The Beckett studies reader (book review)

AUTHOR: Freidman, Melvin J., reviewer.
TITLE: The Beckett studies reader (book review).
SOURCE: Contemporary Literature, v. 36 (Summer '95) p. 350-61
ISSN: 0010-7484

The Beckett Studies Reader, edited by S. E. Gontarski, contains 13 essays from the first 15 years of the Journal of Beckett Studies. Most of the essays in the volume concentrate on a single text and offer that text a persuasive close reading. Among the texts considered are Murphy, Proust, Embers, and Not I. All of the critics represented in the book are at ease with the whole Beckett canon as well as with the tradition in literature and philosophy that has helped make it possible.


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The Review
  • Eyal Amiran, Wandering and Home: Beckett's Metaphysical Narrative. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. 232 pp. $35.00.
  • S. E. Gontarski, ed., The Beckett Studies Reader. Gainesville, Tallahassee, Tampa: University Press of Florida, 1993. 238 pp. $34.95.
  • Rubin Rabinovitz, Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. xi + 218 pp. $34.95.
  • Christopher Ricks, Beckett's Dying Words. The Clarendon Lectures 1990. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. 218 pp. $25.00.

Eyal Amiran begins the fifth chapter of his Wandering and Home with these telling sentences: "Beckett's work appropriates a larger topographical vision of the human cycle built on the dominant cosmological vision of the Western metaphysical tradition, a cosmic teleology made and remade by Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the early Gnostics, Plotinus, Augustine, Proclus, Boethius, Dante, Bruno, Milton, Vico, Blake, Yeats, and Joyce, among others. Beckett takes part in this logocentric tradition, summing it up as no other modern writer has, and without a picture of this participation there can be no full account of his fiction" (123). These high-sounding words accurately and compellingly establish Beckett's lineage in philosophy, theology, and literature from the Greeks to the modernist generation. They helpfully account for his wide-ranging sympathies and the echo-chamber effects of his work. It is clear that Beckett's oeuvre stands at the cutting edge of international literary experimentation, in a way that no body of writing since Joyce's has stood there. What T. S. Eliot once called "metaphysical moments" when referring to the ages of Dante, the English metaphysical poets, and the French symbolist poets may be said to assume a fourth literary presence during the sixty-year (1929-89) writing life of Samuel Beckett.

This long writing life and its many successes are fully documented in the four books under discussion here. They vary in approach and critical commitment, but all contribute to our understanding of Beckett's work. A quarter century ago a page-long review of a number of Beckett items in the Times Literary Supplement (London) made a telling point: "Thus, as the author's writings diminish to a thin trickle the volume of criticism swells to a flood."(FN1) The "thin trickle" continued until Beckett's death to the point where one is tempted to characterize him as a minimalist Goethe. Goethe also has a writing life of some sixty years and crossed with ease from one genre to another. He was the nonpareil writer of his generation, emphatically a part of Weltliteratur (a word he introduced into the German language), in the same way Beckett was.

It might be considered an understatement these days to speak of the volume of criticism accumulating about Beckett's work as swelling to a flood, as the TLS reviewer aptly described it in 1970. There have been a staggering number of books and articles which have appeared in just the five years since Beckett's death, ignoring for the moment the vast accumulation of critical writing of the previous three decades. Only Joyce in this century has attracted this much ongoing attention.

I should like to start my discussion of this gathering of recent books with a look at the least traditional of the four, Christopher Ricks's Beckett's Dying Words. Bernard Bergonzi is quoted on its dust jacket as describing the author "as the closest of close readers" and as someone who "can see more in a text, and what is more, persuade us to see it too, than anyone since William Empson." Bergonzi is speaking of two earlier books by Christopher Ricks, but his words apply nicely to Beckett's Dying Words. With the help of the OED, The Oxford Book of Death, and many other companion texts, Ricks examines Beckett in both the French and the English with exacting care. (He usefully points out differences between the two versions, scrupulously quoting each passage in both languages when there are bilingual texts available. With a nod to Coleridge's famous remark about Shakespeare, he speaks on one occasion of Beckett's "bilingual myriad-mindedness" (141).) The job he performs on these unique "self-translations," as Ruby Cohn once called them, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Brian T. Fitch's Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the Status of the Bilingual Work (1988)--which Ricks once calls "indefatigably thoroughgoing" (135).(FN2) Usually when Ricks turns to a passage he places some verbal or syntactical aspect of it under the microscope. He enjoys playing around with etymologies, neologisms, double-entendres; he emerges as part New Critic, part William Safire (who is mentioned, in fact, on page 133).

