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.