Samuel Beckett remains one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Ruthlessly experimental, his plays, novels, and poems represent a sustained attack on the realist tradition. Dr Mark Nixon looks at the mutating nature of Beckett's literary style and explains why he didn't choose Waiting for Godot.
Dr Mark Nixon is Associate Professor in Modern Literature at the University of Reading. He is co-director of the Beckett International Foundation and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Beckett Studies. Along with Ulrika Maude, he is editor of the The Bloomsbury Companion to Modernist Literature.
To start us off, how would you characterise Beckett’s literary voice? Does it change over the course of his writing career?
That’s a very good opening question. I think it takes Beckett quite a long time to find his voice. We all know—or feel that we know—what a Beckettian voice is, but we think mainly about the post-war work. Beckett’s literary voice changes quite drastically over his writing career which, of course, is a very long one. His first publication is 1929 and his last is the year of his death, 1989. He starts off being quite an expansive writer. His literary voice is very much influenced by James Joyce in particular, but also avant-garde Paris of the 1930s. In the middle period, just after the war, he takes a completely new direction. Then you’ve got the very late Beckett voice, which is extremely minimalist. I would find it difficult to pinpoint the Beckett voice.
But it’s quite remarkable how many of the themes and ideas that Beckett has are already present right in his very first unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women. You could argue that his basic ideas—whatever they are, that’s debatable—and many of his aesthetic ideas are already in place early on and he’s just keeping on, trying to find a new form, a new way of expressing that same idea. And always being to some extent dissatisfied with it.
“Beckett’s literary voice changes quite drastically over his writing career which, of course, is a very long one.”
It has to do with his distrust of language. It’s there right from the beginning and provokes him to start working with visual media and music. But even in a letter from 1937, he writes that literature is “falling behind” the visual arts and music. Especially in the late work where he’s breaking down ideas of genre and medium, I think Beckett keeps circling around the same ideas. It’s all very complexly interrelated. We can see that mainly through the manuscripts. The manuscripts give us an insight into how far he’s circling round the same kind of ideas.
You mentioned the late Beckett voice as being ‘minimalist’ there. Scholarly labels often applied in connection with Beckett’s work include ‘minimalist’, ‘absurdist’, sometimes ‘existentialist’, ‘modernist’, and ‘postmodernist.’ Which would you say are appropriate, and which are misleading?
The one that we can get rid of quite quickly is the label of absurdism. This is a label that didn’t stick for very long. It was very influential at the time and there are still people who think of Beckett as belonging to the ‘theatre of the absurd’, but it’s one that can be dismissed quite quickly. For one, Beckett was never a part of the existentialist school. In fact, he wasn’t part of any ‘school’ of any description.
The other labels you mention can, to a certain degree, be applied to Beckett. That’s part of the beauty of his work. I think it’s one of the reasons why his texts have such an enduring quality and enduring interest, not only to the general reader or the theatre-goer but also in particular to scholars. This is because you can throw most labels and most critical theories and philosophical theories at Beckett and they will stick in some manner or other.
So, yes, there is mileage in looking at Beckett as a humanist writer. There is mileage in looking at him as both a modernist and a postmodernist writer. It partly depends on the vexed question of what modernism and postmodernism are in the first place, but in terms of the plurality of voices and the plurality of intertextual references, he quite comfortably sits within the category of modernism. If you think of the early works, they are very dense in terms of their intertextuality. A short story like “Echo’s Bones” is a great example of him throwing everything in—all the notes that he has taken from his reading. It’s a very Joycean approach to writing. In terms of postmodernism, the signification of Beckett’s works is manifold. In many ways, it’s the lack of signification that makes him postmodern. There is both an abundance and a reduction of it at the same time.
“You can throw most labels and most critical theories and philosophical theories at Beckett and they will stick in some manner or other.”
I think many critics right now would put him within the category of late modernism, putting him in with such writers as Kafka and Sebald. I personally would resist such an appropriation—I would tend to keep all those labels open rather than closing them down. I can easily see how you could make an argument for each of them, which I think has to do with the fact with Beckett himself was very distrustful of any system of thought. If anything, I would probably label him as a sceptic in the sense that he did not like any kind of rationalising discourse, be it philosophical, religious, political, or anything like that.