Even the title Beckett's Dying Words involves word-play. One's first reaction is that Ricks, on terms of uncommon intimacy with Beckett, must have recorded his last words. But Beckett, famous for his long silences and on uneasy terms with words and interviews, would scarcely have revealed himself at book length in the weeks or even months before his death. (Ricks admits in his postscript that he met Beckett "Twice. Briefly" (205).) So another meaning emerges. Ricks's study offers innumerable passages from Beckett's fiction, drama, poetry, and criticism which have to do with dying, death, oblivion, and related concerns. These passages are frequently paired and matched with quotations from Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Swift, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, and Philip Larkin, among other writers--mainly from English literature. Well-known lines like Milton's "A long days dying to augment our paine" (29) and Tennyson's "And after many a summer dies the swan" (10) mingle with more obscure passages of prose and verse. The Struldbrugg chapter of part 3 of Gulliver's Travels is paid considerable attention, and at one point Ricks speaks knowingly of Beckett as "the master of these unmasterable Struldbruggian sentences" (26).(FN3).

Ricks is himself a master of wordplay and delights in its possibilities throughout Beckett's Dying Words. His is the kind of criticism which seems to partake of the creative enterprise, the kind favored by the French symbolists from Baudelaire through Mallarme and Valery. We can say of Ricks, with a nod to Baudelaire, that with him criticism and poetry go hand in hand.(FN4) There are many examples of Ricks's aphoristic, allusive prose. A handful will have to suffice. A number of poetic devices are on display in this revealing sentence: "But Beckett, sceptical even of scepticism, is not party to the pyrrhonistic complacency of our age's sages" (145). Alliteration has its way here: "but how firmly the former may need to be beaten back, in the ill-willed walled world of Malone Dies" (136). French occasionally ends up in wordplay: "his outre flash from the outretombe" (164). Ricks has a number of succinct, suggestive things to say about Beckett's French: "The French language, to which Beckett was not born, was seldom able to do quite as well by him. Yet he and it have their many triumphs. He relished, for instance, its terminations, instinct with death and with birth" (40). "And French, the language which was not natural to him but which came naturally to him, afforded him one such triumph of feeling and thought, an inspired simplicity, a glimpse of imagining the unimaginable, through the rotation of simple sounds, not a trope so much as a tropism towards the dark sun of death" (47). In his fourth chapter, which concentrates on the Irish bull, Ricks reverses a famous line from Wordsworth: "But Coleridge knew that the man was father of the child, and that he himself was prey to bulls" (188). He also indulges in oblique references to literary works, such as the following which brings to mind J. B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls: "not of a sort that the constable would ever have been able to call" (74).

Ricks goes about his job as thanatologist with rare wit and verbal dexterity. He has assembled here, among other things, an anthology of writings about death and dying, gleaned from Beckett's work, from the vast resources of English and occasionally other literatures, and from popular culture. Even the Karen Quinlan case and the activities of Dr. Jack Kevorkian have an essential place. Indeed Beckett's Dying Words could easily serve as a Bartlett's on death and dying.

One of Ricks's organizational principles is to return again and again to certain phrases which act as verbal leitmotifs. One is Beckett's own expression "syntax of weakness." Another is "as happy as Larry," which Beckett expanded in Murphy to produce "as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus." (Ricks mentions virtually everything on the subject except for Thomas Hinde's 1957 novel Happy as Larry.) These expressions and others thread their way through the narrative and offer it a kind of compositional unity.

