Beckett’s ‘Proust’

John Pilling

Beckett’s Proust (1931), is not just a critical monograph by a young academic of ability, but much more a creative encounter between one great writer and another. It has, of course, been liberally plundered, with more or less justification, by those commentators on Beckett who have admired the economy and pertinacity with which he lays bare his deepest and most intimate fears and obsessions, but, until recent years, it was tacitly ignored by academic critics of Proust as an aberration not to be encouraged. That the book is mandarin in tone and sometimes dense in its discriminations cannot be denied; one is prepared to admit that it is not a model to be unreservedly recommended to freshmen. It is difficult, perhaps, to know what category the work falls into, and what language is proper to a critical discussion of it. It is as much intellectual biography, perhaps, as literary criticism, an adventure of the mind as much as a foray into belles-lettres. The book is written con amore, with the passionate engagement and excitement of discovery that distinguish all true criticism. But at the same time it also bears the occasional marks of being a task, a hard job, a commission that has come his way, through good fortune and the friendship of Richard Aldington.1

Now that the ‘abominable’ edition of the Nouvelle Revue Française which Beckett used has come to light, and been made available to scholars with Beckett’s characteristic generosity,2 we are in a unique position to study the transmission and genesis of the Proust volume, and to clarify some of the problems that the book, not entirely innocently, has caused to arise. It would be going too far to say that Beckett’s marginal comments are more important than any of the available critical commentaries, or even that they are more important than the Proust monograph, but there can be no doubt that our understanding of the remarkable mental and emotional apparatus that has given us such great masterpieces as Molloy and Waiting for Godot is immeasurably enriched by them. More even than with Baudelaire on Flaubert or, among modern examples, Sartre on Baudelaire, one feels that one is at the very heart of the creative process that makes the great writer what he is.

The first thing that needs to be said of the Proust volume is that, in Beckett’s eyes at least, it was a genuine attempt to say something about Proust. He did not enter into the commission with any intention of clothing his metaphysical speculations and spiritual dilemmas in a mask of academic obliquity. This is no doubt precisely why the book reads nakedly at times, as if the writer is suffering mysterious agonies whose origins are unclear to him, or as if the ostensible subject of the discourse has had to give way in the face of something more intransigent and menacing. But Beckett is adamant that the book was intended as a critical introduction to Proust, on which he hoped to base an academic career that might lead to similar commissions being placed in his path.3 The fact that he ‘gave up,’ as he puts it, his summer vacation of 1928 to rereading the sixteen volumes of Proust twice, apart from testifying to Beckett’s scholarly diligence, lends colour to his claim that it was an academic production first and foremost. It is precisely what a scholar would do, especially a scholar faced with the two-edged prospect of a first book.

Hard as it is to bring oneself to say it, the book is, by academic standards, only a partial success. Despite its remarkable acuteness, at a time when there was little really informed commentary on Proust, at any rate in English, it is not the best available introduction to Proust, nor is it even the most accurate guide to the themes and structures of Proust’s work. The absence of an index and a bibliography can scarcely be blamed on Beckett, however, since the only comparable volume in the series in which it appears—Thomas MacGreevy’s T. S. Eliot (1931)—also lacks these aids. MacGreevy’s essay, praised later by Beckett as a model of what criticism should be, shows some resemblances to Beckett’s, in both manner and matter, and the two men were often together at this time. A more serious lack is that both essays also lack footnotes identifying the precise location of quotations used in the text, a much more crippling deficiency in Beckett’s essay than in MacGreevy’s, not simply because of Proust’s bulk as compared with Eliot’s, but because Beckett seems to have read almost every important contribution to the cultural history of the West and to have most of this material at his fingertips in a way not even a seasoned polymath could emulate.

It is not, therefore, a book that observes the academic pieties. It disdains the established strategies (occasionally even the subtleties) of traditional discursive prose, and it is the better for doing so. If one were not loath to encourage the proliferation of pretentious jargon, one might call it anti-criticism. This is clearest perhaps at the delightful moment when Beckett ‘cordially’ invites his reader to omit what is basically a paraphrase of what Beckett considers, interestingly enough, ‘perhaps the greatest passage that Proust ever wrote.’4 We may infer from this that he is no more interested in criticism as paraphrase than in literature as book-keeping.5 It is a dramatic and no doubt partly unconscious illustration of a premiss which later on he attributes to Proust; we may, altering the wording slightly, say of Beckett that ‘the copiable he does not wish to see.’6 That the reader who obeyed Beckett’s injunction would miss a splendidly economical summary analysis rounded off with a brilliantly serpentine sentence of Proustian length perhaps hardly needs saying; we are familiar with Brach self-cancelling gestures, not meant to be acceded to, in Beckett’s novels and plays of the fifties and sixties. However, the strain of being on his best behaviour is clearly, at this and moments like it, irksome to Beckett, and he must have realized whilst writing it that the academic life was not for him. Certainly, within a few months of the book’s publication, he had left the academy for good.7

Perhaps we may legitimately wonder, at first encounter, how Beckett forced himself to finish the task at all. He frequently proceeds, for several paragraphs, at a high level of generality not sufficiently argued to form the basis of a philosophy, but with enough resonance and bite to be considered more than wordly-wise rumination. Beckett clearly considered that criticism’s main claim on our time was its truth-telling faculty; it was nothing less than a kind of wisdom. And as wisdom, it would sanction and benefit from hermetic and arcane modes of expression. This goes some way to explaining some of the archness and pomposity of Beckett’s prose, but the now familiar irony which we find throughout his other creative writing is an important qualifying feature. He can puncture his own pretensions with a devastating and irresistible panache:

Whatever opinion we may be pleased to hold on the subject of death, we may be sure that it is meaningless and valueless. Death has not required us to keep a day free. The art of publicity has been revolutionized by a similar consideration. Thus I am exhorted, not merely to try the aperient of the Shepherd, but to try it at seven o’clock.8

Here the presence of utter seriousness, baffled in the face of an extraordinary world, is what guarantees and informs the humour. Humour becomes the justified instrument of the critical surgery that lays bare a wound.