A striking omission from your list is Beckett’s most famous work Waiting for Godot. Why did you decide to leave this out?
That’s another interesting one. I partly excluded it because it is already well-known and I think that many of your readers would be aware of Waiting for Godot. I often think we forget that Beckett’s canon includes many works and, again, restricting myself to five is a rather impossible challenge. I think that other texts perhaps speak more to Beckett’s work as a whole. I’ve chosen these five for various reasons because they speak to different aspects of what he was trying to do. They allow us in our conversation to move away from the standard interpretation of Beckett’s work.
Very often Beckett is seen as a nihilist, as a writer who is bleak, as a writer who is unflinching in his gaze of the human condition, and at the end of the day, even despite the acceptance that there is a lot of humour there, the idea is that he gives you little reward in terms of moral guidance. It’s a reading that I would contest. If you think of his plays, in particular the standard plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame, consider the label that he gave them himself: they are ‘tragi-comedies’. Very often, responses to Beckett emphasise the humorous on the one side with all the laughs that we get in Waiting for Godot, and the bleaker outlook on life that the tragic components carry with them. He’s often seen as a writer who’s not very emotional and does not deal with sentimentality. With two of the texts we’re looking at today, that’s not necessarily the case.
Your first choice is James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. This is an authorised biography written by one of Beckett’s friends. What picture of Beckett as a man emerges from this book?
A multifaceted picture. Unlike other biographies of Beckett that tended to push a particular dimension of his life, be it a psychological one or, in Cronin’s case, the importance of the Irish context, I think that Knowlson’s biography is the most well-rounded. It’s also the most scholarly of them. If Knowlson is citing somebody or something, I can find it in the footnotes. The footnotes of the biography are in many ways just as illuminating as the main text. The particular picture of Beckett that emerges is one that is not hagiographic, that’s for sure. It’s an objective, well-balanced, informed one.
‘Damned to Fame’ seems a very apt title, given Beckett’s ambivalent relationship to achievement. He seemed to navigate a tightrope between failure (a prominent theme in many of his works) and success, whilst having distaste for the fame and status that accompany it. I think his wife described the Nobel Prize win as a “catastrophe”.
The phrase ‘Damned to Fame’ is taken from a letter that Beckett wrote and cites the Dunciad. Several critics argue against this, but I think Beckett generally struggled with fame in the sense that he was a very private man. He was very happy that his plays were successful; like any writer, he was happy to be read. But his refusal to interpret his texts as far as possible—his refusal to give interviews or be employed by publishing houses to play, as it were, the publishing game—speaks a lot to his own attitude toward his work. I genuinely think he did shy away from that kind of publicity, whereby the author was the centre of attention, rather than the work. For him, the work and the representation of the work were far more important to him than his persona as a writer or an artist.
How did Beckett’s appraisal of his works align with their critical and commercial success?
I think we need to remember that Beckett’s critical successes were not necessarily commercial successes. If you speak to any of the main publishing houses, I think they will tell you that the plays sell reasonably well and, clearly, there is a lot of commercial success with actual stagings of Beckett’s plays. But I don’t think any of these publishing houses would be able to say that their prose editions are selling out. It’s quite telling that if you go to most Waterstones in this country, you will find perhaps one or two books by Beckett. What we have here is a disunity between his critical appraisal—everyone thinks of Beckett as this major writer of the 20th century—which doesn’t translate into commercial success.
“I think we need to remember that Beckett’s critical successes were not necessarily commercial successes.”
Beckett himself was famously dismissive of most of his work. When Godot was finally a success, he said he’d “breathed deep” of the “vivifying air” of failure all his writing life, that it didn’t really make a difference to him. Beckett was nearly fifty when Godot was a success. He was born in 1906 and the first performance of Godot was in 1953. He’s no longer a young writer; he’s been writing, as it were, on the margins. In particular, he had hardly published. Before the switch to writing in French and the publications of his prose trilogy in Paris just after the war, Beckett was not a household name. There were very few people who would have known of Beckett’s work. We’ve got to remember that.
