Monthly Archives: January 2015

Samuel Beckett’s ‘More Pricks Than Kicks,’ and James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’

To compare James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would be nothing new for a critic. When Eimear McBride recommended a familiarity with early-twentieth century Irish modernism in order to grasp her 2013 novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, it was fairly obvious who she was talking about.

Beckett met Joyce in Paris and helped him to translate the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of Finnegans Wake into French. Joyce also dictated some sections of the novel to him, necessitated by Joyce’s failing eyesight. While this process was ongoing, there was a knock at the door. Joyce called for whoever it was to come in and proceeded to have a conversation with them, all of which Beckett dutifully typed. Joyce was confused by its presence in the proofs when Beckett read them back, but was amused enough to keep it in the final version. As such Beckett proved himself handy not only as a stenographer, but a co-writer.

John Banville points out that this friendship had its price. Not only did Beckett take to holding a cigarette in the same way as his mentor, but he also emulated his sartorial quirks and wore shoes that were too narrow for his feet. There is a fine line between hero worship and masochism. Furthermore, Beckett’s early writing is stultified by a Joycean tenor, in his shorter fiction from his early career, he too often opts for clattering neologisms and wry allusiveness, rather than the morbid tautologies and minimalism that he became known for.

When reading his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks, I was struck by the comparisons that could be made between Beckett’s protagonist Belacqua Shuah and Joyce’s analogue in his own fiction, Stephen Dedalus. Both are notable for their solipsism, terrible attitudes towards women and pseudo-intellectual faffing. However, I found a far more engaging link towards the end of the short story ‘A Wet Night,’ in which one can see Beckett wryly negotiating Joyce’s hallowed ground. ‘A Wet Night’ parodically re-iterates the conclusion to Joyce’s legendary final paragraphs in ‘The Dead.’ I’ll include it here because it’s out of copyright and always worth reading:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

‘A Wet Night,’ shares a setting with ‘The Dead.’ Both take place at Christmas dinner parties and feature a number of Dublin socialites. The conversation at both is insipid, but Beckett’s lacks all the warmth and nostalgia for Dublin hospitality that Joyce probably felt, writing it as he did in Trieste. While Gabriel Conroy leaves Usher Quay in high spirits, feeling himself to be passionately in love with his wife Gretta, Belacqua leaves his dinner party drunk and bereft:

“But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform, untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.”

I really enjoy the bathos of this passage. It teases the reader with its lyrical realism and its suggestion of universality, revealed in the rhythm of its slow, gently undulating sentences. It then subverts itself with a banal academic tone, all turning on the word ‘notably’ and the repetition of the word ‘uniform,’ as if the narrator had something more important to do than to vary their word choice.

In his alcohol-induced fugue, Belacqua throws away a new pair of shoes and we are told that his toes enjoy their newfound freedom which they are ‘rejoicing’ in. I hope it is not labouring the point to propose this as a pun that confirms the rain’s genealogy.

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Beckett’s Unword and Literary History

If there is one thing that my English degree taught me it is that when writers write about other writers, they write about themselves. This is why James Joyce can cast James Clarence Mangan and Oscar Wilde as his predecessors in exile. Similarly, when they denigrate a particular quality in another author, they project an anxiety about their own work. Hence Samuel Beckett’s dismissal of the Irish poets in his own time, for their being too prone to the ‘altitudinous complacency of the Victorian Gael’ and why his critical writings are so illuminating.

In the ‘Trois Dialogues,’ a conversation between ‘B’ and ‘D’, B and D discuss three contemporary painters, Pierre Tal-Coat, André-Aimé-René Masson and Bram Van Velde, although this account of the subject matter is probably misleading, as B, an analogue for Beckett, is primarily interested in discussing his aspirations for his own work, to the extent that D reprimands him: ‘the subject under discussion is not yourself.’

The thesis statement derived from this piece has become a kind of critical cliché and worn out through use. I made it the cornerstone of an argument in an undergraduate essay, which is definitely a bad sign: ‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

Towards the end of the dialogue, B gives a brief outline of the history of art, which is a teleological movement towards the manifestation of truth via the construction of artifice. Those who are familiar with the history of avant-garde movements will be aware of how every generation proclaims themselves the heralds of authentic human experience on the page, even as some of them may move further and further from that which is strictly mimetic. B proposes that instead of insisting on the ‘reality’ of artistic representation, through which one would judge any given work’s success or failure, why not openly proclaim its failure to do so?

This is the defining principle that underpins Beckett’s literature of the unword, making the work of art reflexive enough to indicate its own artifice and refute the ‘twin tyrannies’, truth and beauty.

