aspect of the work.

  • All Strange Away, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1976)
  • Au loin un oiseau, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1973)
  • Bing, with illustrations by H. M. Erhardt (1970) Erhardt also produced illustrations for Manus Presse of Act Without Words I and II (1965), Come and Go (1968), and Watt (1971)
  • Foirades/Fizzles, with etchings by Jasper Johns (1976)
  • From an Abandoned Work, with illustrations by Max Ernst (1969)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine, with illustrations by Sorel Etrog (1977)
  • L’Issue, with six original engravings by Avigdor Arikha (1968)
  • The Lost Ones, with illustrations by Charles Klabunde (1984)
  • The Lost Ones, illustrated by Philippe Weisbecker, Evergreen Review, No. 96 (Spring 1973)
  • The North, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1972)
  • Séjour, with engravings by Louis Maccard from the original drawings by Jean Deyrolle (1970)
  • Still, with etchings by William Hayter (1974)
  • Stirrings Still, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (1988)
  • Stories and Texts for Nothing, with drawings by Avigdor Arikha (1967)
  • Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman (1989)

Interpretations, dislike of

One of Billie Whitelaw’s great appeals as an actress to Beckett was that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose. It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and how Richardson was comically disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

In a similar vein, Knowlson quotes his exasperated response when Beckett went through the reviews of the English production of Godot, saying:

he was tired of the whole thing and the endless misunderstanding. ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I don’t understand.’ (quoted page 416)

Repeatedly actors asked for more information about their characters and their motivations, but Beckett politely but firmly repeated his mantra:

I only know what’s on the page (p.513)

It’s ironic because Beckett of all people should have known why everyone who came into contact with his texts would waste vast amounts of time searching for sub-texts, symbolism, allegory, and a universe of extra meaning. Because simply taking things at face value is one of the things human beings are useless at. Making up all kinds of extravagant meanings and elaborate theories is what humans excel at.

Intrusive narrator and Henry Fielding

There’s a great deal to be said on this subject because lots of the prose works involve not only an intrusive narrator but multiple narrators and narratives which collapse amid a failure of narrative altogether. But one detail stuck out for me from Knowlson’s biography, which is the direct influence of the eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding. If you read Fielding’s shorter comic novel Joseph Andrews (1742) and his epic comic novel, Tom Jones (1749) you find that the narrator is a very active participant, not only describing events but giving a running commentary on them, moralising and judging and reminding us of previous events or warning of events to come. Once you get used to the 18th century style, this can be very funny. Obviously Beckett brings a completely different sensibility and a highly Modernist approach to what is more a ‘disintegrating narrator’. Still, it is fascinating to read in Knowlson that he specifically cites Fielding as showing just how interactive and interfering a narrator can be in his own text. It is August 1932 and Beckett has returned from Paris to the family home outside Dublin where he immerses himself in reading:

One of the most significant items on his reading list was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews… He probably learned a lot from Fielding’s novels (for he went on to read Tom Jones) while he was writing the stories of More Pricks Than Kicks. This influence can still be detected in Murphy and continued even into the postwar novel trilogy. It can be seen in what he described as ‘the giving away of the show pari passu with the show’, in a balance and an elaborateness of phrase, and…in the playful pr ironic comments of a self-conscious narrator who makes regular intrusions into the text of his narrative. (page 165)

Ireland

There’s a lot of scope to discuss Beckett’s Irishness, how ‘Irish’ his own personality was, and his characters and his creations, but I don’t feel qualified to comment either way. Knowlson occasionally mentions Beckett’s love of the Irish countryside but only rarely addresses the subject of Beckett’s ‘Irishness’. Three aspects of the issue interested me:

1. Protestant Beckett wasn’t Catholic Irish, like James Joyce and the majority of the population. He was a Protestant, his mother was a God-fearing believer who took him to church every Sunday, and the private school he went to was redolent of strict Protestant teaching. It’s arguable that, although he lost his faith, Beckett retained this strict, almost Puritan turn of mind, in both his lifestyle, which was very spartan and simple, and, of course, in the unromantic, tough, self-punishing nature of his works.

2. Irish Partition I was surprised that Knowlson made so little of the partition of Ireland and the year-long civil war that followed 1921 to 1922. Beckett was born and raised in a suburb of Dublin, where his mother and brother continued to live, but the private secondary school he attended was in what became, while he was still attending it, part of Northern Ireland. The war was a long, drawn-out and very traumatic experience for the nation, but Knowlson barely mentions it and it seems to have had no impact on Beckett, which seems hard to believe. The entire subject of Irish nationalism is conspicuous by its absence.

3. Rejection of Ireland Again, it is underplayed in Knowlson’s book, but reading between the lines, it appears that some Irish considered Beckett moving to Paris in October 1937 and his continued living there was a studied rejection of his home country, a rejection he repeated at key moments of his career. Certainly Beckett, driven to exasperation by a lack of money, job, prospects, any success as a writer and the nagging of his mother to get a job, finally and decisively quit Ireland in September 1937 to make a permanent home in Paris. Knowlson says Beckett found Ireland too ‘narrow-minded and parochial’. He wrote to his old schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, that the move to Paris was like being let out of gaol (p.274). Ironically, only a few weeks after emigrating, Beckett was recalled to Dublin to act as a witness in a libel case brought against a book which appeared to lampoon his beloved Uncle, ‘Boss’ Sinclair, and was subjected to a fierce cross-questioning by the defending QC which raised the subject of Beckett’s ‘immoral’ writings in order to question his credibility. This gruelling experience set the seal on Beckett’s rejection of his homeland:

His remarks about Ireland became more and more vituperative after his return to Paris, as he lambasted its censorship, its bigotry and its narrow-minded attitudes to both sex and religion from which he felt he’d suffered. (p.280).

The theme recurs when Beckett himself imposed a ban on his works being performed in Ireland: In 1958, upon hearing that Archbishop John McQuaid had intervened in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme, forcing the organisers to withdraw a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses as well as Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, Beckett responded by cancelling his permission for the Pike Theatre to perform his mimes and All That Fall at the festival.

The theme recurs again in the context of Beckett being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 because, super-reluctant to attend the award ceremony himself, instead of asking the Irish Ambassador to accept it, according to the convention whereby a demurring author is represented by his country’s ambassador, Beckett instead nominated his long-standing and loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572). It was a typical gesture of friendship and personal loyalty but some Irish commentators took it as a calculated slight to his homeland.

So, just like his hero James Joyce before him, Beckett had a complex love-hate relationship with his homeland. Irish emigré Peter Lennon spent time with Beckett and recalls:

The sense of Ireland was strong in him, there was a subterranean emotional involvement… [but he also] despised the ethos of the place. (quoted page 490)

Mind you this argument is countered by the fact that, of all the honorary degrees he was offered during his lifetime, the only one he accepted was from his old alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, which he flew back to in order to receive an honorary D.Litt. degree on 2 July 1959 (pages 469 to 470).

Keaton, Buster

In the early 1960s Beckett developed a treatment for a short silent film to be shot with American collaborators. As a boy Beckett had loved the classic silent movies of Charlie Chaplin et al so the American producers approached a number of the greats, including Chaplin, Zero Mostel, Beckett’s friend MacGowran, but they had other commitments or weren’t interested.

Thus it was that they came to invite the legendary Buster Keaton, who delighted everyone by agreeing. Knowlson points out how the pair had a secret artistic affinity, a Keaton movie like Go West featuring a protagonist named Friendless, who is all alone in the world – closely related to Beckett’s worldview (p.54).

However, the actual meeting between Beckett and Keaton was a famous disaster, with Beckett invited into the Keaton apartment where Buster went back to sitting in a chair in front of the TV watching a game of American football sipping a beer from the fridge. After a few conversational gambits Beckett fell silent. Impasse (p.522).

The film ended up being shot over a few sweltering days in lower Manhattan in July 1964 during Beckett’s first and only trip to the United States.

London

Beckett lived in London for two years in 1934 and 1935. He lived first in rooms in Chelsea and then in the Gray’s Inn Road, locations invoked in the novel he wrote about the period, Murphy.

Beckett hated London. Dirty and noisy and cramped. It infuriated him the way strangers called him ‘Paddy’ in shops and pubs. In later life he referred to London as ‘Muttonfatville’ (p.512).

Jack MacGowran (1918 to 1973)

Beckett wrote the radio play Embers and the teleplay Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. The actor also appeared in various productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, and did several readings of Beckett’s plays and poems on BBC Radio. MacGowran was the first actor to do a one-man show based on the works of Beckett. He debuted End of Day in Dublin in 1962, revising it as Beginning To End in 1965. The show went through further revisions before Beckett directed it in Paris in 1970. He also recorded the LP, MacGowran Speaking Beckett for Claddagh Records in 1966 (the recording sessions described at p.539). Whenever he was over in Paris visiting, chances are the lads would go out and get slaughtered. Even worse when the duo turned into a threesome with fellow Irish actor Patrick Magee (p.514). After MacGowran’s death Beckett wrote immediately to his widow Gloria to offer financial assistance for her and daughter, Tara (p.599).

May Beckett

Tall, lean-faced, with a long nose, when you look at photos you immediately see that Beckett has his mother’s appearance not his father, who was round-faced and jovial. May Beckett had an unforgiving temperament and she ruled Cooldrinagh House and its servants with a rod of iron (p.5). Very respectable, she attended the local Protestant church every Sunday. Everyone found her difficult and demanding, she had regular shouting matches with the servants, but could descend into days of dark depression. A family friend, Mary Manning, said Beckett ‘was like his mother, he was not a relaxed social person at all’ (p.223). As he grew up Beckett developed an intense love-hate relationship with her until, by his twenties, he found it impossible to live in the same house. Beckett referred to her ‘savage loving’:

I am what her savage loving has made me (p.273).

His two years of psychotherapy in London (1933 to 1935) rotated around his unresolved relationship with this woman who was so difficult but who, in so many ways, he took after. According to his schoolfriend and doctor who recommended the therapy, Geoffrey Thompson, the key to Beckett’s problems was to be found in his relationship with his mother (p.178). It is, therefore, quite funny that the long and expensive course of psychotherapy was paid for… by his mother.

Mental illness

Beckett himself suffered from depression, as had his mother before him. It was partly deep-seated unhappiness triggered by his father’s death in 1933 which led to his two-year stay in London solely for the purpose of psychotherapy. The condition recurred throughout his life, in fact the second half of the book becomes quite monotonous for the repeated description of Beckett, if he had nothing immediate to work on, spiralling down into depression and isolation (p.441). As late as his 70s he was dosing himself with lithium as a treatment (pages 616 and 644).

He knew he had an obsessive compulsive streak, which could sometimes be regarded as determination and courage, at others simple neurosis: in his German diary Beckett refers to himself as ‘an obsessional neurotic’ (p.252).

Interesting to learn that during his London period (1934 to 1936) he visited his schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson who had taken up the post of Senior House Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, where he observed the patients and learned about their diseases (pages 208 to 210). It was these trips and Thompson’s account which Beckett reworked into the fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat where the antihero of his novel Murphy finds a job. This real-life contact with mental patients (Knowlson quotes Beckett describing individual patients and their symptoms) was reinforced when Beckett undertook a series of visits to Lucia Joyce after she was confined to a hospital in Ivry in 1939.

This ‘long-standing interest in abnormal psychology’ (p.615) translated into characters who make up ‘a long line of split personalities, psychotics or obsessional neurotics’, as Knowlson calls them (page 590). Possibly Beckett’s works can be seen as a kind of escalation of depictions of various mental conditions, from the light-hearted neurosis of Murphy, through the more serious mental breakdown of Watt, but then taken to out-of-this-world extremes in the Trilogy, and particularly the collapse of subject, object and language in The UnnamableFootfalls is a particularly spooky investigation of strange mental states and situations such as the protagonist’s radical agoraphobia and chronic neurosis (p.616).

Miserabilism

Miserabilism is defined as ‘gloomy pessimism or negativity.’ It’s so obvious that Beckett’s work concentrates oppressively on failure and negativity that it barely needs mentioning. Soon after the war he gave his beliefs classic expression in the avant-garde magazine transition:

‘I speak of an art turning from [the plane of the possible] in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.’

And, when asked what the contemporary artist should be striving for, he wrote:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

His position didn’t budge much in the remaining 45 years of his life.

Music

He came from a very musical family. Beckett’s grandmother (Frances, Fannie) was very musical, wrote songs, set poems to music. Her son, Beckett’s Uncle Gerald, was very musical, piano in the house, spent hours playing duets with young Sam (p.7). Their daughter, Aunt Cissie, also very musical. Cissie married a Jewish art dealer, William ‘Boss’ Sinclair and moved to north Germany, where Boss tried to make a career dealing contemporary art. In his 20s Beckett went to stay with them and fell in love with their daughter, Peggy, a few years younger than him.

Beckett grew up able to play Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart piano pieces very well, as well as lighter pieces like Gilbert and Sullivan (p.28). At private school he carried on having music lessons and gained a reputation for being more or less word perfect in the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre (p.43).

In his first year at Trinity College Dublin he commuted from his parents house, but in his second year moved into rented accommodation, where he installed a piano. He was by now into modern French music and studied and played the piano music of Debussy (p.65). It is, maybe, revealing that Beckett hated Bach. He described him to a friend as like an organ grinder endlessly grinding out phrases (p.193). He had pianos in most of his lodgings and houses. Once living in France he regularly listened to concerts broadcast on France Musique (p.453). In 1967 he bought a small Schimmel piano for the house in Ussy, which he played Haydn and Schubert on (p.546).

Music is overtly important in plays like Ghost Trio (named after a piano work by Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (named after a song by Schubert). But it is arguable that many of Beckett’s plays, and certainly the later ones, are conceived as musical in rhythm and performance, and are dependent on essentially non-dramatic but musical ideas of repetition, repetition with variation, counterpoint, introduction of new themes, and so on (p.193).

What is important to him is the rhythm, choreography and shape of the whole production. (p.551)

Thus, when he wrote That Time he conceived of it as a sonata, paying meticulous care to the entrance and exits of the three voices from the protagonist’s past. Into the 1980s he was still listening to classical concerts on the radio, playing the piano and made a number of composer friends. Knowlson points out how many of his works have been set to music or have inspired composers (p.655).

Visitors to his supervision of a 1980 production of Endgame noticed that as the actors spoke his hand beat out the rhythm like Karajan conducting an orchestra. ‘It was all about rhythm and music’, said one of the actors (p.668). He particularly loved Schubert and it is a Schubert song which inspired Nacht und Träume and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise which inspired the play What Where (p.685).

Nobel Prize

1969 23 October Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (pages 570 to 573). He and Suzanne experienced this as a complete disaster, ending their life of peaceful anonymity. They were on holiday in a hotel in Tunisia and the announcement had an immediate impact in that the hotel was besieged by journalists and photographers.

Beckett accepted, recognising the honour, but couldn’t face attending the ceremony as he hated all such events. There was some sharp criticism back in Ireland when, instead of asking the ambassador of the nation of the winner i.e. the Irish ambassador, Beckett instead asked for the award to be given to his loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572).

Later Beckett blamed the award for a prolonged period of writer’s block which immediately followed it.

Not I

Inspired, or at least crystallised, by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in Valletta cathedral in Malta (p.588), and a holiday in North Africa where he was fascinated by the locals wearing djellabis. The original conception was of the woman speaker strapped into a device above the stage with a spotlight on her face as she spoke at breakneck speed, taking four pauses or breaks, during which the tall, faceless figure at the side of the stage wearing a djellabi slowly raised and then slowly lowered his arms, as in a gesture of helpless compassion.

But rehearsals for various productions eventually persuaded Beckett the play didn’t need the auditor at all, and the figure was quietly dropped from the 1975 BBC recording with Billie Whitelaw. And Beckett admitted to Knowsley that maybe the entire notion of the auditor was simply ‘an error of the creative imagination, a rare admission (p.617).

Ohio Impromptu

Beckett wrote this piece for American actor David Warrilow to play the part of Reader, a man sitting at a table next to a silent doppelgänger, reading out a narrative, a story which the audience slowly realises applies to the two men onstage. Beckett wrote to tell to Warrilow to read it as if it was ‘a bedtime story’.

O’Toole, Peter

Beckett hated him, and was infuriated when his agent, Curtis Brown, gave O’Toole permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot in 1969. Possibly Beckett disliked O’Toole because one boozy night down the Falstaff pub in London, O’Toole was about to throw his friend Peter Lennon down the stairs before Beckett personally intervened. Or maybe it was just his florid, attention-grabbing acting style, the histrionic opposite of everything Beckett’s minimalist theatre stood for. He called the resulting production ‘O’Tooled beyond redemption’ (p.567)

Painting

Visual art was very important to Beckett. He had started to systematically visit galleries and develop his taste, as a student (p.58). In summer 1927 Beckett travelled to Florence, calling on the sister of his Italian tutor at Trinity College, and systematically visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75). During his two years as lecteur in Paris he visited as many galleries as he could and immersed himself in the French tradition. Back in Ireland in 1931, he resumed his visits to the National Gallery (p.140). After his father’s death, at a loss what to do, it’s not that surprising to learn that he applied to be an assistant curator at London’s National Gallery (p.174).