It is interesting to note that Beckett's Dying Words had its origins as the 1990 Clarendon Lectures. There is a relaxed and poetic quality about this enterprise which probably enabled it to go over well orally--as it certainly does in written form. Ricks does call on Beckett's critics, but not with the frequency of the other three books I will be considering. Lawrence E. Harvey's Samuel Beckett Poet and Critic seems a favorite text, one referred to and quoted from a number of times--as indeed it deserves to be, as it is still, a quarter century after its publication, one of the two or three best studies of Beckett. In a playful gesture, Ricks can't resist obliquely calling upon the "as happy as Larry" motif when he speaks in a footnote of "Lawrence (Larry?) Harvey" (81, n 67).

Beckett's Dying Words is occasionally a bit euphuistic, as it strains for certain verbal effects. But in the end it proves to be a learned, informative, suggestive study of Beckett's work, with many side glances at other texts concerned with death, dying, and oblivion.

Eyal Amiran's Wandering and Home: Beckett's Metaphysical Narrative is much more conventional though equally informed. Amiran seeks intertextual relationships at every turn. He is in complete command of the entire oeuvre as well as the commentary which has accumulated about it. (See his twelve pages of works cited.) The opening sentence of his introduction views Beckett's work as "an epic in pieces." A page later he speaks of the fiction as "forming a long philosophical narrative." "Unfolding" and "metaphysical" are other words eventually coupled with "narrative" (2-3). Amiran proceeds to show through his microscopic examination of Beckett's writing that it is all of a piece.

As he moves through the work, Amiran is at his best when he matches elements from the oeuvre with literary, theological, and philosophical texts from antiquity to the twentieth century. (See, for example, the lengthy quotation from Wandering and Home which launches the present essay.) Amiran's mind operates like a Baudelairean "foret de symboles" overflowing with "correspondances"; his restless comparative urgencies intrude at every turn. A sentence such as the following groups Beckett with four literary figures: "While writers such as Kafka and Malcolm Lowry may be counted with Beckett as modern explorers of spiritual landscape, Bunyan and Celine provide Beckett with specific terms that help articulate a topography endowed with cognitive qualities and spiritual significance" (71). Amiran goes on to treat the connections with Bunyan and Celine at some length. When discussing Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the author comes up with this curious literary coupling: "But whereas the Smeraldina-Rima has too low an opinion of the true, the Alba succumbs at the opposite end by believing, a little like Binx's aunt in Percy's The Moviegoer, in an unchanging truth of the soul" (81). On page 76 alone the following writers make appearances: Celine, Milton, Bunyan, Thackeray, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, T. S. Eliot, Pynchon, Cortazar, Rushdie, and Dante. And this list does not include Joyce, Proust, Yeats, and those others so essential to our understanding of Beckett.

Philosophers and theologians are also introduced with frequency, especially in chapter 5, entitled "Beckett's Cosmology." "Neoplatonic thinking" is made to seem crucial to Beckett's vision. If there is a central text it is probably Plotinus's Enneads, although Plato's Timaeus--Amiran calls it "the Ur-text of Neoplatonism" (150)--is mentioned frequently. Saint Augustine, Boethius, Bruno, and Vico, among others, occupy an honored place in the discussion of Beckett's "cosmological vision." Amiran seems very much at home in this metaphysical landscape.

He is also very effective when he counterpoints Beckett's fiction with the painterly world of Bram van Velde. With the help of reproductions of van Velde's work, Amiran manages to juxtapose verbal text with visual text. The "metaphorical journeys" of Beckett's characters, "an equation in Beckett's work between head and world, a balance between mind and anti-mind" (41) have their counterparts in the abstract painting of van Velde. Although earlier Beckett critics have brought the writer and the painter together, none has done so quite as effectively as Amiran.

