‘Beckett and Joyce: friendship and fiction’

by Barbara Reich Gluck (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press; London, Associated University Presses, 1959. 225 pp. $14.50)

 

Melvin J. Friedman

 

Deirdre Bair remarked towards the end of her recent biography: ‘. . . Beckett has become the most written-about author of the twentieth century . . .’ While this is something of an exaggeration—at least Joyce and Faulkner are still clearly ahead of him—it points to the overwhelming gathering of Beckett criticism in the past two decades. A new book on the Anglo-Irish writer is rarely, these days, given more than passing notice. Deirdre Bair’s massive biography did attract considerable attention when it appeared in the spring of 1978, but mainly because, as Richard Ellmann put it so well, she had ‘managed a scoop which in literary history is like that of Bernstein and Woodward in political history.’ As the reviews of Bair’s work began to accumulate, it became apparent that expectations were sadly unfulfilled. (See especially Martin Esslin’s splendid ‘Scandalising Samuel Beckett: the coarse art of biography,’ in the March 1979 Encounter.)

 

Barbara Gluck’s book lacks the sensationalism of the Bair biography and may very well get lost in the critical shuffle. This would be a shame as a study assessing the precise relationship between Joyce and Beckett has long been needed. Since the early days of Beckett criticism commentators have wondered about the exact nature of the personal and literary rapports between the two self-displaced Dubliners who found life on the continent more congenial than anything offered by their native Ireland. Nobody before Barbara Gluck has seen fit to pursue the matter at book length.

 

Beckett and Joyce: friendship and fiction - a revised Columbia doctoral dissertation directed by the accomplished scholar and critic, William York Tindall will go a long way to resolve the biographical and critical difficulties. Barbara Gluck leads us by the hand, gently but firmly, in mapping out the circuitous route Beckett took while cutting the Joycean umbilical cord: ‘rejecting Joyce’s views and methods, Beckett has, paradoxically, reaffirmed them and his writings have become more than ever like those of his friend and fellow author.’ (162-163)

 

Gluck’s first step on the way to this rather surprising conclusion involves a close look at the contours of the ‘friendship’ set against the backdrop of Paris. With a helping hand from Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce and other biographical sources, she manages to round out a composite portrait of the two Irishmen. She then turns to Beckett’s work and examines what she calls the ‘apprenticeship’ writing—which carries through Echo’s bones and other precipitates and More pricks than kicks. She makes some interesting judgements about the poetry: ‘Echo’s bones, then, are poetic precipitates of many of Joyce’s literary techniques. Self-contained, they incorporate the structural and thematic motif of circular movement that pervades Joyce’s entire work and that will come to dominate Beckett’s own canon of novels and plays.’(53) In particular she usefully brings together ‘Dante and the Lobster’ with Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’

 

Gluck offers a full chapter on three novels, Murphy, Watt, and Mercier and Camier, which she feels are emphatically achieved in ‘the Joycean shadow.’ The verbal dexterity of Murphy she finds very Joycean but concludes that ‘the book itself nevertheless embodies an implicitly anti-Joycean philosophy.’ (77) Finnegans wake proves helpful as a source for a variety of ingredients in Watt just as Ulysses offers a kind of parodic key to Mercier and Camier.

 

The fourth chapter closely examines some of the French fiction written in the years following the Second World War. After some shrewd comments on Beckett’s use of French and his ‘self-translations,’ Barbara Gluck turns to the three nouvelles, Premier amour and the trilogy, It is clear by now that the gospel according to Murphy, ‘in the beginning was the pun,’ no longer applies. The Joycean echoes, parodies, and reverberations are radically muted and diminished. ‘The structure of his work, however, would remain Joycean—cyclical and purgatorial.’ (140)

 

The final chapter concentrates on the plays, especially Waiting for Godot and Endgame. It is evident once again that the stylistic influence of Joyce has largely disappeared in favor of Joycean structures and forms which acknowledge ‘the idea of the universe as a closed cyclical system.’(162) In this respect, for Gluck, the paradox of rejection and reaffirmation of Joyce carries into Beckett’s full maturity.

 

The book ends with two appendices, ‘Beckett and Irish Literature’ and ‘Joyce and the Jews,’ neither of which are particularly useful, a checklist of ‘works cited,’ and a very detailed index. A close look at the checklist reveals the surprising fact that there is no item later than 1974. The recent book-length criticism by John Pilling, Katharine Worth, Vivian Mercier, and Steven Rosen, for example, has obviously not been consulted.