A decade later, Beckett was to spend no fewer than seven months, from September 1937 to April 1938, on a really thorough and systematic tour of the art galleries of Germany. One of the features of Knowlson’s biography is that he got access to Beckett’s detailed diary of this trip and so gives the reader a city-by-city, gallery-by-gallery, painting-by-painting detailed account of not only the paintings Beckett saw, but also of the contemporary artists he met in cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Munich (pages 230 to 261). The first work he wrote in French after the war was an essay on contemporary art (page 357).

Beckett had a very visual imagination and many critics have found analogues for scenes in the prose and plays among classic paintings of the Old Masters, and by his own account, a number of works were heavily inspired by works of art.

Thus Waiting For Godot, notable Godot – in which the final scene of both parts, of two men looking up at the rising moon mimics Caspar David Friedrich (p.609), and Breughel paintings inspire various poses of the four characters; while Not I was directly inspired by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in the cathedral in Malta (p.588).

Decollation of St John The Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

Artistic friendships In November 1930 he was introduced to the Dublin painter Jack B. Yeats who was to become a lifelong friend. Travelling in Germany in 1937 he met Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde who became enduring friends. When he bought the cottage in Ussy outside Paris he found himself in proximity to the French painter Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, who Sam and Suzanne had got to know well during their wartime stay in Roussilon, and who became close friends for the rest of their lives.

Paris

Paris came as a revelation to Beckett when he moved there for to take the post of lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in 1928. He was quickly introduced to James Joyce and other members of the anglophone literary community, but also flourished in the city’s permissive, experimental avant-garde artistic and literary atmosphere. It was with reluctance that he moved back to Ireland in 1930.

Years passed with occasional visits and reunions with old friends before his patience with Dublin and living with his mother in the big empty family house finally snapped in September 1937, and he left Ireland for good to try and make his way as a freelance writer in Paris. However, he hadn’t been there long before he was stabbed in a random altercation with a pimp in Montparnasse. His lifelong partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil visited him in hospital and began caring for him. Once he’d recovered, she arranged for Beckett to move out of an expensive hotel into a flat at 6 Rue des Favorites.

They inhabited the Rue de Favorites flat for 20 years, but eventually their lives had diverged so markedly that they needed a bigger space. Beckett was a night owl, staying out late often getting drunk with friends when they were in town, and disturbed her when he got home. Suzanne was a morning person and disturbed Beckett’s lying-in when she woke. Plus the mistresses. His unexplained absences became harder to bear in a small space.

Thus in 1960 they moved to a larger space, a seventh floor apartment at 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its layout (p.472). It allowed them to live partly companionable, but partly independent lives. A notable feature of the flat was that from it he could see the windows of the Santé prison. He sat staring at a prison for long stretches of his day. Some visitors entered his apartment to discover him standing at the window semaphoring messages to the prisoners: ‘They have so little to entertain them, you know’ (p.642)

Poetry

In my opinion Beckett’s poetry is pants. Here’s part of an early poem:

But she will die and her snare
tendered so patiently
to my tamed and watchful sorrow
will break and hang
in a pitiful crescent
(The Yoke of Liberty, 1932)

And a few years later:

a last even of last time of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

God, it’s dire, the ineffectual repetition of ‘love’, the woeful metaphor of the heart as a pestle grinding away at words. Flat and lifeless and clichéd.

Beckett’s poetry is so poor because, in my opinion, he had little or no feel for the sensual aspect of language. He has nothing of what Keats or Tennyson or Yeats or TS Eliot had for language, an unparalleled feel for the mellifluous flow of sensual speech. A reviewer of his first collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, is quoted as writing that Beckett ‘has imitated everything in Mr Joyce – except the verbal magic and the inspiration’ (quoted page 184). I think that is dead right. Hardly anywhere in Beckett’s works is there ‘verbal magic’ in the sense that an individual phrase leaps out at you as a miraculous use of language. The opposite. They’re often heavy with cliches and triteness. Here’s part of a short poem he wrote in 1977:

one dead of night
in the dead still
he looked up
from his book (p.647)

No Beckett really does not have the magic touch required for poetry. Instead Beckett does something completely different with language. For me his characteristic strategies are paring back language, omitting key syntactical units, and above all using repetition, the clumping of key phrases which are nothing in themselves but acquire power by dogged repetition.

Traditional poetry requires a certain charge behind individual words. And yet this is the precise opposite of how Beckett works. Beckett works by applying the exact opposite of the mot juste, he works through processes of paring down, creating key phrases, and then repeating the hell out of them. He sandblasts language. Thus, in my opinion, his most successful ‘poetry’ is in the play Rockaby, where no individual word has the kind of poetic charge you find in Eliot or Larkin or Hughes or Hill – it is all about the remorseless repetition. 

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
when she said
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
another like herself
another creature like herself
a little like
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
till in the end
close of a long day
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped

My contention is that he is a great writer despite his lack of feel for language, because of his systematic methodology. He doesn’t feel or express so much as process language, submits it to distortions, denials and repetitions in order to make his language pared back, hard, white bone (‘All the verbs have perished’, as he wrote of his short prose piece Ping, p.542).

His prose and theatrical dialogue doesn’t work with language, doesn’t facilitate expression – it does something to language. Manipulates and twists it into a kind of abstract sculpture. And this, in my opinion, helps to explain why his poetry is so pants.

Politics

It is striking that there is so little politics in Knowlson’s account. He devotes precisely one sentence to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin (p.36) when Beckett was 10, and only 2 sentences to the partition of Ireland and the tragic Irish civil war which followed, (June 1922 to May 1923) when Beckett would have been 16 going on 17. There is a brief mention of the IRA, but only because the sister of his Italian tutor at college might have been an IRA operative (p.73). There is only one mention of the Great War and that only in connection with the impact it had on the calibre of teachers when Beckett was still at secondary school (p.44).

Again, most accounts of the 1930s are heavily coloured by the terrible international situation but this is mostly absent from Knowlson’s account. For example, in the second year of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) Nancy Cunard sent a questionnaire round eminent artists and writers asking which side they would support and why (Authors Takes Sides in the Spanish Civil War). Beckett sent back the famously short and pithy reply: “UP THE REPUBLIC!” I might have blinked and missed it but I don’t think this is mentioned in Knowlson’s vast tome.

The Nazis do come into it when Beckett makes his seven month tour round Germany from September 1937 to April 1938. Beckett despised and mocked them (pages 238 and 297). But they are considered more from the point of view of the material impact their bans and prohibitions had on the local artists Beckett met and came to respect. Similarly, when they begin to enforce their racial edicts in Paris in 1940, it is the direct practical impact on his friends and acquaintances which Knowlson emphasises (page 303).

Similarly, after the end of the Second World War, the entire Cold War is not mentioned at all in the book, Suez, Indo-China, Hungary, Cuba. Silence.

One area which is briefly covered is the war in Algeria. This affected Beckett because his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, became involved in a campaign to publish graphic accounts of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, which made the publisher the target of death threats (pages 492 to 495). We find Beckett helping other writers and actors who lost work because of their principles opposition to the war.

Twenty years later there’s a passage about Beckett, violently against the apartheid regime in South Africa, giving permission for a mixed-race production of Godot, and the issues surrounding that (pages 636 to 639).

But Knowlson makes the important point that Beckett’s post-war political activity was very constrained because he was not a citizen of France and only allowed to stay on sufferance. His carte de séjour could be withdrawn by the French government at any moment. Hence, tact.

Maybe this is because the book was already very long and Knowlson’s publishers and editor made him remove anything not directly related to Beckett. Possibly it’s because just too much happened in the Twentieth Century and once you start filling in this or that bit of political background, where would you end? Especially as Beckett was tied to the politics of not one but three countries – Ireland where he was born, England where he spent some time and a lot of his plays were premiered, and France which was his adoptive home. That’s a lot of politics to try and summarise. If you throw in America, because it was an important location for the premiering and performance of his plays, then that’s an awful lot of national and international politics to make even cursory references to. So maybe that explains why the book contains as little or as brief references to world affairs as are possible.

Psychotherapy

One of the revelations of Knowlson’s book is the extent of Beckett’s psychotherapy. His sense of frustration at not knowing what to do in his life, exacerbated by the death of his beloved father in 1933, and the very tense atmosphere of being a grown adult stuck at home with his disapproving mother, led to an escalation of physical symptoms – night sweats, panic attacks, heart palpitations. Beckett described to Knowlson how, on at least one occasion, he was walking down the street when he came to a complete halt and couldn’t move any further (p.172).

Beckett’s good schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson was now a doctor and recommended psychotherapy. It is startling to learn that, at that time, psychoanalysis was illegal in Ireland (p.173), so he had to go to London to be treated. And so it was that Beckett moved to London in January 1934 and began an astonishingly prolonged course of treatment with pioneering psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic. This continued for two years, three sessions a week, lying on his back dredging up memories, while his hyper-critical intellect dissected them, analysed the positioning of the protagonists, their words (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).

The actual physical experience of therapy, and the theories of the mind it invokes, both provide a plausible underpinning to much of Beckett’s work, particularly the prose works where characters lie in the dark, imagining, visualising, listening to the voices of memory. The haunting prose work Company consists of 15 paragraphs of memories from boyhood and young manhood, seeded among 42 paragraphs describing the situation of the protagonist lying on his back in the dark and remembering:

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. (p.653)

In October 1935 Bion took Beckett to a lecture by Carl Jung. Some critics have read Jung’s theories of archetypes, of the anima, of the female and male parts of the psyche into the split personas, into the very male male and very female female characters and protagonists.

Freud and Jung, between them, cooked up quite a handful of theories about the multiple aspects of levels of the mind, a fissiparation which was only complexified by their hordes of followers, respectable and not so respectable (p.616). Temperamentally predisposed towards them, they provided ammunition for Beckett’s attack on the Cartesian notion of the mind as unified and rational. Freud transformed human understanding forever into a completely different model of a mind divided into all sorts of fragments and compartments.

But both Freud and Jung and most of their followers thought that, with long expensive therapy, these various contending psychic forces could be brought into some kind of harmony, that people could be helped to master their neuroses and compulsions. As Freud put it, ‘Where id was, there let ego be’, and therapy undoubtedly helped Beckett, indeed the case is made that it transformed him from a haughty, arrogant, self-centred young man into a far more socialised, generous and considerate person. But he never believed the self can be saved. All Beckett’s post-war works can be seen as explorations of exactly the opposite – ‘Where id was… there is more id, and more id behind that, multiple ids, a wilderness of ids.’ A problematics of the self.

In Beckett’s case, voices, the voices, the voice that drives the narrators of The Unnamable and How It Is, the voices that taunt the protagonists of That Time and Eh Joe and Footfalls, and texts which collapse in the failure to be able to make sense of any narrative, to establish any centre, any self amid the conflicting claims of language reduced to wrecks and stumps, as in the devastating Worstward Ho

Late in his career, on 20 September 1977, Beckett met the American avant-garde composer Milton Feldman. Over a nervous, shy lunch Feldman said he wasn’t interested in setting any of Beckett’s works but was looking for their essence. Beckett got a piece of paper and told Feldman there was only one theme in his life, and quickly wrote out the following words.

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither

He later expanded this by another ten or so lines and it became the basic of the monodrama which Feldman composed and called neither. But the point is that Beckett considered this the very core of his project – the endless shuttling around of the mind, the psyche, the spirit call it what you will, looking for a solid reliable self which doesn’t exist. Here’s the opening ten minutes of the resulting ‘opera’.

P.S. It is funny to learn that Beckett was startled when, in his October 1935 lecture, Jung revealed that he never took on a patient unless he or she had had their horoscope read. This is the kind of voodoo bunkum which led Freud to disown and ridicule Jung. But the tip about the horoscope led Beckett to make it an important structuring element in his first novel, Murphy (p.208).

Quietism

The general sense of Quietism is a passive acceptance of things as they are, but in the tradition of Christian theology it has a more specific meaning. It means: ‘devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism’. Beckett deepened his understanding of Quietism in the 1930s in his reading of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, what drives human beings is will – ‘a blind, unconscious, aimless striving devoid of knowledge, outside of space and time, and free of all multiplicity’. The ‘world’ as we perceive it is a creation of the human will which may or may not bear any relation to what is actually ‘out there’. For Schopenhauer, it is this endless will, driving us on and inevitably banging us against limitations and frustrations which is the cause of all our pain and suffering. Well aware that he was coming very close to Eastern religions in his attitude, Schopenhauer argued that the only redemption or escape from the endless, hurtful engine of the will is the total ascetic negation of the ‘will to life.’ Damp it, kiss it, crush it, negate it, transcend it.

When it’s put like that you can see, not so much that Schopenhauer’s thought ‘influenced’ Beckett but, as so often with the thinkers important in a creative writer’s life, that Schopenhauer helped Beckett think through and rationalise what was, in effect, already his worldview. Once you identify it, you realise it is Beckett’s core view of the world and attitude to life, described again and again in variations on the same idea:

  • The essential is never to arrive anywhere, never to be anywhere.
  • What a joy to know where one is, and where one will stay, without being there.
  • Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

He and so many of the narrators of his texts, don’t necessarily want to die, as such. Just not to be. To cease being. Not to be, and not to know.

Radio

Beckett wrote seven plays for radio, being

  • All That Fall (1957) commissioned by BBC produced by Donald McWhinnie, small parts for Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran
  • From an Abandoned Work (1957) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • Embers (1959) BBC Radio 3: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • The Old Tune (translation of a play by Robert Pinget) (1960) BBC: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by (Beckett’s lover) Barbara Bray
  • [Rough for Radio I – written in French in 1961 but not translated till 1976 and never broadcast in English]
  • Rough for Radio II – written 1961, broadcast BBC Radio 3 1976, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Billie Whitelaw directed by Martin Esslin
  • Words and Music (1962) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee
  • Cascando (1963) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee

They include some of his most haunting pieces such as Embers (44 minutes in the original BBC production featuring Jack MacGowran), the torture play Rough For Radio II, and the haunting Cascando, featuring Patrick Magee. The list also indicates 1. the central role played by the BBC in commissioning and broadcasting important works by Beckett 2. the specific role of Donald McWhinnie as director of the earlier radio plays 3. the close association with two key Beckett actors, Patrick Magee (who appears in all of them) and Jack MacGowran.

Beckett refused permission for his radio plays to be made either into TV productions or stage plays. He said they were expressly designed for their medium alone. Asked about the possibility of transferring the radio play All That Fall to the stage, Beckett wrote: ‘It is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings … will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.’ [emphasis added]

Resistance

On 1 September 1940 Beckett, back in occupied Paris after a brief flight to the south, joined the French Resistance. He was inducted into the Resistance cell Gloria SMH, run by Jeannine Picabia, daughter of the painter Francis Picabia. Knowlson goes into fascinating detail about the cell’s structure and work. Basically, Beckett continued sitting at his desk in his Paris flat, where he was registered with the authorities as an Irish citizen and a writer. His job was – various couriers brought him information written in a number of formats from typed reports to scribbled notes, and he translated them from French into good clear English, typed them up – then another courier collected these notes and took them off to an unknown destination where they were photographed and reduced to something like microfilm, before being smuggled south to the free zone of France by a network of couriers (pages 307 to 308).

It was the perfect role and the perfect cover since, as a bilingual writer, his flat was covered in scribbled notes and manuscripts in both languages although, if the Germans had actually found and examined the incriminating documents he would have been in big trouble. Written records exists in the French archive of the Resistance and of the British Special Operations Executive in London, which amply confirm Beckett’s identity and role.

Although the group paid lip service to the idea that all members only knew the names and details of a handful of other members, in practice Beckett thought too many friends who had been recruited who would give each other away under interrogation. But it wasn’t from an insider that betrayal came, and the most vivid thing about Beckett’s war work is the way it ended.

Basically the group was infiltrated by a Catholic priest, Robert Alesch, who railed against the Nazis in his sermons and came fully vetted. What no-one knew what that Alesch led a florid double life, respectable priest on Sundays, but coming up to Paris from his rural parish on weekdays, to indulge in nights of sex and drugs with prostitutes. He needed money to fund this lifestyle. So he inveigled his way into Cell Gloria and, as soon as he’d been given details of the members, sold it to the German authorities for a sum which Knowlson calculates as the lifetime earnings of an average worker. It was August 1942.

The Nazis immediately began arresting members, including Beckett’s good friend Alfred Péron, who was to die in a concentration camp. A brief telegram was sent to Beckett and Suzanne who immediately packed their bags ready for immediate flight. Suzanne went to the flat of a friend where she was briefly stopped and questioned by the Gestapo, who let her go and returned, traumatised, to the flat she shared with Beckett, they finished packing and left within the hour. Later the same day the Gestapo arrived to arrest them, and placed a permanent guard on the flat (p.315).

They went into hiding in various safe houses across Paris, before preparing for the long and dangerous trek by foot south towards the unoccupied zone of France, with the major stumbling block of having to arrange with professionals, passeurs, to be smuggled across the actual border. (It is fascinating to learn that Suzanne and Beckett spent ten days hiding out with the French-Russian writer Nathalie Sarraute, who was holing up in a rural cottage with her husband. They didn’t get on. (pages 316 to 317.)

