‘Company’

by Samuel Beckett (London: John Calder. 1980. £5.50)

 

John Pilling

 

Company (composed between May 1977 and August 1979) is Beckett’s most lengthy prose fiction since Le depeupleur (all but the last paragraph of which dates from 1966) and before it All strange away (1963-4). Like the latter, and unlike almost all else that has seen the light of day since 1945 (the exceptions being From an abandoned work, the Still trilogy and As the story was told), it was composed originally in English, although this definitive text has been revised in the light of the French text published some months before in the spring of 1980 by the Editions de Minuit. One might be forgiven, in the absence of a rationale for Beckett’s periodic preference for his native language, for finding the most succinct description of Company in the Comment c’est of twenty years ago, where the protagonist speaks of a ‘little book all my own the heart’s outpourings.’ For Company gravitates more openly towards the genre of autobiography than anything before if, as if prompted by the revelations of Deirdre Bair to establish the proper conjunctions and disjunctions between the ‘deep marks’ of childhood and the inscriptions made by the writing hand three quarters of a century later, the ‘marks of what it is to be and be in face of in the words of the 1966 text ‘For Avigdor Arikha.’

 

The ‘scenes from the past’ (as Beckett calls them in his manuscript notebook) that are resurrected in Company are all concerned with moments of crisis in the life of a figure who is spoken of—or speaks of himself—in the second person singular, as in That time. The traumatic experience of the Forty-Foot Hole (first mentioned in the unpublished play Eleuthéria) is inevitably one of these, with the ‘far call’ of Beckett’s father—‘Be a brave boy’—strangely tender and human by comparison with the ‘voice that comes to one in the dark’ and brings Company into being. A similar gentleness is manifested in the benediction—‘God save you little master’—uttered by the old beggar woman seeking entry to the house of the woman who is ‘a crony of your mother.’ But no such tenderness (nor any such irony) is forthcoming between the mother and the boy, for when he is ‘playing in the garden’—throwing himself off trees in the manner described by Deirdre Bair—his mother tells her crony ‘He has been a very naughty boy.’ And when in the late afternoon, emerging from Connolly’s stores ‘holding your mother by the hand,’ the boy asks if the blue sky ‘is not in reality much more distant than it appears’—somewhat reminiscent of the young W. B. Yeats at the beginning of Reveries over childhood and youth (“‘It is farther away than it used to be”’)—the question angers his mother exceedingly:

 

            For she shook off your little hand and made you a cutting retort you

            have never forgotten.

 

The upturned face of the little boy, directed first at the distant sky and then at the unloving face of his mother prefigures the upturned face of his father at the Forty-Foot Hole, the ‘loved trusted face’ that the boy is looking down to for succour. And the father-son connection is cemented in the interim by describing another ‘scene from the past’ that the latter could not possibly have experienced—his father’s peregrinations in the Dublin Mountains on the day of his son’s birth, culminating in him sitting ‘in the dark’ (like the ‘one’ of the beginning) in the De Dion Bouton car he owned—and following it immediately with the ‘you’ (as the voice refers to the ‘one’) become ‘an old man plodding along a narrow country road.’ This section, which inaugurates the computations that dominate the last third of the text (much as they dominate the last third of How it is), seems triggered not only by the ‘voice that comes to one in the dark’ but also by the voice of the maid who has come to tell his father that the ‘labour and delivery’ of the mother are—like Beckett’s with Company, now—‘over at last,’ although it takes another seventy pages for Beckett to be in a position to ‘make an end’ in the way he has so often sought to do (perhaps most notably in From an abandoned work, The lost ones and For to end yet again). But this is only one of the implicit correlations that are operating in Company, and is less noticeable on first reading than, for example, the fact that the ‘upturned face’ motif persists in the troubled relationship between the voice, the ‘him’ and the ‘devised deviser’ (the perfect offspring of the ‘narrator/ narrated’ of How it is) that occupies the non-narrative present:

 

            The voice comes to him now from one quarter and now from another

            . . . Thus for example clear from above his upturned face, You first

            saw the light at Easter and now. Then a murmur in his ear, You are

            on your back in the dark.

