Monthly Archives: June 2015

Samuel Beckett’s ‘The Unnamable’ – Who Wore It Better?

The above video features the actor Jack MacGowran reading the closing lines of Beckett’s novel The Unnamable. MacGowran is one of a celebrated few who Beckett personally approved during his lifetime and when Beckett had the means put at his disposal to direct a production by a generous patron of the arts, he cast him opposite Patrick Magee in a London production of Endgame. The play Eh Joe was written for him and he also staged a number of one-man shows based on Beckett’s works.

This video depicts the playwright and actor Harold Pinter, reading a longer extract of the same novel, albeit prefaced by an anecdote of the man Beckett, who helped him with his hangover.

Pinter delivers the line with far more determination than MacGowran, his voice has a sonorous depth to it, which is not to mention his sophisticated accent, and though his capacity to keep pace with the breathless quality of the prose is to be praised, he sounds as though he is constantly barreling towards a conclusion.

The visual component also deserves treatment. Pinter stares into the lens while spouting all this, in itself an achievement, but with this seems to come a demand to stress, emphasise and bring to bear some of his pugnaciousness for which he is known, I say at the risk of looking to the man and not the work. I find it most pronounced at certain junctures when Pinter/The Unnamable seems to come to some sort of realisation, leaning quite a bit on the word ‘indictment.’ Being unfamiliar with the contents of Pinter’s mind this is a guess, but all told, this seems to be what The Unnamable represents for him, if the letter he reads at the start proclaiming Beckett to be an elucidator of the human condition is to be trusted. The close-up lends itself further to a crescendo, lending Pinter’s conclusion to the genre of reality television where the actors later confess by speaking about the day’s happenings.

MacGowran’s reading is barely above the volume of a whisper, his inhalations make his performance as much about what he does not say, or what his rasping gasps say. Its focus is more that of the rhythm of not-saying and creates the illusion that the voice could go on lisping into the void forever, which of course it does, an effect implied all the better by MacGowran’s shedding of trajectory.

 

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Samuel Beckett’s ‘Molloy’

The video embedded above is one of my favourite voices, Barry McGovern, reading my favourite section of one of my favourite novels.

Molloy is the protagonist of the first part of his 1951 novel, Molloy. Throughout the narrative he wanders around an uncertain city and through an uncertain countryside (albeit one with a distinctly Irish ambience) before being apprehended in and made to commit his narrative to paper. The reasons for this are not stated clearly.

McGovern narrates a point in the novel at which Molloy finds himself at the seaside, determined to initiate a routine through which he can suck sixteen small stones that he has acquired for an equal amount of time. The more he thinks about how this system should be instituted, the more complicated the issue becomes.

This video functions more like a soundscape than a straightforward audio rendering, something I think more aural interpretations of an author’s works should aspire to, especially considering Beckett’s willingness to experiment with radio plays during his lifetime. A slower voice (also McGovern’s?), more drained of enunciation and distorted, both from its apparent distance and from its sounding like a tape recorder, repeats what Molloy has just said and at some points also manages to outrun his lagging train of thought, emphasising Molloy’s cognitive decline. Occasionally the voice will add words to McGovern’s enunciation, or deliver them with a greater degree of terseness

The recording is also interpolated with a number of non sequiturs in the form of an motor starting up and an atonal note from a trumpet. These come to prominence as Molloy is outlining his methodology, undermining the sense that his approach proceeds along rational lines, or that he has a sympathetic listener. Whatever is causing this noise seems pretty determined to drown Molloy out.

McGovern’s voice occasionally increases in volume and proximity, as if he’s suddenly leaning quite intently into the microphone. These articulations have a surreptitious intimacy to them and expands the range of McGobvern’s expression into three or so, normal McGovern, whisper-in-your-ear McGovern and the tape recorder McGovern. This triumvirate suggests the increasing diminution of self-presence, a crucial theme in the Trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. The failed unity of the three is established roughly halfway in when the narrator allows the tension to build for the barest second, before two of them pronounce ‘all!’ slightly out of step with one another.

Samuel Beckett’s ‘Dream of Fair to Middling Women’ and the Page 99 Test

Reading up on computational approaches to literature have exposed me to a certain field of literary criticism based around aleatory approaches to a text. In Radiant Textuality (2001) Jerome McGann, for example, proposes re-writing a poem one is reading upside down and seeing what new features strike you. Advocates of computational ‘play’ as it is called, argue why not? Play is the impressionistic criticism we are drilled in as undergraduate humanists by any other name anyway.

This is why I have developed an interest in Ford Madox Ford’s concept of the page 99 test, which seems to be a randomised means of literary criticism, albeit from an analogue era. However, I wasn’t expecting him to have taken it quite as seriously as he seems to have. On the subject, he has said: “open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” I’m not sure how seriously I am capable of taking that sentence, but Ford seemed to believe that for the most part, by page 99, a novel will have kicked into gear in some way. The following is an undertaking of the page 99 test for Samuel Beckett’s first novel, the posthumously published Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992).