But Beckett was his own harshest critic. He didn’t allow many of his early works to be reprinted until pressure from both the Nobel Prize and publishing houses pushed him to do so. More Pricks Than Kicks, for example, was published in 1934, but you couldn’t get a copy of it until it was reissued just after he won the Nobel Prize. He also refused to translate some of his works until much later. Premier amour—‘First Love’ —is a nice example of that; it takes him two decades to translate it. Beckett was always more interested in the next project than in keeping his past catalogue, as it were, alive. Obviously, there were texts that he preferred over others. It was very clear that Endgame was the one that he “dislikes least” and the phrasing is nice there; it’s the one he dislikes least, rather than his favourite. When he talks about his work, it’s usually with a negative prefix.
But there’s an interesting tension here between the idea that he’s always moving on to the next project rather than fussing about his past work, and the dictatorial control he exerted over the staging of his plays. He famously vetoed an all-female production of Godot and also JoAnne Akalaitis’s attempted staging of Endgame in an abandoned subway station.
Yes, Beckett was inconsistent on that. He could be quite lenient with friends and people he trusted—directors, in particular. He did allow Mabou Mines to adapt prose texts, with ‘The Lost Ones” as a famous example. If there was a respect for the actual text, for the actual work itself, then he could be quite lenient. But there were certain things that he just wouldn’t accept.
He very clearly did not want an all-female cast for Waiting for Godot, not for any ethical or gender-based reasons, but because it just didn’t work. He famously said that the whole joke about the prostate just wouldn’t work. So, again, it’s about the text. When he was strict about it, it was because he felt that the text was being changed into something that it wasn’t.
Whereas, if it came to different stagings, I think he could be far more flexible on that. It’s not a black and white situation. At one point, he said that he doesn’t want texts written in a certain medium to be adapted into another one, but at other times he’s quite open to it. He says yes to some of these adaptations and he even makes them himself, after all. He adapts ‘Not I’, written for theatre, to television. So, it simplifies the matter to say that Beckett was strict about how things should be performed. But, of course, there were certain things he disliked and he put his foot down.
Let’s go on to your next choice. This is Samuel Beckett’s Library, written by Dirk Van Hulle and yourself. Can you say a bit about the project that inspired this book?
We have most of Beckett’s manuscript notebooks and also his reading notes, but the missing link was always Beckett’s own library. Shortly before Beckett’s death, he asked his authorised biographer James Knowlson to take some of his books for the archive here at the University of Reading. So, about twenty or thirty volumes were accessible to scholars. But the main library was still in the flat where he lived, at the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris.
In about 2005, Dirk and I approached his literary executor Edward Beckett, Beckett’s nephew, if he would allow us access to the library to study his reading traces. He kindly agreed to that and gave us exclusive access to the library. We spent about ten days there, just scanning every single page for annotations. It was a rather time-consuming process, as you can imagine. We were going through Beckett’s Encyclopaedia Britannica in a rather tired manner, always thinking that if you miss the next page out then it might just have that one clue to Waiting for Godot or something like that. But it was a fascinating time that we spent there. The library itself is fascinating because it gives us an insight into his reading habits on the one hand but also just the cultural context within which he is moving.
What sort of reader was Samuel Beckett?
A wide-ranging and intense reader, on the one hand, and one who also, to a certain extent, cheated. You have a very intense study of certain authors—certain philosophers, even—but at the same time, you have a wonderful pattern whereby some of the books that survive—and in particular, some of the philosophical books—contain traces of his reading, e.g. which pages have annotations—though of course, that’s not an exact science. You see that sometimes he reads the introduction to a philosophical work rather than the actual philosophical work itself.
He has the complete works of Immanuel Kant—thirteen volumes—but the only volume that shows serious engagement, at least in terms of reading signs like marginalia and annotations, is the thirteenth, which is the introductory volume by Ernst Cassirer, rather than Kant’s work itself. Another example is his copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where he has clearly annotated the introduction by Bertrand Russell, but the actual text by Wittgenstein shows no marginalia at all. So, he’s not one kind or another kind of reader.
