Reflections on Beckett
By Eimear McBride (Inaugural Creative Fellow, 2017-2018)
I have the good fortune to be in receipt of the inaugural Creative Fellowship at the University of Reading’s Beckett Research Centre. From now until the summer I’ll be haunting their reading room and ordering as much material by, and about, Beckett from their archive as I can possibly read –
having already cast an eye over the fascinating ‘German Diaries’ and seen Beckett’s handwriting up close, it’s fair to say the reading itself may prove something of a challenge. The aim is that, by the end of the fellowship, I will have written a new work inspired by something I’ve come across in the archive.
The remit is entirely open, which sounds wonderful and is. However, Beckett’s is a huge and extraordinary body of work and he lived such an extraordinary life. Both have influenced, and generated, such vast arrays of artistic, academic and critical response that – when combined with the inevitable desire to spend every moment just staring at the original manuscript of Murphy – my task becomes very daunting indeed. For example: in the first half hour of my very first visit I discovered that Beckett’s personal library contained the fantastically pulpy The Wayward Wench. Rather than having unearthed a hitherto unknown branch of his reading, though, it seems more likely I’d stumbled upon a personal gift from its author, the redoubtable sounding Miss Beamish, a probable lesbian, certainly Irish middle-aged romance novelist, who befriended him while he was hiding out from the Nazis during the war. But, if I were so inclined, there’d be a novel’s worth of material in that meeting alone.
So, the question is: where to begin?
It was pretty cold when I visited the archive in December and, in rebellion at the pummellings of pre-Christmas cheer, I ordered up some drafts of Beckett’s final prose work 'Stirrings Still'. I was intrigued by the description in James Knowlson’s biography of the physical frailty evident in Beckett’s handwriting as he worked on it in the last years of his life.
While much romance is attached to the notion of ‘living fast and dying young’, I find the idea of the artist who has survived into old age, embarking on what they must suspect will be their final work, indescribably moving. That Beckett probably knew, with ‘Stirrings Still’, he would be setting down the burden of his lifelong struggle with words, is almost unbearable. So then to witness how, even at this late/last stage, he was still completely engaged in that struggle, is extraordinary, inspiring.
His penmanship has indeed become spidery and fragile but his insistence on his customary, methodically honed perfection remains unforgiving. He moves back and forth between English and French until the correct language has become apparent and then follows draft upon meticulously corrected draft until he is satisfied. His final ‘Oh all to end’ manages to, at once, encapsulate the preoccupations of his entire literary life and provide a flawless sign-off to it.
Of all I’ve read in my life, and all that’s yet to come, what’s going to count? How much of it has changed me? How much has even marked me? How much has done both but I don’t know it yet? Readers get to make these discoveries in the privacy of their own heads. Writers must make them in public and then wear them in their back catalogues for as long as they have a readership who cares.
The other week I sat reading a draft of one of Beckett’s earliest attempts at drama, ‘Human Wishes’. It's about the relationship between Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, and it's hard to believe it’s by the same writer who would one day come up with Godot or Mouth or Krapp.
It’s similarly intriguing to see how apparent ‘Dubliners’ is in More Pricks than Kicks, while Beckett’s own Malone is still nowhere to be seen. By the time he gets to ‘The Unnamable’ Beckett seems to me to have reached the distillation of his own voice. And yet, in later years, he claimed to be unable to recognise himself as its author anymore. Happily for the reader, that’s neither here nor there. As a writer, though, and one with the opportunity to look at how much work went into everything Beckett set himself to, that’s quite depressing.
I hit a bit of a Beckett wall this month and came to understand why he is often called The Last Modernist – a view I have hitherto opposed. After a while, the profound pessimism of his world view becomes quite hard to get around and even to see beyond.
As a writer, my own preoccupations are almost as far from Beckett’s as it’s possible to be. I’m interested in the connections between people and within people. How the past interferes with the present and what we do to ourselves to survive it. Beckett’s isolation in time and space leaves me at something of a loss.
And yet I kind of disbelieve him too.
There are such warm glimmers of an intense relationship to life outside the given moment that I occasionally wonder if he allowed his intellect to talk himself into a corner, and this was why he stopped writing novels. Certainly, there doesn’t appear to be any logical, formal progression possible from The Unnamable, without the kind of radical shift in perspective that he was unwilling or unable to make. Instead, he chose a particularly brutal form of self-restraint. It’s fascinating to watch the ever decreasing circles of his view as it gradually switches the oxygen off. I find myself admiring the result, but wondering about the cost.
There is a perceived impossibility to writing after Beckett. When everything has been winnowed away, what can possibly be left?
And yet life is left.
At the end of 'What is the Word' we did not all disappear in a cataclysmic puff of smoke. Art is left. Paintings have been made, books written, sonatas composed. And, of course, Beckett is left. To be re-evaluated, re-interpreted, sanctified, vilified and all the -eds and -ieds that are applied to any artist worth their salt, eventually.
So, impossibility is not an option or even a reality. Nor, it seems to me, was it ever the point. However, there is a lumpen strain of criticism which demands that an influence may not be mentioned without the mentioner immediately having their work laid out against the stated influence, measured for linguistic similarities, alignments of world view, even comparable formal experiments and, traditionally, be found wanting. This is the monster in Beckett’s legacy, not Beckett and not his work.
Influence is the unquantifiable, often unverifiable, benefaction of art. No writer, no matter how scrupulous, can control how their work is read, interpreted or absorbed into the imagination. For the assumption, therefore, to be that naming Beckett an influence is an attempt to stake a claim on his territory in precisely the same way he did, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how literary influence operates. It has become a notion so pernicious, and deleterious to the creation of new work, that it deserves to be slain.
Beckett does not cover all life, everywhere. He does not write towards the universal - and, indeed, any writer’s attempts to do so invariably result in generalised mush. Rather, it is by working assiduously within his own philosophic, linguistic and formal boundaries that his great universality is achieved. Neither Beckett, nor his work, forbid or negate alternative approaches to the concerns he spent his writing life grappling with. He does not pull the ladder up after himself. It is merely a didactic and, alas, influential strand of literary and academic criticism that insists all writers coming after have no right to climb.
Last month the moment I’d been putting off finally arrived and it was time to write.
How is it that the blank page upon which something influenced by time spent in Beckett’s archive is to be written, seems even more horrifyingly blank than usual?
At any rate, after some suffering, much cursing and endless deleting, three short pieces emerged: two performance and one prose/performance. Not plays, definitely not plays, but also not stories, or not in the usual sense. I can’t pin them to a single work of Beckett’s, but an influential contender is certainly, almost inevitably, Not I. However, only in so far as this is where Beckett cleared space for the female voice, unhindered by psychology, sociology, physicality or even history to surge through.
So, in line with my evolving practice of appropriating what I admire in other writers’ work - Sarah Kane’s unapologetic confrontationalism for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Dostoyevsky’s epic, tragic monologues for The Lesser Bohemians - this is what I stole from Beckett: the stripping away of all justification to reveal a deeper truth. I hope the pieces will succeed on their own terms, of course, but if not, we all know what the man himself has to say about that.