In Proust it is clearly, as the above quotation suggests, something like a work of art that we are faced with. Without going so far as to pretend that Beckett was intending every part of the jigsaw to cast reflective light on every other part, there is considerable, even excessive artfulness expended between the abrupt and brisk beginning ‘The Proustian equation is never simple—and the weary and distressed Latin with which the piece concludes—‘defunctus. ’’ Between these two poles the book takes shape, a shape Beckett periodically adverts to lest we lose in the flurry of what is happening on the surface the overall sense of a developing argument. Time, Habit, Memory and Salvation are the topics of the first four sections, divided by the triangular asterisks of Chatto’s English translation of Proust. The interpolated illustration—the paraphrase already mentioned—marks the point at which the structure appears to begin to disintegrate, and the transition to Albertine and the nature of love is not so much clumsy as non-existent. But the effect, whether successful or not, is clearly intended, since the next section, a brilliant account of the afternoon party at the Guermantes with which Proust’s novel closes, is begun in similar fashion, and it is obviously Beckett’s awakened sense of juxtaposition which is the most important factor in his decision to end one section with the devastating quote from Calderon (but really from Schopenhauer)9 and to begin the next with a seemingly unengaged, but in fact emotionally turbid, piece of writing not far removed from the paraphrastic manner implicitly criticized earlier. One does not need to look far for Beckett’s model here; it is obviously Proust himself. Beckett is, with some deliberation and perhaps a good deal of unconscious reverence, taking on the colour of the author on whom he is writing, and the apparent loose-ends, the seemingly gratuitous excursions from the point, and the carefully weighted preliminaries leading to a clinching and resonant conclusion are indisputably Proustian.

In the final section, in many ways the densest of all, Beckett attempts to summarize his conclusions but, finding himself on the verge of repetition, he concludes instead with a number of fascinating discussions on styles, influences and genres which are in many ways the most revealing of all Beckett’s comments. As an index of Beckett’s own stylistic sensitivity, and before turning to the origins of Beckett’s monograph, we might notice the self-conscious escalation of verbs at the beginning of the account of Albertine’s disappearance: ‘The Albertine tragedy is prepared during the narrator’s first stay at Balbec, involved by their relations in Paris, consolidated during his second stay at Balbec, and consummated by her imprisonment in Paris’10 or the balanced antithesis (‘the boredom of living . . . the suffering of being’11) and gnomic apophthegms which are everywhere apparent, and perhaps not entirely admirable. The rhetorically frenetic conclusion to section one, the dazzling phrase (‘voluntary memory is Shadwell, and of Irish extraction’;12 ‘a neuralgia rather than a theme’13), and the studied put-downs (of Constant, Cocteau, and Romantic writers generally)—all these are a measure of the book’s idiosyncratic originality.

Beckett’s copy of Proust bears witness to how intensive his reading had been, each volume being heavily scored in the margins, with any number of crucial individual words underlined, often very heavily, in ink or crayon or pencil. From the evidence one might have supposed him to have read the whole work many more times than twice; obviously certain parts were read many times. Beckett’s scorings tend to occur in clusters, but perhaps this tells us as much, if not more, about Proust’s method as about Beckett’s, for even the most devoted Proustian would admit that there are dull stretches on the long road we have to travel. Beckett refrains from such evidence of frustration as one is used to from his notebooks—the squiggles of Byzantine complexity, the doodles that throw up weird human figures—but there are a number of rather blank periods, especially in Le côté de Guermantes but also in ‘Un amour de Swann’ (except for the section concerned with music) and quite frequently in Sodome et Gomorrhe where Beckett has obviously found little to interest him. The absence from the monograph of any real consideration of what society meant for Proust might have led one to predict this, but it is surprising to find so few scorings in, for instance, the third volume of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, or the first volume of Le temps retrouvé. Not that any easy correlation between the number of marginal marks and the importance of particular volumes can be established, for the two volumes of Albertine disparue, which are proportionately the most heavily marked, contain little extra marginal comment of importance and fewer ‘block’ scorings (i.e. marking of whole episodes covering two or more pages) than is customary. Of course, in the case of Du côté de chez Swann 1 and Le temps retrouvé 2, the most heavily scored individual volumes, there obviously is a distinct correlation between the intensity of Beckett’s attention, the importance of these areas of Proust for his thesis, and indeed the generally accepted high-water marks of Proust’s genius. It would, nevertheless, be true to say that, in the last analysis, it was the latter rather than the former—the mature man on the point of becoming a writer rather than the suffering child—which dominated the monograph Beckett was writing. As an introductory explication of Le temps retrouvé indeed, the Proust book to some extent disarms such criticisms as were offered earlier on its stature as a straightforward piece of literary criticism.

It would be pointless and unhelpful to itemize every passage that impressed Beckett, and especially tedious to talk at length about what is sufficiently obvious from the published work, such as how he came to choose his quotations (not, by present-day standards, very numerous). Many of the marginal comments are largely aides-mémoires in the face of a work of sprawling complexity, or straightforward comparisons of one passage with another. Beckett remains sufficiently wide-awake to catch Proust repeating a whole sentence verbatim,l4 but his approach is, in this respect, not unlike that of any intelligent reader. The same might be said of the heavy scoring that accompanies the instances of what Beckett calls the ‘process . . . of intellectualized animism,’ the eleven moments privilégiés—elsewhere numbered ‘twelve or thirteen’15 with a mock-flippant, if understandable, disregard for detail. But the eagerness with which Beckett seizes on points of cultural reference, especially the allusions to works of art, indicates a rather more special cast of mind, very much the young intellectual that is revealed in Beckett’s other critical writings of the late twenties and early thirties. This is in no sense to sneer at the very important ‘educational’ force that is exerted on any reader of Proust, for the numerous passages describing the paintings and music of both real and fictitious people are not only among the most dramatic and illuminating threads through Proust’s labyrinth, but as informative and stimulating as any amount of professional art criticism. Beckett was obviously impressed by Proust’s ability to make everything, even his most intimate contemporaries, part of the art work, thus making its retroactive grip on life indissolubly strong, and the experience of reading it about as un-novelistic as any novel ever.

