From Joyce to Beckett: the tale that wags the telling


Richard Pearce


Molloy is in his mother’s room. He is filling up empty pages with what he knows. Which is his story. What he knows, then—indeed what he is—is what he writes. And he knows nothing beyond his present situation. His present situation includes the words he has just written into the empty space. Whether they are in the past or present tense, they are presences. And it is through his engagement—through his toying, struggling, and intercourse—with these physical presences that his story comes to life.


He doesn’t know how he got to his mother’s room. He doesn’t know whether his mother was dead when he arrived or only died later, that is enough to bury. He tells us, though, that he has taken her place. ‘I must resemble her more and more. All I need now is a son.’ And then Molloy gives birth to a son. Watch how: ‘Perhaps I have one somewhere. But I think not. He would be old now, nearly as old as myself. It was a little chambermaid. It wasn’t true love’ (my emphases).1


Molloy speculates upon the possibility, reflects upon the improbability and then creates a son by shifting from the conditional present of the indicative (or actual past: ‘He would be old now . . . It was a little chambermaid.’ This grammaculate conception is also generated by a shift from ‘he’ or ‘it.” And while ‘it’ has no antecedent in the text, we easily apprehend its referent, for such ellipses are common in everyday speech.2 In this case ‘it’ refers to the event of his son’s conception—which is itself conceived by Molloy’s pencil dallying with the grammar and filling in the empty space after a sentence defining his son as no more than what Stephen Dedalus called a ‘Godpossibled soul.’3


We know that Beckett was attracted by the fecundity and procreative power of Joyce’s language, especially in Finnegans wake. But if we turn to Ulysses we will see firstly where Joyce’s language liberated itself from the consciousness of his characters and even the narrator to become an autonomous physical presence, and secondly the self-generating element that Beckett would exploit. As we enter the world of Ulysses, we look through Stephen’s eyes across his ‘threadbare cuffedge’ to see a ‘ring of bay and skyline’ that holds ‘a dull green mass of liquid’ which becomes the ‘bowl of white china . . . holding the green sluggish bile’ torn up by his mother (5). In the next two sections we see something of Mr Deasy’s school but very little of the Sandymount strand through the waves of Stephen’s recollections, obsessions, and musings. In section four we see a great deal of Dublin through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, but these scenes are continually fragmented by the singular associations that emerge from his consciousness. Then suddenly we encounter neither a scene nor a stream of consciousness but a page—where what Bloom sees and thinks are continually interrupted by boldface headings. Indeed, Bloom’s stream of consciousness is only part of a pattern that includes—is in fact dominated by—the typography.


It is only at the bottom of the page that we discover we are in a newspaper world, and that the boldface headings are like newspaper headlines. Even so, we cannot locate their source. They are not part of what any character sees or thinks, nor are they part of what the narrator sees or says. The headlines are just there: gratuituous, obdurate, physical presences that intrude into the narrative, interrupt, fragment, and sometimes comment upon the scene. The printed words, the very material that composes the novel, come out into the open in a form that calls attention to itself—and becomes a dramatic element in its own right. This is what David Hayman defines as a ‘counterforce,’4 and what I myself have described as an antagonist against which the narrator, the characters, and the readers will have to contend.5 As a pattern of arbitrary sounds and a series of literary parodies, it will obscure our view of Bloom when he becomes a cuckold and when he finally meets Stephen as a father. As an arbitrary point of view, it lifts us high above the streets of Dublin, reducing all the characters to the same level, while, from time to time, zooming down to fragment them into parts. As language issuing from no source within the narrative world, feeding upon itself and gathering momentum, it generates an intensity of danger much greater than any hurtling biscuit tin. As a set of stage directions, it transforms characters into the shapes of their deepest anxieties. As a series of impersonal questions and answers, it transforms the quality of the novel’s most significant encounter into a set of quantitative results, and threatens to reduce Bloom to one of the many inanimate objects in 7 Eccles Street.