Joyce is given a prominent place in the final chapter of Wandering and Home.(FN5) Yeats, who had received extended treatment earlier, returns to reinforce the Irish lineage. We are told, for example, "Yeats's vision of the head of the cycle comes to Joyce, and from Joyce it passes on to Beckett" (202-3).

Three sentences near the end of Amiran's book are well worth quoting:.

These echoes (of Yeats) also show that Beckett intends his vision to embrace and use his tradition, to be unique not by virtue of its originality, but because it is clearsighted and inclusive, because it balances all, and brings all to mind. For it is certainly true that Yeats did not have this vision--that no one, not Joyce, not Yeats, not Wordsworth, Vico, Dante, or Plato, had ever traveled this way. For only Beckett had said yes to them all. (210-11).

This is a strong claim but one which Wandering and Home has gone to great lengths to justify. Eyal Amiran lacks Christopher Ricks's light touch and sophisticated wordplay--he perhaps falls back on too much abstract language which occasionally betrays his meaning--but he is very persuasive in identifying the "logocentric tradition" which seems so much a part of Beckett's work. He pays close attention to texts, to those of Beckett as well as to those of his metaphysical and fictional antecedents. Bien lire is the touchstone of his method.

The same can be said for most of the contributions to The Beckett Studies Reader. S. E. Gontarski, an eminent Beckett scholar and critic, has assembled this gathering of thirteen essays from the first fifteen years of the Journal of Beckett Studies. He mentions in his introduction his principles of selection. He omits, for example, all the essays from Journal of Beckett Studies which eventually found their way into their authors' published books. (He includes a list of these toward the end of The Beckett Studies Reader.) So he is left with "those essays of exceptional merit that are not readily available on library shelves" (3). And this statement is by no means an exaggeration; the present collection maintains a consistently high standard.

Most of the essays concentrate on a single text and offer that text a persuasive close reading. Among the high points of the collection is James Acheson's "Murphy's Metaphysics," which is learned and closely reasoned. Acheson's third paragraph is worth quoting in its entirety:.

This becomes clear when we examine chapter 6 in detail. Here it is revealed that, in forming his image of his mind, Murphy has drawn heavily on his knowledge of traditional metaphysics. The influence of Leibniz, Geulincx, and Schopenhauer is especially important; being ostensibly omniscient, Beckett knows their works infinitely better than Murphy does, and is able to turn them against him satirically. (78-79).

John Pilling on Proust, Paul Lawley on Embers, and Katherine Kelly on Not I deserve mention in the same breath. J. D. O'Hara points out that "in Molloy, Molloy is Jungian, Moran Freudian" (129) and proceeds to discuss the first part of the novel in convincing Jungian terms; for example, Molloy's stay with Sophie Lousse is viewed in terms of the Sophia figure "conceived by Jung as at once a from of the mother archetype and a separate form of the anima, although still paired with a son, the filius sapientiae or puer aeternus" (139). While many Jungian readings seem forced, this one does not. In her examination of Beckett's first protagonist, Jeri L. Kroll makes the interesting point that Belacqua is "both a serious and a satiric figure" (38). She comments later on, "Beckett's development, in a sense, is an effort to exorcise the Belacqua in him, to exorcise the artist who is too much in love with words" (60, n4).

Watt is the subject of two essays in the Gontarski collection. In the first of these Thomas J. Cousineau deals with the frustrations Watt experiences when trying to possess objects through language, to attach names to things. Heath Lees treats music and tonality in Watt, pointing to another sign of frustration and even failure: "Musically speaking, the novel might be described as a diminuendo al niente--a fading into nothing--and symptomatic of Watt's failure to achieve what Murphy too fails to achieve, Attunement" (167-68).

An impressive number of philosophers and writers are brought forward by Ileana Marcoulesco in her "Beckett and the Temptation of Solipsism," the only essay in The Beckett Studies Reader not limited to a single text. (It fittingly concludes this well-edited collection.) Marcoulesco wanders across the Beckett landscape, identifying the obvious--like the famous reference to Murphy as a "seedy solipsist"--as well as the less obvious occurrences of this philosophical position.