After much walking and sleeping in haystacks and begging food, the couple arrived at the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Why Roussillon? Connections. A friend of Suzanne’s had bought an estate near the village and knew about local property and vacancies in the village. There they made a new life, initially staying in the small village hotel, then through local contacts finding a vacant property in the village, lying low, rerouting the small payments Beckett was owed from his father’s legacy and his handful of published books.

One of the major aspects of their two years in the village which gets no coverage is the fact that Beckett undertook demanding labour on local farms. He became a trusty and reliable farm labourer in the south of France, specifically for the Aude family, members of which Knowlson has tracked down and interviewed for eye witness accounts of Sam the labourer – managing the livestock, helping with ploughing and sowing and also, during the season, helping to trample down the grapes for that year’s wine. Can’t get more French than that (pages 323 to 326). Of course the motivation to do it was the extra food it brought Sam and Suzanne during a time of great privation.

Knowlson also brings out the fact that it was far from being a life of ‘rural idiocy’ and that a surprising number of intellectuals, writers and artists lived in the vicinity who quickly formed convivial social circles, dwelling on the charming, elderly lady novelist Miss Beamish, who lived with her ‘companion’. Autres temps (p.330).

After a lull, while they found their feet, Beckett rejoined the Maquis (their archives date it as May 1944) and helped out when he could by storing armaments in the shed of their village house (page 337). In this new situation, Beckett volunteered for more active service, going out on night trips to recover parachuted arms and was given training in the remote countryside on firing a rifle and lobbing grenades, but the local leaders quickly realised his poor eyesight and unpractical nature militated against fieldwork (pages 337 to 338).

All in all you can see why his prompt volunteering for the service, his unflinching integrity, his continued service even in the South, earned him the gratitude of the Free French government once Paris was liberated by the Allies 19 August 1944 and why, before the war was even over, in March 1945 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Revelation (pages 351 to 353)

Possibly the most important event in his life came when Beckett was back at the family home, long after his father’s death, just after the Second World War and all its tribulations, suffering the cloying attentions of his aging mother and frustrated at the difficulty of getting his pre-war writings published, an unemployed, largely unpublished ‘writer’, fast approaching 40, when he had a life-changing revelation.

Since his character, Krapp, discusses a life-changing revelation which came to him as he stood on the pier at Dún Laoghaire, generations of critics have assumed something similar happened to Beckett. But one of the huge selling points of Knowlson’s biography is that he got to ask Beckett questions like this, directly, face to face, or in extended question and answer correspondence, and was able to get at the definitive truth of cruxes like this. And thus it was that Beckett told him to set the record straight ‘for once and all’, that it was in his mother’s room in the family home, that he suddenly realised the way forward.

At a stroke, he realised his entire approach to literature was wrong, that he must do the opposite of his hero Joyce. Joyce was the poet of joy and life, which he celebrates with texts which try to incorporate sounds and smells and all the senses, try to incorporate the entire world in a text, which grow huge by accumulating new words, mixing up languages, swallowing the world.

In books like More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had come off as a sort of half-cocked Joyce, adding his own quirky obsessions with repetitive actions to heavy, pedantic humour and outlandish characters. Now, in a flash, he realised this was all wrong, wrong, wrong.

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

He realised at a stroke that he must be the laureate of rejection, abandonment and decay, all the fleeting moods and expressions of failure and collapse which had been neglected in literature, ignored and brushed aside so that the author could get on with writing his masterpiece.

But what about taking that failure, the failure of the text to get written, as the subject of the text? What about listening to the voices the author hears in his or her head, as they review a page and conclude it’s rubbish, start again, or sit and ponder the alternatives, voices saying one thing, then another, making one suggestion, then another? What if you made those voices, the voices you hear during the process of writing but ignore in order to get something sensible down on the page – what if you made those voices themselves the subject of the writing?

This not only represented a superficial change of topic or approach but also made Beckett face up to something in himself. Previously, he had tried to write clever books like Murphy while gloomily acknowledging to himself and friends that he wasn’t really learned and scholarly enough to pull it off. Pushing 40 he felt like a failure in all kinds of ways, letting down successive women who had loved him, letting down his parents and patrons when he rejected the lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, failing to get his works published or, if they were, failing to sell any – a welter of failures, intellectual, personal and professional

What if, instead of trying to smother it, he made this failure the focus of his writing? Turned his laser-like intellect inwards to examine the complex world of interlocking failures, from deep personal feelings, all the way up to the struggle to write, to define who is doing the writing, and why, for God’s sake! when the whole exercise was so bloody pointless, when – as his two years of intensive psychotherapy had shown him – we can’t really change ourselves. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge the truth of who we are.

What if he took this, this arid dusty terrain of guilt and failure and the excruciating difficulty of ever expressing anything properly as his subject matter?

‘Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.’ (quoted page 352)

Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it … In future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss – as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er.’ The revelation ‘has rightly been regarded as a pivotal moment in his entire career’.

(Sentiments echoed at page 492).

St-Lô (pages 345 to 350)

Early in 1945, Beckett and Suzanne returned to Paris to discover that, although their flat on the Rue Favorite had been occupied, it had been left largely untouched (unlike other friends’ apartments which had been ransacked). Beckett then set off back to Ireland, of course stopping off in London to meet up with old friends and also hawk round the manuscript of the ‘mad’ novel he’d written during the long nights of his exile in the south of France, Watt. He was struck by the bomb-damaged shabby nature of the city. Then on to Dublin where he was upset by the appearance of his now aged mother.

But Beckett then found it very difficult to get legal permission to travel back to Paris. Things were confused, the bureaucracy was immense. So he took the opportunity of applying for a job in France, mainly to get official permission to return, namely as quartermaster/interpreter with the Irish Red Cross who were setting up a hospital in the Normandy town of Saint-Lô.

This passage is fascinating as social / war history. St-Lô had been utterly destroyed by allied bombing, with barely a building left standing. Knowlson explains the plight of the town and then the practicalities of setting up a hospital before investigating Beckett’s role.

Altogether the war radically changed Beckett. It humanised him. He went from being an aloof, arrogant, self-centred young man, to becoming much more humble and socialised. In his farmwork and then the work at St-Lo he was able to put aside his problematic psychology and just get on with it. Both experiences forced him into close proximity with a far wider range of people, from all classes, than he had previously met.

(Interestingly, this is the exact same point made in the recent biography of John Wyndham, who served in the London Air Raid Warning service during the Blitz, and then as a censor in Senate House, His biographer, Amy Binns, makes the identical point, that his war service forced Wyndham into close proximity with people outside his usual class [both Beckett and Wyndham went to private school] and resulted in a deepening and humanising of his fiction.)

Skullscapes

The word and concept ‘skullscape’ is Linda Ben Zvi’s, from the recorded discussion that followed the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. Since Zvi suggested it has become common currency because it captures at least three qualities,

1. the bone-hard, pared-down prose works

2. the obsession with the colour white, the whiteness of the cell in All Strange Away, the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine, the whiteness of the cliff in the short text of the same title, the whiteness in Embers

bright winter’s night, snow everywhere, bitter cold, white world, cedar boughs bending under load… [Pause.] Outside all still, not a sound, dog’s chain maybe or a bough groaning if you stood there listening long enough, white world, Holloway with his little black bag, not a sound, bitter cold, full moon small and white…

The whiteness of the snow the man trudges through in Heard in the Dark 1 or the snow through which the old lady trudges in Ill Seen Ill Said, the spread white long hair of the protagonist in That Time, the White hair, white nightgown, white socks of Speaker in A Piece of Monologue:

White hair catching light. White gown. White socks. White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left. Once white.

The long white hair of Listener and Reader in Ohio Impromptu, the pure white overall of the Assistant in Catastrophe, and the Director’s instructions to whiten the Protagonist’s skull and hands and skin.

3. but the real application is to the prose works which seem to take place entirely inside the head of the protagonist or of the narrator or of the text, trapped in a claustrophobic space, a bonewhite space:

Ceiling wrong now, down two foot, perfect cube now, three foot every way, always was, light as before, all bonewhite when at full as before, floor like bleached dirt, something there, leave it for the moment…

Stabbing in Paris (pages 281 to 284)

and Suzanne Back in Paris Beckett was returning from a night in a bar on 6 January 1938 when a pimp came out of nowhere and started squabbling with him and his friends, insisting they accompany him somewhere and then, out of nowhere, stabbed Beckett in the chest. The blade narrowly missed his heart but punctured a lung, there was lots of blood, his friends called an ambulance, and he was in hospital  (the Hopital Broussais) recovering for some weeks. Initially it hurt just to breathe and for months afterwards it hurt to laugh or make any sudden movements. Beckett was touched by the number of people who sent messages of goodwill. Among his visitors was Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He’d met her a decade before on a few social occasions in Paris (playing tennis) but it’s from the period of her hospital visits that stems the deepening of their friendship into what became a lifelong relationship.

Beckett met his near-murderer, a well-known pimp with a criminal record M. Prudent, because the police caught him, charged him, and Beckett had to attend the trial. He got to meet the man in the corridor outside court and asked him why he did it. According to Beckett the pimp shrugged his shoulders in that Gallic way and said ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur’ – I don’t know – before adding, embarrassedly, ‘Je m’excuse’. Sorry. Possibly Beckett simplified the story because it rather neatly reinforces his philosophical convictions that we don’t know why we act as we do, that it is impossible to know ourselves, that it is highly likely there is no such thing as one, unified self.

Suicide, against

Oddly, maybe, for a man who suffered from lifelong depression and whose work is often about despair, Beckett was against suicide. He thought it was an unacceptable form of surrender. It was against the stern sense of duty and soldiering on inculcated by his Protestant upbringing, amplified by his private school which placed a strong emphasis on duty and responsibility (p.569).

And Knowlson sees this in the works. Despite the widely held view that Beckett’s work is essentially pessimistic, the will to live, to endure, to carry on, just about wins out in the end. Witness the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900 to 1989)

Beckett’s lifelong partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, was key to his success. After the war Dechevaux-Dumesnil became his agent and sent the manuscript to multiple producers until they met Roger Blin who arranged for the Paris premiere of Waiting For Godot.

In the 1930s, Beckett chose Déchevaux-Dumesnil as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim after she visited him in hospital after his stabbing. She was six years older than Beckett, an austere woman known for avant-garde tastes and left-wing politics. She was a good pianist which was something they had in common.

During the Second World War, Suzanne supported Beckett’s work with the French Resistance cell Gloria. When the cell was betrayed, together they fled south to unoccupied France and took up residence in the village of Roussillon. As Beckett began to experience success their lives began to diverge, with Sam increasingly called on to travel to England or Germany to supervise new productions of his works. He also had a series of affairs, the most important with Barbara Bray who became his lifelong lover. The move in 1960 to a bigger apartment in Paris allowed them to live more separate lives and for Suzanne to socialise with her own, separate circle of friends.

In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England in order to legally establish her as heir to his works and copyrights and estate (pages 481 to 482). The classic love triangle Beckett found himself is the supposed inspiration for the play Play, written at this time (p.481).

Together they had bought a piece of land in the Marne valley and paid for the building of a simple writer’s house. At first Suzanne resented the long spells she spent there on her own when Beckett was going up to Paris for work or abroad. Later she grew to dislike going there and eventually ceased altogether, making the house in Ussy into a lonely, psychologically isolated location where Beckett wrote a lot of his later works, works in which a solitary, isolated individual stares out of the window or lies in the dark, often reminiscing about the past… As in the prose work Still (p.593).

Knowlson comments that in the last ten years of their lives people who met them as a couple often commented on how short tempered and irritable they were with each other. Suzanne is recorded as saying ‘celibataires’ (page 665). But there was never any question of him leaving her.

Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil died at age eighty-eight in July 1989, five months before Beckett. They are both interred in the cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Swearwords, prolific use of

Beckett wasn’t shy of using the crudest Anglo-Saxon swearwords. He used them liberally in his correspondence (in 1932 he wrote to a friend that he was reading Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Point Counterpoint, except he called it ‘Cunt Pointer Cunt’, p.161) and they are sprinkled intermittently throughout his works:

  • Simone de Beauvoir objected to Beckett’s first story written in French, The End, because of its Rabelaisian references to pissing and farting (p.359).
  • Balls, arse and pee in Endgame, which Beckett reluctantly agreed to alter for the English censor (p.449)
  • the c word plays a startling role in the novel How It Is
  • ‘Fuck life’ says the recorded voice in the late play, Rockaby (page 663).

Telegraphese, use of

According to the dictionary telegraphese is: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’.

You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark. (How It Is, 1961) (p.602)

Television

Beckett wrote seven plays for the evolving medium of television. He strived to take advantage of the way TV has just the one point of view, unlike the audience at a theatre which has a much more panoramic view of the action. It is revealing that he heartily disliked a TV production of Waiting For Godot even though it was directed by his loyal director Donald McWhinnie. At the party after the viewing Beckett memorably said:

‘My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you’re all too big for the place.’ (quoted page 488)

As the 50s moved into the 60s Beckett encountered difficulties with other adaptations and slowly his approach hardened into a refusal to let a work be translated into another medium (p.505). When Peter O’Toole expressed interest in making a film version of Godot Beckett simply replied, ‘I do not want a film of Godot,’ (p.545).

Theatre

The most obvious thing about the theatre is how arduous and complicated it is having to work with all those people, producers, directors, actors and technicians, not to mention set designers, props and so on, especially for someone so morbidly shy and anti-social as Beckett.

Beckett acutely disliked the social side of theatre, and in fact couldn’t bear to go to the first nights of most of his plays – he sent Suzanne who reported back her opinion. He used the vivid phrase that, once the thing had finished rehearsals and had its dress rehearsal and first night, then it’s the ‘start of all the dinners’ (p.554).

Knowlson’s book charts how, from the success of Godot in 1953 until the end of his life, Beckett entered into a maze of theatrical productions, as new works were written, then required extensive liaisons with producers and directors, discussions about venues and actors, negotiations with state censors and so on. The book becomes clotted with his complex calendar of appointments and meetings and flights to London or Berlin or (on just the one occasion) America.

As to his attitude to theatre, the later works make it quite clear he saw it more as a question of choreography, his scripts giving increasingly detailed descriptions of movements, gestures, and how they synchronise with the words to create a ballet with words. It is no accident that several of his works are mimes, or mechanical ballets, like Quad. Or approach so close to wordlessness as to become something like four dimensional paintings (the fourth dimension being time) such as Nacht und Träume.

Themes

Some of Beckett’s most cherished themes: an absence of an identifiable self; man forced to live a kind of surrogate existence, trying to ‘make up’ his life by creating fictions or voices to which he listens; a world scurrying about its business, ignoring the signs of decay, disintegration and death with which it is surrounded. (p.602)

1930s

Beckett’s 1930s can probably be summed up as a long decade full of frustrating attempts to get his works published and, when he did, discovering no-one was interested in them. Only hard-core Beckett fans or scholars are interested in any of these:

1929 Dante… Vico… Bruno… Joyce (essay)
1930 Whoroscope (poem)
1931 Proust (literary study)
1932 Dante and the Lobster (short story)
1934 Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard, many works translated by Beckett
1934 More Pricks Than Kicks (series of linked short stories)
1935 Echoes Bones (set of linked poems)
1937 attempts a play about Samuel Johnson but abandons it
1938 Murphy (first published novel)

Murphy is the only one of these you might recommend to someone starting Beckett, and maybe not even then.

Tonelessness

Voices toneless except where indicated (stage directions for Play)

For most of his theatre productions Beckett made the same stipulation, that the actors speak the words without expression, flatly, in a voice as devoid of emotion or expression as possible. Thus in 1958 he told director George Devine the actors of Endgame should speak the words in a ‘toneless voice’ (p.457).

For Beckett, pace, tone, and above all, rhythm were more important than sharpness of character delineation or emotional depth. (p.502)

Sian Philips was disconcerted to discover just how mechanical Beckett wanted her recording of the Voice part of Eh Joe and the ‘vocal colourlessness’ he aimed for (p.538). He explained to actress Nancy Illig that he wanted her voice to sound ‘dead’, without colour, without expression (p.540). He made sure the exchanges of Nagg and Nell in a German production of Endgame were ‘toneless’ (p.551). He struggled with Dame Peggy Ashcroft who was reluctant to give an ’emotion-free’ performance of Winnie in Happy Days (p.604).

In this respect Knowlson mentions Beckett recommending actor Ronald Pickup to read Heinrich von Kleist’s essay about the marionette theatre, in which the German poet claims that puppets posses a mobility, symmetry, harmony and grace greater than any human can achieve because they lack the self-consciousness that puts humans permanently off balance (p.632).

Billie Whitelaw remembers him calling out: ‘Too much colour, Billie, too much colour’. That was his way of saying ‘Don’t act.’ (p.624) Surprisingly, given his preparedness to jet off round Europe to help supervise productions of his plays, Knowlson concludes that he was never an actor’s director. He never let go of his own, intense personal reading of the lines.