Joyce’s language in Ulysses, then, has more than the power to call up Dublin on June 16, 1904 and to embody the streams of its characters’ consciousnesses. It becomes a fully autonomous element, issuing from no source within the narrative world—a counterforce that is self-generating, arbitrary, intrusive, comic, and dramatically threatening. In Beckett, it is not so much a counterforce as the only force; it does not intrude into a narrative world, it is all the world.


On the opening page of Watt, Mr. Hackett turns a corner, and sees, in the failing light, at some little distance, his seat. But what is the corner he turns? It is not like the stairhead from which Buck Mulligan emerges; we never see enough of the scene to place or define it. We do not even know—cannot even see—what it is the corner of. It has only a single dimension. It is no more than a point, an intersection, between what never was and what will become as one word after another fills up the page. It is the point from which Mr. Hackett emerges, first as a name -an abstraction, a ‘virtual’ character like a line drawing—and from which he and his world will develop as the line of the story takes on other dimensions. The virtual becomes actual, the world begins to solidify, as one event follows another. Mr. Hackett stretches out his left hand and fastens it around a rail. And now that the rail is there to support his hand, he can strike his stick against the pavement and feel the thudding rubber in his palm. When he gets closer to the seat, the occupants appear part by part: ‘the lady held the gentleman by the ears, and the gentleman’s hand was on the lady’s thigh, and the lady’s tongue was in the gentleman’s mouth.’6 Even though the clauses of the sentence are joined by coordinating conjunctions, signifying the simultaneous presence of all the parts, we only discover them one by one, incrementally. Each new element is a surprise. Mr. Hackett has called a policeman, although we don’t discover this until he arrives, and he sees no indecency. After the lovers leave, Mr Hackett can take his seat. And once in his seat, he too emerges part by part, until he is fully three-dimensional: ‘Mr Hackett’s nape rested against the solitary backboard, beneath it unimpeded his hunch protruded, his feet just touched the ground, the stick hooked around his neck hung between his knees’ (9).


In Watt we are engaged in the extension of a story line in its most concrete and elemental form. The opening section (which criticism has passed over or treated only in thematic terms) begins the process that extends through the whole length of the novel, and through the trilogy as well. For the story line—an autonomous, self-generating element develops incrementally in two ways: firstly, as one word succeeds another, and secondly, as one story succeeds another. A gentleman and lady pass Mr. Hackett. They become husband and wife when the gentleman introduces Mr. Hackett to his wife. Then they become parents, Goff and Tetty Nixon, when they tell the story of Larry’s birth. Larry is literally born and the husband and wife literally become parents in the telling of the story. Or, to put it another way, Larry exists as a character and they exist as his parents only in their story. And this is just what happens in the body of the novel. Beckett’s narrative strategy in Watt has justly been described in terms of combinations and permutations. But it is important to realize that each new combination and permutation is a new increment—extending the story line as it extends the world of Watt. Which is just what we experience as the Lynch family grows.


So far as I know, every critic of Watt has accepted Sam as the ultimate storyteller, for Sam has taken careful notes from the time Watt began to ‘spin his yarn.’ Sam’s mind is like Watt’s, and he is seeking to know Watt just as Watt was seeking to know Knott; this is why he is obsessed by the same kinds of questions as Watt, and generates the same incredible multiplicity of possibilities. Sam brings into focus not only the nature of Watt’s language but also the language he himself is constrained to compose in. ‘How hideous is the semi-colon’ (158) he complains; and he is often forced to resort to question marks to make an ultimately enigmatic point. But what are we to make of those distinctly editorial interpolations: ‘Hiatus in ms’ (238) and ‘ms illegible’ (241)? Should they not lead us back to ask whether the question marks and the semi-colon complaint are interpolations as well? If so, can the ultimate narrator really be Sam, at least the Sam who appears in the first person in the manuscript? And, if not, can we find any other voice in the novel to assure us of a narrative presence? Clearly we cannot. What we have from the first to the last page of Watt is a story line extending itself, a yarn spinning itself out of empty space—bringing characters, objects, and events into existence, through the addition of new words which continue to develop every conceivable combination and permutation through the addition of new stories. The story line issues out of the empty space in the opening page, disappears in the empty space after the Hackett section, turns Watt from ‘a roll of tarpaulin, wrapped up in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord’ (16) into a singular individual, burgeons out of the generative capacity of words as they succeed one another, and comes nearly full circle—past where Sam sees Watt disappearing into the undergrowth for the last time—to where the train first took Watt to Mr Knott’s house. Watt is created out of the story line and is ultimately cancelled by it. For we are finally left with the station attendants watching his train leave, looking from one to the other until Mr. Nolan looks ‘at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march’ (246).