At this point in the novel, Belacqua Shuah is in a bar in Kassel. He is becoming both drunk and increasingly exasperated with the behaviour of his female companion, the Smeraldina-Rima. Belacqua is not exactly a people person and finds her gregarious father, the Mandarin, more able to manage her capricious nature. The Mandarin gets the first word here, placating and complimenting the Smeraldina with an extravagantly lengthy and indulgently kind sentence: “‘My dear,’ he chuckled, out of the midst of his contortion, ‘that is the very thing, you have put your finger on the very thing, that I was proposing to do. That is’ he added ‘unless somebody would prefer I did not.” He leaves it up to Smeraldina, or the Madonna, as she is occasionally called what he will do.

This scene could be read as having been based on real events. Beckett did spend time in Kassel, visiting the family of his cousin Peggy Sinclair, with whom he had had an unconsummated affair. Beckett’s visit was apparently plagued the kind of social friction documented here. Belacqua, the Beckett analogue in this scenario, is totally at sea despite his superhuman levels of erudition. His suggestion as to the course of action they should undertake elicits two equally contemptuous responses from the Smeraldina: “No” and “Schwein.” Belacqua knows when he is outplayed and generously appraises the Mandarin’s words and curiously, his stature: “The recordman saved what was developing into a nasty situation. Heavenly God, but he was the right height.”

The Mandarin could be said to have well and truly upstaged the would-be protagonist of the novel and his last words on the page rightly upbraids Belacqua for his excess of intellectualism and his complacency, which the conversation that they go on to have develops: “Hast du eine Aaaaaahnung!”[1]

[1] One should note the use of the exclamation mark. It is not a question.

Too Much Annotations and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Echo’s Bones’

I love annotations, but occasionally I will find a text that makes me wonder whether the annotator has marked up a novel to a gratuitous extent. Beckett’s short story Echo’s Bones (2014) was one such text.

Echo’s Bones was initially intended to be the last instalment in his short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and was written at the request of its publisher, Charles Prentice, believing the book would be improved by an additional narrative. After reading Echo’s Bones, Prentice reconsidered and wrote an apologetic letter to Beckett saying that the sales of Pricks would be much reduced by the addition of Echo’s Bones and that Pricks should contain only the original ten stories. Echo’s Bones had not been published until last year, in a handsome hardback with a twenty-two page introduction and sixty-eight pages of notes by Mark Nixon. This quantity of extraneous material for a fifty-one page story is presumably to justify the charging of thirty-five quid for the thing.

The biggest problem I have with annotations isn’t necessarily their tendency towards over-explication, but dealing with them as a mechanic of the codex, as they require you to flick back and forth between the text itself to somewhere in the back pages. Rather than having footnotes, the text is uninterrupted, requiring one to remember what the next note is, turning the process of reading into waiting for a particular phrase, the signal to flip to the back.

One critic of another posthumously published Beckett work, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) wrote that in order to contend it, one would need ‘some French and German, a resident exegete of Dante, a good encyclopaedia, OED, the patience of Job and your wits about you.’ One of Beckett’s biographers, James Knowlson rightly adds that you’d probably need Italian, Spanish and Latin too. A failure to credit the intelligence or curiosity of the reader is, not to mention the excessive pricing, is my issue with Echo’s Bones. Very little in the way of intertext escapes Nixon’s excessive annotation. A line that references Hamlet merits the note that Joyce also references this line in Ulysses (1922), a use of the word ‘dunderhead’ necessitates that the fact that Laurence Sterne also uses the word in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman (1767) (a novel that Beckett admired, but was also irritated by, incidentally) as does the fact that ‘uterotaph’ is a variation (a delineation liberally interpreted on Nixon’s part) on one of Beckett’s favourite words. I understand the need to map each of Beckett’s references to Shakespeare, but I think that I would have appreciated a modest recommendations for further reading section instead, one that lists the complete works of Augustine, Shakespeare, Montague, Chaucer, Burton, Johnson, Homer, etc, etc, etc.

Re: Cover Art

Illocutions

The image looming in a feculent pother over this blog is Goya’s ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ from his Pinturas negras, his Black Paintings, a series of fourteen murals not-untimely ripped from the Quinta del Sardo after the artist’s death and housed reverentially now in a kind of sacristy of the Prado. Would that they were hung among the dunnest smokes of Hell. They are bloody, rancid, corrupt, shockingly modern. As scatological as they are eschatological, they churn with the fleshy nausea of the Isenheim Grünewald and the raw formal weirdness of El Greco, yet are possessed also of a ghoulish intimacy, like Dutch genre-scenes from a Boschian phantasm. At the same time, their proto-expressionism is obvious: Kokoschka’s viscosity is here, curdled with the awful sensuality that informs Soutine’s slabs of meat. The pulsing messes to which Goya reduces his human groups prefigures Bacon’s biomorphs, each punctured by the haunted eyes out of a Dix or Grosz. They are paintings not…

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