Marcoulesco is very good at interweaving texts, but so are the other contributors to the volume--asserting once again that Beckett's work is all of a piece. Close readings of single plays or fictional works here always invite intertextual references. All of the critics represented are at ease with the entire Beckett canon as well as with the tradition in literature and philosophy which has helped make it possible. Even mathematics and geometry are called upon by James Hansford in his discussion of "Imagination Dead Imagine." Combined with the musical vibrations in Watt and the painterly effects on the work brought on by the presence of Bram van Velde (pointed out by Hansford in his essay on "La Falaise"), we get a formidable sense of the outside forces which helped shape the oeuvre. Eyal Amiran's lineage from Anaxagoras to Joyce is no more imposing than the one suggested by the contributors to The Beckett Studies Reader.

When discussing the omissions from the collection in his introduction, Gontarski mentions three essays by Rubin Rabinovitz. These have found their way into Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction. I have kept this book for last because it is the most accomplished of the group--and that says a great deal. When I reviewed Rabinovitz's The Development of Samuel Beckett's Fiction in 1985, I remarked, among other things, "While Rabinovitz devotedly tracks down every conceivable allusion in the early Beckett, works with both the English Murphy and Watt as well as with their French translations, closely examines the typescripts of the still unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women and story 'Echo's Bones (both housed in the Dartmouth College Library), and generally displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the foundation stones of the oeuvre and the vast body of criticism devoted to it, he still is able to exhibit a light touch about the enterprise."(FN6) This too-crowded sentence tries to account for all he accomplished in his 1984 book.

His 1992 study should elicit at least the same enthusiastic response. It offers further evidence that Rabinovitz has become, in one of the most crowded fields of literary commentary, Beckett's most discerning and reliable critic. Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction is an unrepentantly old-fashioned book in the way it goes about its task of examining close up the texture and structure of Beckett's prose. Toward the end of his first chapter Rabinovitz explains lucidly what he is about: "an understanding of the content of Beckett's fiction can be enhanced by a study of stylistic devices such as repetition, allusion, unreliable narrative, unrealistic settings, and interconnected extended metaphors. Clearly, fiction of such complexity cannot be understood without careful reading and a tolerance for innovative writing" (7). In note 16 following this passage, he offers the one missing building block of his approach: computer-based research.

Rabinovitz, more convincingly than any critic I know of, explains howTo: the echo-chamber effect, as I described it above, works in Beckett. In his fourth chapter he shows how it operates in Molloy. In dealing with what he calls "the archetypal traveler" in the first novel of Beckett's trilogy, he uncovers echoes from a large number of classical and Judeo-Christian literary texts, including the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Old and New Testaments, Augustine's Confessions, The Divine Comedy, Everyman, Pilgrim's Progress, and Kierkegaard's The Sickness unto Death. He adds to these Goethe's Faust and a number of Enlightenment and Romantic works. But he makes clear that none of these texts offers a running parallel or scaffolding for Molloy in the way the Odyssey helps shape Joyce's Ulysses. He offers this cautionary advice:.

Molloy resembles a collage as well as a palimpsest: some of its mythic precedents are in apposition, some are super-imposed. The one-to-one correspondences of an extended parallel lend themselves to allegory, whereas a character who is based on a combination of mythic figures suggests an archetype. Beckett clearly prefers the second alternative. (42).

Beckett may indeed have patented this device (with a backward glance at Goethe's Faust) which is used by a number of postmodern fiction writers, including John Hawkes in Second Skin, who begins his 1964 novel with references to a number of mythical figures such as Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Antigone, and Hamlet. Hawkes gives his characters names like Cassandra, Miranda, and Gertrude and has his narrator once describe himself as "old Ariel in sneakers," thus offering what Rabinovitz calls "a combination of mythic figures," ending up in archetypes rather than consistent parallels.