Translation

It’s easy to read of this or that work that Beckett translated his own work from French into English or English into French but it’s only by reading Knowlson’s laborious record of the sustained periods when he did this that you realise what an immense undertaking it was, what a huge amount of time and mental energy it took up. That Beckett composed many of his works in French sounds cool until you realise that by being so bilingual he gave himself twice the work an ordinary writer would have had, and the later pages of Knowlson ring to the sound of Beckett complaining bitterly to friends and publishers just what an ordeal and grind he was finding it.

Trilogy, the Beckett

The Beckett Trilogy refers to three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. There’s a vast amount to say but here are a few key facts (pages 371 to 376):

  • Beckett wrote all three novels and Waiting For Godot in just two and a half years, from May 1947 to January 1950.
  • Probably these four works are the highlight, the most enduring of his works.
  • Beckett himself disliked the use of the phrase The Beckett Trilogy to describe them.
  • Arguably, The Unnamable takes the possibility of writing ‘fiction’, explores what happens when you abandon the existence of a stable narrator or plot or characters or dialogue, to the furthest possible extreme. This explains why for decades afterwards he struggled to write any further prose because he was trying to go on from a place he conceived of as being the ne plus ultra of fiction. Explains why so much of the later prose amounts to fragments and offcuts, starting with the dozen or so Texts For Nothing that he struggled with in the early 1950s (p.397), and what he was still calling, 20 years later, ‘shorts’ (p.578). To understand any of it you need to have read the Trilogy and particularly The Unnamable.

Ussy

In 1948 Sam and Suzanne took a break from Paris by hiring a cottage in the little village of Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 kilometres from Paris in the valley of the Marne which he was to grow to love (p.367). Sam and Suzanne continued holidaying there intermittently. After his mother died on 25 August 1950, she left him some money and Beckett used it to buy some land near the village and then, in 1953, had a modest two-roomed house built on it, with a kitchen and bathroom. This was to become his country getaway and writing base. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its plain, spartan arrangements, including the detail that the flooring was of alternating black and white tiles like a chess board (p.388).

Waiting for Godot (pages 379 to 381)

Written between October 1948 and January 1949 (p.378). It is interesting to learn that Beckett told a friend that Godot was inspired by a painting by Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon.

Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1824)

But I think the single most interesting fact about Godot is that it was written as a kind of break or pitstop during the writing of the Beckett Trilogy, after he had completed Malone Dies and before he embarked on the daunting monolith of The Unnamable. It was the same subject matter but approached in a completely different angle and medium, and with numerous other elements, not least the music hall banter and silent movie knockabout slapstick.

Wartime background Another anti-intellectual interpretation of the play is Dierdre Bair’s contention that the play recalls ‘the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks… during the day and walked by night..’ Although Knowlson is dismissive of this view, he suggests an alternative ‘realist’ interpretation, namely that the basic situation and many of the details derive form the way Sam and Suzanne (and their friends in exile and, in a sense, an entire generation) had to sit out the war, filling in the time as best they could until the whole bloody nightmare came to an end (p.380).

Bad reviews in London It took two and a half years between the premiere of the play in Paris and the premiere of the English version in London, a long, drawn-out period full of delays and disappointments which Knowlson describes in excruciating detail, plus the way it opened to terrible reviews (very funny) until the situation was transformed by two favourable reviews from the heavyweight critics, Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, to whom Beckett was eternally grateful (even if they later had an angry falling out) (pages 411 to 415).

Success and economic breakthrough in America The American premiere came three years after the French one. It opened in January 1956 in Miami, directed by Alan Schneider who was to become a long-time collaborator of Beckett’s and was a fiasco. The audience had been promised a comedy and hated it. By contrast, another production opened on Broadway in April 1956 and was a smash hit, running for a hundred performances, paying Beckett $500 a week, plus royalties from the paperback script which was sold in the foyer. Suddenly, Beckett found himself, if not exactly rich, in funds and making money for the first time in his life. God bless America! (p.423).

Billie Whitelaw (1932 to 2014)

Actress Billie Whitelaw worked with Beckett for 25 years on such plays as Not I, Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby. In her autobiography Billie Whitelaw… Who He?, she describes their first meeting in 1963 as ‘trust at first sight’. Beckett went on to write many of his experimental theatre works for her. She came to be regarded as his muse, the ‘supreme interpreter of his work’. Perhaps most famous for her role as the mouth in the January 1973 production of Not I. Of 1980’s Rockaby she said: ‘I put the tape in my head. And I sort of look in a particular way, but not at the audience. Sometimes as a director Beckett comes out with absolute gems and I use them a lot in other areas. We were doing Happy Days and I just did not know where in the theatre to look during this particular section. And I asked, and he thought for a bit and then said, “Inward”‘.

She said of her role in Footfalls, ‘I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play the notes but I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting.’

‘Sam knew that I would turn myself inside out to give him what he wanted… With all of Sam’s work, the scream was there, my task was to try to get it out.’

Whitelaw stopped performing Beckett’s plays after he died in December 1989.

One of her great appeals is that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose.

The only thing important to Beckett was the situation. (p.506)

It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and was very disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

That said, Knowlson describes Beckett directing Whitelaw in her long-anticipated performance in Happy Days in 1977 led to unexpected problems. Billie turned up having learned the entire text only to discover that Beckett had made extensive minor changes of phrasing plus cutting one entire passage. Whenever she made mistakes she could see him putting his head in his hands and eventually his constant scrutiny made it impossible for her to work and she asked the director to have him removed. Surprisingly, he agreed, she got on with the production, and the final result was stunning.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

Stirrings Still by Samuel Beckett (1988)

So on unknowing and no end in sight.

‘Still’ was one of Samuel Beckett’s keywords, like ‘go’ and ‘on’ and ‘white’ and ‘dark’. All are present in Beckett’s short final prose piece, Stirrings Still. He wrote it between 1986 and 1989 at the request of his old friend and American publisher, Barney Rosset. It was first published in The Guardian on 3 March 1989 and then in a limited edition, autographed hardback version, complete with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. The Guardian edition included a review of the limited edition by Frank Kermode, and a piece on the history of the work’s publication by John Calder. It was then republished in the posthumous collection As The Story Was Told (1990). So much for its publishing history, what about the content?

Content

Stirrings Still is very short, 1,904 words long. It is divided into three parts, of 868, 697 and 339 words, respectively (46%, 37% and 17%).

Part one

Stirrings Still covers familiar territory: it is night-time; a man who much resembles the author is sitting, by himself, in a plain room and, as if in a dream or a hallucination, sees himself get up and leave:

One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.

This doubling of the protagonist might once have been a difficult scenario to grasp, but we’ve seen this kind of thing happen in so many modern movies it’s become commonplace, and Beckett himself had used the doppelgänger onstage in his play Ohio Impromptu.

Before the story can properly get going, the text mentions that it is dark, or… maybe it isn’t – and there follows a typical piece of Beckett quibbling about whether it was dark and how the protagonist could know this, the kind of crabbed, involuted, self-referential enumeration of possibilities and permutations which he perfected in Watt back in the mid-1940s and had deployed periodically ever since:

For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again. So he would simply stand there high above the earth and see through the clouded pane the cloudless sky. Its faint unchanging light unlike any light he could remember from the days and nights when day followed hard on night and night on day. This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out and left him in the dark…

This is fairly comprehensible and is intended to be painfully pedantic. It is noticeable, however, that as the piece progresses it becomes steadily more difficult to understand: sentences become longer, containing multiple clauses but with key pronouns, verbs and punctuation removed to make them harder to parse at first reading.

Now the piece starts again, with the sitting man watching himself get up and leave, and then, even more mysteriously, watching the same figure reappear and disappear, repeating the action over and over.

As when he disappeared only to reappear later at another place. Then disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. So again and again disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. Another place in the place where he sat at his table head on hands…

This miasmatic section continues as the figure with his head in hands wonders whether the departing figure will reappear as he has done up to now, half hoping, half fearing he won’t.

But then, just as quickly, there’s another burst of comprehensibility when we learn the character used to walk the back roads. This immediately reminds us of the character in Company who talks a lot about walking the old back roads before returning to his room. Same here:

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. The back roads. Now as one in a strange place seeking the way out. In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out. A way out. To the roads. The back roads.

He is old. He has memories and regrets.

There had been a time he would sometimes lift his head enough to see his hands. What of them was to be seen. One laid on the table and the other on the one. At rest after all they did. Lift his past head a moment to see his past hands. Then lay it back on them to rest it too. After all it did.

That, too, mostly makes sense. But the next paragraph moves us into more overt Beckett territory, as the syntax becomes unclear: by leaving out subject, verbs and conjunctions, the thought process becomes dazed, drugged, Alzheimered:

The same place as when left day after day for the roads. The back roads. Returned to night after night. Paced from wall to wall in the dark. The then fleeting dark of night. Now as if strange to him seen to rise and go. Disappear and reappear at another place. Disappear again and reappear again at another place again. Or at the same. Nothing to show not the same. No wall toward which or from. No table back toward which or further from. In the same place as when paced from wall to wall all places as the same. Or in another. Nothing to show not another. Where never. Rise and go in the same place as ever. Disappear and reappear in another where never. Nothing to show not another where never.

This recurring cycle of disappearing and reappearing takes over the text which specifies how it is impossible to define where it is, or whether it is even happening. Note how part of the effect is the switch in texture between sections which make total sense, or which the mind can immediately grasp – man gets up from chair, man takes to talking the back roads – and the other, far from understandable sections where the prose and syntax become more difficult and fragmented.

One of Beckett’s central effects is the way he creates a rhythmic alternation between these two states or styles or textures, so that, as you read it, you have the giddying feeling of alternating between passages which are relatively easy to understand and then, suddenly, stretches which at first sight are bewildering.

The final element in section 1 is the sudden advent of a new, disturbing theme which shocks us into the comprehensible side of the scale. For in this mental landscape there are ‘strokes and cries’. Of what? Of a whip? Of torture?

Nothing to show not another where never. Nothing but the strokes. The cries. The same as ever. Till so many strokes and cries since he was last seen that perhaps he would not be seen again. Then so many cries since the strokes were last heard that perhaps they would not be heard again. Then such silence since the cries were last heard that perhaps even they would not be heard again. Perhaps thus the end. Unless no more than a mere lull. Then all as before. The strokes and cries as before and he as before now there now gone now there again now gone again. Then the lull again. Then all as before again. So again and again. And patience till the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own…

These strokes and cries are worrying, very worrying, but even they are swept along as the water rushes to the weir which ends the section, and suddenly tumbles over into the unexpected wish for an end, the wish for ‘the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own’.

All this – the head in hands, the getting up and leaving, the reappearing, the eternal recurrence, all to the backdrop of the disturbing strokes and cries – all this is subsumed by, is swept on by, is waiting for the advent of, ‘the one true end to time and grief’.

You can see why Beckett hadn’t published this fragment, why it was lying among his notebooks when Barney Rosset’s letter arrived in 1983. It is almost too Beckettian. It contains a number of his most familiar tropes and yet… yet with a strangely rushed air about them. The doppelgänger and the strokes and cries are both given a few paragraphs and yet the whole thing seems to rush up to this final bit, the simple exhausted wish that it would all end.

Part two

If part one opened with the relatively easy notion of a man getting up from his table, part two deliberately opens with a demanding theoretical question of how we know we are in our right minds:

As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all?

Is he a reasonable being? Can anyone be a reasonable being? Note how the sentences are deliberately long and confusing. Now the protagonist appears to have emerged into an outdoors space where a clock strikes but is also still at the table.

It was therefore in the guise of a more or less reasonable being that he emerged at last he knew not how into the outer world and had not been there for more than six or seven hours by the clock when he could not but begin to wonder if he was in his right mind. By the same clock whose strokes were those heard times without number in his confinement as it struck the hours and half hours and so in a sense at first a source of reassurance till finally one of alarm as being no clearer now than when in principle muffled by his four walls.

I’m not sure the clock has much meaning but it has a function. Very often in the midst of the most abstract passages Beckett includes something hard and comprehensible. For me this is like an abstract painter deciding to add a splash of red. Red doesn’t ‘mean’ anything but it somehow balances the composition. No doubt many readers will make the clock mean something, but for me it acts as a contrast to the highly abstract language surrounding it. Anyway, not long before we’re back with the cries we learned about at the end of part one. If nothing else, this shows that part one and part two are linked, in case there was any doubt.

Then he sought help in the thought of one hastening westward at sundown to obtain a better view of Venus and found it of none. Of the sole other sound that of cries enlivener of his solitude as lost to suffering he sat at his table head on hands the same was true. Of their whenceabouts that is of clock and cries the same was true that is no more to be determined now than as was only natural then.

The protagonist is puzzled why his footsteps are so quiet but then realises he is in a field of grass, except he is disturbed because all his previous experience of grass involved a limit a border a fence, but there is none here, moreover the grass he remembers was green whereas this is long and light grey verging on white. Maybe his memory of grass is at fault so he stops to take stick, head down in meditation.

But soon weary of vainly delving in those remains he moved on through the long hoar grass resigned to not knowing where he was or how he got there or where he was going or how to get back to whence he knew not how he came. So on unknowing and no end insight.

He has reached a version of Beckett nirvana, unknowing, uncaring moving over an endless vista. Except that:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not. The strokes now faint now clear as if carried by the wind but not a breath and the cries now faint now clear.

Those strokes and cries again. Are they of torture? I’m thinking so because I’m influenced by having recently read What Where, which is very much about torture. But, rereading the words I realise they could have a sexual connotation, be soft porn strokes and cries, but… Doubtful. No-one enjoys sex in Beckett.

Part three

If part one opened with a very readable sentence – ‘One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go’ – by part 3 we have moved deep into the disjointed language of radical uncertainty:

So on till stayed when to his ears from deep within oh how and here a word he could not catch it were to end where never till then.

Didn’t quite get that?

Rest then before again from not long to so long that perhaps never again and then again faint from deep within oh how and here that missing word again it were to end where never till then.

Personally, I find this kind of thing immensely absorbing and rewarding. This is core Beckett, the style he perfected in The Unnamable and then spent 40 years struggling to move beyond because he had taken it to the limit. The technique is relatively simple:

  1. several sentences are mashed together
  2. key words (subject, verb, conjunctions) are removed
  3. all punctuation is removed

to create car crash sentences which are, initially, difficult to parse and understand, but, on rereading, begin to create a miasma of suggestive meanings. And what they suggest is a process of thought which cannot be captured in words. If I wanted to read a manual on motor car maintenance or instructions for operating a new DVD player or government advice on staying safe during a pandemic, I would expect it to be laid out in a logical order and each element clearly explained. But Beckett is at the opposite end of the spectrum from this, trying to capture the workings of a mind which might not even be a ‘mind’, trying to annotate the thought processes of events or perceptions which are beyond thought, beyond any kind of sense.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, you can make out the outlines of what is going on in this text. You can piece together a sort of summary of events: a man in a room at the table watches himself get up and leave, sees the same thing happen over and over again, begins to worry about the repetition, is worried by the sound of strokes and cries, steps out, is outside, hears a clock chime, worries about its next chime ringing or not ringing, his footsteps are quiet, it’s because he’s in a field of grass, but not like any field or any grass he can remember, if his memory works, if his mind works, stops to think, closes his eyes, reopens them and can’t decide which direction to go in…

Any prose text has to have a subject, and critics are free to analyse and comment on the events listed in this summary, and on the imagery used. But what I’m driving at is that none of this interests me very much. A little, but not very much. What interests me is the power of the sentences to take the reader to somewhere completely weird and other.

There then all this time where never till then and so far as he could see in every direction when he raised his head and opened his eyes no danger or hope as the case might be of his ever getting out of it. Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more.

In fact, if anything, Stirring Still is not, in my opinion, obscure enough. A sentence like this is disappointingly comprehensible especially when you re-introduce some sensible punctuation:

Was he, then, now to press on regardless, now in one direction and now in another, or on the other hand, stir no more, as the case might be…

This can be translated as: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ We’ve got the protagonist to an infinite field of long grey-white grass, he stops to think, he reopens his eyes, he wonders whether to move or not and if so, in what direction. OK. But just when any reader might be expecting there to be further developments… the text, very abruptly, ends with the rather blunt thought that ‘he’, the figure all this seems to be happening to, you know what? He just wants it all to end:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

And that is the end. Sudden.

Thoughts

On this read-through, then, I felt Stirrings Still is yet another continuation of the extraordinary stylistic breakthrough Beckett made in The Unnamable, but it doesn’t quite have the shock value or verve of so many of his other prose pieces – All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine, How it Is, Enough, The Dead Ones or Company. These are all genuinely weird and creepy, while Stirrings Still…

Stirrings Still is very good, it contains some vintage Beckett tropes, but it feels a little… over-familiar… And also, having read it closely half a dozen times, I’ve come to feel it doesn’t end so much as just stop, with the sudden bolting on of those last sentences about ‘Oh all to end’. They feel like a sop to all those Beckett fans who loved his earlier smash hits, ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on’, and ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Sentimentalists will read this last sentence as the sad cry of a weary old man, and maybe it is. But Beckett characters had been saying more or less the same thing for the previous forty years, except that in many of the other texts they say it with a great deal more… more depth and weirdness.

