Review: Beckett the shape changer

A symposium edited by Katharine Worth (London and Boston, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, viii, 227 pp.)

John Pilling

Beckett’s writing has, in recent years, received every kind of critical treatment, from the ephemeral to the scholarly, and it is difficult, even for a specialist, to keep pace with it. There now exist several introductory books, concentrated studies of his prose, his theatre, his poetry, and the philosophical background, memoirs of variable value, full-length studies that cover all aspects, critical editions of major texts, and collections of essays with more or less of a coherent theme.

In this latter category, when the very variousness of a symposium constitutes its claim on our attention, to seek a principle of homogeneity may seem an idle quest. Katharine Worth, the editor of this collection of essays (six of the nine given as lectures in the Extra-Mural Studies Department of the University of London, where all but one of the contributors teach) finds one in the shared feeling of Beckett’s ‘approachability,’ ‘the great range of his human understanding and sympathy,’ which is so all-embracing that it runs the risk of being diffuse. Her introduction is about as satisfactory as such things generally are, but it is difficult to see how anyone could have made an elegant whole out of a brief biography, a short discussion of Beckett’s bilingualism, an introduction to what the contributors are about to say, a caveat that ‘philosophical interpretation has loomed rather too large in Beckett criticism up to now,’ and a paragraph of acknowledgements. There is, as one would expect, much incidental wisdom on the way, but Worth is unable, by the terms of her role, to pursue points very far, and it might have been better if the individual essays had been left to speak for themselves, with the details of ‘life and works confined to an appendix at the end.’

The individual essays vary in quality. John Chalker (on Watt) and Charles Peake (on the novels up to 1950) are as lucid as their other writings would lead us to expect, and no one could dispute their credentials as guides to the eighteenth century background to Beckett. Brian Finney’s essay on Beckett’s shorter fiction contains an excellent passage on Imagination dead imagine, but offers little elucidation of that difficult story The calmative and nothing at all on the early, and much underrated, A case in a thousand. Behind the distorting veneer of his prose style, Victor Sage (on How it is) is saying some important things about the way Beckett’s career conditions our response, about the minute adjustments of expectation How it is forces us to make, and about the syntax of the late prose. But he says some strange things also, finding the novels ‘more like the temporary assemblages of a Meccano set than uniquely formed growths’ and Murphy and Celia only ‘superficially different’ from the world of the novel he is mainly concerned with.

Harry Cockerham’s analysis of Beckett’s bilingualism is precise and clearly presented, a very useful piece of criticism indeed; one priceless example of Beckett’s sensitivity to the problems of writing in two languages—his description, to Ruby Cohn, of a phrase in Textes pour rien as ‘a very hazardous tournure which no Frenchman would commit’—might have been added without damaging the tone or the content. Barbara Hardy writes well on Shakespeare, Keats, Swift, and Sterne, but her prose is over-excited and uneconomical. That she finds From an abandoned work ‘charming’ indicates a failure of response not unlike that which has allowed her to confuse, at a crucial point, Molloy and Malone. The essay reads like an uncorrected first draft, full of ideas not followed up (e.g. the still unexplored parallels with Michaux), and by turns too tightly packed or not compact enough.

Martin Dodsworth (not, thank heavens, afraid to have preferences among Beckett’s works) writes an excellent paragraph on Eh Joe and his description of the actors ‘battling with an intrinsically disobliging scenario’ makes an attractive base for his strictures on Film. But whilst his manner is pleasantly direct, he has a tendency to entertain hypotheses that harden into truths, and can write an excursus on John Cage that reads like part of a book on modernism, where he doesn’t seem to have fully convinced himself (any more than Wolfgang Iser did, Der impüzite Leser, 1972) whether there is a parallel, an analogy, an influence, or what. He is suggestive on Sartre, but insensitive on Proust; his discussion of Beckett’s ‘religion’ is tenaciously argued, but ultimately misleading. More damagingly, it is not clear at certain points whether he has actually seen Film.

Katharine Worth is very sensitive to the transience and ambiguity of radio drama, and writes well on Beckett’s theatrecraft in terms of sound and space. She is a little severe on Beckett’s Krapp note, and perhaps (like Barbara Hardy) more optimistic a reader of Beckett than one would like.

Despite Katharine Worth’s remarks in the introduction, the absence of any consideration at all of Beckett’s intellectual origins (or of his poetry) is regrettable. Mistakes in the transcription of ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce’ (in Finney’s essay) and in inserting punctuation in some of the quotations (in Sage’s) ought to have been removed, and there seems little point in quoting from two different editions of Watt (one of which spells Arsene Arsène).