‘Watt,’ Knott and Beckett’s bilingualism
Watt1 reveals the pressure of bilingualism in its most acute form in Beckett’s works. Written in English, the novel seems exiled from any familiar realm of English literature and language; but it is also foreign to the French linguistic home which Beckett was to make his from 1945. It is an extraordinary work, whose mysterious characters, puzzling form, and obsessive serialising of words and concepts have provoked many attempts to find a key that will unlock its meaning. Yet, because it is still a creation in the English language, no-one has investigated whether its genesis―in the exceptional conditions of war-time France, where its author was already deeply committed to the French language and to the country’s fortunes in the war―offers any clues to its enigmatic personality.
Beckett’s previous long prose works, the unpublished Dream of fair to middling women, More pricks than kicks, and Murphy, had been written in a mood of violent rebellion against what seemed the absurdity and false security of his bourgeois upbringing in Ireland, and a corresponding desire to adopt bohemian surroundings in Berlin, London and Paris. Yet even though Dream was apparently written mostly in France,2 all three remain unthreatened by any profound linguistic crisis; their polyglotism is on the surface. In sharp contrast, Watt, composed when the outer world had collapsed into a kind of madness of destruction, all security gone, and in a country psychologically and politically split in two, shows the development of an ability to explore inner alienation with discipline and detachment. In Watt Beckett begins to examine and externalize a language which is gradually shifting from its status as a mother-tongue, habitual and instinctive, to that of a language whose relative and arbitrary nature is clear, and whose structures and assumptions are becoming exposed as he lives more and more fully in a different human speech.
Paradoxically, Watt also reveals a certain nostalgia for that world which had been rejected; the shadowy power of Mr. Knott’s house stems partly from its mythic and emotional appeal in the novel as the place of safety, of womb-like peace. At the same time its seeming timelessness must be understood as nothing but a dream in human life, ‘for the coming is in the shadow of the going and the going is in the shadow of the coming’ (56). Watt is the first of Beckett’s tramp-heroes, ‘radically (. . .) unassimilable’3 into society, both clown- and Christ-like as they wander the earth. But one kind of assimilation is constantly at work: the acculturation that develops with language-learning and use. It is fitting that Watt, as the first wanderer in an unnamed environment, should be the one who undergoes the most acute crisis of expression; for the underlying narrator of Watt is himself exploring the far-reaching implications of finding that the ‘generally received’ (154) patterns of language are only locally received; that the ‘community at large’ (6) is really a pocket-community, surrounded by others with different group-memories and assumptions. In Fritz Mauthner’s view, ‘individuals communicate with each other because every one of them sees the speech habits (Sprachgewohnheiten) of the other similar [to his own].’4 Watt and Watt have lost the conditions of this implicit social contract; hence their nostalgia, too, for the ‘pillow of old words’ (115) that no longer provides comfort.
For the unilingual person, it is hard even to see language in relative terms. A word-association test carried out with a group of bilingual and unilingual speakers found that for the word ‘language’ the immediate association of the former was ‘speaking’ - but of the latter, ‘a specific foreign language’5 So instinctive is the unilingual’s use of his own tongue that he tends not to label it at all. Because of the nature of human thought and reasoning, it is almost impossible to view the contours and characteristics of one language except from the perspective of another. Otherwise, the links between world and word can seem absolute, innately ‘right’; this conditioning elevates ‘the residuum of one’s own fund of memory to the status of a mirror of reality.’6 In literary art, therefore, it is inextricably interwoven with the question of mimesis.
Some sense of the arbitrary quality of words can be exposed by deliberate and rapid repetition; when Arsene follows his family’s ‘earth’ back to ‘my father’s father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s mother’s’ (45) the passage, especially if read aloud, can suddenly defamiliarise these well-known syllables. But anyone who has lived- for a time in a foreign-language community entirely isolated from the use of his or her own mother-tongue knows in an acute form the shock of suddenly hearing it again, of witnessing the description of reality in terms once familiar but grown strange from disuse. Not only the sounds, and the way people’s mouths move to produce them, but also the meanings that are shaped in their minds can appear curious. Why does French allow a baby to come into the world actively (‘naître’) as well as passively (être né’),7 while English allows only the passive? Why should English oblige us to distinguish between two concepts, being ‘human’ and being ‘humane’, when French encompasses the two in a single word? For interpreters and translators who are constantly working with two languages, such questions occur endlessly, and can result in a habit of semantic questioning. Again, this can be seen in Watt, even extended into comic exaggeration:
And is it not strange most strange that one says of a thing that it is full, when it is not full at all, but not of -a thing that it is empty, if it is not empty? And perhaps the reason for that is this, that when one fills, one seldom fills quite full, for that would not be convenient, whereas when one empties one empties compeltely, holding the vessel upside down, and rinsing it out with boiling water if necessary, with a kind of fury.
One may well ask why Beckett, if bilingualism is so crucial to his art, avoids introducing it directly in his works. He does, of course, occasionally tease his readers with it;8 but like his dismissive and evasive reasons for turning from English to French, these hints serve to belittle its importance and divert attention elsewhere. Yet the absence of bilingualism as a central subject in his works should not surprise us. Beckett is after all a writer, not a technical linguist: his business is to express the results of what his bilingualism has taught him, not to examine it explicitly. Indeed its close links with the sources of his creative impulse, which he has often implied are subconscious, provide a justification for his refusal to analyse it consciously. In an early study, Huguette Delye called Beckett’s bilingualism ‘une malaise’,9 yet she wrongly assumed that French was a complete cure for this, a language of permanent adoption. Even if the plays are set aside, Beckett’s later career shows this to be an over-simplification. He does not reject one language in favour of another, but benefits from the knowledge and use of both in exploring the nature of language itself. Most ordinary bilingual people are, of course, as unlikely as the unilingual to devote themselves to comparative semantic and stylistic investigation. It is, when bilingualism occurs together with mental curiosity and a writer’s skills that its implications go furthest. This is recognised in André Martinet’s preface to Uriel Weinreich’s Languages in Contact, a study concerned with non-literary bilingual speakers:
The clash, in the same individual, of two languages of comparable social and cultural value, both spoken by millions of cultured unilinguals, may be psychologically most spectacular, but unless we have to do with a literary genius, the permanent linguistic traces of such a clash will be nil.10
That ‘spectacular’ clash in a literary genius is precisely what is found in Beckett’s Watt, a work so extraordinary that it can accommodate every kind of critical interpretation, and serenely ignore the most contradictory evaluations, ranging from ‘too clear’11 to ‘most mysterious,’ 12 ‘brilliant’13 to ‘unreadable’.14
Triggering off much of the extensive criticism of Watt, Jacqueline Hoefer’s early article15 effectively enclosed the novel in what Mr. Hackett might call the ‘frigid machinery’ (19) of logical positivism for far too long. Though probably incorrect in its assumption of a direct link with Wittgenstein, it provoked investigations which were useful in bringing out Beckett’s acknowledged familiarity with Mauthner, one of Wittgenstein’s precursors.16 Yet like most other philosophically-oriented critiques of Watt, it remained firmly within a unilingual framework and also tended to diminish the novel’s humour and emotional power. Even though John Fletcher has pointed out the influence of French thought-patterns on certain words and phrases in Watt,17 most critics continue to see Beckett’s change of language as an abrupt decision, made in 1945 on his return to Paris, and to bracket Watt with Murphy. Even discussions of Watt’s need to ‘find a new language to express the inexpressible’,18 and examinations of such statements by the narrator as:
And Watt preferred on the whole having to do with things of which he did not know the name, though this too was painful to Watt, having to do with things of which the known name, the proven name, was not the name, any more, for him . . . (78)
do not seem to have provoked any realisation of the actual presence of ‘a new language’ bearing down on Beckett’s English prose, or of the terms in which a known and ‘proven’ name (proven through its accepted use by surrounding people) might not be the right one `any more’.
Structuralist critics, especially in France, have claimed Watt as strongly as the philosophers, and with equally good reason. For its questioning of referentiality is relevant to both, while its undermining of narrative authority makes it a useful parallel to some of the techniques of the nouveau roman, however different its origins and aims. But still, the tension between specific languages is largely ignored.