Beckett is generally content to follow or silently digest Proust’s cultural references, without adding any comparisons of his own. But there are two interesting exceptions to this, one in Swann 1, where the reflections concluding ‘Combray’ are scored ‘Base senses (Kant)’—(whom he had doubtless just been reading16) and the other in A l‘ombre 2, where a passage discussing the workings of memory is triumphantly marked ‘utterly non-Joycian’ in what amounts to a brilliant, if undeveloped, distinction which one ignores at one’s peril.17

Proust is talking about how the mind comes once again upon material which, having no use for it, it had rejected and he goes on to elaborate, beautifully, on how this material fades and how irretrievable it can seem. Beckett recognizes that Joyce is, in this respect as in others, quintessentially different from Proust. Joyce operates on the principle that everything is relevant and does not therefore need to engage on a quest in search of what has been forgotten. Joyce is working with omniscience, omnipotence, and by comparison with him the nervous Proust is a hesitant and shambling figure, what Beckett would call ‘a non-can-er.’18

What is clearly most important for our purposes is to situate precisely, for perhaps the first time, the exact nature of the relationship between Proust and Beckett. Beckett’s tangible debt to Proust resides mainly in the area of ideas, but we should always remember that even where there are clear points of convergence it is perfectly possible that Beckett had discovered the ideas independently and found them confirmed by his reading of Proust. Since, however, some of these ideas are, either implicitly or explicitly, radically new, Beckett must have been gratified to encounter a kindred spirit who had fearlessly pursued the unconventional, whatever the risk of obloquy, and nowhere, perhaps, is this more true than in the matter of what constitutes man’s essential being, which is central to Beckett’s work, and is the goal of Proust’s quest also. Both writers investigate the matter through the question of personality, and it is above all here that Proust’s example was important to Beckett. Proust asserts (and supports the assertion by demonstration) that personal identity is not a matter of stable, fixed, one-to-one correspondences, but a confused and occasionally volatile chaos brought about by oscillations in the relationship between the inner self and the outer world. For Beckett, plagued throughout his life with periodic moments of ‘absence’ from the apparently normal world,l9 this coincidence of vision must have been of the utmost importance. But whereas it is, in a sense, Beckett’s premiss, on which his subsequent arguments depend in more or less disarray, it is in Proust’s case more the conclusion to reams and reams of analysis that has everywhere suggested it. ‘Peut-être est-ce le néant qui est le vrai et tout notre rêve estil inexistent,’ writes Proust early in the work.20

In his monograph Beckett deals with this topic through the medium of Albertine, not because he favours the criticism that isolates character (which would tend to destroy Proust’s point), but because it is through Albertine that Proust is most dramatically brought to realize how ineluctably shifting our reality is. Indeed the absence of any real discussion of such interesting personalities as Bloch, or Charlus, or more particularly Gilberte, is symptomatic of Beckett’s whole approach,21 and it is fair to say that he does not so much misrepresent Proust’s insight into personality as give it a one-sided emphasis that falls into line with his own thinking, which is a common, and legitimate, critical manoeuvre. The fact that Beckett tends to become Proust, or at least spokesman for him, indicates neither a spurious identification of their different aims, nor a dishonest attempt at concealing himself, chameleon-fashion, which is a retreat his other criticism disdains. It is clearly done partly in order that he may say what he must say in the small space allotted to him, but also because he has been profoundly impressed by Proust’s statement of his own predicament. This explains why so much of the essay is ‘lifted’ from Proust, and yet why it is nonetheless an utterly original essay. Reading Proust was tantamount to reading about himself; how could writing about him be other than self-revelatory?

However, since the self is problematic, what tools can we employ in its elucidation? Beckett, as a young intellectual, obviously began by choosing the intellect. But the intellect, as he soon realized, leads up a blind alley into a quicksand of paradoxes. Proust here once again offered a way of solution, for, throughout his novel, he unsparingly charts the futility of mere intellect and seeks constantly for the wonderful tranquillity that can be felt in the mind once the intellect has been recognized for what it is. Again and again reading Beckett’s copy of Proust we find him scornful of minor characters who rely on ‘timid pure logic’22 to get them out of their predicament, and again and again Proust’s recommended cultivation of the inner faculties what Beckett calls the ‘immersive necessity’ as distinct from the ‘emersive tendency’23—engages Beckett’s deepest interest. Proust’s solitude is not simply the physical fact of retirement behind the cork walls of his apartment in the Boulevard Haussmann. The more important retirement is into the mind, where ones solitude can be peopled. As Proust says, ‘Ma solitude [est] une vie de salon mentale.’24 This clearly coincided with Beckett’s thinking, and we may say that Proust’s realization that the real Gilberte is within the heart and mind of Marcel is as important for A la recherche as Moran’s recognition that the real Molloy is his mental projection is crucial to the second part of Molloy.25 Indeed, the number of Beckett characters who find themselves peopled with a host of apparently dissimilar personalities is almost incalculable. But Beckett stops short of Proust’s rationalization of this state of affairs. The idea which Proust is prepared to entertain, that there may be ‘une seule intelligence dont tout le monde est co-locataire’26 is one which is rather too mystical for Beckett to accept, and too much a conventionally novelistic attitude to be entirely satisfactory. Beckett admittedly scores the sentence in which Proust speculates on whether the resurrection of the soul after death is a phenomenon of memory, but he ignores earlier explorations of the idea,27 and is content with a cursory remark about Proust’s ‘intellectualized animism’ in the monograph.28 Proust’s basic insight into the centrifugal tendency of the human mind,29 however, is everywhere confirmed in Beckett’s own writings later.