“He was a wide-ranging and intense reader, on the one hand, and somebody who also, to a certain extent, cheated.”
As a young man, he read incredibly widely. Not just in terms of literature—though he read literature of all periods, in many different languages—but he reads an enormous amount about psychology and visual arts. He reads many texts about science, on geology. His early reading habits are clearly influenced by Joyce: there are no barriers. And like Joyce, he obscures the source to a certain degree. For us manuscript scholars, this makes it very difficult, because he will copy out a sentence into one of his notebooks but refrain from saying where it comes from. That was a typical Joyce procedure; Joyce wasn’t really concerned with the context of where he was getting his material from. He was just interested in the phrase or in the actual word, the way it sounded, and so on. Beckett was very much influenced by that. His later reading habits are different. There, he’s more or less reminding himself where he’s getting his notes from.
Are there particular examples of marginalia that are insightful for getting proximity to Beckett and his writing process?
Yes, there’s a wide variety there. Beckett famously gave away a lot of books, so it’s quite surprising how many of his student books survive. The library contains just shy of 800 books, but we know that he read far more than that. There is a lot of amusing marginalia in his student books. He very often disagrees with some of the writers. He writes ‘balls!’ on the side of one of the texts he’s reading: Proust’s Recherche. He also criticises Hölderlin for using certain words too often. So, he’s criticising what he’s reading.
“Every now and again you’ll get an insight into just how alert a reader he is”
The student books are also sometimes not that interesting. He’s studying modern languages, reading in Italian and French. Sometimes he’s just translating a word that he’s not understood. But every now and again you’ll get an insight into just how alert a reader he is. For example, in his Italian Bible—La Sacra Bibbia—he annotates a lot of the rather sexual passages of the Bible and cross-references them to d’Alembert. You can see that while he’s reading he’s thinking of something else, and this allows us to retrace how he himself combined texts. In this case, he was moving very, very easily between an Italian language Bible and an eighteenth-century French text.
Let’s take a look at Beckett’s works themselves. You have chosen the novel Watt, which was written whilst he was member of the French Resistance, hiding out from the Gestapo in the 1940s. It has been described as “plotless” and perhaps the oddest of all of Beckett’s literary output. Why have you included this?
This is perhaps even more unique than his other writings. It’s also a transitional work. Here, Beckett finally seems to find his own voice. He was already, in the mid- and late-1930s, very dissatisfied with the work he was writing, and its lack of success—he wasn’t being published. Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the first novel, remained unpublished until after his death. Murphywas only published after two years, in 1938. By this point, Beckett was more or less giving up on a writerly career—so much so that he’s applying to the National Gallery in London. Visual arts became nearly as important to him as literature.
“Visual arts became nearly as important to him as literature.”
It’s clear that he’s also trying to get away from writing like Joyce: writing in an erudite expansive way, which is still there in Murphyto a certain extent. What seems to be this turning point to the post-war work that we know as ‘the’ Beckett work—a move towards this absence of specificity—starts to manifest in Watt. Purely linguistically, it is completely different. In its arrangement, the syntax predicts Beckett’s change to French in 1945 and 1946. It is a book that shows him reformulating who he is as a writer and finding his voice. That, for me, is why it’s such a fascinating book.
At the same time, it’s just one of the funniest books by Beckett purely because he pushes his critique of rationality to its absolute limit. It shows the irrationality of rationality if taken to extremes. Think about the long lists of permutations which can go on for two or three pages in Watt. These are very different from Joyce’s lists: Joyce’s lists accrue; they are not permutations per se. Even in Ulysses, it’s not quite the same. Whereas the lists in Watt are fundamentally mathematical but always flawed. In that sense, it predicts the change where he says to Knowlson:
I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.
That step is at the core of Watt, in many ways.
Insofar as there is a plot, this exploring of the irrationality of rationality is shown in the hyper-pedantic figure of ‘Watt’ becoming a domestic servant for a ‘Mr Knott’.
