‘Frescoes of the skull: the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett’ by James Knowlson and John Pilling, London, John Calder, 1979, 292 pp., £12.95


James Acheson


In his introduction to The life after birth: imagery in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (1975), Philip Solomon draws a distinction between first- and second-generation Beckett criticism. Where first-generation critics of the fifties and sixties introduced us to Beckett the man and surveyed his works, the second generation of the seventies has tended to write specialised studies of selected novels and plays.


James Knowlson and John Pilling are conscious of being second-generation critics. Discussion of the “ ‘mature’ Beckett of the period 1940-1950 (in prose) and 1949-1956 (in drama)” (xii) does not find a place in their book, for the works of this period have already been treated in detail in earlier books and articles. Like Solomon, they have decided to concentrate on a restricted number of texts; yet in spite of its sub-title, Frescoes is not concerned exclusively with Beckett’s most recent writing. On the basis that ‘no account of “ ‘late’ Beckett could entirely ignore the originating impulses that led him to express himself first in prose and later, after a gap of sixteen years, in drama” (xii), Pilling includes a discussion of Dream of fair to middling women in his treatment of Beckett’s fiction, and Knowlson a discussion of Eleuthèria amongst his chapters on the plays. Other unpublished materials housed in Reading’s Samuel Beckett Archive are commented on by both authors.


The Archive, of course, is a treasury of Beckettiana gathered together between about 1971 and the present day. That no modern critic can afford to ignore it is something Knowlson and Pilling demonstrate beyond any doubt. Breon Mitchell made great strides forward with Come and go some years ago when he drew attention in Modern Drama to its manuscript stages; yet his excellent work is superseded in Frescoes of the skull with the discovery of Good heavens!, an earlier and longer version of the play of which Mitchell was unaware. Pilling similarly opens our eyes to unsuspected Beckett in treating two little-known prose works, La falaise and As the story was told.


Needless to say, it is not enough simply to have unpublished material to hand: more important is what is done with it. Happily, both authors are talented critics as well as able scholars, and their discussion of manuscripts is successfully integrated into the whole. Pilling’s chapter on Dream is fascinating as a comment on Beckett’s efforts to minimise the influence of Joyce and Proust on his writing: though only a ‘fair to middling’ prose work, it is nonetheless significant as the first effort of a literary apprentice. Pilling refers us back to it in subsequent chapters tracing Beckett’s development toward mastery of the fictional medium.


The bulk of Pilling’s contribution to Frescoes is ‘Ends and odds in prose,’ a section concerned with the fiction Beckett has written since How it is. Here skilful criticism combines with a knack for succinct generalization; Pilling’s comment, for example, that All strange away ‘contains in embryo almost all the elements from which Beckett was to construct the . . . world of his recent prose’ (144) not only summarises a thorough account of this work, but provides us with a context in which to view it. His discussion of other works is also of a high standard; however, his sections on Still and Enough are deserving of special mention. Enough, Pilling argues, is ‘an obliquely allegorical narrative (preparatory to a more elaborately and openly allegorical work like The lost ones) of the relationship between aspects of the self’ (152): this in contrast to the many dismissive critiques of the work in which it is claimed that Enough is a humdrum first-person narrative concerned with two characters. Of Still, Pilling writes with such a fine sensitivity to the nuances of Beckett’s style as to leave this reviewer wondering whether there is anything left to be said about it.


Knowlson begins his contribution to Frescoes with a stimulating account of Eleuthèria, which he rightly describes as a play that anticipates Beckett’s later dramatic practice. Especially interesting are his comparison of this early play to Endgame, and the information that Beckett once thought of writing a play about a Krapp who married a ‘good woman’ and spent his time ‘patting the bottoms of the third and fourth generations.’ ‘In fact,’ says Knowlson, ‘Henri Krap in Eleuthèria was already, to some extent, that “other” Krapp who had married and had a son’ (90).


Knowlson’s account of Krapp’s last tape in the ‘Drama after Endgame’ section of the book must surely rate as the definitive critique of that play. His comments on Beckett’s production notebooks in Light and dark in Beckett’s theatre and ‘Krapp’s last tape: the Evolution of a Play, 19581975’ (his Winter 1976 Journal of Beckett Studies article) come together here with material from the recently-published Theatre Workbook on Krapp’s last tape to provide us with a chapter that is as complete as any on the play could be. High praise must also be accorded to his chapter on Happy days, which goes well beyond the comments he makes about it in his bilingual edition.


Knowlson and Pilling have often corresponded with Beckett, and are therefore able to enrich their criticism with information supplied by the author. It is interesting to discover, for example, that Beckett has definitely read Artaud’s The theatre and its double, and fascinating to find that he intends the title of That time to be ambiguous. ‘It should be read,’ comments Knowlson, ‘both as “that time” and as “that Time”. Beckett had great difficulty in rendering this play into French for the recurring phrase “that time” clearly means at once “cette fois” (or “la fois où”) and “ce Temps”. His title Cette fois was, as he put it, a “recognition of the impossibility of capturing both senses” ‘ (213).


In their Introduction, Knowlson and Pilling point out that they have made ‘no attempt at uniformity of style or method’ (p. xii) in Frescoes. Yet the effect they create is of the meeting of two complementary minds in a fine example of second-generation criticism.