One of the problems in these approaches tends to be the belief, inherited from New Critical hostility to anything smacking of the so-called ‘biographical heresy’, that any attempt to explain the novel through knowledge of its author’s life is wrong. According to this view, bilingualism cannot be accepted as a consideration, for Beckett’s different-language texts meet only in Beckett. Yet those who quite openly admit that the writer’s mind is a justifiable object of study in the work (either through an intuitively psychological or a technically psycho-analytical approach) have found in Watt, or in general studies of Beckett’s writing, illuminating links between the pressures in his life and the changes in his work between 1940 and 1950. Patrick Casement suggests the dominance of Beckett’s mother, associated in the unconscious with the ‘mother’-tongue, as the primary reason for Beckett’s move to French, in which ‘transitional space’ was possible.19 His argument is unfortunately flawed by superficial knowledge of Beckett’s work and by a failure to appreciate the qualities of his French,20 as well as a dangerously credulous reliance on the severe view of Beckett’s mother presented by Deirdre Bair. Yet perhaps Watt does provide support for the idea that at that stage Beckett could not be creatively free in the mother-language. There is certainly frequent irony directed against it:
So he continued to think of himself as a man, as his mother had taught him, when she said, There’s a good little man, or, There’s a bonny little man, or, There’s a clever little man. But for all the relief that this afforded him, he might just as well have thought of himself as a box, or an urn. (80)
Psycho-analytical approaches have also brought out the useful information that Watt’s language reversals are recorded among the symptoms of schizophrenia.21 Given his own technical knowledge, already illustrated in Murphy, Beckett could well have intended this connection, especially when it is linked to Watt’s voices and his hallucination of himself on the road. Thomas Cousineau22 provides an effective argument for the relevance of Lacan’s theories of child language-acquisition, but without considering Beckett’s other language. Erika Ostrovsky, in a short but brilliant article,23 uses the imagery of place and womb to explore the necessity of bilingualism in Beckett’s art, but does not examine Watt in detail. The idea of Watt as a work concerned with, and formed by, bilingualism, and the full perception of it as a novel, not a piece of psychiatric evidence or of linguistic or philosophical theory, have been avoided. Critics using the printed text in isolation have engaged in a tangle of speculative arguments about Beckett’s intentions in writing Watt, and to what extent the novel was intended at all; for Beckett himself has encouraged the view of it as a therapy in the strained conditions of war, a way of passing time.24 The most effective method of creating some solid foundation for judging the work and its place in Beckett’s career is to examine it in its full context: the time and circumstances of writing, the development of the manuscript, and its fortunes after the war. Such an investigation cannot―and should not―try to explain Watt, but it can resolve much unnecessary confusion built up around it, and it can throw considerable light on what Beckett has seemed anxious to conceal: the hidden bilingual pressures constantly at work in this ‘un-English’25 English-language text.
Watt’s eccentric character extends even to the circumstances of its appearance. It did not have the initial support of a publisher’s faith in either its excellence as art or its appeal to readers. It was rejected universally, even when placed in the hands of agents whose name must have delighted all concerned: A.P. Watt & Son. Their efforts to place it with a publisher received the following reply from Secker and Warburg, on October 9th, 1946:26
Dear Mr. Watt,
With reference to your letter of September 3rd and Samuel Beckett’s ‘novel’, I will strictly avoid any puns in writing this letter turning the book down. Puns would be too easy but the book itself is too difficult. It shows an immense mental vitality, an outrageous metaphysical skill, and a very fine talent for writing. It may be that in turning this book down we are turning down a potential James Joyce. What is it that this Dublin air does to these writers? But all the same, we think that the appeal, keen though it would be to a few hundred people, would not be sufficient to make its publication commercially remunerative, especially in view of the great length of the typescript, and the difficulties in connection with setting up parts of it. Samuel Beckett is clearly a writer to be watched, and it goes without saying that we should be interested to see his next book, but at the moment what appears to us as his perversity is so considerable that we find outselves (sic) unable to make an offer.
The reader has focussed on Watt’s metaphysical difficulty and its author’s ‘perversity’, shown both in his themes and in his complete indifference to ways of improving the book’s chances of acceptance, such as reducing the length and removing the musical passages. In all these ways Watt declares itself a deliberate exile, refusing any success that might be brought about by compromise or by conforming to an expected norm. It eventually reached print because of Beckett’s sudden fame after the `succès d’estime’ of Molloy and Malone meurt (published 1951) and the staging of En attendant godot (first performance 5th January 1953). Richard Seaver, who played a major part in Watt’s publication, has written a vivid, amusing account of how it was offered to him and how it came out thanks to the backing of a high-living (but at the time almost penniless) publisher of pornography.27 No doubt this odd and courageous publishing venture only hastened the book’s inevitable appearance, given the continuous increase in Beckett’s reputation; yet its need of the help brought by Beckett’s subsequent fame raises the question of its ability to stand alone. By the time it appeared in 1953, Beckett himself was apparently referring to it as ‘that old misery’,28 and he went on changing the text even in his own copy of the first edition.29 Yet these facts do not necessarily prove that Watt is a private, merely transitional work which did not deserve publication. The comparison between the manuscript and the printed version shows Beckett’s increasing artistic control over initially exploratory passages of fiction even as he wrote the first draft. And the book’s slim chances of publication are comically and directly acknowledged in the manuscript through a section showing the narrator’s apparent confidence in his work’s success:
“In a word,” said Arsene, “you plan a work in form, with a beginning, a middle, an end, [a title], stiff-bound, & a wrapper with a blurb on it, [between six and ten percent on the first thousand]
“Fifteen” we said.
“And a title?”
“Certainly. A title is indispensable, if the book is to be a best-seller.” (Ms. A3, 29)
Far from being written as a future best-seller, the first drafts of Watt were created at a time when Beckett could not know whether they, or their author, would survive the war. The original manuscript - six large exercise books, the last two of which also contain parts of the first draft of ‘L’ Absent’ (Malone meurt) - came through the years of war and Beckett’s travelling remarkably well.30 Their fortune was better than that of the ‘Ms, which qua Ms., could not be of the smallest value to any person other than himself and, eventually, humanity’ (171), left by Ernest Louit in a gentlemen’s cloakroom. Humour, of a private or open kind, is the characteristic self-defence Beckett employs against the evident strains of the time. His script varies enormously in legibility and size of letters, and there are many breaks, rewritings and erasures, as well as changes of ink colour and a quite exceptional collection of what Arsene, in the printed text, calls doodles’ (61). Many of these are haunting little figures, often in coats and hats, and they sometimes illustrate the curious compartmentalising of Beckett’s imagination into French and English. One, of a man and a dog, just beside the English text, bears the inscription ‘Pitié pour I’aveugle’ (Ms. A2, 26). The general impression confirms some of Beckett’s comments about the book, that it was `written in dribs and drabs, first on the run, then of an evening after the clod-hopping, during the occupation,’31 and written to ‘get away from war and occupation’.32 But its wealth of information about the development of Watt and about Beckett’s imminent move to French is unparallelled. As Richard Admussen says, it ‘is certainly the most fascinating single Beckett item to be found anywhere.’33
The dating of the Ms. books is revealing. Beckett did not, as has often been said, begin Watt after arriving at Roussillon, in the late summer of 1942, but eighteen months earlier, in Paris on 11th February 1941. He was thus writing it alongside his work with the Resistance. A2 (I follow Admussen’s numbering of the exercise-books A1 to A6) was also written in Paris; A3 in Paris, on the run and in Roussillon. A4 was written entirely in Roussillon (it was begun on 4th October 1943), and A5 and A6 back in Paris. A5 bears the heading ‘Watt V, Suite [et fin], 18th February 1945, Paris: presumably Beckett wrote this when he did not expect to need more than five notebooks, and returned to correct ‘Suite et fin’ to `Suite’ when he found a sixth was required. It is significant that the heading is itself in French.