The plot of Watt is an anti-plot. It’s all about Watt’s journey to Knott’s house, his time at Knott’s house, and the journey away from Knott’s house. That’s essentially it. So, there is a linear progression of the plot, but the way in which we find out about it is not linear. The entire structure of the novel is very uncertain; it seems to be told in a random order. The narrator appears to be someone called Sam who meets Watt in an asylum. The whole book is a meta-narrative. It’s already hinting at that just by Beckett calling his narrator ‘Sam’, it’s a critique of rationality. But it’s also very much a critique of language, so much so that there’s a point at which Watt, when he meets with Sam, starts speaking backwards, for example. This is the first novel in which Beckett really pushes his critique of language to the extreme that he will then pursue in subsequent texts, in particular in How It Is, and the late trilogy: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho.
“This is the first novel in which Beckett really pushes his critique of language to the extreme that he will then pursue in subsequent texts.”
The novel as we have it grows out of many novels. As we mentioned before, Beckett is writing this over a very long period of time. He starts it in February 1941 whilst he’s still in Paris working for the Resistance, and he then has to go on the run after his cell is betrayed to the Gestapo. He travels to Vichy, France, and then even further south to Roussillon. So, it’s a book that is written on the run. In many ways, especially when he gets to Roussillon, he’s only working on it in the evenings and at night, because during the day he’s working as a farm labourer.
He’s writing it without any time pressure. Tellingly, he’s also writing it without all the books that previously had laid the foundations of his works. Although he has much of it in his head, it’s not as easily grasped, which is one reason why it’s not as intertextual as the earlier work. He’s writing it with no rush, to a certain degree. Nobody knew how long the war was going to last. At the same time, it’s also written from an atmosphere of tension that war brings. It has this tension between ‘I’ve got time’ and ‘I don’t know if I’ve got time’.
There are six manuscript notebooks for Watt. They are sprawling. They are huge. They are the most complex manuscripts of Beckett’s work. And it’s only right towards the end of 1944 that somehow, out of this mass of notes and different storylines where everyone has different names than they have in the final text, that the Watt we now know emerges. That’s why the Addenda is there. The Addenda, as it were, is a reflection of the way it is written. You could argue that Watt is an unfinished book because of that. Even within the text itself, there are sometimes gaps where words are missing, or where a question mark replaces a missing word. There are lacunae. It’s a book that very much advertises itself as unfinished.
Of Beckett’s theatrical canon, you have chosen Krapp’s Last Tape. This is a fascinating work. Can you outline the play?
The premise of the play is an old man on stage sitting in a room. All you see is Krapp sitting at a table, with a spotlight over him, the rest of the stage in darkness. When he’s not at the table, he moves to the back of the stage into a room that we don’t see, but we know that he goes back there to pour another drink. We know that he is sixty-nine, and that every year he records on tape a record of what has happened during the past year. This is something that Beckett took from Samuel Johnson who every year would reflect on the year that has just passed.
The play oscillates between Krapp recording his current year’s impressions, and listening to a past tape at the age of thirty-nine where the Krapp of thirty-nine is recording himself and the fact that he’s just listened to a tape of himself recorded ten years previously. So, we have a multiplication of Krapps. We have three Krapps across time. It’s essentially a reflection of a life and the way in which, as Beckett had already said in an essay on Proust that he wrote as a young man, that there is no such thing as an individual, only a succession of individuals. The play highlights this in its own way, because each Krapp couldn’t remember what they had said in the previous recordings. They have to look up words in dictionaries and think about things, because even though the tapes act as a kind of aide-mémoire, they fail because each of them couldn’t recall what they meant when they said what they said.
With these episodes of Krapp’s self, there’s a sense of intimate relation, but also alienation, among them.
There’s present regret for the past choices of a now unfamiliar self. Beckett mentioned that he was tempted to write a sequel of Krapp’s Last Tape, where Krapp’s relationship hadn’t fallen through—he instead got married—and yet he is afflicted by the same misery and frustration. It reminds me of a line in Kierkegaard: “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it.” We’ve resisted the idea that Beckett thinks in absolutes, but is there not a sense here that in Beckett one is resigned to a situation and there’s little one can do to escape that lot?
