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.

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

  1. Enjoyed this and won’t interrupt the Archers! I’m dying to know what the German sentence at the end means.

    Like

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