One of the most surprising overall differences between the Ms. and the printed text is the non-existence of Watt himself until a relatively late stage (A3). The earlier exercise-books begin with, and develop, a picture of a man who becomes known as Quin, after a variety of other names.34 But initially he has no name at all; the broken passages suggest a desire to isolate the essential quality of human-ness, freed from all specificity of age, culture and appearance:
who is the man and what [is the man], how [is he] in mind and how in body, who to whom, what to what, is he here, is he now, doing what, seeing what, being what? (Ms.A1,3)
The repeated question ‘what’ certainly shows a possible source for the name of the later protagonist. Yet the figure described and developed is actually Mr. Knott’s prototype―a clear piece of support for the idea that Watt, Knott and Sam are parts of a single mind. Although Quin is still sufficiently part of the world to hold conversations, keep a journal, and have parents, his essential nature is already being defined as both anonymous and universal; one possible section is headed ‘The [Isolation] Nothingness and describes Quin (Ms 91, 69). One could be forgiven for supposing that when the name-change occurs, in A4, it does so because Beckett decided that his mysterious house-owner needed a more mysterious name than the mundane Quin, already used as a character in More pricks than kicks. But the Ms. clearly shows that this is not the only reason: Quin is replaced by Knot(t) because it will not reverse successfully for Watt’s backwards speech.35 By A4 the English language is becoming a kind of plaything, and almost any detail of sense will be changed if the language-game demands it. The eighth stage of language-reversal, which Sam claims not to recall (167), does appear in the Ms. and includes some significant images, but, proving difficult to shape into a ‘euphonious’ whole, is cursorily abandoned.36
The equation Quin-Knott solves one of the most recurrent puzzles of Beckett’s works. Knowing this, all readers can share the private joke of Mrs. Nixon suggesting that Watt is already ‘fast asleep in Quin’s hotel’ (18); of Watt himself in his second reincarnation, amid the French surroundings of Mercier et Camier, shouting ‘Vive Quin!’ to the assembled drinkers, and Mercier’s subsequent remark ‘Ca doit être quelqu’un qui n’existe pas’;37 and of the references in Malone meurt (‘Dreamt all night of that bloody man Quin again, dit-il’).38 Yet Beckett has obviously enjoyed keeping his public in ignorance. When John Fletcher astutely suggested to him that Quin, and Yerk, another puzzle, might have ‘figured in work of his, since abandoned or destroyed’, the response was ‘Mr. Beckett says not. He claims not to know who they are’.39 There is indeed no reason why a writer should reveal all his secrets, but equally this suggests a playful challenge to his critics to find out more than he is willing to tell. The importance of his two languages to him, which he has dismissed in so many evasive or humorous answers, is likewise a matter to be found in manuscripts and concealed in published texts.
The raw material for the finished text, which occupies A1 to A4, is vigorous and varied. Much of it does not survive the stages of revision, but it shows how great an achievement is the book’s printed form, even if far from perfect. Originally the Louit story belonged with a mass of other material in what became Part II. It was moved to Part III, somewhat unconvincingly, no doubt because it seemed much too good to reject. In spite of criticisms of its irrelevance, it allows Beckett an extensive presentation of two important subjects: the clash of urban and peasant culture, and the academic world in action. Both themes are essential to his serious as well as comic exploration of the assumptions about society and knowledge that rest on such flimsy foundations. ‘The Mathematical Intuitions of the Visicelts’ (169), along with the esoteric cul-de-sacs of Mr. Spiro’s Catholic theology, and the learned art criticism devoted to a painting of a dirty naked man sitting at a piano (this, incidentally, is in the Ms. a painting of Quin’s father) (Ms. A2, 9), all contribute to a heightened unreality which passes beyond the comedy in Watt to question all systematised science and culture. On such systems the ‘civilised world’ bases its sense of superiority―a superiority exposed as sham at a time when civilisation had collapsed into the insanity of war. Yet equally foolish is the idealisation of the ‘noble savage’, a category to which Mr. ‘Thomas Nackybal’ does not belong. Beckett’s vision in Watt, though not in his earlier prose, explores human existence to the point of seeing a man in disturbingly alien terms: ‘the high heavy hollow jointed unstable thing, that trampled down the grasses, and scattered the sand, in its pursuits’ (81). What its particular pursuits may be hardly matters; Beckett’s view of humanity becomes as uncompromising as Lear’s ‘Is man no more than this?’
Far from being an unfinished novel, with the Addenda suggesting possible expansions, Watt has been reduced from its original dimensions, and the Addenda contain fragments of the jettisoned passages. The shaping of the four sections and Addenda may be explained by Beckett’s increasing realisation of the work as a mock-academic treatise in which Watt’s adventure is taken as a piece of enlightening human experience, to be set down and commented on in the most educational fashion. The piano-tuner incident (originally involving a single tuner, talking to Quin) is, on its first Ms. appearance, an isolated section of dialogue.40 Yet, at a later stage, it has gathered about itself the mass of analysis and defamiliarising commentary that is used to show its effects on Watt. No doubt this process can be linked to the increasing sense of the strangeness of the language, and what it once so magically ‘brought to life’ in mimetic narrative. Now the event seems indescribable. No words can reach it.
At the same time, the Ms. bears witness to the growing dominance of French in Beckett’s mind.41 Already in A1, a comic reminder is given of the author’s presence in France by a word-competition, with answers ‘accompanied by international money order in (?) the sum of six pence, to be addressed to author, Poste Restante, Lourdes’ (Ms. Al, 91). In A2 the draft of a letter, unrelated to Watt and written in easy colloquial French, is followed by other intrusions of French into the body of the Ms. itself: a poem (eventually used in the Addenda) involving the phrases ‘breathe head a while’ and ‘exile air’ and tried out in different versions in both languages.42 The phrase ‘airxeeille’ turns up much later, in A5, as part of an obviously unsuccessful crossword-puzzle in French (Ms. A5, 26). In A2 the ‘author, Poste Restante, Lourdes’ address is repeated, followed by the self-dooming addition: ‘or haply more likely to his sole executrix, Madame de Videlay-Chamois (?), 69 bis rue du vieux port, Sète’ (Ms. A2, 37). At the same time the sets of combinations, including some of Arsene’s, are beginning to multiply. In A3 their numbers increase, and while Beckett’s English becomes infected by French spelling (‘vitamins’, used on p. 50 of the printed text, is written as ‘vitamines’) (Ms.A3, 46), the first instructions and reminders begin, crucially, in French. Watt’s arrival is signalled by the words in large letters ‘Watterise selon p. 81’ (Ms.A3, 62) perhaps even a piece of ‘franglais’. In A4 such instructions continue: ‘à insérer p. 44’ and ‘à insérer K’ (Ms.A4, 127 and 151). In A5 is a sequence of French word-puzzles (Ms. A5, 26), and on p. 72 what looks like an attempt to analyse a French sentence according to its clausal structure. (Ms.A5, 72)
But these chance illustrations of Beckett’s heightened bilingual thinking are supported by more solid evidence from changes to the text itself, especially in the initial section in which Watt is seen by Mr. Hackett and the Nixons. This section was written after the central body of material,43a fact that in itself compels some revaluation, for it has often been seen as the portion of Watt closest to Murphy,44 and as therefore preceding the increasingly subjective and interiorised passages at Mr. Knott’s. Doubtless this is the impression that Beckett wanted to give, since he deliberately frames his `inner’ narrative in the outer sections by the canal and at the station, making the reader experience with Watt the plunge into, and out of, the inner world of Knott’s house.
In a superb comic dialogue, Mr. Hackett and the Nixons―sitting on the bench that will be revisited (so often) in the French narratives-discuss a variety of curious subjects. Although they exist in a recognisably realistic setting, they are hardly `stereotypes’45 of ordinary society. Mr. Hackett, whose hunchback sets him apart, declares, ‘I am scarcely the outer world’(8), and the Nixons―apaprently the perfect bourgeois couple―engage him in a narration of their son’s birth which stretches credibility to breaking point:
I went up those stairs, Mr. Hackett, said Tetty, on my hands and knees, wringing the carpet-rods as though they were made of raffia. (. . .) Three minutes later I was a mother. (12)
And all three characters indulge in oddities of speech that, far from encouraging the reader to accept the section as traditional realistic narrative, reveal the narrator’s fascination with conventional expression and its absurdity. This is done by introducing both possible and highly improbable French borrowings, and by other exposure of habitual phrases or pronunciation. John Fletcher, noting the influence of French, suspected that some of the borrowings were unconscious.46 Certainly in other parts of Watt this seems likely: expressions such as ‘under the neck’ (31) and `exciting the general comment’ (66) may well be accidental jumps to the French use of the definite article, and ‘attached firmly for good and all in block’ (97) is a clear transposition of ‘en bloc.’ But those in the station section at the end, ‘cack-faced Miller’ = (caca) and ‘That old put’ = (putain), are in such high relief (and, as the Ms. shows, written much later than the examples just quoted) that they suggest, like the group in the Hackett section, conscious use of French.