It follows from Proust’s discovery of the workings of the mind that ‘la vérité n’a pas besoin d’être dite pour être manifestée’30 but in practice this is a faith that proves hard to keep. Beckett’s marginalia show that he is intrigued by Proust’s oscillations between his impressions of the outer world and his relentless burrowing analyses into what these impressions are in essence.31 Proust’s own description of his state, ‘anxieuse inertie,’32 could hardly be improved upon, and it is a condition that so fascinated Beckett that the description could be extended, without distortion, to his own state of mind, as revealed in his own imaginative writing later. In fact, Beckett’s prose, very different though it is from Proust’s, is similar in the way it is at one moment seemingly content with gratuitous irrelevance, and at the next pressing suddenly onward with tremendous thrust and impetus towards ultimate clarity. It is obviously the sundering of cause and effect—many of Beckett’s marginalia are devoted to this theme33—which has disturbed the surface of the prose that emanates from the creative mind. But Beckett, like Proust, stresses that it is the self which is the real originator of disorder,34 and that it is the responsibility of the self to put some kind of shape in its place, if for no other reason than that the external world continues to exist, however much the inner consciousness constructs a refuge for itself.35 Rather than settle the issue one way or the other (I take no sides is what Beckett would say) Beckett, in his fiction and drama, explores the changing relationship of the two elements that, though sundered, still miraculously interact. He lacks, however, Proust’s singlemindedness, the single-mindedness that enabled Proust ultimately to collect all his effort into one enormous outpouring. But he is fascinated by the shapes and patterns that Proust tries out and, as it were, rejects along the way, and many of Proust’s solutions to the problem of inner self and outer world reappear in Beckett’s own creative work later. There is, for instance, the reaction that seeks to cut out the stimulus from the outside world: Beckett scores a passage in which Proust compares love with shutting ones ears to sound, and we cannot but be aware of how often and how unsuccessfully he tries this remedy through the plays (especially the radio plays) and prose fictions of the post-war period.36 Malone’s two unforgettable days of which nothing will ever be known are of this kind, and the idea may well be an unconscious extension of Proust ‘s narrator’s chagrin that seven hours of Albertine’s time are irretrievably lost to him.37

A second possible reaction is to concentrate on the distortions that seemingly disfigure ordinary reality, but which contain priceless clues about what is real. Proust repeatedly asserts that there is a screen between the self and the world, and his work is full of images of partition and separation that Beckett often takes over wholesale. Especially interesting screens, from Proust’s point of view, are such modern inventions as the telephone, the camera, the motorcar, and the aeroplane, and it is interesting to see how Beckett shares this fascination to the point of being keen to take it further. The telephone call is not, for Beckett, simply a stick with which to beat Cocteau,38 nor even simply a way of leading up to the splendid paradox that Marcel is ‘present at his own absence.’39 It is a coincidence of human voice and impersonal mechanism which reaches full fruition in the tape recorder of Krapp’s last tape, the microphonic voice of Not I, and the voices which throng the radio plays. Like Proust, he is prepared to encounter apparent deformations head-on in an attempt to clarify the nature of the reality he is living through.

Obviously the most readily available medium in which to do this is that of speech, which is made up of innumerable idiolects that are all deformations of one sort or another. Beckett’s citation of Les intermittences du coeur as ‘perhaps the greatest passage Proust ever wrote’ is interesting not least because it contains the most concentrated exploration of verbal deformation in the whole work. Beckett’s scoring of Proust’s reflections on the word ‘Syncope’ uttered by the hotel manager—’qui m’aurait peut-être, s appliquait à autres, paru ridicule, mais qui . . . rests longtemps ce qui était capable d’éveiller en moi les sensations plus douloureuses.’40 is really the progenitor of those haunting verbal collisions that make Beckett’s people unable to share information with any certainty. The relationship between Sam and Watt is memorably punctuated by such distortions. Indeed, in view of the very extreme distortions Watt introduces into his narrative—including the ultimate distortion of reading it backwards—one Proustian admission is of particular interest: ‘Parfois l’écriture où je déchiffrais les mensonges d’Albertine, sans être idéographique avait simplement besoin d’être lue à rebours.’41 And it is difficult not to feel that his explanation of why his novel has an occasionally ‘fuzzy’ quality was not in Beckett’s mind when he composed Sam’s self-exculpation in Watt.42 Beckett’s sensitivity to sound is in fact almost as neurasthenic—if the word may still be meaningfully used when medicine has abandoned it—as Proust’s, but Proust’s total sensory equipment is arguably more nervously tense even than Beckett’s. It is interesting, therefore, to see how Beckett tends to score not those passages that deal with peculiarities of visual perception but, almost exclusively, those dealing with strange and unexpected sounds.43 Proust’s work also contains many examples of eyes meeting eyes, which becomes in Beckett’s later work an obsessive image, but the obsessiveness is so extreme as to suggest this is something he did not need Proust to isolate for him to be aware of it. However he, or at least his characters (the Mr Rooney of All that fall most obviously perhaps) would surely wholeheartedly endorse Proust’s insight that ‘le besoin de parler n’empêche pas seulement d’écouter, mais de voir’44 and it is the strength of Beckett’s work, as of Proust’s, that one cannot isolate, even for critical purposes, one sense from another.

