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Scraps From Beckett’s Workshop

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
Fizzles and Ends and Odds. By Samuel Beckett. Grove Press. Both $6.95 hardback, $1.95 paper.

THE appearance of two new books by Samuel Beckett ought to be cause for pleasurable anticipation. But the feeling among many readers must be more like dread these days: his last few books have contained work that is less than major and not very likeable. Ten years ago it was still feasible to defend Beckett’s new work as a predictable and necessary culmination of what had come before. The wrapper of the British edition of Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) told us that this seven-page text

was conceived as a novel, started as a novel, and in spite of its brevity, remains a novel, a work of fiction from which the author has removed all but the essentials. . . .

We were sympathetic, as we would not have been to a seven-page novel by Vladimir Nabokov, because the true subject matter of Imagination Dead Imagine was not those two bodies in yin-yang position in their geometrical igloo, but the struggle of the narrator to imagine anything at all in the ubiquitous whiteness of the dead imagination. The title, we realized, was simply a re-application of that too-often quoted ending of The Unnamable to the creative process: I can’t imagine, you must imagine, I’ll imagine. And hadn’t Beckett said much the same thing in his Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, in which he spoke of painters who cannot paint “because there is nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,” yet are obliged to paint? We saw Beckett’s fragmentary later works as desperate and courageous acts, diminishing islands of utterance being eaten away by silence. When his 35-second play Breath (1969) appeared, we felt that the end had at last been reached; what inessentials remained to be purged?

To have assumed that Beckett could not go on, of course, was to have misread not only The Unnamable, but most of Beckett’s work, which is often about ending but seldom about ends. Though his fiction has been fizzling out since The Unnamable and How It Is, and his drama since Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days, to conclude that it is fizzling according to some predictable pattern is, as we must now realize, unwarranted. The continuous deterioration of the characters in Beckett’s trilogy of novels—from bicycle to crutches to bedridden to dead—has provided a too-convenient analogy with which to consider the later work. It is almost shocking when, in Fizzle 2, we see a Beckett character who is “beginning . . .to get out of bed again.” It is disconcerting in much the same way to find that in Fizzles and Ends and Odds, Beckett’s newest collections of fiction and drama, he has not taken that predictable though unimaginable step beyond Imagination Dead Imagine and Breath.•

Finding nothing ahead but silence, Beckett has apparently stepped to the side. We ought to remember with gratitude that Beckett is not a hack and has not stepped back to parody the trilogy or Godot. But in publishing these spare variations on some of his less consequential later work—there are reminders here of Words and Music, Eh Joe, The Lost Ones, Ping, and so on, in addition to less recherché material—he has forced his readers to re-examine his later work as a whole, It should be clear now that Imagination Dead Imagine or Breath or the pieces in Fizzles and Ends and Odds reach our imagination, when they do, mainly because of the work that preceded them. In this respect, Beckett’s late work is like Pound’s fragmentary blurtings near the end of the Cantos. If we imagine them submitted by an unknown poet to a magazine of which we are the editor, their defects as poetry are apparent. But with 800 pages of Pound’s intellectual and spiritual history behind them, they acquire the power to move us. A few Beckettian fragments might be viewed as adjuncts to the great works of Beckett’s middle period, testimony that the power of such works as The Unnamable and Endgame was felt even by their creator. But there are now enough fragmentary works in print that they seem to demand consideration on their own merits: the fizzling-out is too protracted. Beckett—or at least one of his characters—would surely agree that the silence is long overdue. But, unfortunately, so would that hypothetical editor we were just pretending to be.

The eight prose fictions in Fizzles are written in a variety of Beckettian styles. There is the relatively conventional style of the Nouvelles or part I of Molloy (Fizzles 1 and 2), the endless, breathless, comma-spliced sentences of The Unnamable (Fizzles 3 and 4), and the spare, staccato style of Imagination Dead Imagine, which omits those words which would make the prose flow smoothly:

Even get up certain moods and go stand by western windows quite still watching it sink and then the afterglow. Always quite still some reason some time past this hour at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair with arm-rests. (Fizzle 7)

Occasionally we are greeted by a familiar turn of phrase. “That would surprise me” (Fizzle 4) is one of the Unnamable’s formulaic expressions; the exhortation to “leave it so all quite still” near the end of Fizzle 7 recalls a similar exhortation near the end of Imagination Dead Imagine: “ Leave them there, sweating and icy. . . .” And there is the familiar subject matter: the glint of sunset after a day of rain (Fizzle 7) that is described in Molloy and From an Abandoned Work; the mysterious visitor (Fizzle 2) who, like Gaber in Molloy, speaks after consulting his notes yet never reads directly from them; the inner self speaking of the outer self as a separate being, “he” (Fizzles 3 and 4), as in The Unnamable.