For the clear gallicism of Mr. Hackett’s “I do not rise, not having the force”‘ (7), the original version of the Ms. has “‘I do not rise,” said Hackett, “not having the strength”‘ (Ms A4, 183). The shift from the normal English phrase to the faux ami is thus a careful revision. To the originally single appearance of `primeur’ the Ms. adds two repetitions, clearly intended to underline the oddity of the word:
“The primeur?” said the lady.
“The primeur”, said Mr. Hackett. (Ms A4, 185)
Beckett had not yet, in the Ms., hit on the delightful transformation of a Latin abbreviation into a part of English grammar (‘That is the kind of thing Dee always vees’ 10). But his impulse to use the French ‘douleur’, in altered form, is present: ‘No trace of this [anguish] (dollar) appeared on my face’, (Ms A4, 190) as is the pretentious, and to Hackett incomprehensible, transformation of `osé’:
“Not too [osé] (osy) with the sweet, I thought.”
“Not too what?” said Mr. Hackett.
“Osy” said the gentleman Goff, “you know, not too [osé] osy.” (Ms. A4, 191)
The Ms. also shows Beckett playing with the possible howlers to be obtained from a direct translation of French time-constructions:
[For five years] [since five] [said the gentleman]
[he owes me five shillings]
“For the past seven years,” said the gentleman, “he owes me five shillings”. (Ms A4, 201)
Similarly ‘at a merely facultative stop’ is inserted into the Ms (A4, 205). It seems very likely that Beckett’s deliberate accentuation of the French flavour in this opening section is his one clue to the underlying linguistic tension which informs the central material that he had already written. But he even plays with French, in a way that probably only a person reading English with an awareness of French would notice, by inventing at this late stage the circumstances of Watt’s first appearance. He is ejected from a tram - and the French name for a tram-driver is ‘wattman’ (in itself an indirect commemoration of the Watt whose scientific achievements are so distant from Watt’s own painful quest for knowledge). This particular bilingual joke is brought to light at last in 1968, in the French translation of the novel: ‘Peut-être, dit Madame Nixon, a-t-il voulu contrarier le contrôleur, ou le wattman’.47
Not only the linguistic oddities of English, but also those of French, can now be defamiliarised and made fair game for Beckett’s pen. At the same time his revisions of Watt create out of something approaching true chaos an artistic form of fascinating strangeness, and deepen his investigation of fictional narrative as an artifice pretending to picture reality.
Watt’s status as a transitional work between Murphy and the first French prose rests to a considerable extent, where it is discussed at all, on its narrative characteristics. Yet those have often been accepted as relatively simple (Sam is the narrator, or the inventor and narrator, of a story mainly told to him by Watt) or analysed as if some coherent outcome is expected. In fact there is none; the printed text is fully of unresolved flaws. The variety of narrative modes that are experimented with in the Ms. shows that Beckett was attempting to free himself from the archly omniscient and mannered third-person narrator of Murphy, but had not yet hit upon the subjective - though universalizing - narrators of his trilogy.
On the surface Sam seems a satisfactory narrator, careful to explain how Watt told of his experiences, and how he copied down the details in his little notebook. Sam-as-narrator is already present before his name is revealed, characteristically suggesting that however speculative others may be, he knows only what Watt knows: ‘where there was no light for Watt, where there is none for his mouthpiece, there may be light for others’(66). Sam stresses that his source is Watt (‘the period of Watt’s revelation, to me’, (76)) and in a much fuller explanation he insists that Watt is his true authority:
And if Watt had not known this, (. . .) then I should never have known it either, nor the world. For all that I know on the subject of Mr. Knott (. . .) came from Watt, and from Watt alone.(123)
This long protestation is enough to provoke some suspicion. In particular, he claims to know Arsene and the rest only through Watt’s words, despite Watt’s problems of expression, and then admits that not only Watt but he himself may well have reshaped and added to the material, ‘even when one is most careful to note down all at the time, in one’s little notebook’ (125). The idea of Sam noting down the whole of the Louit story while marching to and fro with Watt in the couloir, and moreover translating it all out of Watt’s backwards language, as he claims to do in Part III, serves to remove the last shreds of credibility from this narrative deceit; the true responsibility, if any, must be elsewhere.
Naturally the beginning and parts of the end of the novel cannot have been told by Watt to Sam, as neither of them could know, for example, what Mr. Hackett discussed with the Nixons (0-22), or how well-used was Mr. Nolan’s evening paper (236-7). Nor could either of them know of Micks’ movements after Watt had left the kitchen of Mr. Knott’s house, nor that an ass, or goat, watched Watt pass, (222), for Watt did not see it. The attempts to add verisimilitude, as for example with the words, ‘He stood still, he remembered, with bowed head’ (208, my italics) fail to offset a suspicion that Sam, via Watt, is not really responsible for this account of Watt’s departure any more than for the accurate recollection of Arsene’s speech and Arthur’s story, especially given the fading of Sam’s and Watt’s senses. A further curious problem appears: if Watt only began to reverse his language when about to embark on the second half of his narrative, as Sam claims, why is he reported to have said ‘Ruse a by’ (126) in his story of getting in to see the picture in Erskine’s room, which ought to have occurred while he still spoke normally? The Ms. had ‘By a ruse’ (Ms A3, 173). Perhaps this is a convoluted way of suggesting that Watt saw the picture only after he moved to Erskine’s room as the first-floor servant, for it is his first-floor life that is supposed to be told ‘backwards’.
The Ms. shows only too clearly that Sam was imposed retrospectively, along with his various passages of self-justification, and that the reason why Arsene’s and Arthur’s long contributions, together with the start and end of the book, all escape from his control is that originally they were not under it, but were independent fictions. Much of the early part of the Ms, in A2 and A3, after the initial third-person descriptions of Quin in A1, has a curious narrator who uses the first-person plural even when it is clear that he is singular: `Now when we saw this, we backed up suddenly, saying to ourself’ (Ms A3, 23). This `we’ is a mixture of Watt (though he chats to Arsene in a much more loquacious manner than the Watt of the printed text) and of an external observer who moves through Mr. Knott’s house and describes it in great detail. In fact ‘we’ gives a clue to the only possible solution to the narrative conundrum: the underlying narrator is a plural self, made up of all the speakers in the novel.48
The printed text provides evidence for this, since Hackett, Waft, Knott, Sam, Arsene, Erskine, Arthur, even Louit, have occasional and partial points of connection. One of these is obvious and points to the external source: Sam + Hackett suggests (hack) Sam Beckett. Hackett is, after all, as curious about Watt as a writer might be about a character, while Watt is cursed (`The devil raise a hump on you’, 22) in a way that links them further, as does Mr. Nixon’s remark that each of them makes him think of the other (17). Watt’s connections with Sam are obvious: they make up a mirror-image pair, a divided self, as they pace to and fro `as one man’ (161).49 Sam is linked with Arsene by the sudden intrusion of Arsene’s characteristic ‘Haw!’ into Sam’s narrative (133). Watt is the same height as Knott, he thinks, and the Addenda section depicting Watt’s experience before birth was, in the Ms, Mr. Quin’s (Ms A1, 79). But most important - and often forgotten, because of the habit of seeing Watt as a character in isolation, almost dramatically - is that the tendency to serialise or combine propositions with a logical or mathematical exhaustiveness is general. Watt may be an easy champion overall, but Arsene provides sequences on the days of the week, on fathers and mothers, on Mary’s eating, and on the servants in the past; Sam, the speculation on the wild boar or bull; Arthur, the sequences of looks between the committee; and even his friend Louit seems to have similar preoccupations, since he bases his entire ‘research’ on the investigation of sets of cubes and their roots. This proves that the real crisis of expression and thought belongs not just with Watt, but with the underlying narrator or creator, the dominant mind in the text.