The optical distortion has extra importance for Proust because his affection for paintings bulks so large in his work, and because he is concerned to defend the symbolism of painting as a means of attaining truth. Beckett doubly scores, and was obviously impressed by, the sentence in which Proust explains that in Giotto’s allegorical painting symbols are ‘non comme une symbole puisque la pensée symbolisée n’était pas exprimée, mais comme réel, comme effectivement subi ou matériellement manié.’45 He shows himself here, as later on in his career, to be on the side of reality rather than simplified or schematized codifications of it. But realism tout court, or at least the literary variant of realism, is far too plodding and circumstantial to appeal to someone who has indentified—after a brush with Curtius—the quality of Proust’s ‘impressionism.’46 It is an impressionism that informs both the deliquescent and euphoric passages on childhood, and the more gnarled and grotesque images that are part of growing up. Proust responds fully to Giotto’s grotesqueries, and later shows himself as not inferior in this regard, for example in the descriptions of the Marquis de Palancy and the dying Swann.47 The fact that Beckett does not score these passages means only that he rested content with the early set-piece as a possible illustration; like the description of Françoise killing the chicken, and the wry nature-notes on the burrowing wasp,48 the subsequent passages are full of elements that Beckett would admire. The puppet-like Legrandin is, for instance, a forerunner of the Watt who has such difficulty advancing due east, and close optical scrutiny of the kind Proust employs here has remained with Beckett throughout his writing life.

Not that Proust’s world may be said to be inhabited by such a gallery of moribunds as Beckett’s, except perhaps at the afternoon party of Madame de Guermantes in the last volume. This is perhaps because the art of grotesque involves a preliminary detachment not unlike that of the caricaturist, and for Proust ‘cette indifférence aux souffrances qu’on cause . . . est la forme terrible et permanente de la cruauté.’ At the same time, however, he identified ‘le visage . . . sublime de la vraie bonté’ as one in which ‘[on] ne se lit aucune commiseration,’49 and it is true of both Beckett and Proust that they are severe and unsparing writers who see little point in sentimental indulgence. Beckett’s marginal notes are throughout unemotional, and only occasionally—as in the case of Marcel’s reflections on seeing Gilberte with the ‘young man’ or at the moment when Mme de Villeparisis’s carriage drives away from a pretty girl does Beckett use the word ‘tragic.’50 Despite this, the published monograph contains an important section on tragedy, in which mankind’s need to bear witness to its corporate guilt is the crucial feature,51 and Marcel’s analyses of Racine’s tragic drama Phèdre (one of the literary works Beckett most admires) are, predictably, among the most comprehensively scored. Beckett may, throughout his work, be said to practise diligently the faculty of philosophic resignation which makes tragedy possible, and which earned Proust’s undying approval.52

In Beckett’s case, it might be said that his tendency to philosophic resignation can sometimes become inhuman coldness, and that his work sometimes shows the absence of human feelings that made Beckett say to Peggy Guggenheim, in the thirties, that he was ‘dead.’ It is certainly true that Beckett’s excoriations of human folly and knavery are more thoroughgoing than Proust’s, no doubt partly because his sense of his own identity is so much more intermittent than Proust’s. Beckett is much more uncertain about the advantages of oblivion than Proust because he inhabits this vacuity more frequently. For Proust, the moments of obliteration are basically pleasant, and they are even important milestones on his quest, as in his contemplation of the blue blind prior to reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné.53 This important moment could scarcely have been lost on Beckett, since he is similarly haunted by blue, and also associates it with contemplation (or the fruit of contemplation). However, the blue in his writing is rarely an unmixed blessing; it is subject to occasional white lacunae, like the summer day he speaks of in the first section of How it is. We may say that the satisfactions, even of contemplation, are more remote for Beckett, more irretrievable. Proust speaks of the ‘sense of being at rest that one has when one shuts one’s eyes’ in a manner that Malone, among others (for few are in a more Proustian situation than him) would partially agree with; but he, like other Beckett figures, is only too aware that the problems do not cease by operating such a simple mechanism.54 In a structurally parallel reflection, much later in his work, Proust reveals how profoundly aware he is of the fact that even when we remain silent which is another mechanism we can operate, as Malone knows—we are nevertheless inscribing the hieroglyphics of reality on our brain.55 Proust’s prose at this point is far less fraught than Beckett’s, since Beckett finds this kind of idea little short of horrifying, and he does not score it. It is not, however, surprising that most of Proust ‘s long discussion on the oblivion that time ultimately brings interested Beckett considerably, although he does not record what he thought of the moment in A l‘ombre where Proust, exceptionally, longs for the oblivion of death.56 The infinity of space he discovers in his heart is one Beckett’s characters have no option but to traverse.

Proust’s main remedy, in the face of the confusing flux of living, is either to seek out a still object, or to construct for himself a situation in which he, at least, can remain immobile.57 Although Proust never connects this need with his attitude to sounds, it is basically analogous to his feeling that an author ‘n’est qu’un instinct religieusement écouté au milieu du silence.’58 Beckett is to be distinguished from Proust here, especially in view of the fact that it is the connection between soundlessness, stillness and silence that he sets himself to explore] but also no doubt because, though these moments of stillness often occur in Proust, Proust is mainly dependent on movements (either self-induced or involuntary) and sounds outside himself, for the elucidation of his problems.59 Proust, indeed, changes his mind on this question of immobility later in the work, recognizing that it may mean sterility, in a manner that Beckett would hardly condone. Much more remarkable, at least for Beckettians, is the passage in Swann which Beckett scored and underlined, and which is almost a description of the area, and indeed the procedures, that Beckett will spend his life exploring. Swann feels himself ‘transformé en une créature étrangère à l’humanité, aveugle, dépourvue de facultés logiques, presque une fantastique licorne, une créature chimérique ne percevant le monde que par l’ouïe Et comme daps to petite phrase il cherchait cependant un sens où son intelligence ne pouvait descendre, quelle étrange ivresse il avait à depouiller son âme la plus intérieure de tons les secours du raisonnement et à la faire passer seule dans le couloir, dans le filtre obscur du son.’60