A Quantitative Analysis of Samuel Beckett’s Works

When deciding on a good author for a quantitative analysis of literary material, Samuel Beckett occurred to me. Beckett’s aesthetic was decidedly sparse and austere, allegedly in pursuit of a style-less style. He also wrote in French, believing that it was easier for him to write without artifice in another language. The irony is that Beckett’s style is among the most identifiable in the history of literature. .

If Beckett aims for a removal of style, a pursuit of beauty without what he derisively labelled ‘ornament,’ this presents the question as to whether it is possible that his vocabulary decreased as his career went on. In a quantitative analysis of crime fiction writer Agatha Christie’s work, Dr. Ian Lancashire noticed a twenty per cent decrease in her general vocabulary and an increase of six hundred per cent in what he calls ‘indefinite words,’ such as ‘thing,’ ‘something,’ ‘nothing’ and ‘anything.’ Radiolab covers this in the episode ‘Vanishing Words.’ This has been cited as evidence of Christie’s developing Alzheimer’s disease.

I am not interested in investigating Beckett’s potential  cognitive decline, but neither am I solely interested in answering the question in a purely yes/no way. Taking a cursory glance at Beckett’s entire oeuvre reveals that the question may be far too complicated to allow for a binary answer.

Beckett is most well known as a playwright, and for a play written very early in his career at that, Waiting for Godot, written in 1949, produced in 1953. But he was also a poet, a novelist and a prolific letter writer. He also has to his name a considerable corpus of short prose, journalism and literary criticism. He also produced a number of texts that arguably straddle a number of these allegedly distinct categories.

To complicate matters further, Beckett wrote in other languages. The mini-trilogy of short stories The Expelled, The Calmative and The End are only three examples. Some of these texts were subsequently translated into English, some with Beckett’s help and some without. Do we, in a quantitative analysis of this kind, use the original version and in the course of our analysis quantify the French words as mere individual word units or do we use the English translations. Doing so could complicate the analysis that charts vocabulary over time, as they were written years later, at a time when Beckett could have taken a different view on his earlier texts.

Similarly, should one incorporate the stage directions of his plays? The stage directions often take a very different tone than Beckett is conventionally known for adopting, as one can see from this rather poetic stage direction from Waiting for Godot:

VLADIMIR: (looking wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape). It’s not possible!

Omitting them would be simple enough, but some of Beckett’s later, shorter plays are composed of mostly, if not solely, stage directions, such as Quad, Breath or Nacht und Träume. Even if they read more like instruction manuals than traditional drama, do they not deserve their place in an analysis of this kind also?

I will be posting on this topic a few more times in the run-up to proposing my thesis, probably to complicate the situation a bit more.

Human Affection and Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’

Those of us who are confused or plain scared of human affection will have been greatly cheered this week by the news that a number of academics have systematically purged love, a particularly knotty human emotion, of its spontaneity and capacity for failure, hurt feelings, etc. Love has been efficiently re-packaged within a sequence of thirty-six easily digestible chunks or questions. The paper itself is available here http://psp.sagepub.com/content/23/4/363.abstract and the list of questions can be found here.  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/14/love-is-getting-answers-right-to-36-questions .

The questionnaire begins with conventional first-date conversational ball-rollers. They seem enough like small talk to prevent alienating someone, but contain a marginally deeper component to hopefully segue into something more interesting or authentic, such as “1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” They get progressively more intimate, touching upon things that I have never discussed with anyone (and don’t particularly want to), such as “6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”

Bim Aduwunmi and Archie Bland tried the questionnaire on each other (here http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/14/very-scientific-romance-36-questions-make-you-fall-in-love). Bland unsurprisingly comes to the realisation that Bim is really, really interesting and rightly identifies that the point of the exercise is that “anyone is, really, once you get past your superficial differences.” (Enjoying the fact that a man with the second name ‘Bland’ is pointing out the inherent interestingness of every human.)

Of course, this is a study written to accelerate the formation of intimacy between two people. This is the point at which I would argue how irreducible love really is and that any paper could not hope to simulate it in a lab environment. I could prove this with reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To The Lighthouse,’ in which the focus is on the Ramsay family and a number of visitors that have accompanied them to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. What makes the novel pertinent to this paper is how at good it is when representing the interior world of its main characters, Mrs and Mr Ramsay, Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley.

Mrs Ramsay is quite neurotic, and spends much of the text fretting over her children’s futures, the behaviour of her husband and the general success of the holiday. However, we are not restricted to seeing Mrs Ramsay thinking about Mr Ramsay, we also see Mr Ramsay thinking about his wife.

As they have been married for a number of years, their intimacy is well-established and therefore makes a neat comparison with the developing relationship of the younger Lily and Charles. In the first part of the novel, they appear to be courting one another, and Mrs Ramsay is convinced that they will be married. In the second part of the novel, set in the same place ten years later, it is revealed that Charles married someone else, that their courtship ultimately went nowhere. Lily does not reflect on this with any kind of melancholy or mournful loss of a life that she could have had with Charles but reflects that she is probably happier for not having married.