The presence of an underlying narrator is given further support by evidence in the Ms. of a complete indifference to individual characterisation among the `serialising’ characters. All of them are, in a sense, mouth-pieces, and although Watt has come to seem poignantly distinct by the final version, this was not so earlier. Originally Watt told the Louit story, with Quin providing the details about Bandavita 50 for Mr. Gomez (=Mr. Graves). The old man—perhaps Mr. Graves’ father?—whom Arthur meets, in the Addenda, was originally Hunchy (Hackett) talking to Quin, (Ms A1, 21). Mrs. Nixon’s story of Larry’s birth was at an early stage Mrs. Quin senior describing the birth of her son [Alexander] James Quin, (Ms A1, 35). It is no wonder the Addenda include the line: ‘Change all the names’ (254). Beckett had already done so.
At the heart of all the layers of narration, the core of the onion, there exists, even in the printed text, one passage where the underlying narrator seems to speak in his own voice. Inconspicuously slipped in between exhaustive - and exhausting - sequences about Mr. Knott’s footwear and about his clothes, it has a significance so far unnoticed:
To think, when one is no longer young, when one is not yet old, that one is no longer young, that one is not yet old, that is perhaps something. To pause, towards the close of one’s three-hour day, and consider: the darkening ease, the brightening trouble; the pleasure pleasure because it was, the pain pain because it shall be; the glad acts grown proud, the proud acts growing stubborn; the panting the trembling towards a being gone, a being to come; and the true true no longer, and the false true not yet. And to decide not to smile after all, sitting in the shade, hearing the cicadas, wishing it were night, wishing it were morning, saying, No, it is not the heart, no, it is not the liver, no, it is not the prostate, no it is not the ovaries, no, it is muscular, it is nervous. Then the gnashing ends, or it goes on, and one is in the pit, in the hollow, the longing for longing gone, the horror of horror, and one is in the hollow, at the foot of all the hills at last, the ways down, the ways up, and free, free at last, for an instant free at last, nothing at last. (201)
Though Lawrence Harvey has noted both the Dante-like tendency of this passage and its relevance to Beckett’s own age, as a `stock-taking’ in the middle of life,51 and Deirdre Bair is perhaps actually using it when she states that Beckett worked on Watt for three hours a day (she gives no other authority),52 its deeper implications have been ignored. It seems indeed to be the recognition of a turning-point in life, pleasure belonging to the past and pain to the future, but also a commitment to a new perspective; and its references to heat (presumably) and cicadas place it firmly outside the fiction of Watt and Sam -there are no cicadas in Ireland - and in a Mediterranean setting. But the crisis that it appears to speak of becomes clear if the central phrases `the panting the trembling towards a being gone, a being to come; and the true true no longer, and the false true not yet’ are read as a concealed reference to the author-narrator’s own bilingual conflict: his mother tongue `true’ no longer, and his artificially learned tongue `true not yet’. To be poised between languages in this way is a horror to the mind, yet at the same time a liberation, `for an instant free at last, nothing at last’. This passage is very remote from the comic, and perhaps therapeutic, tone of much of Watt. It is an anguished confession of a revelation about identity and art, and as such sees the artist as possessing a kind of double identity even in sex (prostate, ovaries); indeed the passage is full of the binary oppositions familiar in Beckett’s writing, and so emphatically symbolised by his two creative languages.
The problem of much of this narrative foundation in Watt is that it remains unavailable to the reader who knows nothing of Beckett’s life, his bilingualism, or his other works. For such a reader Watt may seem impossible to finish, or, because of the book’s gentle strangeness and its eccentric comedy, it may seem a fascinating enigma. It does indeed remain enigmatic in many ways even with all possible explanation, and this is part of its power: Mr. Knott never ceases to be mysterious, and Watt’s need of him poignant, because he represents something beyond language itself. And the policy of exclusion that denies the reader knowledge of much that the author knows (for example, ‘one long draw-sheet’ being a description of the married life of Quin’s mother, whose other nine children have all died)53 has a positive aspect. It arouses a feeling of externalisation that is precisely what is required; if language and the reality it supposedly expresses are themselves to be made strange, there is no place for the reader in the text. The traditional complicity between narrator and reader can no longer exist. The reader becomes vulnerable, like Watt.
Insecurity in language is a possible feature of bilingualism that has been much debated.54 Whereas some linguists believe that the choice of two languages allows a more self-aware and analytical approach to expression, others see the process of ideation as being hindered. For when an object is seen, it may provoke in the mind not only the reference in language a, but also that in language b, each interfering with the other.55 Bilingualism can even isolate the individual, and become ‘a source of sceptical and hesitant attitudes to life’.56 This debate is a complex one and difficult to resolve, because almost inevitably where bilingualism occurs there will be other kinds of social ‘marginality’ as well, or distinct status-differences between the two languages involved. The debate refers, of course, to bilingualism among ordinary people; in a bilingual writer and translator the effects of increased self-awareness and possibly (but not necessarily) increased psychological detachment will not only be experienced but can be brought out in creative work. It is essential to remember that Beckett’s bilingualism is of a most unusual kind: in his formative early years he was a normal unilingual speaker, and his initial command of French came not from enforced exile or from a move to a bilingual society, but formally in academic education. Only later did his visits to France, and his eventual residence there, plunge him into the more colloquial levels of French speech. This is important for two reasons. One is the fact that the progressive learning of French, through school-books and dictionaries, is a fundamentally different process from that applicable to a bilingual child whose bilingual terms of reference develop with the acquisition of language itself. In Beckett’s early learning of French, instead of the word being applied to the object perceived directly, the word or signifier in language a would be treated, often over-simplistically, as directly equivalent to that in language b, without the presence of the signified being necessary. To one frame of reference for the world, another is opposed, verbally and intellectually. In a sensitive and imaginative mind, this can greatly increase the possible tendency to doubt both systems of reference, rather than to believe implicitly in both. As the French Watt has it, the word `mud’ is not an exact but an approximate equivalent of `boue’: ‘Mot anglais signifiant á peu près boue’.57
The second significant factor is one whose results have often been noted. Beckett’s French is of a most unusual kind, which apparently delights in a freedom to insert the most inappropriate argot, the most crude and colloquial material, into a formal and sometimes exaggeratedly elevated prose style. Such freedom a native speaker of French might not possess. Beckett is acutely sensitive to the apparent difference of register in French and English: if a translation from standard French to English uses direct equivalents, often of Latin origin, the English will sound strangely high-flown, whereas English-to-French translation can oddly seem to elevate and clarify a passage that originally was broadly suggestive and (to use a characteristic English phrase) down-to-earth. Thus French ‘confisquer’ should often be translated not by `confiscate’ but simply as `take away’. And where English can form words with great freedom by simple compounding, such as ‘eye-witness’, French will often prefer a precise adjective chosen from its Latin inheritance: ‘témoin oculaire’. Even in his pre-war prose Beckett showed an ability to use this kind of awareness in his English, but often it was lost amid a host of other verbal mannerisms. In Watt the much more disciplined and economical use of English - already approaching, at times, the characteristic tones of the French - allows an effective play on the two levels of expression, which in French will be equalled by the alternation of educated speech and colloquialisms or ‘argot’. ‘The suggestion being that the inhibition was not a physical inhibition, but a moral, or aesthetic’ forms part of the same sentence as ‘keeping an eye on the kettle’ (105).
Recently, comparative stylistics has begun to map out the kinds of characteristic difference that constitute what used to be called the ‘genius’ of a language. In their study addressed particularly to French-English translators, Vinay and Darbelnet 58 discuss the impressionistic differences often observed between the languages, such as the more logical and analytical nature of French, and the greater immediacy and concrete feel of English, by examining the languages’ typical approach to reference. French, they suggest, prefers ‘le mot-signe’ to ‘le mot-image’59 which dominates in English. While French, in its standard and literary form, has for hundreds of years retained a small central core of vocabulary of very wide referential and generalising power, English is a treasure-house of words which have all built up separate small areas of resonance; the French ‘luire’ may be translated by ‘glimmer’, ‘gleam’, ‘glow’, ‘glisten’ and ‘glint’. In describing a scene, French often chooses to analyse its essential points, English keeping more to the sequence of actual perceptions, staying closer to ‘le plan du réel’.60 And where English will gladly reinforce the vividness of a scene by double determination: ‘The horsemen rode into the yard’ (not just ‘came into the yard’), French will, with its regard for logic and economy, give: ‘Les cavaliers sont entrés dans la cour’.61 To add ‘à cheval’ would be unnecessary, since ‘cavaliers’ contains that information, and there is no single equivalent for ‘to ride’. The easy redundancies of English, and Beckett’s increasing alertness to them, are illustrated in the Louit story: ‘and so he rose and rapidly left the hall (as though he could have rapidly left the hall without rising)’ (195).