 

The finesse with which Beckett consolidates the contrasts that are basic to his vision—the light and dark of the above quotation, for instance—is splendidly advertized in the ‘now/Then’ confrontation that is operating between the second and third sentences here. A similar attention to deictics is visible in Beckett’s use of ‘this’ and ‘that,’ and is actually a source of humour in the first analysis of whether ‘a certain mental activity’ (even at this point, though the issue is not yet decided, quite clearly the exercise of the imagination rather than the exercise of rational faculties) is necessary for company: ‘the lower the better. Up to a point.’ In the context of the ‘upturned face’ of the boy and the ‘bowed head’ of the old man, this loses its apparently gratuitous quality, just as the ‘giant tot’ joke provides a focus for both the mental activity of computation and the physical fact of the passage of time in which computation originates. These are no more instances of what How it is calls ‘deterioration of the sense of humour’ than the embedded quotations from Shakespeare increasingly frequent in Beckett—are an indication of ‘imagination spent,’ though it is perhaps true to say that the labour lost’ (cf. the limae labor of More pricks than kicks) and the ‘bourneless dark’ of this postHamlet situation (complete with a heart that ‘starts to sicken’ like Francisco’s before meeting his ghost) seem more secure in this context than the ‘girdle’ round about the earth (from A midsummer night’s dream, though the failure of love here may make us think of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover beach,’ obliquely referred to in Watt) or the rain that (unlike Portia’s in The merchant of Venice) drops unmercifully ‘upon the place beneath.’ They may, it is true, provoke a ‘quarter-smile’ (as Beckett now defines it), more withering than that Dante visited upon the ‘old lutist’ Belacqua, in those who think Beckett has become as indolent as that familiar Florentine, although in each case they contribute to the paradoxes inherent in Beckett’s enterprise, and none more so than the ‘darkness visible’ purloined (not for the first time) from Milton and the ‘unmoved mover’ (also not for the first time) from Aristotle. They may only be playing bit-parts or roles behind the scenes, but they are incontrovertibly part of the company.

 

However even Beckett’s well-known conviction of the necessity of self-plagiarism may not prepare a reader of Company for the quite extraordinary re-modelling of what Watt called ‘old words,’ a feature that makes the work not so much a company as a compendium. The title itself, for example, recalls to mind the phrase ‘all my little company’ from the end of the first of the Texts for nothing, and also, from the eleventh Text: ‘moving on in their company along a road that is not mine.’ The question ‘Who says this, saying it’s me?’ from the beginning of Text 4 is likewise very central in this most recent work, with the distinction that the simple answer desired by the speaker of Text 4 is here provided:

 

            And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this?

            And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his

            creature or in another. For company.

 

The ‘it all’ locution here relates directly to Footfalls, which has already been conjured up in the ‘giant tot’ section in the context of a deliberately awful double pun: ‘sole sound in the silence your footfalls.’ But ‘sole’ here also has the effect of recalling the ‘me sole elect’ of How it is, where a similar desire for company is forced finally, as here to acknowledge its vanity.

 

Echoes of the post-trilogy prose are particularly plentiful in Company, its ‘Aha!’ borrowed from All strange away (and before that from How it is, ‘aha signifying mamma’), and its movement round the earth hand in hand (like the expelled Adam and Eve) borrowed from Enough, which is also brought to mind in the oblique appropriation of the ‘sufficient’ and ‘necessary’ terminology from philosophy:

 

            The voice alone is company but not enough. Its effect on the hearer

            is a necessary complement.