Who is Darly?

Who is the Darly who is referred to twice in the text?

  • The same place and table as when Darly for example died and left him…
  • A clock afar struck the hours and half-hours. The same as when among others Darly once died and left him…

He’s the same as Woburn in Cascando, the sudden appearance of an improbably specific name in an otherwise sea of bewildering and confusing verbiage arranged in a brainteasing way to convey mental collapse or the struggle to make sense of apparently senseless perceptions.

The sudden eruption of a proper noun like this from the morass of the spavined text introduces two singular moments of colour. Names immediately mean something to any reader; even if we don’t know who the person is, we at least know what a name is, and so the zone around the two mentions suddenly comes into focus, as if something is about to be delivered.

To me the two uses of what is obviously someone’s name perform a structural, compositional function rather than a semantic one. As with the clock, mention of Darly adds a sudden splash of ‘realism’ in an otherwise almost abstract composition. Like a recognisable face suddenly discernible in a modernist collage.

Similar, although with a slightly different flavour, is the mention of Walther in part three. Initially it feels like the Darly reference, a proper name thrown into a sea of abstraction, as a foil or highlight. However, when you learn that the reference is to a poem by medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide, a favourite of Beckett’s, then instead it feels more like a momentary reversion to the mode of the smartarse younger Beckett, filling his texts with references to obscure European literature in his pre-war stories and novels. Here’s the opening of the poem:

I sat upon a stone
covered one leg with the other
and set my elbow on them
I nestled in my hand
my chin and one of my cheeks.
In this position I started pondering
How one should live in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The poet has a rational aim and clearly states it. So one purpose of this (rather obscure) reference may be precisely to highlight the gap between the confident rationality of the Middle Ages and the gaping irrationality of both the surreal situations and the broken language found in Stirrings Still.

All that said, once again, if we look closely at the sentence Walter appears in, it isn’t really as broken as it ought to be. It is, in fact, rather tame, specially if (as above) we reintroduce some sensible punctuation:

To this end, for want of a stone on which to sit like Walther and cross his legs, the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

In a sentence like this you can hear the late Victorian or Edwardian prose which lies behind much of Beckett’s supposedly modernist language, a surprisingly starchy and formal register.

the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

Sounds like a Victorian gentleman giving evidence. In a masterpiece like The Unnamable and other weird highlights such as How It Is, Beckett developed a style which reached completely beyond his Edwardian origins and probed into a new linguistic world. But here, in Stirrings Still, the more times I read it, despite the length and obscurity of some of its sentences, what really comes over to me is how unobscure and unrevolutionary a lot of it is. Take the very next sentence after the Walther one: all you have to do is add a few commas to make it look surprisingly conventional:

But soon, weary of vainly delving in those remains, he moved on through the long hoar grass, resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

This could almost come from an Edwardian children’s story. It could almost be from The Wind In The Willows. It sounds a little like the Terry Pratchett audiobook my daughter was listening to recently, in the sense that long sentences which simply pile together clauses with a series of ‘or’s or ‘and’s –

resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

often end up sounding like the naive ‘and then and then and then’ of children’s fiction. For sure the next sentence returns to the reassuring obliquities of avant-garde prose:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not.

But even this has the same breathless, running-three-sentences-together quality you find in a certain kind of children’s book.

Finally, the last few sentences with their sudden introduction of the theme of wanting it all to end, are arguably a reversion to the grown-up, proper thing:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

But, having come this far down this rather negative analysis, I can’t help feeling that even this sounds a bit like the famous cry from the kids in the back of the car: ‘Are we there yet?’ It certainly feels like a sudden switch, like this Final Thought has been bolted onto something which didn’t really organically lead up to it.

Sentimental interpretation

In fact Beckett was nearly there, at the destination so many of his characters long for. A few months after the luxury edition was published, Beckett died, old and frail in a care home. If we read the final sentences with sympathy, as the cry of an old man wishing for relief, then it can be very moving.

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

In this mood, it reminds me of a similar plea by the English poet, W.H. Auden, prematurely worn out by a life of drink and drugs, which was published in his final book of poetry, Thank You Fog, in 1974:

He still loves life
But O O O O how he wishes
The good Lord would take him.

Charitable interpretation

At first sight it’s of only negligible interest to learn that Beckett wrote Stirrings Still for his long-time American publisher Barney Rosset. But your reading completely changes when you learn that Rosset had recently fallen on hard times, having been dismissed as the chief editor at the Grove Press, and had asked Beckett for something with which to launch a new publishing venture, Blue Moon Books.

Now, a strong theme which emerges from a reading of James Knowlson’s wonderful biography of Beckett is that he was a very soft touch, he became known as a fantastically kind, considerate and charitable man, that he could never turn down any requests for financial assistance, whether from friends, family or total strangers.

If we return to Stirring Still’s history we find that Beckett replied to Rosset’s request with the text which makes up part one of the piece, which he had lying around as a fragment, but then took some time, in fact three years, to rustle up the other two parts, to try to give the piece an overall coherence, even though they only amount to four or so pages of text.

Now, the three parts of Stirrings Still do make sense, and they do hang together as three successive stages of psychological collapse, or end-stage visions. There is a definite progression in the narrative and it is described in prose which also becomes progressively more disintegrated. And yet, as I’ve highlighted, it still feels… a little rushed and not quite…

So it sheds real light on your understanding of Stirrings Still to learn that it was written as a favour to an old friend. This real world background knowledge helps to explain the rather cobbled-together nature of the text, which I’ve been increasingly struck by on every rereading.

Maybe Stirrings Still isn’t really the fitting conclusion to Beckett’s extraordinary career as an experimental and highly innovative writer that his fans would like it to be; maybe what it is is a testament to Beckett’s extraordinary kindness and generosity to his friends and to everyone who was in need of his help. Maybe it is less an artistic, than a moral achievement.


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

What Where by Samuel Beckett (1983)

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

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

Setup

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

BAM
BEM
BIM
BOM
VOICE OF BAM (V)

Beckett gives relatively short and simple stage directions:

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

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

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

TV production

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

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

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

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

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

Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What where

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beckett on Film production

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

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

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

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

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

VOICE: We are the last five.

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

The German version, reprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reflexive consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

It says what it means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two versions

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

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

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

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


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Rough for Radio I and II by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Samuel Beckett and radio plays

Samuel Beckett is best known for his stage plays (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days) and his novels (MurphyWatt, Malone Dies), but he was also fascinated by the medium of radio. Between 1956 and 1963, Beckett wrote no fewer than seven radio plays (six original scripts, and an Irish-flavoured reimagining of Robert Pinget’s French play, La Manivelle). In his words, these are plays designed ‘to come out of the dark’.

To many critics, the radio plays are the quintessential Beckett. Stripped of the distractions of stage settings and decor,  or having to arrange for actors’ positions and movements, the two Roughs consist of voice alone, almost of language alone, performing. As his career progressed, Beckett’s writing became more intimate and experimental, filled with internal monologues and unseen ghostly voices and, at this point in his career, radio allows this stripped-back style to the fullest.

Rough for Radio I and II are two experimental works in this style, attempts to see how what dynamics can be achieved by voice and sounds – and silences, and long silent pauses – alone.

Rough for Radio I consists of 5 pages of text and lasts about 15 minutes when dramatised. It is an incomplete ‘sketch’ of a sort of encounter between a disembodied male and female voice for the first half, which then switches to the male character by himself having a series of three phone calls – each step in the two halves punctuated by bursts of very loud music, as if from a machine or continuum of loud mad sound which never ceases.

Rough For Radio II feels like a very different beast. Although only ten pages of text, it lasts about 25 minutes when dramatised, and has something much more like a conventional setting and scenario, namely some kind of interrogation room in which a female stenographer reads back a record of the previous day’s proceedings to the man in charge of torturing a prisoner tied to a chair, while an unspeaking henchman, Dick, occasionally whips the poor victim. Even so, though it sounds and is grim, it is written in a peculiarly mannered mannered and distancing style, which makes it more absurdist than political in impact.

Rough for Radio I

Beckett wrote this brief sketch (it is 5 pages long in the Collected plays) in 1961. Rough for Radio I is the only Beckett radio play never to be produced by the BBC. He left it untouched for years before translating it into English, and publishing it in Stereo Headphones magazine in 1976 as ‘Sketch for Radio Play’.

None of his plays are conventional narratives or traditional plays, but Rough for Radio I is a more experimental sketch than most. It is an aural and psychological ‘experience’ more than a conventional drama. It weaves together dialogue, music and abrupt sound effects to create a dislocated, distant feel. In its mashing up of music and voices it sounded, to me, like avant-garde opera and music-theatre pieces from the 1960s, and a bit like the sampling that came in in the 1980s music culture.

This is a live recording of an American production. In my opinion the very long silences kill any dynamism or interest the play may just about have.

Plot summary

Two voices, a man and a woman. Huge silent gaps between their fragmented dialogue. She asks if the music goes on all the time. He confirms it all in a bleak Dantesque kind of way (at one point the dialogue specifically references Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso). He continually calls her ‘madam’, in an aggressive, almost facetious way. (I wonder if anyone says ‘Madam’ nowadays.) She asks to sit on a cushion. She asks if these are the two knobs and turns one. Sudden burst of sound. In the olden days this burst would have been from a radio, in the style of John Cage’s early pieces for random radio, but nowadays it could be any type of sound or music from any number of gadgets.

Is it live? she asks. His only reply is to tell her to turn it to the right. This instruction and these bursts of music are repeated a few more times, then, after less than 3 pages, she leaves. There’s a rare moment of comedy, the kind of broad physical comedy which suddenly erupts in Waiting For Godot, when she apparently nearly bumps into the garbage outside the building.

Now alone, the man becomes more desperate and makes a series of staccato outbursts. With the woman departed, the interplay is now between the man and what, in the stage instructions is described as MUSIC. In the American production this is taken as loud bursts of modern music like rock or rap. They all seem to drive the male voice mad. Between these bursts he makes a series of increasingly desperate phone calls.

The phone calls appear to be to a hospital where he is asking of news, the second call mentions ‘confinements’. Obscurely, it seems as if MUSIC herself might be having a baby?? Is this all a satire on the pointlessness of giving birth and the horror of existence? Or an obscure allegory about the state or purpose of music as a form?

The male character’s words are in the familiar Beckett style – fragments of language with a heavy sense of pointlessness, endlessness, decline, collapse, repeated, in this production, against the abrupt, aurally violent backgrounds of the various musical interludes. One time he slams down the phone yelling ‘slut’. Next time he gets enraged and slams down the phone yelling ‘swine!’

The phone rings a third time and he appears to be being told not to expect the doctor before noon the next day; he has two births to attend to, one of which is breech. The voice and music then trail off into silence.

You can see why it isn’t performed very often. Most critics consider that the ‘ideas’ in the fragment, such as they are, were more successfully developed in Words and Music, a radio play he wrote soon afterwards and addresses the interplay of the two forms more fully.

Rough for Radio II

Rough for Radio II is more obviously plot-driven than Rough for Radio I. It is a princely ten pages in the Faber paperback edition.

As so often, it’s a piece for just two characters. In this case the two speaking characters, Animator and Stenographer, appear to be torturing and interrogating Fox, an enigmatic character who says hardly anything and then bursts into frantic, almost meaningless tirades.

The text mostly consists of Animator asking Stenographer to read back an account of the day before’s interrogation, interspersed by his heavy-handed criticisms and repeated commands to non-speaking Dick to whip Fox with a bull’s pizzle. The play opens as Animator instructs Fox’s gag and blindfold to be removed.

The following production was made at the Rocky Mount Imperial Centre, which appears to be in America, featuring Ivan Price as A, Brooke Edwards as S, Ben Griffith as Fox and  and directed by Brook Edwards. It hasn’t been viewed many times but, listening and reading the text alongside, it appears to be a completely faithful animation of the play as written, and is well-acted in the style the play calls for.

From everything I’ve read about torture, this play is nothing remotely like the process. Instead it seems to me as stylised and conventional as a Baroque painting of a saint looking up to heaven with baby angels fluttering in the sky. What I mean is it is full of arch and contrived mannerisms, which bespeak the ideology of a very particular time and place which later ages will find ridiculous.

1. For example, the real relationship isn’t between torturer and victim but the much more mannered and stylised relationship between Animator and Stenographer. Not least when he invites her to take off her overalls and then ejaculates: ‘Staggering! Staggering!’ at the result. Sounds more like a 70s soft porn movie. Animator heartily wishes he was forty years younger. Carry on Torturing.

2. It is peculiar that Fox appears to be whipped and tortured but rarely makes the sound of someone being tortured, no moans, only a few, rare cries of pain. The reverse. The piece is punctuated when Fox gives voice not to screams but to sudden outbursts of demented verbosity:

That for sure, no further, and there gaze, all the way up, all the way down, slow gaze, age upon age, up again, down again, little lichens of my own span, living dead in the stones, and there took to the tunnels. [Silence. Ruler. ] Oceans too, that too, no denying, I drew near down the tunnels, blue above, blue ahead, that for sure, and there too, no further, ways end, all ends and farewell, farewell and fall, farewell seasons, till I fare again.

These don’t sound like the confessions of anyone being tortured but, the reverse, exactly like the meaningless loquacity of the characters in The Beckett Trilogy, that source of much of Beckett’s style and manner which he mined and repeated for the rest of his career. As stylised as a Gothic statue or an eighteenth century wig.

3. The sexual theme is rather surprisingly repeated towards the end when Animator orders the Stenographer to revive Fox by kissing him, which she proceeds to do at great length while he eggs her on. I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect kissing is not a common torture technique, except maybe in BDSM porn movies. The stripping, the kissing, have infinitely more to do with that mood of stylised sexual grotesquerie which you find in so many avant-garde plays. Same when the interrogation turns a few minutes later to the subject of breasts heavy with milk. Stripping women, kissing, full breast.

4. But above all, the pauses…. It seems as if, in the 1960s and 70s, Beckett and Harold Pinter between them managed to persuade large numbers of theatre goers that having their characters speak in fragments, never utter complete sentences, and punctuate everything with loooooong pauses, created a more dramatic effect, or was in some mysterious way more lifelike. We were forced to read Pinter when I was at school and he drove me to paroxysms of boredom. It seemed to me then and seems to me now the use of these techniques is contrived and lifeless.

Mannerisms

Taken together, Rough For Theatre I and 2 strike me mostly as being excellent examples of how long, long, loooong pauses between would-be portentous fragments of dialogue kill everything we usually mean by drama, dialogue or character, completely stone dead.

This collection of mannerisms – not obvious or abstract scenarios, unnamed characters, fragmented dialogue, long silences, bursts of manic music or speech (as in Fox’s frantic tirades) – was, I think, genuinely revolutionary and wildly innovative in the theatre of the 1950s dominated by the stiflingly realistic drawing room dramas of Terence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham. This experimentalism became more popular and widespread during the 1960s and, by the time I started reading seriously in the 1970s, it had become the dominant style of not only much drama but of the films Pinter wrote scripts for, heavy with portentous fragmented dialogue.

It had become a heavy, claustrophobic manner and, when we were forced to read it at school, I found it much more alienating and unreal than Milton or Chaucer or Shakespeare who spoke to me far more directly and immediately about my actual life and feelings. Plus, the Beckett / Pinter style was smarmily approved by my middle-aged English teacher, who nodded approvingly at its fragmented dialogue, wilful repetitions, long pauses. It was the cultural equivalent of the approved polytechnic radicalism which Malcolm Bradbury satirises in The History Man. Dad drama.

In this respect the Absurdist or Beckett style was very much like post-war serialist or International Style of serious music, as promoted by Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis et al – which was astonishingly radical in the late 1940s and 50s, spread across universities and music colleges in the 1960s, was used as the jagged soundtrack to umpteen experimental movies, but had become a formula and an over-dominating manner by the mid-1970s, and so was ripe to be replaced by minimalism and returns to more traditional forms and harmonics by various individual composers (Gorecki, Ligeti et al).

These fragments are interesting as examples of Beckett experimenting with the International Style he helped define in Waiting For Godot and Endgame, experimenting with its elements in the relatively ‘pure’ medium of radio, uncluttered by visuals. Possibly they are both failures, but they’re interesting failures, and studying them informs your understanding of, or feel for, a lot of the drama of the 60s and 70s, notably the GCSE set text plays of Harold Pinter.


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

Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

Historical notes

England had three king Edwards in a row, over a century of Edwards – Edward I (1272 to 1307), Edward II (1307 to 1327), Edward III (1327 to 1377).

Ed the first was a hard man who devoted himself to conquering Wales and Scotland, acquiring the nicknames Edward Longshanks (he was, apparently, over 6 foot 6 in height) and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’.

Edward III came to the throne as a boy (hence the unusual length of his reign, 50 years) and for the first decade England was ruled by his mother and her lover. Once he had thrown off their tutelage, he also became a mighty king, launching what became the Hundred Years War against France, during which his son, Edward the Black Prince, won famous victories at Crecy and Poitiers.