The un-English qualities of Watt that combine with its English medium are undoubtedly related to the hidden presence in the author’s mind of this other language, with its love of precision, logic and precise syntactic linking. Yet this seems not to have occurred to the many interpreters who have applied philosophical models to account for the novel’s questioning attitude to the relationship of language and reference, language and logic. The passage in which Watt struggles to name a pot has been quoted endlessly, and with an apparent confidence in the transparency of the narrative medium and the meaning of Watt’s dilemma. But the detachment necessary in reading Watt should above all focus on the apparent innoncence of the commentary here; the entire section has another dimension. Considering its subject - the doubting of language there is a particular irony in the way the passage itself has been accepted as ‘literal’ prose, which exists transparently, as a trustworthy communicator of information.
Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance. And the state in which Watt found himself resisted formulation in a way no state had ever done. (78)
His state is impossible to explain in words precisely because it is a state of verbal crisis: language has been exposed as unreal. By deliberately repeating the word ‘pot’, the text removes its habitual nature:
Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. (78)
He does not seem to expect the ‘pot’ to be reassumed by the word, ‘a thing of which the true name had ceased, suddenly, or gradually, to be the true name for Watt’ (79). And, like the isolated bilingual, he is outside the agreed and instinctive referential convention:
the pot remained a pot, Watt felt sure of that, for everyone but Watt. For Watt alone it was not a pot, any more. (79)
Watt’s attempts to provide private new signifier-signified relations are doomed to failure:
Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after a reflexion. It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven. And so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot. (80)
But why does Beckett choose the word ‘pot’? It rhymes comically with Knott and adds to a careful pattern, in the novel as a whole, of ‘-ot’ endings. Yet there is a more important reason: ‘pot’ happens to have the same written form in French and English. The French spoken form could be approximately represented by the ‘po’ in Mr. Spiro’s extraordinary competition-winner: ‘Has J. Jurms a po?’ (26) Strangely, the normal etymological links between so many French and English words seem here to be missing: the French ‘pot’ is thought to come from late Latin, and the English from Germanic sources. But more important, in contemporary French the rough equivalent of ‘as deaf as a post’ is ‘sourd comme un pot’. When this is put together with the Ms. statement that Mr. Quin’s pots called his kettles white (another play on a familiar expression), and with Watt’s vision of his other self bearing ‘the likeness of a depressed inverted chamber-pot’ (225) on his head, one begins to suspect an elaborate word-game. In this work pots, like human heads, can both speak and be deaf. And if Watt’s pot-hat is both inverted and depressed, it is no doubt because the inversion of a simple word into a baffling sign has depressed Watt severely: ‘he would set to trying names on things, and on himself, almost as a woman hats’ (80) in his pot-naming dilemma.
Watt longs for the authority of another member of the language-group to resolve his crisis - ‘to speak of the little world of Mr. Knott’s establishment, with the old words, the old credentials’ (81). But the credentials (suggesting credence, belief) have been superseded, as the surroundings of one language have been lost and another, equally unbelievable, imposed. Well may the narrator record, tongue-in-cheek, Watt’s idea that ‘he was in poor health, owing to the efforts of his body to adjust itself to an unfamiliar milieu’, and that in the end his health would be restored,
and things appear, and himself appear, in their ancient guise, and consent to be named, with the time-honoured words, and forgotten. (81)
Language will never again be forgotten, or restored to innocence, in Beckett’s work.
As Watt grew in Ms. form, and was then reduced and partly brought to order in print, a further major change occurred: the very clear geographical coordinates in the novel were whittled down until only a few details and hints, and a handful of names, remained to link it with a specific part of the earth’s surface. Beckett’s decision to loosen ties with the Dublin environment of More pricks than kicks and parts of Murphy, and his corresponding intensification of focus on the mythic and universal qualities of the landscape, unite Watt closely with the proposed works in French. Although English is still being used, there is already in Watt a sufficient detachment from the region of Beckett’s own upbringing for him to view it, and transform it, into a realm of the mind.
The general Anglo-Irish atmosphere, and the references in Arthur’s story to the Burren and to Ennis railway station, leave little doubt that Ireland is the setting for Watt’s experiences. Yet many of the names used in the Ms. have disappeared - Enniskillen (Ms. Al, 51), Sandyford (Ms. A2, 27), the Aran Islands (Ms. A3, 151) - as have other clear proofs, such as the information that Arsene and Erskine failed to participate in the fight for Ireland’s freedom (Ms. A1, 86-7). One isolated name remains, ‘the Master of the Leopardstown Halflengths’ (247), a rare example of Beckett retaining a place-reference so close to his Foxrock home.62 This pattern is repeated between the Ms. and printed versions of Company, where a whole list of local place-names disappears, leaving only ‘for verisimilitude’, as the speaker says, ‘the Ballyogan Road’.63
But the desire to make Watt a kind of free-floating narrative, not bound by `the frigid machinery of a time-space relation’ (19), has compelled the removal of much rich and comic material in the Ms., including an extraordinary tale about the ancestor of the gardener (‘Kevin Gomez’, later to become Mr. Graves), one Alphonse or Alfonso Gomez who comes to Britain as a `scullion’ serving in the retinue of Philip of Spain in the time of Mary Tudor (Ms. A4, 13). After many vicissitudes Alfonso meets Bridget, an Irish bawd from Mullingar, and presumably he settles, producing heirs to carry on his name, in Ireland. This long section, with its references to Spain, Flanders, England and Ireland, is surpassed in geographical and historical reference by an even larger one describing the Quin-Lynch spectacle (the origin of the Lynch and dog sequence in the printed text), which ranges wide in time and space.64 The narrator is seeking the origin of the `spectacle’, in which the dogs dance, watched by the local community in an entertainment organised by the Lynch family in Mr. Quin’s stable-yard:
In no part of the British Islands [was] did anything even remotely resembling the spectacle in question any longer exist, though [traces of its having been done] in certain areas of this gallant expanse, and notably in the Hardy country, traces of its having done so [at a compa. - as late as] at a comparatively recent date survived. (Ms A3, 151)
Considerable humour is aroused by discussion of the `great Anglo-Saxon family of entertainment’ and the speculations range wider and wider, to the `Peloponnesis’ and the Arctic, the Aran Islands, `Africa, Asia, Australia, America and the islands great and small with which the [great seas] (seas and oceans) of the globe are dotted’ (Ms A3, 151). The Poles, Brazil, and even Atlantis and the Blessed Isles all receive mention, but the narrator still seems to feel that the `corner of what is now (called) England that is now (called) the Hardy country, after the English writer Hardy’ (Ms A3, 153), is the probable place of invention.
The exclusion of this ‘world-mapping’ comic writing suggests an awareness that it would diminish the effectiveness of the central imaginative focus, Watt’s surroundings and especially Knott’s house itself. It is notable that neither the previous English prose nor the later French novels present a house, a home, in quite this way, for the narrator’s attitude is a complex mixture of nostalgia and contempt, disbelief and fascination. The reversal of its bourgeois norms (such as the `waste not want not’ ethic that leads to the dog-and-Lynch saga, and the necessary routine for meals that has rigidified into the serving of a single concoction fourteen times a week at exact hours) is undoubtedly part of the general rejection of upper middle-class life in Foxrock. Yet certain moments, and many more occur in the Ms., show a desire to dwell in lingering detail, and in words that seem to regain their innocence for a moment, on the beauties, the safety and calm of the once-familiar home:
until getting on to 9 a.m., all the gold and white and blue would fill the kitchen, all the unsoiled light of the new day (Ms A1, 63)
In the Ms., the narrator `we’ walks through the house, describing the rooms, their functions, even what they contain down to details of pewterware and Sheffield plate in the kitchen (Ms A1, 105). Yet this intense imaginative effort to revisit the house and relive its atmosphere which is no doubt what gives Mr. Knott’s house in the printed text its magical quality of mingled reality and dream - is giving way already at certain moments to the defamiliarisation of the building, its generalisation into the kind of geometric and miminal enclosures of Beckett’s radically different prose in the 1960s:
The house was a regular [xxxx] holly [body] (solid), consisting of 6 equal sides or faces, counting the roof and the foundations, the angles being all right, therefore equal.