What is interesting about the infinite complexity of every character is how often Woolf allows them to surmise correctly what the other is thinking or experience a kind of mutual appreciation for those feelings. Between them, I would guess that the four main characters are correct or co-operate in their sentiments about the other as frequently as not. Taking the best guess is often sufficient, Tansley realises that in Lily’s company he “felt certain, understood.” Mrs and Mr Ramsay both experience an overwhelming sense of the affection of each other at one point: “Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love.” These feelings are, of course, never verbally expressed; they are reserved instead for their interior states and remain all the more poignant for it.

Despite each characters’ ability to feel shades of contradictory things at the same time towards the same person, the same being true for everyone else, they remain content with taking their best guess at someone. It’s a good strategy; it’s certainly the case that they have no other option.

Real Formalism, Real Historicism

Eric Weiskott

I presented a short paper at the MLA in Vancouver, in a roundtable session entitled “‘Real’ Old English?” I reproduce the paper in full here:

In the next seven minutes, I would like to convince you that real formalism and real historicism really are, or really should be, one and the same critical practice. Our idea of what counts as knowledge about early English literature will be enriched by integrating formalist and historicist methods. Those of us who work on prosody and poetics are used to being admonished that formalism needs to be historicist. I agree. But I am equally interested in affirming that historicism needs to be formalist.

Here are two concrete examples of the opportunity for methodological integration, drawn from my research on the alliterative tradition. First, the most famous theory of Old English meter, Sievers’s Five Types, is an ahistorical formalism. It prescribes the same metrical norms…

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‘Egotism in One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ or, ‘Which One Is She Again?’

It can be embarrassing to confess to not having the basic skills required to read a long novel, especially when one claims to have read many “challenging” novels. My biggest problem is never lengthy sentences or esoteric words, but simply maintaining a clear picture of each individual character, what they are, what they have done and what they think. Even when re-reading a novel that I would consider myself quite familiar with, such as Ulysses, I have difficulty keeping the Ben Dollards separate from the Nosey Flynns. I also find Virginia Woolf challenging on this point. Woolf’s novels often begin in media res and immediately introduce the reader to a number of members of a large family with an extended circle of acquaintances. It would be absurd to expect a writer as elliptical as Woolf to hold the reader’s hand and introduce each member of the Ramsay family in a novel such as To The Lighthouse, so I often resort to jotting down each character’s names on the back page and keep a brief account of their deeds, giving me an easy reference point should the disquieting moment arise when I realise that something very important is happening or something very beautiful is being described and I find myself unsure as to why it matters.

This summary of the character’s exploits serves me well when reading Woolf, but when reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, documenting every major (and minor) narrative event threatened to overwhelm every inch of every margin or blank page in the book. I found it embarrassing in my English lit. tutorials that despite taking part in in-depth discussions that would meander around a number of key issues in a particular novel I would sometimes barely know which character was which. I generally remembered whatever point I wanted to make and barrelled through without getting caught up in the details. I always resisted the urge to express the fact that many of the personalities tended to blend together because to try to link this distortion to the aesthetic make-up of any particular text could be construed as a confession that I had not paid enough attention while I was reading or that I was stupid.

While arguing this would still strike my as slightly lazy, I don’t think I would be as averse to arguing it now. Modernist authors write in such a way that challenges the reader. A lengthy description of a character’s innermost thoughts, fears and appearance of the kind that one might find in a certain kind of nineteenth-century novel are discarded. Instead, we have an allegedly more realistic means of representation, that aims to capture the truth of human consciousness and perception, by making it difficult, and by turning the reader into a kind of detective, rather than an omnipotent being with all the facts laid out before them.

This is the case for Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which begins with a family tree outlining seven generations of the Buendía family. When I first saw it I presumed (and perhaps hoped) that the novel would be broken into seven distinct parts for each generation, that would presumably help distinguish between the many similarly named characters. The metronymic and patronymic first and middle names were ultimately the cause of endless confusion. The narrative details the various misfortunes that befall the family throughout its long history. The reader sees the capacity of each family member to repeat the failures and excesses of its earliest forbearers. At one point in the novel, the family matriarch Úrsula has an epiphany in which she realises the extent to which her children are incapable of loving another person by virtue of their egotism. This is an important theme for Márquez and his narrative eventually resulted in the creation of a novel which his biographer Gerard Martin described as “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognised themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure.” This is the reason why some of the older members of the family are able to perceive a re-iterative, fatalistic quality to the lifestyles of their children and why their names can lead to each character failing to distinguish themselves as a wholly autonomous character, especially for a reader as inattentive as myself.

(I recently re-read To The Lighthouse and found it very easy to distinguish every character from every other one, so I presumably just didn’t pay enough attention the first time.)