In between came the second Edward who is traditionally seen as one of the Middle Ages’ ‘bad’ kings. Not as awful as king John, but nonetheless he ruled unwisely, alienated the population, most of his nobles, struggled against rebellion and insurrection. The most notable battle of his reign was the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn where 6,000 Scots, led by Robert Bruce, crushed an army of 15,000 English infantry supported by 2,500 heavy cavalry.

Marlowe is not interested in much of this. What fascinates Marlowe the playwright is the relationship between Edward the fey king and his notorious favourite, Piers Gaveston. As a boy Edward was presented with a foster brother, a child named Pierce (alternately Piers or Peter) Gaveston, the son of a Flemish knight who had fought with the king against the Scots. Gaveston became Edward’s nearest friend and confidant, a relationship which grew into something deeper, a profound dependency.

This may or may not have been a homosexual relationship, in the modern sense of the word (Edward had a wife, Queen Isabella, of France) but Edward became intensely dependent on his favourite’s company, and showered him with inappropriate honours, land and titles, which helped to fuel widespread anger at both men. The French royal family took the closeness of the relationship as an insult to the queen, and so forced Edward to exile Gaveston.

In fact Gaveston was sent into exile not once, but three times, once under Edward I right at the end of the old king’s reign, and twice under Ed the second, from spring 1308 to July 1309 into Ireland, and from October to December 1311. In the play, Marlowe elides the second and third exiles into one. When Gaveston returned for a third time, in 1312, his behaviour continued to infuriate his enemies so much that he was hunted down and executed by a group of magnates. King Edward may have been distraught but he still had 15 years of reign left, so Gaveston was in no way the primary cause of his downfall.

Instead Edward now shifted his reliance to the Despenser family (referred to throughout the play as ‘Spencers’), and to another young man his own age, Hugh Despenser (Spencer) the Younger. It was as he shifted his reliance to this family, rewarding numerous members with honours and land, that a really determined opposition to Edward’s rule gained strength, and it solidified when his wife returned to Paris in 1325 and refused to come back. His regime began to collapse as his advisers abandoned him and Edward was forced to flee to Wales, where he was captured and taken to Berkeley Castle, where he died on 21 September 1327, it is generally thought he was murdered, and soon a gaudy rumour went around that he had been killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus and pushed up into his bowels.

Executive summary

The Elizabethan Drama website gives a good summary:

  • Part One: Act I.i – Act III.i – the Gaveston years (1307 to 1312)
  • Transitional Scene: Act III.ii – the scene ties together Gaveston’s removal in 1312 to Edward’s military challenge to Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322.
  • Part Two: Act III.iii – Act V.v – the final years of Edward’s reign (1322 to 1327)
  • Coda: Act V.vi, the final scene of the play; the end of the Mortimer era (1330).

The play

Act 1

Scene 1 Marlowe pitches us straight into the action, as we find Piers Gaveston onstage reading a letter from the king telling him his father (Edward I) is dead (7 July 1307), and to hasten back from exile to his bosom.

In his opening speech, Marlowe makes it crystal clear what kind of sensual sybarite Gaveston is:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die

It is very gay. Gaveston says that, having just returned from exile, he is like Leander, arriving panting on the shore having swum across the Hellespont to be with his lover, and looks forward to embracing the king, and ‘dying’ on his bosom, where dying has the obvious romantic meaning, but is also the Elizabethan sense of having an orgasm. And in this long quote note how Gaveston thinks entirely in terms of men and boys, men like satyrs, his pages dressed like girls (sylvan nymphs are always female), lovely boys coyly hiding their groins with olive branches. It is a gay fantasia.

It’s quite jarring when the play leaves these visions of sensual homoerotic bliss and, with a loud crunching of gears, suddenly turns into a Shakespeare history play with the abrupt arrival of King Edward, Lancaster, the elder Mortimer,Young Mortimer, Kent, Warwick, Pembroke and Attendants. Suddenly Marlowe tries to persuade us he is the author of a historical drama and it’s not totally believable.

Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, an immensely rich and powerful man, loathes the upstart Gaveston. He is exceeded in his hatred by Young Mortimer. Both tell Edward they promised the recently dead king to keep Gaveston in exile, so they are outraged that Edward has recalled him. Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a half-brother of King Edward, and he speaks up for Edward and reproaches the two others for daring to criticise the king. He goes so far as to suggest the king cut off Lancaster and Mortimer’s heads. Young Mortimer calls Edward ‘brain-sick’ and Lancaster says, if Gaveston is recalled, Edward should expect to have his head thrown at his feet. The angry rebellious nobles exit.

Gaveston has been hiding and overhearing and commenting in asides on the preceding dialogue. Now he steps out and lets Edward see him, who is delighted and embraces him. And promptly makes him Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Isle of Man. He offers him a personal guard, gold, and his own royal seal. Kent points that even one of these titles would be excessive for a man of Gaveston’s modest background, but this only incenses the king to shower more gifts on him.

Enter Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry. It was a quarrel with the bishop – caused when Gaveston invaded his woods to go hunting – that escalated till the old king, Edward I, sided with his bishop and exiled Gaveston. Now Gaveston gets the opportunity for revenge, the pair fall to insulting each other and Edward eggs Gaveston on to knock off the bishop’s headdress, tear his clothes and beat him up. Edward says he’ll seize all the bishop’s rents and assign them to Gaveston. Gaveston announces he’ll have the bishop consigned to the Tower of London.

It’s easy to see why all responsible subjects, at every level, would despise and hate Edward and Piers.

Scene 2 The elder and younger Mortimers, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster meet together and share how appalled they are at news of the wealth and titles Edward is lavishing on Gaveston. They are joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who tells them about the terrible treatment of the bishop of Coventry.

They are joined by young Queen Isabella (the historical Isabella was born in 1295 and so was 12 years old when she married Edward in 1307) who laments that Edward ignores her and gives all his attention, love and money to Gaveston. Together they decide to call a meeting of all the nobles, a parliament, and pass a law to banish Gaveston.

Scene 3 The briefest of scenes in which Gaveston tells Kent he knows about the plot. Basically it’s a fig leaf to pretend the passing of time, until…

Scene 4 The rebellious nobles assembled in Westminster. They’ve barely finished signing the document, when Edward himself arrives, seats himself on his throne with Gaveston at his right hand. All the nobles tut and complain at this inappropriate positioning. Edward orders officials to lay hands on the rebels, but the rebels issue counter-orders for Gaveston to be arrested and taken away, and it’s these orders the officials obey.

The archbishop remonstrates with Edward, but fiery young Mortimer interrupts to tell him to excommunicate the king, then they can depose him and elect a new one. The impact of all this for the reader is that both sides use extreme language – a kind of Tamburlainian excessiveness of language – right from the start.

Edward immediately capitulates, collapsing into a whining boy, handing out titles like sweeties to the assembled lords, so long as they’ll leave him part of England to frolic in with Gaveston:

So I may have some nook or corner left,
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston

Young Mortimer is genuinely puzzled why the king loves such a worthless fellow. Edward’s reply is disarmingly simple:

KING EDWARD: Because he loves me more than all the world.

Despite this avowal, Edward realises his entire nobility is against him, and so signs the document of Gaveston’s banishment, with tears. The nobles leave Edward alone on the stage to rage against their actions, and especially the tyranny of the archbishop and of the Catholic church, vowing to burn its churches to the ground, fill the Tiber with slaughtered priests and then massacre his entire nobility.

It is the totalising, hyper-violent mindset of Tamburlaine, there is no subtlety, none of the sensitivity of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Enter Gaveston who has heard he is to be exiled. Alas yes, says the king, but his love will never fade. Edward has the idea of sending Gaveston to be governor of Ireland (which is what actually happened, in 1308). They exchange miniature portraits of each other and then can’t take leave.

Luckily the queen enters and Edward lets her have both barrels, expressing his dislike, calling her a French whore (see what I mean about the intemperateness of the language?). Edward angrily accuses her of involvement in the exile plot, and leaves with Gaveston.

Alone onstage Isabella laments that she ever got married, wishing she had drowned on the sea crossing or been poisoned at her wedding.

Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, the Elder Mortimer and Young Mortimer re-enter and are sorry for Isabella, who they find sitting alone and weeping. She turns to them and begs them to repeal the banishment of Gaveston; they are astonished, but she explains that begging them for Gaveston’s return is the only hope she has of winning back Edward’s heart. She takes Young Mortimer aside and whispers her reasons to him as the others talk.

Then, to their consternation, Mortimer returns and begs the nobles to overturn their decision. He argues that Gaveston may make friends and allies in Ireland, on balance, better to have him back in London where a servant can be bribed to assassinate him. And banishing then recalling Gaveston will humiliate him and make him realise his place. And his bad behaviour will mean they have the people on their side. Isabelle thinks it’s a good plan, and hopes it will make the king love her again.

Edward re-enters, dressed in mourning and deeply lamenting the departure of Gaveston, wishing he had been struck dead by some fury from hell. So when Isabelle tells him the nobles have relented and will let Gaveston return, he embraces her, weeps and kisses her. But, quite obviously, not for her sake.

In his relief and delirium Edward showers the rebel nobles with titles and positions, Warwick shall be his chief counsellor, Pembroke shall bear his sword in processions, he offers Young Mortimer admiral of the fleet, or Lord Marshall, he makes Elder Mortimer, general of his army against the Scots.

Having acted and sounded like a proper king, Edward then calls in a messenger to send the recall to Gaveston in Ireland. And tells the lords he has arranged Gaveston’s marriage to the heir of the Earl of Gloucester, then invites them all inside for a feast.

Leaving the Elder Mortimer who tells the Young Mortimer the king has reformed, and goes on to list a number of rulers and heroes from the ancient world who had young male friends or lovers. Elder Mortimer trusts that, as Edward matures, he will abandon his youthful ‘toy’. Young Mortimer details what it is about Gaveston that infuriates him – the enormously expensive clothes he wear,s worth a respectable lord’s entire revenue, that he struts around the court, that he and the king mock respectable nobles. Still – both of them believe the king has made a sincere repentance.

Act 2

Scene 1 In the household of the Earl of Gloucester, who has just died, his servants Spenser and Baldock debate which great man to attach themselves to, Spenser electing the Earl of Cornwall (Gaveston). He goes on to lecture the bookish Baldock on how he needs to dress more boldly, and be more sycophantic, if he wants to rise in the world (all this being a satire on contemporary Elizabethan fashions and behaviour).

Enter Margaret de Clare, dead Gloucester’s sister and niece of Edward II. For years, since the first Edward’s time, she has been pegged to be married to Gaveston and now she reads out a letter he has sent her, declaring her his love. She tucks it in her bosom, where she hopes her lord will rest his head, and tells Spenser he will be rewarded for his service.

Scene 2 On the coast, with a party of nobles, Edward joyfully greets Gaveston as he returns from Ireland. To pass the time he asks the nobles what emblems they’ve come up with for the tournament he plans to hold in Gaveston’s favour. The king ignores news of the French king’s manoeuvres in Normandy, and the nobles notice all he cares about is his favourite.

The emblems are slyly critical of the king and he gets angry. Isabelle tries to calm him. But all is forgot when Gaveston actually appears and Edward enthusiastically greets him, then turns to his nobles to get them to greet him as keenly. Of course, they don’t, some being sarcastic, Gaveston is immediately offended and Edward eggs him on to insult them. The argument quickly gets out of control, Lancaster draws a sword as if to stab Gaveston, the king calls his servants to defend them, Young Mortimer draws a sword and does manage to wound Gaveston.

Gaveston is taken away and the king banishes Lancaster and Young Mortimer from his court. These two say Gaveston will lose his head, the king says it’s they who will lose their heads, and so the two parties exit opposite sides of the stage, threatening to raise armies.

Come, Edmund, let’s away, and levy men;
‘Tis war that must abate these barons’ pride.

Edward storms out and the rebel nobles make a vow to fight until Gaveston is dead. Enter a messenger who says Elder Mortimer, leading an English army, has been captured and his captors demand £5,000. With what seems to me wild inconsistency, Young Mortimer says he’ll go see the king (who he’t just declared war on) to beg for the ransom.

The scene cuts to Tynemouth castle, the idea that Young Mortimer and Lancaster force their way in past the guard and confront the king. He tells them to ransom Elder Mortimer themselves. They point out he was fighting in Scotland on the king’s behalf, and go on to give Edward a reality check: his royal treasury is empty, the people are revolting against him, his garrisons have been beaten out of France, while the Scots are allying with the Irish against the English, Edward is so weak foreign princes don’t bother sending him ambassadors, his treatment of his wife has alienated the French royal family, the English nobles avoid his court, and ballads about his overthrow are sung in the streets, the inhabitants or north England – overrun by the Scots – curse his and Gaveston’s names. Not a good situation, is it?]

EARL OF LANCASTER: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed;

Young Mortimer says he’ll sell one of his estates to ransom his old uncle and he and Lancaster storm out in a fury. Now even loyal Kent, the king’s half-brother, counsels the king to get rid of Gaveston, but the king furiously rejects his advice, and so Kent, the last word of sanity, reluctantly abandons him.

Enter Queen Isabella with waiting women and Spenser and Baldock. Very unfairly, the king blames Isabella for all his troubles – until Gaveston advises the king to dissemble and be nice to her. She is pathetically grateful for even the slightest show of affection. Conversation turns to Young Mortimer and Gaveston briskly recommends the king cut off his head.

It may be worth just pausing a moment here and noting there is something hysterical about all Marlowe’s plays. Maybe it’s because of the direct contrast with Shakespeare’s history plays, but there is absolutely no subtlety: Gaveston is madly passionately sensuously in love with Edward from the start, the king ignores his nobles, within a page or two of them appearing both parties are threatening to stab, murder, assassinate and overthrow each other.

Baldock and Spencer turn up and are taken into Edward’s service on the recommendation of Gaveston.

Edward confirms that he will marry Gaveston to Margaret, his (Edward’s) niece and only heir to the deceased Earl of Gloucester.

Digression on Marlowe’s lack of subtlety

In Dido, Aeneas either completely loved Dido or completely overthrew her in order to leave for Italy, there was no halfway house. Tamburlaine is turned up to maximum mayhem throughout both his plays. Barabas in The Jew of Malta is a scheming murderous miser from the get-go. There is, in other words, precious little subtlety in Marlowe, not psychological subtlety, anyway. What there is is the thrill of the extremity, exorbitance and hyperbole of so many of the emotions, the melodrama; and there is tremendous pleasure to be had from the combination of sensuality and power in the verse, in the quality of the poetry.

Scene 3 Kent announces to Lancaster, Young Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke and the other conspirators that he has broken with his half-brother, Edward, and is joining them. Some suspect he is a spy but Lancaster vouches for him. Whereat Young Mortimer tells the drums to sound so they can storm the castle in which are the king, Gaveston et al.

Scene 4 Inside Tynemouth castle as the rebels storm it Amid the alarms of battle, Edward tells Gaveston, Margaret and the queen to escape by ship, he will post by land with Spencer. They all exit except the queen, who is found when Lancaster and the rebels come onstage. She laments her unhappy lot, blaming everything on Gaveston. They ask where the others have gone, she explains the king split his followers into two parties hoping similarly to divide the nobles. Young Mortimer is sympathetic to the queen and invites her to go with them as they chase the king. She demurs. The rebels exit. Isabella is left alone and says she is beginning to love Mortimer, at least he is kind to her.

Scene 5 Country near Scarborough Enter Gaveston closely pursued by the lords who capture and arrest him. The leading rebels all declare they will have Gaveston hanged immediately, only refusing to stab him to death because it would dishonour them. At that moment enter the Earl of Arundel as messenger of the king, begging a last opportunity to see Gaveston. They all deny the request, urging that Gaveston be hastened to death but old Arundel gives his word that Gaveston will be returned, and then Pembroke nobly joins him. The others reluctantly agree.

The scene abruptly cuts to somewhere in southern England, the idea being that Pembroke and Arundel and their men guarding Gaveston have travelled this far to take him for his last interview with the king. In a page or so it is explained that Pembroke took the fatal decision to depart from the route for the night, to see his wife who lived nearby, and leave Gaveston in the charge of some of his soldiers.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Warwick and his men. They have ambushed Pembroke’s party while Pembroke was away. Now they capture Gaveston and drag him off to murder him.

Scene 2 Edward laments his Gaveston is lost. Young Spencer says, if it was him, he’d behead all the rebel nobles (this is exactly what Gaveston suggested right at the start of the play: that’s what I mean by lack of subtlety). Spenser’s father, Old Spenser, arrives with soldiers. He has come to serve his king. For his loyalty Edward creates him Earl of Wiltshire.

Enter the queen with letters from her brother the king of France, that he has seized Edward’s lands in Normandy. Edward charges his wife and young son to travel to France to negotiate with the French king. (In reality, the future Edward III was not born until 1312, after Gaveston’s murder).

Enter the Earl of Arundel with the news that Gaveston is dead. He recapitulates the story of his meeting with the rebels, his pledge to return Gaveston to them, how Warwick’s force ambushed Pembroke’s while their lord was away, abducted Gaveston, and cut his head off in a ditch. Well, Edward is not happy, although Marlowe lacks the psychology and the language to ‘do’ grief. He is much better at anger and vengeance:

Treacherous Warwick! traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursèd traitorous progeny.