Watt is the process of words, as autonomous physical presences, extending themselves into a story line, creating and finally cancelling a world by the addition of new increments. Molloy is also the product of an autonomous, procreative language, but not of a burgeoning story line. Rather, it is a process we can understand more graphically by comparing it to Beckett’s plays. Krapp listens to what he recorded in the past, but the words exist only in the present; their autonomous presence is made dramatically evident by their issuing from a tape recorder. And Krapp creates himself from moment to moment by reacting to the sounds he hears. In Act without words I, Beckett’s mime creates himself silently through his intercourse not with words but with objects: a carafe, a tree, a rope, and a pair of scissors. And Winnie creates perhaps the most memorable character on the modern stage through her verbal intercourse with the objects in her purse. In the same way Molloy is challenged by, challenges, teases, laments over, and engenders new life out of the words he has just written, the words that are there on the page just as Krapp’s sounds, the mime’s objects, and Winnie’s purse are there on the stage. He questions them, is disturbed by them, undermines or contradicts them, shifts their tense or mood, creates ellipses. He also engenders alternative characters by mitosis (Was it A or C? Lousse or Mrs Loy? Edith or Ruth?), evinces surprise at what he creates (‘Well, well, I didn’t know I knew this story so well’ [58].), and completely abandons many of his offspring.


Molloy creates his own elusive self by filling up the empty pages with words and interacting with them, continuously creating new presences and a new present. But he is also aware that the language he toys with has its own autonomous power: ‘Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson’ (32). Molloy, after all, may be the creation of Moran. And even if he is not, even if Moran is Molloy’s creation, the final lines of the novel undermine the entire creative process: ‘It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining’ (176).


As we read through the trilogy one storyteller yields to another. On the one hand, the story line is continually creating new possibilities. But on the other hand, it continually reduces one storyteller to the figment of another storyteller’s imagination or to the product of another storyteller’s words. In the end, there is nothing but the words, always creating possibilities but also undermining and denying them. The Unnamable tries to tell the story of Mahood, but finds that it was Mahood ‘who told me stories about me . . . his voice continues to testify for me, as though woven into mine, preventing me from saying who I was’ (309). We once again encounter the power of grammar here. Molloy could create a son by shifting from the conditional present to the indicative (or actual) past. Now the Unnamable is denied existence by a past tense belonging to a third person. He cannot say ‘I am’ because he cannot say ‘I was.’ The language of the trilogy, issuing from no source within the narrative, denies the very existence of what it has brought into being.


In Ulysses Joyce discovered the potential of language as an autonomous, self-generating force. And although Joyce realizes its threatening potential, he ultimately affirms its creative power. In the final chapter of Ulysses we have much more than simply Molly’s monologue; it is the language which transforms her into an earth goddess. Beckett begins by realizing the creative power of language; this is his debt to Joyce. But he ends by discovering its full autonomy as a capricious, threatening, and literally self-denying force.


1 Molloy in Three novels by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 7. Subsequent citations will be made in the text.

2 I am indebted to Carlotta Smith and Jeanne Whitaker, who are preparing an article on ellipses in Flaubert’s Un coeur simple. Molloy’s ‘it’ in their terminology, would be an ‘unanchored pronoun.’

3 James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1961), 389. Subsequent citations will be made in the text.

4 Ulysses: the mechanics of meaning (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: PrenticeHall, 1970), Ch. V.

5 ‘Experimentation with the grotesque: comic collisions in the grotesque world of Ulysses,’ Modern fiction studies 20 (Autumn 1974), 378-384. What follows is a summary of my argument.

6 Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 8. Subsequent citations will be made in the text.