However bad things seem to be, Beckett’s characters always find a way of carrying on. This is what provokes so many humanist readings of Beckett’s work, especially in the early days of Beckett criticism. I don’t agree with the idea that Beckett deals in absolutes. He famously said that the key word to his works is “perhaps”. Whether he actually said that or not, I do think that his work is about perhaps. But it’s also about resistance and about carrying on. If you think about Winnie in Happy Days, she’s buried to the waist and then to the neck, but she still carries on. And also in Worstward Ho, which we will come to. There’s always still something there that allows you to go on.
“However bad things seem to be, Beckett’s characters always find a way of carrying on.”
Krapp’s Last Tape shows, as it were, regret; there is definitely a sense of the nostalgia. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve picked it. It’s probably the most sentimental of his works. It’s definitely the one that does not shy away from a certain level of pathos, I think.
You’ve chosen this one-act play, featuring one actor, ahead of Endgame and Waiting for Godot. Could you say a little more about its literary virtues?
Its literary virtues are probably secondary to its performative virtues. If you witness Krapp’s Last Tape in a theatre, it is an incredibly powerful play. It’s a devastating play, in many ways, because it’s the one that also refuses the light relief. In fact, the little light relief that you do get in Krapp was cut by Beckett when he staged it himself. If you think about the beginning of the play, it has the slapstick banana routine—he slips on the skin, and so forth. When he came to stage it himself in Berlin in 1967—it was the first of his plays he directed—he cuts most of the banana scene out. We have the annotated copy of his theatrical notebook here at the University of Reading.
If you were a director directing a Beckett play, do you highlight the comic aspect of the play or do you highlight the tragic side of things? Whenever Beckett directed his own plays, he highlighted the tragic. Every time he directed his own plays, he tended to reduce the comic elements. That in itself is interesting, as that seems to be how he saw them himself. You could argue that there are two canons of Beckett texts: there’s the texts that we all know—the ones we’d buy in a bookshop—and the ones he staged himself. The two are quite different.
“If you were a director directing a Beckett play, do you highlight the comic aspect of the play or do you highlight the tragic side of things?”
There is a literary value to Krapp’s Last Tape, undoubtedly. It’s very poetic in parts. But I see it as a very powerful play when performed. It speaks to a lot of his other texts, whether it’s prose or theatre. The idea of the solitary human being in a room is a very common trope in Beckett. We get that in the TV play Ghost Trio and in the prose work Malone Dies. I think Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the most powerful versions of that trope.
Some have suggested that this is Beckett’s most autobiographical play. Is there anything to be said for that claim?
I think, very often, a lot of Beckett’s works start out not necessarily from autobiographical roots but certainly more realistic roots. Again, the manuscripts show this to a certain degree. With Endgame, there were references to the First World War there which he subsequently erases or ‘vaguens’ into the more abstract versions that we know from publication or from stage.
With Krapp’s Last Tape, you can make links there. The woman in the green coat on the railway platform is clearly a reference back to Peggy Sinclair, a cousin of Beckett’s with whom he had a relationship. You can also potentially relate the death of the mother in the play to Beckett’s witnessing his own mother’s death. You also have the joke about being a failed writer, about the fact that a few copies sold to circulate in libraries in the commonwealth. This is surely Beckett having a bit of a laugh about his own success as a writer as a young man because, actually, the figures are not that dissimilar from sales of More Pricks Than Kicks published in 1934. There are autobiographical echoes there, but I wouldn’t call it an autobiographical play.
Your last choice is Worstward Ho, a novella published in 1983. Tell me about this one.
I hesitated about putting this one down because it refuses to be summarised. He started writing it in 1981 when he was seventy-five and it forms the last part of what we call the ‘Nohow On Trilogy’, the second trilogy. It’s a remarkable book because it really does take language to the opposite extreme of what Joyce did in Finnegans Wake, which was exuberant in its linguistic playfulness. Worstward Ho is comprised of the building blocks of language. There are very few multisyllabic words in the piece. What Beckett’s doing is taking, as it were, very brief words and adding mainly negative prefixes to them. So, he takes the word “how” and puts the word “no” in front of it to create “nohow”; he’s playing with the word “on” and its reversal “no”. It’s a work that shuns adjectives. It’s a work that shuns plot. It’s a work that tries to replicate the act of the imagination. It’s a narrative voice that has no location and has no origin, in many ways, constructing or reconstructing images.