The rather low-grade pleasures of recognition are certainly not the only pleasures to be had from Fizzles. Not one of these pieces is utterly bereft of Beckett’s beauty and nobility of style; not one could have been written by another hand. Consider this passage, which ends Fizzle 6:

Ah to love your last and see them at theirs, the last minute loved ones, and be happy, why ah, uncalled for. No but now, now, simply stay still, standing before a window, one hand on the wall, the other clutching your shirt, and see the sky, a long gaze, but no, gasps and spasms, a childhood sea, other skies, another body.

Here everything is exactly right. The subject matter is typical of the later Beckett—the rush of involuntary memory and the regret it occasions for lost love and a wasted life. (Cf. the poem that begins “I would like my love to die,” Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe and so on.) The repeated “ah” in the first sentence supplies the emotional intensity appropriate to such a subject, while the punctuation (no exclamation points), the odd locution (“why ah”) and the wonderfully ironic phrase “the last minute loved ones” prevent this intensity from slopping over into sentimental rhapsody. In the second sentence, the repetition of the word “now,” the choice of “clutching” to show (without telling) the character’s extremity, the four phrases at the end, and the propriety of putting “another body” last, emphasizing that what is most to be regretted is not the change in the character’s circumstances but the change in the character himself—all these show a supreme stylist at work.

But then consider this, the passage that ends Fizzle 2:

So I have taken to getting up again and making a few steps in the room, holding on to the bars of the bed. What ruined me at bottom was athletics. With all that jumping and running when I was young, and even long after in the case of certain events, I wore out the machine before its time. My fortieth year had come and gone and I still throwing the javelin.

Instead of a cadence, a clunk. The passage is mildly amusing in its inversion of the notion that exercise keeps one young and energetic, and mildly instructive—the word “machine” fairly leaps out—for those still hunting Cartesian Centaurs. But it is not the way to end a piece of writing, It is merely a digression of the sort to which Molloy or the narrators of the Nouvelles are so given, cut off in the middle. The last sentence has no resonance, no complex of associations. Unlike the ending of Fizzle 6, it brings nothing together. The moving language of Fizzle 6 is more typical of the texture of Fizzles than the rather drab passage from Fizzle 2, But the unfinished nature of Fizzle 2 is also, regrettably, typical of these pieces. The days are long past when Beckett could make us lift our eyebrows by calling a piece From An Abandoned Work. These are all bits of abandoned works, apparently: Grove Press’s jacket copy (“the most remarkable ongoing literary exploration of our day”) speaks to our hopes, but Beckett’s title (he reportedly wanted to call the collection Shit) is far more accurate. The family resemblance is there all right (just look at those gull’s eyes), but these children are stillborn.

The sort of energy Beckett used to put into prose fiction now seems to be expressed in his drama. Since The Unnamable and How It Is, prose has become almost exclusively a meditative medium for Beckett. Narrative is increasingly the function not of prose but of drama. One effect of this is the sort of half-drama we have in the television play Eh Joe or the stage play Not I (first published in the First Love collection and now reprinted in Ends and Odds). In both these plays, stories or fragments of stories are told to an unspeaking listener, by a voice whose source is unseen in Eh Joe, and only an illuminated mouth in Not I. The most extreme example to date, and one of the most effective, is That Time, one of the three high points of Ends and Odds. (The others are Footfalls, about which more later, and Not I.) Three identical yet distinct voices talk, turn and turn about, out of the darkness at Listener, of whom we see only the illuminated face. The illuminated face in the dark is a minor motif in Beckett’s late work: see Fizzle 2, in which a character named Horn is ordered by the narrator to light his face with a flashlight, or Play, in which the characters are compelled to speak when a spotlight is trained on their faces. In both of these works, the light is unpleasant, intrusive, inquisitorial, reminding us of E’s pursuit of O in Film, and the television camera’s pursuit of Joe in Eh Joe. In That Time, the light that constantly illuminates Listener’s face is not obviously an instrument of torture as it is in Play, but its relentlessness is an apparent accompaniment to the threefold voice, which is the stream of the listener’s divided consciousness, babbling on at him in the second person without punctuation:

. . .did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now (eyes close) could you ever say I to yourself in your life. . . .

Listener’s smile, “toothless for preference,” with which the play ends, both welcomes the silence and anticipates the fading of the light.