It was [of granite throughut] made of granite, like the neighbouring mountains. (Ms A1, 103)
This box-shaped stone enclosure, suddenly so different from the house with gardens, kitchen and music room, is the underlying symbol of protection - a kind of shelter, like the prisoner’s or lunatic’s cell but even stronger - that haunts the narration in Watt: `The great mass of the empty house was hard by. A bound, and they were all in safety’. But Watt has to leave, and even the station waiting-room can only protect him for a few hours. Though Sam’s explanation of chronology claims the asylum as the last setting for Watt, the reader’s experience of the novel inevitably lingers more on Watt’s departure `to the nearer end of the line, since this is the stage of his pilgrimage read last. Watt’s heart-rending vulnerability and stoicism as he buys his train-ticket and vanishes from the narrative become the emotional correlative of his creator’s act of self-exile from `home’, the decision to explore an alien realm of the imagination in an adopted tongue.
The unilingual speaker in his own environment may never become conscious of the way in which speech is produced; but many people have noticed at some time or other the strangeness of the human mouth in motion, on film, when the sound is absent, or have felt the shock of arriving in a country whose language is unknown to them, a country which excludes them from the mass of sound human mouths are producing. Such externalising of language is well illustrated in Watt, where particular visions can make speech appear a succession of grotesque antics:
Mr. Case’s heavy moustache followed the movements of his lip, as it espoused, now pouting, now revulsed, the various sonorities of which these words were composed. His nose too responded, with its bulb and nostrils.
And Watt has a memory or hallucination of a woman called Prince, who explains the emptiness of the waiting rooms:
Whispering it told, the mouth, a woman’s, the thin lips sticking and unsticking, how when empty they could accommodate a larger public (. . .) Watt was not displeased to hear her voice again, to watch again the play of the pale bows of mucus.(233)
This speaking mouth, isolated in its curious bent and distorted shapes, is a perception that Beckett’s Not I has since made peculiarly famous. Almost certainly, however, it has its origins in his own crisis of language during the war. The syntax of ‘Whispering it told, the mouth’, is a particularly noticeable transposition from colloquial French: ‘Dans un murmure elle expliqua, la bouche . . .’
The text is full of references to sound, and even uses the phonetic terms that scientifically describe human speech patterns. When Micks appears, Watt is indifferent to the story of his life but likes the voice that tells it: ‘The fricatives in particular were pleasing’ (215). He is alert to Mr. Knott’s sound-production: ‘The open a sound was predominant, and the explosives k and g’ (208). To express the vehemence of the speech, perhaps, ‘plosives’ has been jokingly prefixed by’ex’. The description of Watt as ‘a very fair linguist’ (208) is surely crucial to the entire hsitory of his language-dilemma, yet critics have usually passed over it. Mr Knott’s’wild dim chatter’ is like a ‘meaningless’ language, the words of his songs ‘either without meaning, or derived from an idiom with which Watt (. . .) had no acquaintance’ (208). But of course, human beings can make noises other than those of speech. Mr. Knott’s one apparent attempt to communicate with another species (Watt ‘thought he heard him say Tweet! Tweet! to a little bird’, (146) is an imitative sound. And the strange noise PLOPF PLOPF Plopf etc. (146) which he makes in the flower garden - a typical piece of Beckett’s lavatory (or rather non-lavatory) humour - does communicate some meaning, like Mr. Graves’ Irish pronunciation in which ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ emerge as ‘turd’ and ‘fart’. Beckett seems to obtain a certain satisfaction from relating the sounds produced by the mouth to those of the other end of the anatomy; but the juxtaposition also exposes the absurdity of polite society in valuing one of these physical activities so highly and refusing to acknowledge the other.
The Ms. provides even more references to languages, especially ones that are poorly understood by the characters, to accents and to ways of speaking. Watt imitates Erskine by parading his linguistic knowledge in pronouncing Gomez’s name ‘à l’espagnole’: ‘he was very fond of the sound of the Spanish z, and of the feel of it in his mouth, between his tongue and his palate’. ‘Watt would [either] say his Spanish z’s, voiced and unvoiced, softly, till Erskine, if he happened to be present, would ask him to leave off for the love of God’ (Ms A4, 13). In the story of the former Gomez, a group of prostitutes is taken out to sea accidentally on a Spanish ship, and panics at hearing orders issued ‘in a language with which they were entirely unfamiliar’:
Then to the din they joined their united cries, roused in rage, & in despair, producing a great volume of semi-articulate sound, with a strong Kent accent, for they were Kentish girls all, with the exception of their principal, who was from Mullingar. (Ms A4, 21)
Watt’s sensitivity to all sound, which is presumably why he loves the wind, makes him more and more anxious to avoid speech at all during his stay at Mr. Knott’s house. The telephone unnerves him, and the daily meetings which his duties oblige him to have with Mr. Graves and with the Lynches distress him increasingly, until he begins to invent ways to avoid them. And yet Watt is fascinated by the strange visit of the piano-tuners. Music is one of the few safe kinds of organised sound, as it is pure form, and even the tuners’ odd words begin to approach, in his mind, the condition of music. Yet what they say can also be seen as important, for the apparent wish of the elder is to hasten the piano’s demise:
Nine dampers remain, said the younger, and an equal number of hammers.
Not corresponding, I hope, said the elder.
In one case, said the younger.(69)
Only one note can be both sounded and stopped; this is a parallel to Mr. Knott’s way of singing on one note only, a song which he starts and stops when he pleases (208). It is hardly surprising that the piano, a cultural artefact of great technical complexity and rich powers of combination, should be a symbol for those who speak of it, and whose own complex will one day fall into silence:
The piano is doomed, in my opinion, said the younger.
The piano-tuner also, said the elder.
The pianist also, said the younger. (69)
The pianist in the Ms., whose description is preserved in the Addenda, is not only doomed but dead,65 only his picture remaining to create a further paradox of sound and silence. In the painting his fingers strike the chord of the second inversion of C - but it is a chord no-one will ever hear.
The symbolising of communication in Watt takes many forms; some of the most evocative are given high relief when Watt and Sam meet in the asylum. While they share a’pavilion’, Sam describes their meeting at the bridge, within their garden, and how their two noble brows touch (152). At this stage Watt still speaks forwards. And in spite of his ‘low and rapid’ delivery, Sam’s imperfect hearing and understanding, and the intervening problem of the ‘rushing wind’ (154), the bridge of language over the stream that separates mind from mind can still be climbed. But later, when Watt has been taken to another pavilion, he and Sam must have their meetings in a strange fence-bound tunnel, a ‘couloir’ (155) between their respective gardens. Now Watt’s language is reversed. Sam explains:
In Watt’s garden, in my garden, we should have been more at our ease. But it never occurred to me to go back into my garden with Watt, or with him to go forward into his. (. . .) For my garden was my garden, and Watt’s garden was Watt’s garden, we had no common garden any more. (162)
There could be no clearer symbolic representation of the bilingual split in the mind of the underlying narrator, the split that informs the whole of Watt. The ‘couloir’, a French word in an English context, is the bilingual space that stands at the centre of the strange un-English English in which the book is written.
Watt’s language-reversals are often treated as a group, and in some ways they do represent a common impulse, one of fundamental importance in engaging with the novel. Somehow, Watt feels, if he reverses his life and expression sufficiently, he can retrace his way to the womb. The security that he finds in Mr. Knott’s house for a time, and in other enclosed spaces, and in particular his desire to withdraw from the world of baffling language, show that Watt does indeed fit the Addenda assessment ‘never been properly born’ (248); in the addenda too his vivid memory (or recreation?) of life in the womb is recorded. Before birth there is peace and, relatively speaking, silence; above all, the choice of human language has not yet been made. But ‘the foetal soul is full grown’ (248).