Moving the plot briskly along, Marlowe has Edward adopt young Spenser as Gaveston’s replacement in his affections.

Even more briskly, the nobles send a messenger who demand that Edward rid himself of his new favourite, Spenser. This is one among many moments when Marlowe doesn’t just concertina events, he crushes them to a pulp, moving through the actual sequence of historical events at light speed. Edward contemns the nobles’ request, embraces young Spenser, chases the herald off the stage and vows defiance.

End of part one / part two

I found it invaluable to read the annotated Elizabethan Drama version of the play which, at this point, has an extended note which explains that there is now a Big Jump in time. The Gaveston years are over (Gaveston was murdered in 1312) and the play now leaps over ten years to 1322. A lot has happened, but Part Two opens with the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322. Edward is on the rise, has raised an army of 30,000, and chased Lancaster’s rebel army up the river Severn to the village of Boroughbridge.

Scene 3 The battle is in mid-flow and Marlowe brings Edward and his established favourite, Young Spenser, on one side of the stage opposite Lancaster, Young Mortimer and the other rebels on the other, so the two groups can hurl abuse at each other. He did the same thing in the Tamburlaine plays. For the umpteenth time Edward claims the rebels will pay with their heads.

Scene 4 The king is triumphant, crows over Lancaster, Warwick and Young Mortimer, commands his men to take them away and behead Lancaster, Warwick et al, but consign Young Mortimer to the Tower. Warwick calls him a tyrant. Edward and his train exit.

Leaving Young Spenser to brief an ambassador from France to go back to France and persuade the king and nobles to drop their support for Isabella. This requires a note of explanation: In March 1325 Isabella had returned to France and refused to return, sick of being ignored by her husband, and had begun to plot his overthrow. In this scene Spenser gives the ambassador gold to bribe French nobles away from the queen.

Act 4

Scene 1 London near the Tower Enter Kent who has been banished. He is hoping for a fair wind to carry him to France. He is joined by Young Mortimer, who has escaped from the Tower of London.

Scene 2 Paris It is 1325, three years after the Battle of Boroughbridge where Edward decisively established full control over his realm. We are in Paris with Queen Isabella and their son, Edward, the future Edward III. She had been sent there to broker a peace deal with the French king. In this scene she laments that England is under the rule of the rapacious Spencer family and the king under the thumb of Young Hugh Spencer, and also laments that her plans to raise the French nobles to support her return and overthrow Spencer, have come to nothing. She is ‘friendless in France.’

Enter Sir John of Hainault who invites them to come and stay at his estate. And then she is delighted by the arrival of Kent and Young Mortimer from England. They assure her many will rise up to overthrow Edward, if someone gives them a lead. All of them are grateful for Hainault’s offer of support and hospitality.

Scene 3 In King Edward’s palace at Westminster The king rejoices with his lackeys (young Spenser is now Earl of Gloucester) at his achievement, for the first time, of complete control over his realm. He gets Spenser to read out a list of the nobles who have been executed, then they discuss the reward they’ve put out on Young Mortimer’s head.

Enter a messenger with a letter from the ambassador sent to France warning that the queen and her allies (Mortimer and Kent) plan to return and raise a rebellion. Edward defies them, and calls on the winds to blow their fleet quickly across the sea to England so he can defeat them in battle.

Scene 4 Harwich The rebels have landed (24 September 1326). Queen Isabella laments her husband’s bad kingship. She is superseded by Mortimer who makes a speech to the assembled troops explaining they have come with two specific goals: to reclaim for Isabella all the lands that have been sequestered by the Despencer family; and to remove the king’s bad advisers (the Despencer family).

Scene 5 Bristol The queen’s party gained strength as it marched on London, and Edward was forced to flee West. At the start of the scene Spenser counsels the king to take ship to Ireland, Edward demurs and says they must stand and fight, but Baldock counsels flight and they scarper.

Enter Edmund Duke of Kent, Edward’s half-brother who – if you remember – was loyal for most of the first half, before being driven to join the rebels. Now he regrets it, now he’s seen Young Mortimer snogging the queen, he fears their aim to overthrow the king altogether:

Fie on that love that hatcheth death and hate!

Bristol has surrendered without a struggle to the rebels. Kent is worried that Mortimer is watching him.

Enter Queen Isabella, Prince Edward, Young Mortimer, and Sir John of Hainault. They have triumphed. Edward has fled. His son is declared Lord Warden of the realm. Kent asks how they’re going to treat the king? Mortimer mutters to Isabella that he doesn’t like Kent’s soft attitude.

A Welsh nobleman enters with the elder Spencer. He says Young Spenser has taken ship with the king to Ireland. Mortimer orders Elder Spenser to be taken away and executed.

Scene 6 Neath Abbey (Historical note: by mid-November, Edward and his few remaining followers – including Arundel, Baldock and Younger Spenser – were in hiding at the abbey of Neath in south Wales.) The abbot welcomes the small party to the abbey. Edward appreciates the peace and quiet.

They’ve barely been assured they are quite safe here, before enter Welsh nobleman Rice ap Howell and Leicester to arrest them for high treason. Spenser and Baldock are taken away – the general idea, to be beheaded – the king is to be escorted to Kenilworth Castle. When Leicester says they have a litter ready to convey him, Edward lets fly with some Marlovian hyperbole:

A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence.
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

Note the characteristically Marlovian use of Greek classical myth. Leicester takes away the king. Baldock and Spenser lament their fate. Arundel and Spencer were hanged, castrated and eviscerated.

Act 5

Scene 1 (Historical note: It is now 20 January 1327. Edward is being kept at Kenilworth castle. He has surrendered the Great Seal to Mortimer and Isabella) Leicester is treating Edward kindly, but Edward has a long speech lamenting his situation. Parliament has sent a delegation (the bishop of Winchester and Trussel) asking him to abdicate. Edward takes off his crown but is loath to hand it over and delivers a lengthy soliloquy whose beauty and unexpected sensitivity anticipates Shakespeare.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The nobles demand he resign the crown to his son, young Edward, for the time being the ward of the queen and Mortimer, but Edward, for page after page, agonises, accuses them, prevaricates – it is genuinely moving in a way rare for Marlowe. He tells them to take his handkerchief, wet with tears, to the queen.

Sir Thomas, Lord of Berkeley Castle, arrives with a commission to take possession of the king (he is being passed from one gaoler to another). Giving up the crown has plunged him into despair. They explain where they’re taking him, he doesn’t care:

EDWARD: Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial.

Scene 2 The royal palace Now run by Queen Isabella and her lover, Young Mortimer. Mortimer presses the urgency of having young prince Edward crowned, so as to cement his authority and Mortimer’s power. The queen assents to whatever her lover suggests.

Enter the bishop of Winchester with the crown, with rumour that Kent is planning to free his half brother the king, and that Edward is being moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle.

To end their anxiety Mortimer explicitly asks the queen if she wants Edward dead, and she reluctantly, weakly agrees. Mortimer calls in two junior nobles, Baron John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, draws up and signs an order handing the king over to their care. Mortimer explicitly orders them to mistreat the king, humiliate and abuse him, move him from place to place, to Kenilworth then back to Berkeley so no-one knows where he is.

Enter Kent and the young prince Edward. The prince is understandably concerned about his father, Kent has several asides in which he laments his support for Mortimer and condemns Isabella for her hypocrisy. This breaks out into an open squabble as Mortimer physically grabs the prince to separate him from Kent, Kent asserts that as Edward’s nearest blood relative he should be protector to the prince. Both parties exit different sides of the stage.

Scene 3 King Edward is now in the care of Matrevis and Gurney, who systematically mistreat him, as ordered by Mortimer, giving him puddle water to drink, roughly force-shaving him.

Enter Kent who wants to speak with the king, but he is seized by soldiers. The king is roughly bundled into the nearby castle, while Kent is ordered to be taken before Mortimer, the real power in the land.

Scene 4 Mortimer knows the king must die but that, whoever does the deed will suffer once his son is mature. Therefore he contrives an ambiguous letter, which can be read both as ordering Edward’s death, but warning against it. He gives it to a messenger, Lightborn, to take to Matravers. He questions him about his qualifications and Lightborn assures him he knows numerous ways of murdering and killing. The precise method he’ll use on Edward, he keeps secret. What Mortimer is keeping secret from Lightborn is that along with the message, he is being given a token to show the captors which will instruct them that Lightborn himself be murdered once he’s killed Edward. Lightborn exits.

Mortimer soliloquises, reflecting on how he now has complete and ultimate power.

Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.

The setting changes (in that easy immediate way which was possible on the bare Elizabethan stage) to Westminster. Enter King Edward the Third, Queen Isabella, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Champion and Nobles, and we witness the coronation of young prince Edward to become King Edward III. This actually took place on 1 February 1327.

The first thing that happens before the new king is his half-uncle Kent is dragged in by soldiers who tell Mortimer Kent had attempted to free the king from imprisonment. Incensed, Mortimer immediately orders him to be beheaded, but the new king intercedes for his uncle but discovers there is nothing he can do, and Kent is dragged off to be executed. Edward fears that he himself will be next and complains to his mother, who promises to protect him.

Scene 5 A hall in Berkeley castle Matravers reveals that Edward is being kept in a dungeon filled with water up to his knees, yet he survives. They are planning to call in Edward and abuse and humiliate him some more when Lightborn arrives, shows them the ambiguous letter (from which they realise Edward is to be murdered) and the token (which signals that Lightborn himself must be murdered thereafter).

Lightborn gives instructions to what he needs – a red-hot spit and a feather bed – takes a torch and goes down into the dungeon where Edward is kept. He is repelled by the darkness and the stink. Edward knows he’s come to murder him, He describes his conditions, forced to stand for ten days in water soiled by the castle’s sewage, someone playing a drum continually so that he cannot sleep. It’s worth noting, in passing, that the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethan era describing them, were both well aware of the power of psychological as well as physical torture.

Edward accuses Lightborn of going to murder him. Lightborn says he will not have his blood on his hands and Edward is slightly appeased. We know Lightborn will not literally have blood on his hands as he does not intend to stab Edward, but to insert the red-hot poker in his anus. It is a very black piece of humour on Marlowe’s part.

Somehow a bed appears in the scene. Some editors suggest Lightborn has brought Edward onstage i.e. up out of the ‘dungeon,’ where a bed has been brought by Matravers. Now Lightborn gently coaxes Edward to lie down on it. Edward’s spurts of misgiving and fear are surprisingly moving, for Marlowe. He closes his eyes, begins to drift off, then suddenly starts awake and says he fears if he sleeps he will never wake.

At which Lightborn confirms it’s true, shouts for Matravers and Gurney to come running in with a table which they turn upside down and lay on Edward’s body and press so hard they suffocate him. No red-hot poker? No. It was by Marlowe’s time part of the legend of the king’s murder and is in his primary source, but Marlowe chose to leave it out. Possibly because of the censorship, murdering a king was historical fact, but such a crude torture of the lord’s anointed might have got the play in trouble with the authorities.

No sooner is Edward dead and the other three stand back from their labours, than Matravers stabs Lightborn to death. Grim and brutal. Mind you, if you think about how Shakespeare handles the death of kings or emperors, it always involves extended metaphors of Nature turned upside, down, earthquakes, graves yawning open, night-owls shrieking and so on. All that kind of supernatural paraphernalia is utterly absent from this account.

Scene 6 The royal palace Matravers reports to Mortimer that the king is dead, Lightborn murdered but Gurney has fled and might well leak their secret. Enraged, Mortimer tells him to get out before he stabs him.

Seconds later Queen Isabella enters to tell Mortimer that young Edward III has heard his father is murdered, tears his hair with grief, and has roused the council chamber against Mortimer. a) Edward has heard almost before Mortimer himself – or, more precisely, as soon as the audience has been informed of an action, it is one of the conventions of these dramas that all the other characters learn the same information at the same time. Young Edward has not only learned about his father’s murder, but raised the council about it, in approximately the same space of time it took Isabella to tell Mortimer about it, maybe 60 seconds.

These plays take place in magic time, in a sort of imaginative time which is closer to our unconscious sense of the connection between events and people, than to our everyday, rational understanding of time. In actual history, three years passed between the murder of Edward II and the revolt of young Edward III against his ‘Protector’, Mortimer, and the Queen. In this play not even three minutes pass.

Enter King Edward the Third, Lords and Attendants. Edward has grown in stature and now takes upon himself the authority of king, says his murdered father speaks through him and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer says where’s the evidence but Edward produces the letter Mortimer gave Lightborn (it appears the Gurney must have handed it over).

Edward orders Mortimer to be taken away in an executioner’s cart, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sounds brutal – it is brutal – the intention was to demonstrate the utter control over every subject’s body of the all-powerful monarch.

Mortimer delivers a dignified soliloquy about facing death, then is taken away by officers. Edward is uncertain how to treat Isabella who pleads with him as her own flesh and blood that she had no part in the murder. Edward orders her to the Tower of London pending more police work and maybe a trial. Isabella weeps a few more phrases of regret, and is taken away.

Officers enter with the head of Mortimer. See, it’s Magic Time, by which I mean that orders are no sooner given than they are carried out, as the unconscious mind wishes all its desires to be enacted, immediately. It is more like dreamtime than the Real World. This may be a so-called history play but it is, in this respect, as much an inhabitant of fairy land as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mortimer’s head is given to Edward who speaks to it, cursing that he was too young to prevent his father’s murder.

Attendants enter with the hearse of King Edward II (who had, in Real Time, been dead and buried for three years), so that Edward can put on his funeral robes, make his last speech – offering his dead father the traitor’s head, weep for his father, then everyone processes offstage to presumably funeral music, maybe the slow beating of a drum.

Thoughts

The history of the events described in this play are long and complex and it is impressive the way that Marlowe manages to contract and compress them into a dramatic whole.

Like Shakespeare he gets characters’ ages wildly wrong (young prince Edward appears towards the end of Part one when he hadn’t in fact been born yet), puts characters on the wrong sides of the conflict, conflates two characters into one or just invents them as he needs them. He has bent and twisted the events related in his sources, mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, entirely to suit his own needs.

But more than that, what comes over is the immense freedom of the Elizabethan stage as a medium: a few props could be moved around on an empty stage and, bingo, we have moved from a room in the king’s palace to open country in Yorkshire, a handful of people wearing robes march onstage and we are at the king’s coronation, they all exit and a curtain at the back of the stage is drawn apart to reveal the king in his dungeon.

This makes Elizabethan plays difficult to stage, but amazing to read, because of their blithe indifference to the limits of reality or factuality. Almost in mid-sentence characters transition from one setting to another, can walk from a castle in Wales into a palace in London. Quite quickly you get used to the range of settings the playwrights deploy, and the extraordinary freedom with which they deploy them, the speed with which they get to the point, the kernel of a scene, with characters over-reacting, storming and raging, falling helplessly in love – whatever it is, the playwrights get straight to the heart of a scene and then milk it for all it’s worth.

It is a fast-moving parade of colourful scenes which, repeatedly remind me more of pantomime, with its garish baddies and soppy love affairs, and comedy turns, than 21st century media like TV plays or serious film.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Fuck America, or why the British cultural elite’s subservience to all things American is a form of cultural and political betrayal

Polemic – a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something

WHY are progressive publications like the Guardian and Independent and Huffington Post, and all the BBC TV and radio channels, and most other radio and TV stations and so many British-based culture websites, so in thrall to, so subservient to, so obsessed by the culture and politics of the United States of America – this shameful, ailing, failing, racist, global capitalist, violent, imperialist monster nation?

WHY are we subjected every year to the obsessive coverage of American movies and movie stars and the Golden Globes and the Oscars? American movies are consumer capitalism in its purest, most exploitative form.

WHY the endless TV programmes which send chefs, comedians and pop stars off on road trips to the same old destinations across America, or yet another tired documentary about the art scene or music or street life of New York or California?

WHY the endless American voices on radio and TV, on the news and in the papers?

WHY is it impossible to have any programmes or discussions about the internet or social media or artificial intelligence which are not dominated by American experts and American gurus? Does no-one in Britain know anything aboutn the internet?

SURELY the efforts of the progressive Left should be on REJECTING American influence – rejecting its violence and gun culture and political extremism and military imperialism and drug wars and grotesque prison population – rejecting American influence at every level and trying to sustain and extend traditional European values of social democracy?


Fuck America (a poem to be shouted through a megaphone on the model of Howl by Allen Ginsberg)

Fuck America with its screwed-up race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police.

Fuck America, proud possessor of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), disproportionately blacks and Hispanics.

Fuck America with its ridiculous war on drugs. President Nixon declared that war in 1971, has it succeeded in wiping out cocaine and heroin use?

Fuck America, world leader in opioid addiction.

Fuck America and its urban decay, entire cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

Fuck America with its out-of-control gun culture, its high school massacres and the daily death toll among its feral street gangs.

Fuck America with its shameful healthcare system which condemns tens of millions of citizens to misery, unnecessary pain and early death.

