‘Das Werk von Samuel Beckett. Berliner Colloquium’

edited by Hans Mayer and Uwe Johnson (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1975. 245 pp.)

‘Materialien zu Samuel Becketts Warten auf Godot’

edited by Ursula Dreysse (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1973; 2nd edition, 1976. 180 pp.)

‘Material ien zu Samuel Becketts Romanen’

edited by Hartmut Englehardt and Dieter Mettler (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1976. 380 pp.)


Martin Esslin


Beckett’s German publisher, the Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt, is responsible for two highly successful paperback series, the ‘edition suhrkamp’ and the more popular ‘Suhrkamp Taschenbuecher.’ In these series Suhrkamp include not only very well printed editions of their principal authors’ works, but also compendia of critical essays as ‘materials’ towards a better understanding and appreciation. Two of the volumes here under review fall into this category—they deal with Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of novels—the third one is more general, being an account of the proceedings of a Beckett ‘colloquium’ held in October 1973 at the West Berlin Academy of Arts (which, incidentally, usually provides Beckett himself with a welcome refuge, in one of its splendid apartments and studios destined for visiting artists, when he spends time in Berlin to direct his plays there).


The ‘colloquium’ results in a more interesting volume, simply because it contains a number of papers by important Beckett scholars which are original contributions, while the ‘casebooks’ mainly contain well-known essays most of which are widely available in English and French.


The colloquium took place at a time when the intellectual fashion in Germany (where intellectual fashions are far more powerful than elsewhere and exercise a truly authoritarian tyranny upon intellectuals, to the point where many dare not speak their own mind or voice their own opinions lest they be thought out of touch or old fashioned), was firmly Marxist, or rather vulgaermarxistisch, a fact which clearly emerges from the efforts of the blurb of the little volume to establish that ‘the themes (of the colloquium) left such clichés as that of “the poet of the Absurd” or of “total negativity” far behind them, and dealt, among other things with the extension of the literary imagination through Beckett, with the safeguarding of his texts through formal absoluteness (whatever that may mean: Absicherung seiner Texte durch formale Unbedingtheit!), with the social relevance of a merely seemingly non-political oeuvre, with the, in spite of all, considerable presence in them of a relationship between the external world and subjective perception . . .’


Luckily this impression is not confirmed by the actual content of the volume, which, in fact contains a first-rate essay on ‘The topos of negativity in Beckett’s prose’ by Wolfgang Iser and quite a lot, in a variety of papers, on Beckett’s concept of the Absurd. On the other hand, the attempts to drag Beckett into a world of social relevance, or even into that of realism, be it only insofar that there is a reflection of the real world in Beckett, seem pretty far-fetched. Marianne Kesting, for example, in an otherwise admirable paper on ‘The reality of fiction’ seems to misunderstand a key sentence in Beckett from sheer over eagerness to establish links with external reality. She quotes the passage in Murphy in which Murphy’s mind is seen by him as ‘a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without. This was not an impoverishment for it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it’ and interprets it as being a reflection of Locke’s dictum: ‘There appear not to be any ideas in the mind before the senses have conveyed any in.’ Thus, Kesting argues, Murphy’s retreat into his own mind does not signify a retreat from the real world because the real world is already enclosed in his mind. This really seems to me to be bending over backwards. And to what purpose? Just to escape the taunt of the neo-Zhdanovists with their parrot-cry that good fiction must be ‘realistic.’ The only really glaring example of this tendency is provided by a paper by two British participants, Ernest Parkin and Gerhard Wilke which is characteristically entitled (in the German translation of a title which must originally have been in English) ‘Schluss mit Warten!’ i.e. ‘Let’s have no more Waiting’ or ‘Let us make an end with waiting!’ This turns out to be a primitive attempt to import a truly grotesque variety of Vulgaermarxismus into the world of Beckett. Thus Estragon appears as a poet who is in despair because the ‘commercialisation of art separates the artist from his public’ and ‘communication between the artist and his public can only be established through the mediation of the market. Aesthetic values have become commercial values’ and then goes on to say that ‘Beckett is in Estragon’s situation.’ Moreover Estragon’s ‘identification with Christ, the cultural model and historical scapegoat, is an attempt to justify the artist’s role in late bourgeois society: a man who suffers in order to be creative and who is creative because he suffers; isolated from society and yet dependent on it because of the need to get grants, a public and criticism’ . . . . And so on. Luckily this lengthy paper is the only real blot on an otherwise very useful book. John Fletcher’s ‘Variations on a Beckett theme: First Love,’ John Fuegi’s ingenious confrontation of Beckett with Brecht and Melvin Friedman’s survey on Beckett’s criticism in the early seventies are of lasting value, as are Elmar Tophoven (Beckett’s German translator) and Helmut Scheffel on the problems of the translation of Beckett into German and other languages where the author himself cannot provide the very free paraphrases by which he is enabled to provide versions equally valid in French and English.


The book also tries to include an account of the discussions which concluded each session of the symposium. These, alas, are very brief and unsatisfactory. But then it seems that discussions of this sort at public occasions of this kind hardly ever yield genuine debate and dialogue.


The two casebooks on Godot and the novels are useful: they contain many essays by scholars like Wolfgang Iser, Guenter Anders, Colin Duckworth, Hugh Kenner, Ludovic Janvier, Raymond Federman, Olga Bernal, Vivian Mercier, and Maurice Blanchot which are well-known outside Germany but must be of very great value to those German readers who want to gain access to Beckett. What most clearly emerges from these collections is the distinct national profile of this type of writing: the German Beckett criticism tends to be heavy, laden with philosophical terminology, which occasionally leads to really important insights, but often remains mere window-dressing jargon; the French are elegant and lucid and the English and Americans down-to-earth and concrete. All three approaches, if practised by individuals with intelligence and a mind uncluttered by pseudo-theological dogma, however, are equally valuable as well as nicely complementing each other.