Review: ‘Beckett/Beckett’

by Vivian Mercier (Oxford UP, New York, 1977. £5.95)


A.J. Leventhal


At the outset I must admit that this book irritated me. It is introduced by a ‘prologue (spoken by the author in his own Person).’ There seems to be no reason for the ancient play formula to be used as a preface to a piece of criticism. It is offered as a ‘rather personal view of its subject.’ This may explain the various attempts made throughout the work to tie up Beckett the man with his creatures, despite glaring inconsistencies which, be it said, are pointed out by the author himself.


As a justification for this ‘personal’ interest and his individual qualifications to present his subject ‘as neither a deity nor a monster’ Professor Mercier refers to their similar Anglo-Irish origins. School, college, same disciplines with same teachers; the parallel goes back to the sharing of Huguenot ancestors.


The ‘personal’ interest shows itself to be markedly in the first person. I am reminded of a play by Israel Horovitz (Le premier in the French translation) in which the characters struggle for top place in a queue. The professor claims to be first to have paid serious attention to Beckett’s fiction, first to direct the author to Hugh Kenner (‘who dedicated his first book on Beckett to me’), first to say that Godot was a play ‘in which nothing happened twice.’ I could continue.


He failed, however, to convince his co-editor to include an excerpt from Murphy in a 1952 anthology of Irish prose. May I add with perhaps little relevance that he also managed to omit from the same collection an example of the unique prose of Seumas O’Sullivan’s Mud and purple.


The irritations persist. There is talk of ‘cashing in on Beckett.’ I recall in this regard an article in which he upbraids belated climbers onto the ‘Beckett band-waggon’ and referred (another first) to ‘Becketteers.’ The latter term is still used in this book despite its ugly echoing association with a racket.


He was yet again first to stress Beckett’s Irishness and comic techniques and in less than a year learned enough Old Irish to write The Irish comic tradition. Competent as he may have become in ancient Gaelic satiric lore, he was not always sensitive to more modern humour. In the book under review he asserts soundly that ‘delight in going to extremes is present in all humour and satire but it seems especially dear to the Anglo-Irish mind.’ An example of this kind of humour can be taken from the above-mentioned work on the Irish comic tradition which is so misquoted as to make us hesitate to accept our author wholeheartedly as a guide to the comic spirit. A Dublin Trinity don being offered the choice between a large and small whiskey is reported as replying that there was no such thing as a small whiskey. Of course what Professor Tyrrell said was that there was no such thing as a large whiskey.


Tyrrell was before Mercier’s time or he would have known another anecdote and so have suspected the one quoted. This classical scholar hated Provost Mahaffy but, as a member of the staff, had to accept an invitation, from him to a formal reception. Next day a friend said: ‘I heard you got drunk at the Provost’s House last night.’ ‘Nonsense,’ was the reply, ‘I was drunk before I got there.’ Old Irish as a language is not necessarily a guide to its quirks as a drink. Voilà le hic.


Beckett/Beckett as a title prepares the reader for a dialectical approach. Chapters are headed Ireland/the World, Eye/Ear, Painting/ Music, Woman/Man, etc. Contradictions and opposites are paired against each other and fitted somehow into the character of the man Beckett himself. Wilde and Yeats are called in to bear witness. The one in character with his paradox: ‘A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true’ and the other in his antinomical claim of the anti-self ‘being indeed my double’ as the source of inspiration. This approach gives the writer the occasion for much acute analysis particularly in the classical ascription of unities in some of the plays. It is difficult to imagine how Beckett came to be included in the School of the Absurd. The initial incomprehension of Godot is doubtless responsible. Mercier’s essay on his kinship with Racine should help to remove this superficial assessment.


Pursuing his argument of opposites the author makes the curious statement that Beckett’s near legendary modesty and distaste for publicity is possibly the unconscious mask of an intensely ambitious man. The authority of the early criticism, the early poetry that refused to explain itself, the ambition to use French like a native (where is the authority for this assumption?)—all these are offered as proof. And finally, ‘repressed ambition has come to the surface again disguised as perfectionism—the many drafts of a brief work like Ping, the obsessive attention to detail shown in stage directions and in the mounting of his own plays in Germany.’


My first reaction to this rigmarole is to make no comment, leaving that to the reader of the book or this review. But, like Beckett himself, I must go on if only for a few more lines. Is the author really saying any more than Marie Corelli, a very popular novelist in her day, when she wrote in her Sorrows of Satan with all the confidence of a best seller: ‘There is no love without lust, no friendship without self-interest, no virtue without its accompanying stronger vice’?