Fuck America with its endless imperialist wars. The war in Afghanistan began in 2003 and is still ongoing. It is estimated to have cost $2 trillion and failed in almost all its objectives.

Fuck America with its hypertrophic consumer capitalism, its creation of entirely false needs and wants, its marketing of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-dazzled population of moronic drones.

Fuck America and the ever-deeper penetration of our private lives and identities and activities by its creepy social media, phone and internet giants. Fuck Amazon, Facebook and Google and their grotesque evasion of tax in their host countries.

Fuck American universities with their promotion of woke culture, their extreme and angry versions of feminism, black and gay rights, which originate in the uniquely exaggerated hypermasculinity of their absurd Hollywood macho stereotypes and the horrors of American slavery – an extreme and polarising culture war which has generated a litany of abusive terms – ‘pale, male and stale’, ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white male rage’, ‘the male gaze’, ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ – which have not brought about a peaceful happy society but serve solely to fuel the toxic animosities between the embittered minorities of an increasingly fragmented society.

Fuck America with its rotten political culture, the paralysing political polarisation which regularly brings the entire government to the brink of collapse, with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America has awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy. Well, they deserve him but he’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t vote for him. He doesn’t rule me. Like all other Americans, he can fuck off.

It’s a disgusting indictment of a bloated, decadent, failing state.

So WHY ON EARTH are so many ‘progressive’ media outlets, artists, writers and gallery curators so in thrall to this monstrous, corrupt, violent and immoral rotting empire?


References

The American War on Terror

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, have stated the total costs of the Iraq War on the US economy will be three trillion dollars and possibly more, in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War published in March 2008. This estimate does not include the cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq. (Financial cost of the Iraq War)

Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars)

The cost of nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan will amount to more than $2 trillion. Was the money well spent? There is little to show for it. The Taliban control much of the country. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. More than 2,400 American soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died. (What Did the U.S. Get for $2 trillion in Afghanistan?)

American Torture

‘After the U.S. dismissed United Nations concerns about torture in 2006, one UK judge observed, “America’s idea of what is torture … does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.”‘ (Torture and the United States)

American Drone Attacks

The Intercept magazine reported, ‘Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.’

During President Obama’s presidency, the use of drone strikes dramatically increased compared to their use under the Bush administration. This was the unforeseen result of Obama’s election pledges not to risk US servicemen’s lives, to reduce the costs of America’s terror wars, and to be more effective.

Black men shot by police in America

The American Prison Population

The United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.2 million prisoners, 60% of them black or Hispanic, giving it the highest incarceration rate, per head, of any country in the world. The Land of the Free is more accurately described as the Land of the Locked-Up. (Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries)

American Drug addiction

‘The number of people suffering from addiction in America is astounding.’ (Statistics on Drug Addiction)

The American Opioid epidemic

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. (Opioid Overdose Crisis)

American Urban decay

Motor City Industrial Park

An abandoned car company plant known as Motor City Industrial Park, Detroit (2008)

Extreme poverty in America

An estimated 41 million Americans live in poverty. (A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America)

American Gun culture

‘The gun culture of the United States can be considered unique among developed countries in terms of the large number of firearms owned by civilians, generally permissive regulations, and high levels of gun violence.’ (Gun culture in the United States)

American Mass shootings

Comparing deaths from terrorist attack with deaths from Americans shooting each other (and themselves)

‘For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns. Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil… This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide. According to the US State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369. In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the United States and found that between 2001 and 2014, there were 3,043 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism. This brings the total to 3,412.’

So: from 2001 to 2014 3,412 deaths from terrorism (almost all in 9/11); over the same period, 440,095 gun-related deaths. (CNN: American deaths in terrorism vs. gun violence in one graph) Does America declare a three trillion dollar war on guns? Nope.

American Healthcare

‘About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance. This means that nearly one-third of Americans face each day without the security of knowing that, if and when they need it, medical care is available to them and their families.’ (Healthcare crisis)

‘Americans spend twice per capita what France spends on health care, but their life expectancy is four years shorter, their rates of maternal and infant death are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, Americans leave 30 million people uninsured. The amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on their economy, Case and Deaton write, than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germany’s in the 1920s.’ (Left Behind by Helen Epstein)

American Junk Food

‘Obesity rates in the United States are the highest in the world.’ (Obesity in the United States)


So

So WHY are British curators so slavishly in thrall to American painters, sculptures, artists, photographers, novelists, playwrights and – above all – film-makers?

Because they’re so much richer, more glamorous, more fun and more successful than the handful of British artists depicting the gloomy, shabby British scene?

In my experience, British film and documentary makers, writers and commentators, artists and curators, are all far more familiar with the geography, look and feel and issues and restaurants of New York and Los Angeles than they are with Nottingham or Luton.

Here’s an anecdote:

In the week commencing Monday 20 February 2017 I was listening to radio 4’s World At One News which was doing yet another item about Brexit. The presenter, Martha Kearney, introduced a piece from Middlesbrough, where a reporter had gone to interview people because it had one of the highest Leave voters in the country. Anyway, Kearney introduced Middlesbrough as being in the North-West of England. Then we listened to the piece. But when we came back to Kearney 3 minutes later, she made a hurried apology. She explained that she should, of course, have said that Middlesbrough is in the North-East of England

Think about it for a moment. The researcher who researched the piece and wrote the link to it must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. Any sub-editor who reviewed and checked the piece must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West. The editor of the whole programme presumably had sight of the piece and its link before approving it and so also thought that Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. And then Kearney read the link out live on air and didn’t notice anything wrong, until – during the broadcast of the actual item – someone somewhere finally realised they’d made a mistake. Martha Kearney also thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England.

So nobody working on one of Radio 4’s flagship news programmes knows where in England Middlesbrough is.

How do people in Middlesbrough feel about this? Do you think it confirms everything they already believe about Londoners and the people in charge of everything?

But there’s a sweet coda to this story. The following week, on 26 February 2017 the 89th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles. There was an embarrassing cock-up over the announcement of the Best Picture Award, with host Warren Beatty initially reading out the wrong result (saying La La Land had won, when it was in fact Moonlight).

The point is that the following Monday, 27 February, Radio 4’s World At One had an item on the story and who did they get to talk about it? Martha Kearney! And why? Because Martha just happened to have been attending the Oscars ceremony and was sitting in the audience when the cock-up happened. Why? Because Martha’s husband works in films and was an executive producer of the Academy Awards nominated short documentary Watani: My Homeland (about Syrian refugees, naturally).

And Martha’s background?

Martha Kearney was brought up in an academic environment; her father, the historian Hugh Kearney, taught first at Sussex and later at Edinburgh universities. She was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic School, Burgess Hill, before attending the independent Brighton and Hove High School and completing her secondary education at George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh (a private school with annual fees of £13,170.) From 1976 to 1980 she read classics at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

So: private school-educated BBC presenter Martha Kearney knows more about the Oscars and Los Angeles and the plight of Syrian refugees than she does about the geography of her own country.

For me this little nexus of events neatly crystalises the idea of a metropolitan, cultural and media élite. It combines an upper-middle-class, university-and-private school milieu – exactly the milieu John Gray and other analysts highlight as providing the core vote for the modern urban bourgeois Labour Party – with an everso earnest concern for fashionable ‘issues’ (Syrian refugees), a slavish adulation of American culture and awards and glamour and dazzle, and a chronic ignorance about the lives and experiences of people in the poorer provincial parts of her own country.

To summarise: in my opinion the British cultural élite’s slavish adulation of American life and values is intimately entwined with its ignorance of, and contempt for, the lives and opinions of the mass of their own countrymen and woman, and is a form of political and cultural betrayal.


Importing woke culture which is not appropriate to Britain

Obviously Britain has its own racism and sexism and homophobia which need to be addressed, but I want to make three points:

1. Britain is not America The two countries have very, very different histories. The history of American slavery, intrinsic to the development of the whole country and not abolished until 1865 and at the cost of one of the bloodiest wars of all time, is not the same as the history of black people in this country, who only began to arrive in significant numbers after the Second World War. The histories of masculinity and femininity in America were influenced after the war by the gross stereotypes promoted by Hollywood and American advertising and TV (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe). These are not the same as the images of masculinity and femininity you find in British movies or popular of the same period (Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Sylvia Sim).

These are just a handful of ways in which eliding the histories of these two very different countries leads to completely misleading results.

I’m not saying sexism, racism and homophobia don’t exist in Britain, Good God no. I’m trying to emphasise that addressing issues like sexism and racism and homophobia in Britain requires a detailed and accurate study of the specifically British circumstances under which they developed.

Trying to solve British problems with American solutions won’t work. Describing the British situation with American terminology won’t work. Which brings me to my second point:

2. American rhetoric inflames The wholesale importing of the extreme, angry and divisive woke rhetoric which has been invented and perfected on American university campuses inflames the situation in Britain without addressing the specifically British nature and the specifically British history of the problems.

3. Eliding American problems with British problems, and using American terminology and American political tropes to describe British history, British situations and British social problems leads inevitably to simplifying and stereotyping these problems.

For British feminists to say all British men in positions of power are like Harvey Weinstein is like me saying all women drivers are rubbish. It’s just a stupid stereotype. It doesn’t name names, or gather evidence, or begin court proceedings, or gain convictions, or lobby politicians, or draft legislation, or pass Acts of Parliament to address the issue. It’s just generalised abuse, and one more contribution to the sewer of toxic abuse which all public and political discourse is turning into, thanks to American social media.

Importing American social problems and American political rhetoric and American toxic abuse into the specifically British arena is not helping – it is only exacerbating the fragmentation of British society into an ever-growing number of permanently angry and aggrieved constituencies, a situation which is already at a toxic level in America, and getting steadily worse here.

Where does it all end? Well, what have all the efforts of a million woke American academics and writers and actors and film-makers and artists and photographers and feminists and black activists and LGBT+ campaigners led up to? A peaceful, liberated and enlightened land? No. To President Donald Trump.

WHY on earth would anyone think this is a culture to be touched with a long barge pole while wearing a hazchem suit, let alone imported wholesale and gleefully celebrated?

In my opinion it’s like importing the plague and saying, ‘Well they have it in America: we ought to have it here.’

Advertising posters on the tube today 27/2/2020

  • TINA: The Tina Turner musical
  • THE LION KING musical
  • 9 TO 5 the musical
  • THE BOOK OF MORMON musical
  • THRILLER the musical
  • WICKED the musical
  • PRETTY WOMAN the musical
  • TATE membership, promoted by an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn

Which is why, in this context and amid this company, when the curators of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican choose to promote it with a photo of a black man they may think they’re being radical and diverse: but all I notice is that their poster is featuring one more American man photographed by an American photographer to promote an exhibition stuffed with American cultural products, which takes its place alongside all the other American cultural imports which saturate our culture.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Recent British exhibitions celebrating American artists and photographers


Related blog posts

In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka (1914)

Written in October 1914, this 30-page-long short story is possibly Kafka’s most harrowing and atrocious. It is also distinctly different from most of his other stories, in the following ways:

  • It does not feature a young, harrassed white collar worker
  • It is not set in Prague or a Central European location
  • It is not set over a long period of time (The Trial covers precisely one year, the Metamorphosis a number of months)

Instead the story is set in an unnamed European colony, somewhere in the Tropics, in a dry valley or canyon set amid rocky peaks and takes place in real time.

The Officer and the Explorer

The two main characters are The Explorer and The Officer.

They are inside a penal colony and since the Officer speaks French, presumably a French one. Briefly, the Officer outlines to the Explorer the nature of the big machine they’re standing next to. Prisoners who have offended against the peal colony’s strict rules are punished by being made to lie face down in the ‘Bed’ of the machine and then are firmly strapped in and have a gag inserted in their mouths.

The machine is then switched on and through an ingenious mechanical arrangement a series of sharp glass blades cut into the living skin of the prisoner, at first cutting a grim message – OBEY AUTHORITY – but then embroidering the text with an impenetrably complicated arrangement of curlicues and flourishes. The Officer shows the Explorer a piece of paper with the finished ‘design’ on it, but it looks to the Explorer like a solid mass of black. About six hours into the process the victim stops trying to scream and experiences a state of post-pain ‘enlightenment’. A few hours of further incisions later and they are dead. They are unstrapped from the machine and their body tipped into the nearby grave.

The Explorer is appalled. He keeps a dead straight face and sympathetic expression and suppresses his horror. He keeps glancing over at the condemned man who is covered in chains and kept on a leash by a soldier of the colony. The Officer tells him what brought the condemned man here. He is a servant tasked with protecting another officer. Every hour on the hour throughout the night he is meant to get up and salute the flag. One night the officer checked on him by getting up just before 2am and looking. The servant snoozed through the appropriate hour so the officer beat him, had him arrested and handed over to the Officer telling the story. It is for this ‘offence’ that the condemned man is to have the entire surface of his body covered with incised lines till he dies of shock.

So far, so horrifying. Up till about now this story gave me a strong feeling of an H.G. Wells story, because of the structure and the fact it is about a piece of machinery. By structure I mean it is told in real time, the entire story takes place in one movement without any flashbacks or change of scene. It could be very easily staged. And the focus on a fantastical piece of machinery is not unlike, for example, the way the Time Traveller explains his man-sized contraption to his hearers.

In this respect, in being a straightforward piece of exposition, the first half is oddly unKafkaesque. But about half way through the story begins to change tone, introducing two characteristic Kafkaesque qualities.

Entropy

One is decline and fall. Or entropy. The theory of entropy states that energy in a fixed system always tends towards equilibrium, towards its lowest state. In other words, the universe is running down. To put it more picturesquely, things always decay.

Thus 1. as the Officer’s exposition continues, he is forced to concede that the machine is not the perfect piece of gleaming technology it once was. A loose cog makes it appallingly noisy, spare parts are difficult to get, the gag has to be reused with successive prisoners biting down no all the previous incumbents’ sweat and vomit.

And all this is 2. symptomatic of the general decline in the penal colony itself. It used to be run by the Commandant, who the Officer reveres, who designed and had built the appalling machine. In his day the sharp glass vials which incise the skin of the victim also released acid to incise the lines deeper into their skin. The old Commandant knew about Justice and Honour, says the bright-eyed Officer. More so than the new Commandant who is inclined to be lax on the prisoners and surrounds himself with ‘ladies’ who are always begging for ‘mercy’ and who has let the incision machine run down.

Weirdness

The other element of the Kafkaesque is just the weird way that people behave. The Explorer thought he was being given a free demonstration of this appalling machine but now the Officer begins to explain his motivation. He wants to the Explorer to defend the use of the machine to the new Commandant in front of everyone, of his followers and supporters. He is spending so much time explaining its excellence because he wants the Explorer to use his independent position and his reputation to praise the machine and lobby the new Commandant for spare parts and repairs.

The Explorer refuses to do so. He says he’ll have a private word with the Commandant, and he’s due to leave soon anyway.

And then, in a Kafkaesque gesture which has nothing to do with real people or real life but is a compelling example of Kafka’s ability to incorporate dream logic into his stories, the Officer orders the intended victim (who has, by this stage, been bound and tied into the machine) to be released, and climbs into it himself, demands to be tied down (even though straps and other bits of the machine break or show signs of decay) and then the machine turned on so that he can experience the workings of the machine he fetishises.

No way would this happen in real life, but Kafka’s stories aren’t real life, they are nightmares.

And in line with Kafkaesque rule of entropy, the machine in fact begins to run riot, harrowing the Officer’s skin much more haphazardly than intended, and numerous cogs start bulging and flying out of the top part of the machinery. Within a few minutes it has blown up, its last act being to stab a long metal stud right through the Officer’s head, so that he never gets to experience the sixth-hour moment of ‘epiphany’ which he so longed for.

It is a failure, a shabby flop, like almost everything in a Kafka story.

In the last few pages the Explorer is taken back by the soldier and the prisoner, wreathed in smiles at the fate he has escaped, back to the colony proper, the populous settlement, where they show him the grave of the old Commandant before wandering off into a teahouse. The Explorer goes to the docks and descends the steps to the sea where he bargains with a rowboat to take him out to the steamer docked in the harbour which will take him away. At the last moment the soldier and prisoner come running down the steps towards him but, in the last gesture of the story, the Explorer pushes them both back and away from the boat. He is definitely not taking them with him.

Thoughts

From a stylistic point of view it is very interesting to see that Kafka could, when needed, write very clear, brief, descriptive prose. The description of the machine and the initial statements by the Officer are extremely crisp and to the point, and the Explorer’s responses are laconic and understated. It is only half way through that the Officer begins to go mad and it is fascinating to watch Kafka’s style change accordingly as the Officer stops giving an exposition of the machine, and starts making more complex, long-winded and self-justifying accusations about the new Commandant, the kind of long-winded tortuous justifications we are used to from the novels.

It is fascinating to be taken on a journey from the clear expository prose which, as I said, reminds me a bit of H.G. Wells, and then watch that slowly melt and swirl and become more imbrued with guilt and paranoia and sadism and masochism as the story turns into nightmare before your eyes, as the elements of decay and guilt and horror come to the fore and it turns into Kafka.

As to the content, I leave others to comment.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


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