Review: ‘Beckett and the voice of species’ by Eric Levy. Gill and Macmillan, Dublin. £9.00.


James Acheson



Beckett and the voice of species focuses on the role of successive narrators from More pricks than kicks to Fizzles in dealing with two interrelated metaphysical questions: the nature of man and the nature of the universe. In the absence of God, Levy argues, Becktt’s narrators find it impossible to be certain about either question, and are therefore obliged to communicate to us their experience of ‘Nothing’. By ‘Nothing’, Levy does not mean the Existential Void so fully discussed in books on Beckett by Richard Coe, Michael Robinson, David Hesla and Edith Kern: he is careful to emphasise that whereas for these critics, ‘Nothing’ is a concept based on a clear distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, for him the distinction is one the term ‘Nothing’ blurs. Thus, Belacqua and Murphy, searching for certainty, lose themselves in a ‘hall of mirrors’ (p. 20) full of what their narrators reveal to be empty illusions about the self and the world. Similarly, Watt is presented as being unable to separate ‘what he is experiencing (i.e. the objective pole of his experience) from his attempts to determine what he is experiencing, his attempts to establish the objective pole’ (p. 31).


Levy’s argument gains in complexity in his chapter on Mercier and Camier. Here he draws attention to the novel’s many (but hitherto unsuspected) allusions to The divine comedy, and argues that their role is to comment on the twentieth century’s lack of metaphysical certainty. Where The divine comedy presents us with a vision of divinely-inspired order, Mercier and Camier, says Levy, asks us to imagine ‘Dante and Virgil transversing Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven a thousand times, with no memory of their entrance, no hope of an exit, no means of judging those they meet, and no way of evaluating their own experience. Eventually the stage would be reached where there is nothing in Dante to distinguish him from Virgil and vice-versa’ (p. 42). Paralleling the ‘pseudo-couple’s’ wanderings through the novel, he argues, are the mysterious first-person narrator’s tentative and abortive attempts to make sense of the modern world. That these attempts end in ‘Nothing’ Levy demonstrates in a thorough and scholarly way: his chapter on Mercier and Camier is one of the best in the book.


Another fine chapter, on Texts for nothing, provides us with a stimulating new analysis of the Texts’ overall structure and an interesting discussion of their indictment of reason as a means of apprehending metaphysical truths. ‘For the Text narrator’, Levy comments, ‘ignorance arises because there is no longer anything metaphysical to know. The great universe of Being has been abandoned but nothing has been constructed in its place . . . [Reason] can now only contemplate a void where once was a universe teeming with universal forms’ (p. 79). In combination with Levy’s close textual analysis, this insightful general statement helps us to come to terms with the complexity of the Texts’ form and content.


The remaining chapters of his book are well written and certainly con­sistent with his main thesis; if fault is to be found, it must be on the basis that his argument is not always fully developed. One wonders, for example, why, having stated that ‘Malone lingers over a childhood, but not his own’ (p. 64), Levy does not go on to discuss the relationship between Malone and Beckett in detail, the childhood in question being largely Beckett’s, and the wider issue of the author’s relationship to his narrators and characters deserving of careful examination. One might have wished, too, for a fuller discussion of Beckett’s critical essays in relation to the fiction: Levy uses the Duthuit dialogues as the basis of his definition of ‘Nothing’, but otherwise says very little about how the essays illuminate Beckett’s artistic practice.

On the other hand, it must be conceded that no critic can be expected to say everything, and that it is perhaps only in the most provocative critical studies that one is left with a desire for more. Provocative Beckett and the voice of species certainly is, and a number of other good things as well; on balance, it is well worth buying both for private use and for inclusion in university libraries.