In That Time, several Beckettian themes which usually appear in isolation are brought together—the self divided into perceiver and perceived (cf. The Unnamable), the “anguish of perceivedness’ (cf, Film— the phrase appears in Beckett’s introductory note to the original project), and the tormenting memory of a lost, or abjured, love:

or that time alone on your back in the sand and no vows to break the peace when was that an earlier time a later time before she came after she went or both before she came after she was gone and you back in the old scene wherever it might be might have been. . . .

But such subtle connections are better appreciated on the page than in the theater, Though That Time is moving on stage in Alan Schneider’s production, the very monotony of the play’s visual element can be distracting. Practical questions—how does he keep so still? what’s he standing on?—can keep us from attending to the words as we ought to do.

The very opposite problem occurs when we read Footfalls. While That Time is more successful on the page, Footfalls only comes to life in the theater. In production, this play (again, this is subjective personal testimony) is over-whelmingly powerful. Like That Time, it has complexities which we might think more appropriate to a work meant to be read than to be performed. The name of the main character, May, changes anagrammatically to Amy near the end, and the old convention of the play within a play is reduced to absurdity when both May and the unseen voice of her mother report dialogue within their dialogue:

Till one night, while still little more than a child, she called her mother and said, Mother, this is not enough. The mother: Not enough? May—the child’s given name—May: Not enough. The mother: What do you mean, May, not enough, what can you possibly mean, May, not enoughr May: I mean, mother, that I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.

But these niceties are immediately absorbed by the theater-goer: their pleasure, like the pleasure of those alliterating m’s and f’s, is immediate. Our recognition of these complexities in no way distracts us from the emotional experience of the play. Yet unless we read the speeches in Footfalls carefully and sympathetically, we are liable to miss their power because of Beckett’s fussy stage directions. To read a play requires more of the imagination than to read fiction: we cannot simply submit to the author’s vision, but we must stage the play in our heads. It is impressive to see an actress pace back and forth, nine paces by nine paces, But it is deadening to see Beckett’s diagram of how the movements must be executed. We cannot fault him for being explicit about how his play should look, yet purely as a reading experience, Footfalls presents certain difficulties,

In Ghost Trio, the fourth piece in the “Ends” section of the book (where Beckett has apparently placed those pieces he considers satisfactory, or at least finished), the difficulties become impossibilities. There is every chance that a tape of this television piece (the BBC has made one) would be worth seeing, but the average reader—and I mean the average Beckett reader—will probably find his patience exhausted before he is able to put together the diagram, the camera movements, the music cues and the speeches in his imagination. As for the “Odds,” unambitiously subtitled “Roughs for Theatre and Radio”—odd is the word, “Theatre I” with its abortive pseudocouple (a blind man and a cripple) vaguely resembles Endgame, and “Radio I” vaguely resembles Words and Music.” Theatre II” and “Radio II” resemble nothing on God’s earth. They come closest perhaps to early lonesco, and “Radio II” ends with what may be the lamest speech Beckett has ever put in the mouth of a character:

Don’t cry, Miss, dry your pretty eyes and smile at me, Tomorrow, who knows, we may be free,

The uneasiness that Beckett’s admirers must have experienced on hearing of the publication of Fizzles and Ends and Odds, then, is justified, though only in part. Not I, That Time, and Footfalls are surely equal to all but Beckett’s very best drama (that is, Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape), which means that they are remarkable indeed, But the rest of Ends and Odds, and most of Fizzles, is what most readers must have suspected, and what the apologetic titles indicate: very minor works by a very great writer. Beckett may now, for all we know, be at work on his masterpiece, some work that will equal or eclipse anything he has ever written, and leave us gasping again. But it seems doubtful. We are not likely to get another trilogy or another Godot, however much we may want one, and it is probably naive and even ungrateful to expect it. Whatever unpublished manuscripts Beckett may yet have on hand—and there are reputed to be trunks full of them—may only confirm, if and when we get to see them, what we already know: that of all great writers, Beckett is among the most uneven. Against the manifest grace and clarity of the trilogy, Godot, Endgame and the rest is the ungainliness and eccentricity of Mercier and Cornier or (excuse the heresy) Watt. The value of Fizzles and Ends and Odds (and whatever similar collections have been or may be published) is not so much intrinsic as contingent. These scraps from Beckett’s workshop expand our sense of the milieu from which the greater works came. And more importantly, the imperfections of these scraps help us realize with what difficulty and against what odds those greater works were achieved. Their apologetic publication is a typically selfless act of this most selfless of writers.


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