“It’s a work that shuns adjectives. It’s a work that shuns plot. It’s a work that tries to replicate the act of the imagination.”
Whether these images are found in memory or whether they are acts of imagination is never quite clear. But the images are always very unclearly perceived. It’s playing around with the idea of the ill-seen and the ill-said. The text is, in many ways, trying to annihilate itself. It’s trying to find the worst. But as we’re now aware, one of the germs of the text comes from the famous passage in King Lear where it’s said: “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” He notes that line in a notebook shortly before starting writing Worstward Ho. It clearly intrigues him.
In many ways, the text tries to worsen itself all the way through until we get to the end where everything that gets said gets unsaid as well. It’s probably Beckett at his most minimal. But, at the same, it’s strangely poetic. It teaches you to read differently. The opening two pages show you how to read the text until you get into the flow of things. The origin of this style of writing is with How It Is(1960) which is the beginning of the late work. With How It Is, Beckett radically rewrites or disuses syntax, and I think Worstward Ho is the culmination of that process.
It’s very stark and rhythmically compact, but with a musicality about it. It also has that famous line: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” There’s this characteristically complex dance of futility and optimism.
It is a harsh work, it is a minimal work, it is a bare work, but at the same time it’s oddly rich and rewarding because of that. I’ve read this text so many times and I still cannot explain how that works: how that diminishing trajectory somehow results in abundance. It’s like what Moran in Molloysays about the dance of the bees: “Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.” It’s that sort of problem.
In terms of his authorial priorities, does Beckett or his audience come first? You’ve pointed to this mutating of Beckett’s literary style over time, for instance with Watt. Is this will-to-express an experiment for himself, or is it always with an eye to the work eventually being read, being interpreted, and affecting people?
Later on, Beckett is obviously aware of that, but when he’s writing Watt he clearly has no audience in mind. He’s writing for himself; he’s passing his time. By that point, whether he’s ever going to be able to publish it or whether he’s going to publish again is completely up in the air. Beckett needed to express himself to a certain degree. I wouldn’t say that the fact that we have become witness to what he needed to express is secondary, but it’s not necessarily something that he always had at the forefront of his mind.
Going back to the word “experiment” you just used, I think that Beckett remained experimental throughout his life. One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is just how experimental he was, unlike most artists, across such a wide variety and range of media. He was one of the first to really experiment with radio plays, so much so that the BBC set up its radiophonic studio. We also neglect the fact that he wrote a film. We also need to remember that he’s one of the first to really experiment with TV. We even have an abandoned manuscript here in Reading where we see that he’s thinking about a very early piece of video art.
Beckett was always looking for new ways to say whatever it is exactly that he’s trying to say. He’s experimental all the way through. Every text somehow pushes that barrier further and further. Yes, sometimes they take a step backwards. I think Krapp’s Last Tape to a certain degree in terms of its technicality, its form, is a step backwards. And a short prose like ‘Enough’ is not as radical as the prose pieces that he’d done before. Company, also, revisits certain things that he’d done before. But there’s always this drive to find a new way to say what he’s trying to say. I think the urge to be experimental never diminishes. That is one of the reasons that we consider him one of the most important writers of the 20th century, precisely because of that.
Finally, I want to ask if you have a favourite line or exchange from Beckett’s work?
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” That’s always going to be a rather difficult one to pass by. There’s also a passage in ‘Enough’: “What do I know of man’s destiny? I know more about radishes.” I always loved that one. There’s also the very famous pot scene in Watt where he talks about Watt’s struggle to feel happy. As he says, “it resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted.” That is probably my favourite.
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Dr Mark Nixon is Associate Professor in Modern Literature at the University of Reading. He is co-director of the Beckett International Foundation and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Beckett Studies. Along with Ulrika Maude, he is editor of the The Bloomsbury Companion to Modernist Literature.
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