If immobility cannot be said to help much, there is no doubt that sheer involuntary insensibility offers more tangible rewards. Once again Proust and Beckett diverge. Proust, not so much because of his snobisme but because of the high value he placed on sensibility, notes of his long suffering maid, Françoise, that ‘to know nothing is to understand nothing.’ It is true that Beckett’s world is, in some ways, even more a world of masters and servants than Proust’s, but it is striking that the pitifully limited Worm, whose plight is similar to Françoise’s, should earn one of Beckett’s greatest encomiums: ‘Worm, to say he does not know what he is, where he is, what is happening, is to underestimate him. What he does not know is that there is anything to know. Proust speaks, in one of his most pessimistic moments, of how ‘the sole remedy which we do not seek is to be ignorant of everything, so as to have no desire for further knowledge,’ and it is clear that Worm has not only achieved, but has transcended, this state. In view of his interests, which include gardening and anything that will keep him from thinking, Beckett’s scoring of a passage earlier in La prisonnière— ‘ll vaut mieux ne pas savoir, penser le moins possible . . .’ is nothing more than we should expect.61

As the above account suggests, there are often great divergences between Proust and Beckett, which is surely no surprise when we think of the differences between their backgrounds and writing careers. When we find Beckett scoring the moment when Proust suggests that we should fear the past as much as the future,62 it is understandable if spectres of existential Angst not entirely relevant to Proust should momentarily dazzle us. Beckett admitted to me ‘Perhaps I overstated Proust’s pessimism a little,’ and his copy is littered with marginal marks not important in themselves, but cumulatively suggesting that Proust’s universe is as desolated and desiccated as his own will one day be. At the same time, Beckett obviously agrees with Proust that ‘des vrais maîtres,’ whose company he would still modestly disclaim, are ‘ceux qui se sont maitrisés’63 and it is obvious that Beckett learnt a great deal from standing back and looking at Proust from a distance, which ultimately bore fruit in his own creative explorations. First and foremost, he learnt that Proust’s ‘complète absence de sens moral’ did not prevent him from being a great writer, and that the ‘plagiarism of oneself’ was not only not to be condemned but actually to be encouraged and embraced as unavoidable.64 Beckett’s works are full of self-plagiarisms and sudden reappearances of characters à la Balzac, none more striking, perhaps, than that of Watt at the end of Mercier and Carrier. Admittedly Beckett makes no attempt at creating the massive single work in which such self-plagiarism is seen to be an essential part of the whole, but his whole writing life illustrates the truth enunciated by Proust to Albertine that ‘les grands littérateurs n’ont jamais que réfracté à travers des milieux divers une même beauté qu’ils apportent au monde.’65 He also shares Proust’s faith that art is ‘symbolical’ of reality and the most profound of real things, ‘réels sans être actuels, idéaux sans être abstraits.’66 He shares, too, Proust’s concern for style (which is more a question of total vision than mere technique), and for art’s reception at the hands of ignorant critics.67 He also learns from Proust that art does not need to be, and cannot hope to be, a matter of total success, that one of its properties is to disappoint its audience, but that this should not affect the writer's sense of vocation.68 Beckett was clearly impressed by Proust’s openness to experience, his readiness to make discoveries no less precious than Pascal's Pensées in an advertisement for soap, discoveries which are a direct result of ‘the power of the human imagination’ and which guarantee the ‘pleasure of the imagination,’ both phrases used by Beckett in his marginal notes.69 Finally, on the level of generality, it was impossible for Beckett, after reading Proust, to harbour any illusions about the art-work which there has been so much striving, on Proust’s part, towards: Proust’s realization: ‘un livre est un grand cimetière’ is perhaps the most unanswerable of all the sentences underlined by Beckett.70

If the matter were not so important, especially in view of the pervasive and misleading tendency in early Beckett criticism that attempted to derive Beckett from Joyce, one might be content to leave the parallel there. But it is an index of how deeply Proust had penetrated his consciousness, and in no sense a limitation of Beckett's originality, that we find so many individual elements in Beckett that are derived, in one way or another, from Proust. His only attempt at a Proustian party scene in ‘A wet night’ (in More pricks than kicks) can hardly be considered a success, and it is arguable that had Beckett’s attention not wandered a little whilst reading the party scenes in Proust (the nine great ‘society scenes’ are mostly barren of marginalia) he might have produced a more focussed story. But this kind of thing was clearly alien to his genius, and may have been a deliberately experimental venture anyway. In fact, typically Proustian situations, except for the inherently highly charged image of the man writing in bed (like Malone), did not exert much influence. That Play might be based on a chance remark—’les vases clos et sans communication entre eux d’après-midi différents’7l seems a little unlikely, when that work can be explained by the Beckett dramas that have preceded it. However, whether Watt’s difficulties with the word ‘pot’ can be entirely divorced from the appalling word that horrifies Marcel is open to doubt.72 It seems likely that Proustian images were slightly more influential, although Beckett’s images are so universal that it would be dangerous to offer only one source, or indeed any source, and there is no real sign of him pursuing a particular image or cluster of images through a work which is astonishingly rich in this area. The one exception is the image of a barrier which occurs first when Proust is discussing the nature of the screen we unconsciously place between ourselves and our percepts, in Du côté de chez Swans 1.73 Beckett does not mark every occurrence of this image, but is particularly impressed by Proust’s use of the word ‘cloison’ (once at 7, p.227, then again at 8, p.366),74 a word he himself uses in the first line of his French poem ‘La mouche’ (written in the late 1930s).75 Beckett is also particularly sensitive to Proust’s occasional use of a religious vocabulary,76 but no doubt reading Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man had sharpened his senses for such things, and Beckett’s own interest in religion goes a good deal deeper than Proust’s. In view of the way a word like ‘cloison’ can be seen to have stayed in his mind, albeit unconsciously, for about a decade, it is particularly intriguing to see how the word ‘lest’ (which means ‘ballast’ and forms the basis for Beckett’s startling phrase ‘Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’ Proust, p.19), crops up again in the third of Beckett’s Quatre poèmes, written about twenty years later.77 It is precisely an individual instance like this which reveals how deep and long-lasting an influence can be.