 

At times the text is (if it is permissible to perpetrate another paradox) purely synthetic, as when The lost ones, The unnamable and All strange away are collapsed together: ‘The unthinkable last of all. Unnamable. Last person. I.’ But there are echoes that go further back than The unnamable, to Watt (where Tetty’s labour was also ‘in full swing’ and where Arsene’s pastoral was ‘strewn with red placentae’), and to Murphy (whose ‘nothing new’ here becomes ‘from nought anew’ and whose ‘eternal tautology’ of yes and no is here decided definitively, at least as far as ‘God is love’ is concerned, in favour of the latter), and beyond Murphy to ‘A case in a thousand’ whose protagonist ‘want[s] very much to be on my back in the dark.’ Even the fly of Beckett’s 1930s poem ‘La mouche’ makes a reappearance, in the company of a hedgehog, a figure who makes a ‘beeline’ and hobbles ‘east across the gallops,’ and the dead rat from Endgame. The drama is plundered quite as frequently as the prose, with allusions to Clov’s ‘light dying,’ Winnie’s ‘What’s it meant to mean?’ and Vladimir’s ‘hope deferred’ (itself a quotation from the book of Proverbs). And what Murphy calls ‘the dream of Descartes’ linoleum’- to be granted the ‘second /starless inscrutable hour’ of which Whoroscope speaks—is momentarily achieved in Company in an absence ‘not of percipere but of percipi,’ to retain Murphy’s abuse of Berkeley’s ‘nice distinction’:

 

            Were your eyes to open they would first see far below in the last

            rays the skirt of your greatcoat . . . till it vanishes . . . Vanishes from

            your sight. Moonless starless night. Were your eyes to open dark

            would lighten.

 

There seems to be no limit to the number of inscriptions to be detected beneath the palimpsest of Company, and there is certainly a special pleasure in encountering the supine/prone confusion of the trilogy, the ‘crawling creator’ of Moran’s questionnaire, and the nook of From an abandoned work for a second time (not to mention the summerhouse of Still and As the story was told for a third time), though anyone for whom Beckett was meaning-less might be tempted to say that his company was unquestionably a limited one. Yet the great triumph of Company is to be complex rather than complacent, and to banish all thoughts of limited liability. For it is very plainly one of Beckett’s most remarkable attempts—perhaps the most remarkable since How it is—to come to terms with the problem he described to Lawrence Harvey:

 

            Being has a form. Someone will find it someday. Perhaps I won’t

            but someone will. It is a form that has been abandoned, left behind,

            a proxy in its place.

 

It would be too much to hope that Beckett might have found this form in Company, for his ‘need to make’ is permanently contaminating the ‘pure object’ he was dreaming of as long ago as ‘La peinture des van Velde ou: le monde et le pantalon,’ and the questions of authority (in the fullest sense of the word) that he raises in spite of himself can never be satisfactorily answered with a mind that is, like Malone’s ‘always on the alert against itself.’ Company succeeds in defamiliarizing the familiar and making the strange even stranger, so that finally the autobiographical elements and the periodic concessions to verisimilitude are enveloped by the ‘inner space’ that words—Beckett’s words anyway inevitably construct. But it is—as ‘Horn came always’ reminds us—‘in outer space, not to be confused with the other that such images develop,’ and Beckett’s admonition has the supplementary effect of prohibiting our writing him off as a kind of superior science-fiction writer. Company offers itself to us more openly than most of Beckett’s recent prose, and its characteristic imperatives prevent any sympathetic reader from withholding the co-operation that it asks for: ‘Its effect on the hearer is a necessary complement.’ It is conceivable that future critics will want, in these Structuralist times, to see Company in terms of the late Roland Barthes’ contention that it is the reader who is ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost.’ But Beckett’s authorship, unlike Murphy’s mind, will have to be respected as something more than the ‘gravamen of these informations.’ The very least that can be said of Company is what Miss Carmichael says of her pen in Beckett’s abandoned play of 1937, Human wishes ‘Very quiet, I write, and very fine’—a remark which no doubt properly compels the inevitable stage direction that follows it: Silence.