 

 The situation becomes a bit more discomforting when one realizes that Barbara Gluck wrote a twenty-page chapter on the friendship between Beckett and Joyce without consulting Deirdre Bair’s biography—which was published a year before Beckett and Joyce: friendship and fiction and was available as a Columbia Ph.D dissertation as early as 1972. Gluck remarks at one point: ‘His inability to have a romantic relationship with Lucia did not affect Beckett’s friendship with her father.’(30) Bair’s version is quite different: ‘Joyce, in tones of icy rage, informed Mr. Beckett that he was no longer welcome in his home or his presence. The break that Beckett had feared became a reality.’ Gluck asserts on another occasion, with no great assurance: ‘It was probably McGreevy who introduced Beckett to Joyce.’(23) Bair describes the first meeting between the two in elaborate detail and firmly establishes McGreevy’s crucial role in arranging matters. In treating other events, like Henry Sinclair’s libel suit against Oliver St. John Gogarty, for which Beckett served as a witness for the prosecution, and the famous stabbing of Beckett, Bair offers more information than Gluck. While Bair questions Beckett’s birth date and opts for May 13, 1906, Gluck unquestioningly accepts the familiar Good Friday, April 13, (180, note 134). It is clear from the many searching and often discrediting reviews of Samuel Beckett: a biography that Deirdre Bair is not always to be trusted. Still she does offer more pages than anyone before her on the Beckett-Joyce relationship and Barbara Gluck should certainly have consulted her work.

 

This matter of not keeping up-to-date betrays Barbara Gluck on other occasions. At one point she quotes the entirety of ‘Home Olga’ with the excuse that ‘it is little known and is not included with Beckett’s published poems.’(31) It is true that it is not in the 1961 Poems in English, but it is quite readily available as the third poem in the 1977 Collected poems in English and French. On another occasion she speaks of ‘Premier amour, published separately and only in French at the time this was written . . .’(192, note 50). The English translation actually appeared in the 1974 Grove Press collection, First love and other shorts. There are other instances of the same thing. With Beckett publishing and criticism as active as it is, one simply can’t afford to fall this far behind.

 

Barbara Gluck is a close and patient reader of both Beckett and Joyce. She is very good at uncovering echoes and parodies of Joyce in every nook and cranny of the early Beckett especially. I might, however, refer her to a passage from Murphy which seems to parody the ‘Cyclops’ chapter of Ulysses: ‘He was a low-sized, clean-shaven, grey-faced, one-eyed man, triorchous and a non-smoker. He had a curious hunted walk, like that of a destitute diabetic in a strange city.’ But her counterpointing of the two Irish writers through a 225-page book is no easy task and she deserves a good deal of credit for managing it so well.

 

Beckett critics, at least those who published their work before 1974, should be pleased at the attention Barbara Gluck has paid their efforts. She offers 27 pages of notes in a typeface smaller than that used for the rest of the book. Her respect for this critical writing is worth pointing out in the wake of its complete dismissal by Deirdre Bair (in a much-quoted passage from the preface to her biography): ‘I wrote the biography of Beckett because I was dissatisfied with existing studies of his writings. I felt that critics tended to try so hard to place Beckett in whatever particular theory or system they espoused that they ignored those works that did not fit, thus creating unexplainable gaps and blatant flaws. It seemed to me that many of the leading Beckett interpreters substituted their own brilliant intellectual gymnastics for what should have been solid, responsible scholarship; that they created studies that told more about the quality of the authors’ minds than about Beckett’s writings.’ Those Beckett commentators who are still licking their wounds following Bair’s rejection might take some comfort in Gluck’s respect for their opinions and discoveries.

 

In general Beckett and Joyce: friendship and fiction is carefully proofread and free of serious error. There are, however, a variety of lapses which should be corrected in a second printing. In her discussion of Mercier and Camier she mentions that the novel is ‘narrated in the third person, except for the beginning of chapter 4, which is told in the first person.’(100) Chapter 4 begins in this way: ‘The field lay spread before them. In it nothing grew, that is nothing of use to man. Nor was it clear at first sight what interest it could have for animals.’ Gluck must mean chapter 1 which starts with this single sentence paragraph: ‘The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.’ Natalie Barney’s Christian name appears as Nathalie on page 20. Ricorso turns up as recorso on page 63. Winnie’s husband Willie, in Happy days, emerges as Willy on page 101. Davy Byrne’s pub, mentioned in ‘Counterparts’ and again in the ‘Lestrygonians’ chapter of Ulysses, is misspelled on page 166. In the bibliography, Gabriel d’Aubarède’s interview with Beckett is dated 1971 instead of 1961 (199), Niklaus Gessner’s first name is misspelled (202), and Frederick J. Hoffman’s entire name is misspelled (203).