It is clear, also, that Proust’s stylistic habits obviously went deeper with Beckett than is commonly imagined, though Beckett certainly never made any serious attempt to emulate the serpentine and elongated sentences for which Proust is notorious. He almost certainly learnt much about the art of the short sentence from Proust, which he would find used with exemplary skill in ‘Un amour de Swann,’ and at almost any one of the great moments of drama that break upon the stunned Marcel. He could hardly have been unmoved by the manner in which Proust, by slightly changing his focus of vision, increases his happiness, if only momentarily, without ever lulling to sleep the carping unhappiness that necessitated the change of focus in the first place. This is so much a staple of Proust’s work that almost any example would do, but the subsequent one is especially close to Beckett’s mode:

Et je trouvais, comme tous ceux qui souffrent, que ma triste situation aurait pu être pire. Car ayant libre entrée dans la demeure où habitait Gilberte, je me disais toujours, bien que décidé à ne pas user de cette faculté, que si jamais ma douleur était trop vive, je pourrais la faire cesser. Je n’étais malheureux qu’au jour le jour. Et c’est trop dire encore .78

Equally, the occasional moments of hauteur that are at the furthest remove from this quavering uncertainty, but which Proust finds indispensable to his quest for the truth, are not entirely absent from Beckett’s prose. The tone of the erstwhile university lecturer can be detected behind many sentences in the trilogy, and Beckett seems almost to be administering a shrewd self-criticism in How it is, at the extraordinary moment when the narrator forgets his suffering long enough to begin a disquisition on sponges: ‘some reflections none the less while waiting for things to improve on the fragility of euphoria among the different orders of the animal kingdom beginning with the sponges . . .’79 Without seeking a precise Proustian analogue, it is clear that this kind of device can only be used by someone sufficiently all-embracing to bring together Pascal’s Pensées and a soap advertisement.

Proust’s occasional irritation with his own loquaciousness80 is, of course, nothing like so thoroughgoing as Beckett’s and need not be thought of as lying behind the innumerable moments of disgust registered by Beckett’s narrators at the garbage they are being forced to utter. In much the same way, Proust’s digression and conversation with an imaginary interlocutor, though scored by Beckett, far from being a source for Beckettian audience assaults, shares a common origin with them in Sterne.81 However, the moments when Proust forgets his Cartesian dualism, and admits a conjunction of mind and body—in such phrases as ‘une mémoire involontaire des members’—(which Beckett underlines) provide the basis for such characteristically Beckettian strategies as ‘so given am I to thinking with my blood,’ which he adopts in desperation at the failure of the Cartesian dichotomy.82 A not dissimilar Proustian trick is to employ a cliché either to make more readily accessible an unfamiliar idea or to imitate the complexity of reality by means of one of its commonest items. A phrase like ‘cette route battue des heures,’ which occurs in a sentence scored by Beckett must have given him confidence in his own intrepid resuscitation of dead metaphor that retrieves, for The unnamable, such gems as ‘tracks as beaten as the day is long’ and ‘no ordinary last straw.’83

Beckett’s own writing is so individual that it cannot be diminished by the discovery of deep-seated parallels such as these. Part of the attractiveness of the Proust monograph resides precisely in the way Beckett dissociates himself, in the Foreword most memorably but throughout the main body of the text also, from many of Proust’s more equivocal and less attractive postures. The seeds of this can be seen late in the final volume where Beckett shrewdly points out how Proust’s understanding of the significance of his writing conflicts with much of what he has been saying. Proust did not, of course, live to correct the text of Le temps retrouvé, and the passage in which he rather simple-mindedly limits his achievement to that of holding up a magnifying glass to nature is roundly glossed ‘Balls’84 by Beckett.

Exclamation marks dot the text, not just where the text is plainly incorrect lit is full of printing errors and thoroughly deserves the opprobrium heaped on it by Beckett, however difficult Proust’s intentions may have been to decipher), but at such lapses of taste (in Beckett’s eyes) as Proust’s liking for the poetess Anna de Noaïlles. The monograph benefits from moments of high-spirits like this, and it will outlast many more stuffy commentaries; the mixture may be heady, but it is invigorating. It may not be impeccable history of ideas but it is as exciting as Proust’s own excursions into that field.85 It seems increasingly that the Proust monograph, together with the special insights revealed by the copy Beckett was working from, is nothing less than essential to any full understanding of the man already on the way to becoming the major post-war writer in the world.86


1 See Raymond Federman and John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett: his works and his critics, Berkeley, U of California P, 1970, p. 9.

2 As part of the Reading University Beckett Archive. The texts Beckett used were: Du côté de chez Swann 1 and 2, 107th ed., 1923, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 2 and 3, 119th ed., 1929, Le côté de Guermantes 1 and 2, 63rd ed., 1927, Sodome et Gomorrhe 1, 54th ed., 2, 71st ed., La prisonnière, 46th ed., 1927, Albertine disparue, 45th ed., 1926, Le temps retrouvé 1 and 2, 36th ed., 1929. A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs 1 is missing. In the notes the following abbreviations are used: Swann, JF, CG, SG, P, AD and TR, with the appropriate volume number.

3 ‘There was never any thought of becoming a writer,’ Ruby Cohn, ‘Beckett for comparatists,’ Comparative literature studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 1966. 451.

4 Proust, London, Chatto and Windus, 1931, p. 25. The omission of the Leopardi epigraph (which gave such pleasure to Joyce because it could be turned into a multilingual mirror-image—‘immonde’ for ‘il moudo’) in the 1965 reprint is much to be regretted.

5 ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce’ in Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of work in progress, London, Faber and Faber, 1936. 4. (1st ed. 1929).