In another sense Watt’s groups of reversed phrases fall into two distinct groups. Where only the order of words and sentences is reversed, there may be little loss of meaning, and indeed a poetic tone is combined with self-confession that Watt found impossible to express forwards: ‘This mind ignoring. This body homeless. To love him my little reviled’.(164) But where the order of letters is reversed, the effect is very different, for the referential powers of the specific language are lost along with recognizable words: ‘Ot bro, lap rulb, krad klub’ (163). Watt is not averse to dropping letters, since, as Sam comments, ‘euphony was a preoccupation’: ‘Ton dob, ton trips’. (165) On a first hearing or reading, such sounds approach the strangeness of Mr. Knott’s ‘wild dim chatter’.
Though they represent in the most extreme form the defamiliarisation of language, these sounds are not as isolated as might be supposed. For Watt is not the only one affected by the impulse to reorder and reverse language.66 Sam’s sympathetic reversals, at the time he describes Watt’s backward-facing world, are particularly noticeable (‘often he (. . .) in the tangles of under-wood caught his foot’, ‘over the deep threshing shadows backwards stumbling’, (213). But curious sentence order, especially involving a verb that is placed near the end of the sentence, occurs frequently in widely scattered parts of the narrative. Arsene says that ‘spring in the air by some was even felt’ (106), and the narrator describes Watt’s relationship with Mrs. Gorman by saying, ‘from waist to neck his weary hold transferring’ (139). In Arthur’s story, ‘slowly their sighing bodies they tore away’ (194).67
All the narrators seem to have some sympathy for Watt’s effort to attain freedom from the remorseless ongoing drive of the typical Subject- Verb - Object pattern, by which sense is added to sense in a `ladder’ of mounting dominance over the world of reference. For, like Watt, the other narrators shift at times into child-like searchers for a non-linguistic world they once enjoyed. Watt has his milk, and his characteristic pleasure of putting his head against Mrs. Gorman’s breast; in the ditch he adopts a foetal pose. His reversed language releases some particularly child-like tones: ‘Could you lend me hanky-panky?’ The beautifully-developed passage describing his departure suggests a child suddenly unsure of its safety; his milk has turned sour, and it is long past his bedtime; in the road he bursts into tears. The voice that tells Watt ‘the only cure is diet’ (225) is perhaps hinting that he will never grow up, never free himself from yearning for the silence of the womb, until he replaces his milk with something stronger. When he reappears in Mercier et Camier, he can make language (the French language) do what he wants - and he drinks whisky.
But we also see Sam, proud of his ‘pretty uniform’ (158), and Mr. Knott who approaches the world afresh each day with a youthful innocence of vision and perhaps a ‘Tweet tweet’ to the birds (196). As Quin in the Ms., he could never find the toilet (Ms. A1, 27) and often wet himself (a characteristic transferred, as is the conversation with the old man in tatters, to Arthur in the Addenda of the printed text).68 Even Arsene, who in many ways seems a tough and cynical adult compared to Watt and Knott, had another name in the Ms., given to him by his talking duck ‘But Not Heard’. It is, of course, children who should be Seen But Not Heard.
The learning of language, usually begun with a mother’s help, as Watt not-so-fondly remembers, is normally coupled with the instinctive acquisition of other communicative gestures and cultural skills, such as smiling. Yet somehow Watt seems to have missed this stage.69 We never know why he comes to Mr. Knott’s, which,. i its hierarchy and rules bears some resemblance to a boarding-school or a monastery; but whatever he learns there is far from being a help on his return to the outer world. Nonetheless, the overall narrative shows at least that the disordering of language, and its ordering to the point of exhaustion, are both ways of avoiding the crucial problem of its everyday and innocent use. They are kinds of anti-thought, like Watt’s ‘innocent little game, to while away the time’ (36). For Beckett himself the variations in syntax, games with crosswords and anagrams (Nackybal is a rearrangement of Caliban),70 and serialised numbers and phrases all seem to have offered relief from the central question: whether to write in a language that was becoming external to him, and losing the innocence of the mother tongue, or to replace it with a learned language whose own properties might confirm his sense of all fiction as an artifice, a failed raid on the inarticulate.
The central failure in understanding Watt has been a kind of tunnel-vision associated with critical tradition and practice, which has insisted on seeing it as the `last’ of Beckett’s `English’ novels because it is written in that language, though not necessarily in the context of English culture. Such an attitude requires an odd naivety - a lack of detachment - in reading whole sections of the novel. Beckett never succeeded (if indeed such was his aim) in imposing Sam as the overall narrator; this assumption can be exposed as absurd even without the support of the manuscript. Yet the few heavy-handed claims made by Sam have often been taken as transparently true. As John Chalker has said, in fact the reader needs to stand outside the text altogether.71 Moreover, long sections of the novel (written at a relatively late stage) have been treated as straightforwardly communicative prose, as if they were themselves critiques of the book, rather than the complex and concealing devices of fiction they really are. Given the nature and development of Beckett’s career, it is impossible that his bilingualism (which was developing before the war, but wrenched into full existence by the psychological pressures during it) should not be central to his approach to language, art and the perception of life. Yet his own somewhat humorous evasion of the subject, like his deliberate concealment of the identity of the mysterious Quin, has encouraged a general ignorance on the part of most of his critics. They have accepted his dismissive remarks on the change of language as sufficient authority to probe no deeper. It is in no way surprising that Beckett should wish to play down this central and unique conflict in his artistic and personal life. As Patrick Casement suggested, it belongs in what may well be the deepest levels of the psyche, thoroughly entangled with attitudes to parents, early childhood, and the creative impulse itself.
The eccentricities of Watt are real enough; and it must be conceded that compared with Beckett’s trilogy, with Comment c’est, and with his recent prose texts in which the bilingual balance has been so effectively restored, the artistic form of Watt is deeply unsatisfactory. Yet the flaws and unresolved areas are of small importance when one examines the novel’s strengths: the exceptional emotional appeal of its central figure, Watt, ‘truthful, gentle and sometimes a little strange’ (20); the haunting symbolic and mythological depths of Mr. Knott and his home; the stylistic variety and brilliance; the comic genius; and the detached, curious gaze turned on cultures, languages and experience.
In the manuscript, with its vast stretches of unused material, its learned quotations and jumble of esoteric knowledge, its desire to make exhaustive descriptions of the world, and in the hilarious academic paraphernalia which is developed further in the printed text by the addition of the Addenda, it is possible to see Beckett’s real farewell to the academic world he had set himself against. Watt is, perhaps, the thesis that Beckett never wrote. Instead it is the turning point in his art, and in his life. It gave him a key to French, in which he could reach levels of artistic understanding and expression that would not have been possible for him in English at that time. The Watt Ms. not only provided material for the novel that would eventually emerge; as it developed, and as the surrounding ‘Frenchness’ grew stronger, Beckett began to grasp some of the ideas that, by using another language, he could release in full. The sense of self and otherness is developed through the juggling with personae and pronouns; the idea of life as a disease or a slow dying appears; and several long passages explore the idea of the human eye/(I) and its spiritual and material functions.72 Already there is a sense of the eye’s separateness - like a camera - an idea that is to take on such importance later. Even names, such as Molloy in the Ms.,73 and phrases (‘you will travel alone, or with only shades to keep you company’ (62); ‘the wild country roads where your dead walk beside you’ (38)), which reach the printed version, suggest the way that Beckett was soon to go.74 The grammar and syntax, finally, are acquiring that acute self-awareness which will later make Beckett’s voice in both languages so utterly distinctive.
Above all, Watt is the forge in which he shaped his central belief: a disbelief in language as a reliable vehicle of external fact and thought, combined with a commitment to the idea of languages as relative, each one distorting and omitting parts of the unspeakable truth according to its own specific history and character. The disbelief extends, moreover, to language’s capacity to say anything at all about the realms beyond human consciousness - the brain’s inner life, the worlds before the womb and after the grave, the origins of speech, and what lies beyond the visible stars. One of Beckett’s most open comments - which has still failed to arouse much awareness of his own bilingual approach to such knowledge - was made to the question: why does he go on writing, if language must `fail’? ‘Que voulez-vous, Monsieur. Cest les mots, on n’a rien d’autre’.75 The pain, for the heart, mind and imagination, of constant exile in two language-worlds should never be underestimated. Watt is the battleground on which Beckett’s bilingual war was won.