Review: Samuel Beckett

by John Pilling (London, Henley and Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. x, 244 pp. £5.75)

John Fletcher

John Pilling’s study is a welcome addition to the corpus of Beckett criticism, since it does not duplicate much that has gone before but makes a distinct and original contribution of its own. For one thing, Pilling has put to excellent use the Beckett Archive at Reading University, where he teaches in the English Department. For another, he organizes his book differently from other general surveys (one of which, Michael Robinson’s Long sonata of the dead, he curiously nowhere mentions, though in many ways it resembles his own, being like his the fresh and uninhibited approach of a comparatively young critic).

Pilling begins with a useful, up to date summary of Beckett’s life; then, very sensibly, he looks at what Beckett has had to say about literature and art, and what light this throws on the creative writings. These are then examined in order of importance, the prose fiction first, then the drama, and finally (almost as an afterthought) the poetry. On all aspects of the canon Pilling has interesting and original things to say, and he is not afraid to speak his mind about the precise merits of the texts he is considering; when he asserts of The lost ones, for instance, that it ‘seems perilously close to being good allegory, but flat writing’ (33), one cannot help but feel that he is probably right. Similarly, his terse dismissal of Film (‘marred by technical ineptitude as much as deliberate technical limitation,’ 106), hits that particular nail nicely on the head. This necessary iconoclasm increases one’s respect for Pilling’s judgements on the works he (and every fairminded reader) rightly admires. It is in his discussion of these that he comes into his own. His deft and fluent style matches well the subtle complexities of the texts he is examining, and on the most recent prose works (about which former critics, inevitably, can offer little enlightenment) he is particularly impressive. His method is not to tackle everything in chronological order but to generalize, intelligently and sensitively, about groups of works.

The same sure grasp of essentials is evident in the central chapters of the book, which deal with the intellectual, cultural and literary background to Beckett. The non-specialist will find these sections particularly clear and helpful in enabling him to situate Beckett accurately in terms of the vast reading which lies always close behind individual works, and even the specialist stands to learn a thing or two as a result of Pilling’s conscientious efforts in turning over every stone.

The work he has done in this area, discovering new aspects as well as summarizing the findings of others, will not have to be gone over again.

Pilling’s very last sentence is characteristic of his understated and balanced approach. ‘It goes without saying,’ he writes, ‘that to read [Beckett] at his best is a pleasure’ (190). There follow nearly fifty pages of scholarly apparatus (notes, bibliography, index), which increase even further the usefulness of his book. One misses occasionally perhaps a note of real enthusiasm, even of irrational but illuminating nonsense; but what one gets instead—lucidity, genuine insight, toughness, and directness—is undoubtedly of sounder value.