Rabinovitz is at his best when he concentrates on Beckett's language. He unearths patterns of every variety through as close a reading as Beckett's fiction has ever received. He does very convincing work with what he calls Beckett's "interwoven network of metaphors" (151). Repetition is another device which Rabinovitz examines close up. He remarks, for example, that "the phrase 'I don't know occurs over 140 times in the trilogy" (33). His computer-based research has served him well here. With his usual succinctness he is able to make this important observation: "Beckett has created a new language that can move beyond the limitations of denotative expression; ultimately, learning this language is the only way to understand the significance of his achievement" (130). Rabinovitz offers proof throughout Innovation in Samuel Beckett's Fiction that he has learned this language.

While many critics, including some discussed in this essay, have gone to great lengths to establish the unity of Beckett's oeuvre, none has put it quite as suggestively as this: "All of Beckett's novels and stories can be thought of as fragments of a prodigious roman fleuve that--given the span of a lifetime--can never be completed" (151). A la recherche du temps perdu, the greatest of all romans fleuves, comes to mind when one reads Rabinovitz's statement. We perhaps have visions of Marcel Proust, the subject of Beckett's 1931 monograph, trying desperately to finish his sixteen-volume (in the original French) masterpiece in his cork-lined room before his premature death; Proust seemed to know all along, with a certain frustration, that it would never be completed in quite the way he wanted it to be.

John Updike once commented on Beckett's "wearisome precision." It is that precision which Rabinovitz finds everywhere as he speaks again and again of how "painstakingly organized" and "meticulously crafted" the fiction is. Earlier critics suggested much of this, but Rabinovitz keeps going to the text to prove it in chapter after chapter of this fine-tuned critical study. Along the way, he graciously acknowledges the Beckett commentators who have helped him.

The tone throughout is cautionary. In his chapter "Dante and the Metaphorical Representation of Intangible Reality," for example, Rabinovitz is quick to point out that "Beckett's debt to Dante should be acknowledged but not overemphasized" (113). On a later occasion he offers this particular warning: "Despite Beckett's many allusions to specific psychologists and their theories, he never fully relies on any of them, particularly in his descriptions of the quest for the self" (185-86). Just as he offered cautionary advice about "one-to-one correspondences" in Molloy, so he keeps suggesting restraint in other areas. Beckett's work has long been a "condemned playground" for those too eager to find running parallels, rapprochements, and symbolic patterns. Rabinovitz pleads for a via media.

In an article on Clement Greenberg in the New York Times following his death, he was described as someone who "had an ability to get inside a work as if it were a watch and he were analyzing its mechanism, and it is no wonder that artists thought of him as an insider who spoke their language."(n 7) When I read these words I thought of Rubin Rabinovitz and his central position in Beckett studies. He has done, in a sense, for Samuel Beckett what Greenberg once did for the abstract expressionists.


  1. Times Literary Supplement 11 Dec. 1970: 1442.
  2. For a searching examination of Beckett and Babel and the whole matter of Beckett's self-translations and bilingualism, see Rubin Rabinovitz's "Samuel Beckett, Revisionist Translator," Review 13 (1991): 273-81.
  3. For the most complete study of the relationship between Swift and Beckett, see John Fletcher's "Samuel Beckett et Jonathan Swift: vers une etude comparee," Litteratures X: Annales publiees par la Faculte des Lettres de Toulouse 11 (1962): 81-117.
  4. It is surprising that Ricks, with such a wide-ranging knowledge of the literature of death and dying, never refers to the final sequence of six poems in Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal which carries the title "La Mort.".
  5. A collection of essays on the Beckett-Joyce connection which Amiran does not list in his extensive Works Cited is Re: Joyce'n Beckett, ed. Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski (New York: Fordham UP, 1992). This is well worth his attention.
  6. Melvin J. Friedman, "Beckett's Early Fiction," Contemporary Literature 26 (1985): 517.
  7. See Michael Kimmelman's "The Art Critic Whose Viewpoint Remains Central," New York Times 10 May 1994: B1.