6 Proust, 63.

7 He resigned his teaching post at Trinity College, Dublin, in December 1931, nine months after the book’s appearance.

8 Proust, 6.

9 Proust, 49. See Schopenhauer’s The world as will and idea, tr. Haldane and Kemp, vol. 1, London, 1896, 321. See ibid, 239 for the phrase quoted on page 66 of Proust, page 246 and page 331 for the phrases quoted on page 70 of Proust, and pages 333-44 for the background to the discussion on page 71 of Proust.

10 Ibid, 30-31.

11 Ibid, 8.

12 Ibid, 20.

13 Ibid, 22, adapting P 1, 217 (underlined by Beckett).

14 SG 2, iii, 52 cf. JF 2, 165.

15 Proust, pages 23, 21.

16 Ludovic Janvier, Beckett par lui-même, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1969, 12, dates his reading of Kant to 1930, but his lecture ‘Le Concentrisme’ refers to Kant and is earlier.

17 See, for example, Melvin J. Friedman, ‘The novels of Samuel Beckett: an amalgam of Joyce and Proust,’ Comparative literature, 12, 1960, 47-58.

18 See the interview with Israel Shenker, New York Times, sec. 2, 6 May 1956, x, 1, 3.

19 See Lawrence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1970, 247-50.

20 Swann 2, 191.

21 Other areas of the work, either not scored at all, or only lightly scored, are the death of Bergotte, the first picture of Elstir, and the sections ‘Place Names: the Name’ and ‘Place Names: the Place,’ at least the early part.

22 Swann 2, 14; JF 2, 105; JF 3, 155; SG 2, ii, 178.

23 Swann 1, 124.

24 JF 1, 139.

25 JF 2, 39 cf. Three novels, London, John Calder, 1959, 115 ff.

26 JF 1, 129.

27 CG 1, 79.

28 Proust, 23.

29 JF 2, 81.

30 CG 1, 59.

31 Swann 1, 33, 200, 201-3.

32 SG 2, i, 107.

33 e.g. ‘relativism multiplies cause’ (AD 2, p. 96) and ‘1 cause 2 results’ (AD 2, 173).

34 JF 1, 139 cf. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, 435: ‘Being is constantly putting form in danger.’

35 JF 2, 88, 92.

36 CG 1, 68. Beckett’s recent, unpublished, prose text ‘Sounds’ (Reading University Beckett Archive) explores it further.

37 Three novels, 222; P 1, 180.

38 Proust, 14.

39 Ibid, 15.

40 SG 2, i, 208.

41 P 1, 122.

42 P 2, 199 cf. Watt, London, 1963, 72.

43 e.g. P 1, p. 112.

44 CG 2, 213-14 cf. All that fall, London, 1965, 28: ‘Once and for all do not ask me to speak and move at the same time.’

45 Swann 1, 120-1.

46 SG 2, i, 215, His disagreement with Curtius (Proust, 85) is based on his marginal note to JF 3, 151.

47 CG 1, 39; SG 2, i, 85.

48 Swann 1, 177-8, 180.

49 Swann 1, 237; Swann 1, 122.

50 JF 2, 19-20; JF 2, 156 (altered to ‘pessimist’); JF 2, 36 is similarly marked.

51 Proust, 49. Beckett is especially sensitive to Proust’s use of the word ‘témoin’ (e.g. Swann 1, 70-1). Cf. Mr. Knott’s need for a ‘witness’ in Watt.

52 JF 2, 16.

53 JF 2, 73.

54 Ibid, 165. Cf. Mr Kelly in Murphy. Malone may get his finicky formal sense from Proust. There is something Malone-like in Marcel’s absurdly portentous promise that the subject of the Profanation of the Mother ‘deserves a chapter to itself.’

55 AD 1, 28.

56 Ibid, 63-5. Beckett does, however, mark TR 2, 68, which speaks of death as the only deliverance from irremediable suffering.

57 See the second volume of La prisonnière for Proust’s interest in paralytic illnesses, shared (especially in The unnamable—Mahood’s condition being the logical terminus of a Proustian tendency) by the even more medically aware Beckett.

58 TR 2, 46. (Beckett underlines the sentence.)

59 See, e.g., CG 2, 37, 40 and AD 1, 126.

60 Swann 2, 34.

61 P 1, 31-2; Three novels, 349.

62 P 1, 116-17.

63 SG 2, ii, 23.

64 P 2, 119; AD 1, 34.

65 P 2, 235.

66 Ibid, 234; TR 2, 15.

67 TR 2, 251.

68 CG 1, 44 ff.; Swann 1, 256 ff. Cf. Beckett’s later aesthetic of failure.

69 AD1, 203; CG 1, 144; CG 2, 77.

70 TR 2, 59.

71 Swann 1, 196.

72 P 2, 189.

73 Cf. the cage images of JF 2, 92, 137 and P 2, 200, and Proust, 12.

74 SG 2, i, 186; SG 2, iii, 219.

75 See Poèmes, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1968.

76 Swann 2, 187; P 2, 72.

77 P 2, 208. See Poems in English, London, John Calder, 1961, 50.

78 JF 1, 149-50.

79 How it is, London, John Calder, 1964, 43.

80 e.g. JF 3, 153.

81 SG 2, i, 31-3. It is a pity the missing volume of the set deprives us of Beckett’s attitude to Proust’s subtle self-criticism at the hands of M de Norpois.

82 TR 1, 8-9. Cf. CG 1, 266; ‘Text VII’ of Texts for nothing, in No’s knife, London, Calder and Boyars, 1967, later changed to ‘so given am I to thinking with my breath.’

83 JF 2, 13.

84 TR 2, 240.

85 Beckett has written on the back page of the last volume: ‘Arabian Nights of the mind’ and ‘Thought—jellyfish of Spirit.’

86 See, for an especially illuminating discussion, John Fletcher’s ‘Beckett et Proust,’ Caliban 1, janvier 1964, pp. 89-100. Beckett’s other scholarly contribution on Proust, ‘Proust in Pieces,’ Spectator, no. 5530, 23 June 1934, pp. 975-6, should also be consulted.