Tag Archives: Beckett

Harold Pinter – The Birthday Party (1957, performed 1958)

6 Characters – Petey, Meg, Stanley, Goldberg, McCann and Lulu – set in a boarding  house on a sea side town. petey and Meg are boarding Stanley. Goldberg and McCann come looking for Stanley, but we’re not sure why. Stanley can’t escape them. They throw a birthday party and, in the morning, they take Stanley (who has had a nervous breakdown of sorts) away in their big black car.

When the play opened, it got awful reviews, but it was recovered by a critic who put Pinter firmly in the tradition of Ibsen, Shaw and Beckett. “Mr Pinter has hold of something….We live on the verge of disaster,” not in the form of an atom bomb, but something so close to home it is ineffable. All characters, even the slogan-booming Goldberg is racked with fear and doubt:

I believe that the world…(vacant)
I belive that the world…(desperate)
I believe that the world ….(lost)

The lack of existential progression is counterpointed by an affective dimension that is constantly writhing to take up new positions to threats that cannot be assimilated or escaped. Stanley will sink into silence, and eventually laugh.

Goldman and McMann are straight out of Kafka and Beckett. Think of them as importing a Beckett play into a middle-class seaside town. We are haunted by Beckett plays. Their dialogue runs out of control, a sort of fractured stichomythia abrupting into the otherwise natural dialogue of Meg, Petey and Stanley.   

Martin Amis – Money (1981)

The novel is narrated by John Self, a American-British screen-writer/film-producer, as he self-destructs in the transatlantic flow of Hollywood money. In short, it ends up that the script he is working on, alternatively called Good Money and Bad Money, is the story in which he is playing a part; his friend Fielding Goodney turns out to be playing him all along; the movie doesn’t exist; he has signed tons of loans and debts, etc. In short, we are in a world of simulacra, with money itself standing in as ur-symbol of exchangeability.

“My head is a city, and various pains have now taken up residence in various parts of my face.” A curious endpoint to all that modernist angst about the individual in the urban. Amis turns turns the table: John Self exclaims, “I’m not allergic to the the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century” (89). The point here is that relationships to the world of consumer goods is no longer defined in terms of resistance and consumption, but only between different types of consumption. We are beyond the point where we can still define ourselves as autonomous creatures navigating an external world, but rather as creatures that have become characters in a world only partially of our making: Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. TV is real! some people think” (332)

Martin Amis notoriously appears as a character in the novel. In the tradition of Murphy, John Self and Martin Amis battle it out in a chess match at the end of the novel. Much like Lemuel at the end of Malone Dies, Amis asserts cool control over his character, eluding both his attacks, on and off the chess board. For winning, Amis requires one thing that Self has, but never says what: it become obvious that it is nothing less than his identity, his self-hood.

Interesting to put in dialogue with Philip Larkin’s poems: both the “The Importance of Elsewhere” and “High Windows.” The latter is more obvious: Amis takes the vulgarity of the opening lines and strains to make them lyrical; unlike Larking, who turns to Lyric and dramatizes its hollowness or inexpressively. In Amis, the “deep blue” air is marred with pollution. In the “Importance of Elsewhere,” Larkin comments on the ease with which one can defy national customs while traveling–in one’s own country, it is much harder to both gain objective stance and take the personal risk of resistance or critique. In Amis’ novel, the United States is a necessary elsewhere for defining the postmodern condition. Curious how this recapitulates earlier transatlantic anxieties as detailed by Alex Zwerdling in “Transatlantic Slinging Match.” In short: americans “use” the polis of Europe to produce Modernism, consolidating a “Europe” that subsumes any smaller differences. But in the post-modern these differences will again falir up, only to be subsumed again, one could argue, in the Blair-Bush years. And then we can move to McEwan writing about the 2003 Iraq war protest in Saturday.

Samuel Beckett – Malone Dies (1951)

Malone, who is naked in bed, tells the story of Sapo, a student that spends some of his time time around the Lamberts, a farming family. When Sapo grows up, Malone changes name to Macmann, finding Sapo ridiculous. Macmann falls over and is taken to St. John’s hospital. He is taken care of by Moll, an old woman with whom he makes love. Moll dies and is replaced by Lemuel. Lemuel supervises a group of inmates on a short excursion. He kills a couple of people, steals a boat, and the text closes with Macmann and others stranded in the water.


More barren than Molloy. All that sustains life, it seems, are stories and possessions (system of elimination and nutrition)–Malone delays his death (equivalent to both the wearing away of his pencil and the filling of his exercise book) through these distractions. Some lines to remember:

“What tedium” (a refrain repeated whenever Malone goes into the details of his own life)

“Nothing is more real than nothing” (Stevens-style, but needs to be related to the conflicted idealism of Jackson’s parrot. See next…)

“Nihil in intellectu” (without the famous restriction given by Aquinas, who argued that God could be proved by way of the senses)

“Groping” (if there is a verb that sums up the actions of the Trilogy, it is this one, cf. Adorno on the work of art’s essential “blindness”)

REST – death, sleep, rest become equivalent in Beckett subject. See Moran crawling, and also “passing from toil to rest in a single unbroken moment.”

“Life perhaps, the struggle to love, to eat, to escape the redressers of wrongs.” (the assumption being that guilt is inherent to human life)

“A few lines to remind me that I two subsist.” (Interesting dialogue could be staged between Browning and Beckett here: the relationship between artici creativity and life-sustaining activity…one is only alive in so far as they can represent their aliveness, or something like that)

“Two is company” (looking forward to later work, in which company is turned into a fiction, one that is unavoidable but inscrutable all at once. Can think of this whole novel as Beckett’s most rigorous attempt (so far) to delineate the bounds of the subject. But even then, the subject is not bound clearly.)

Samuel Beckett – Watt (1953)

In section 1, Watt replaces Arsene as a servant in Mr. Knott’s house. Arsene give a huge farewell speech that describes his time while in the employment of Mr. Knott. Along with Erskine, who covers the first floor duties, Knott begins working for Mr. Knott  (though, working on the ground floor, he never sees him), preparing a big pot of highly mediated food (87),maintaining the charitable relationship to the famished dog (including keeping other famished dogs in a Kennel),  etc. Most of the text focuses on the paradoxes of knowing–insignificant events trigger arbitrarily terminated series of repetition, such as the 12 ways Watt attempts explain Knott’s alimentary contentment.  “But in the first week Watt’s words had not yet begun to fail him, or Watt’s world to become unspeakable” (85). This looks forward to the next two chapters, but not before an extended description of the Lynch family, which maintains the kennel. They are one of the many impoverished families all around, all of them dysfunctional in some way (the twin sons are Con and Art). Later on, Murphy mysteriously breaks into Erskine’s room, where he finds  a broken bell and a painting. Watt eventually runs in Knott but they simply look at a worm in the ground for a while. The third chapter switches to a different narrator (Sam). Here we hear some of Watt’s tortured locutions: “Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the temple. To him I brought. This emptied heart. These emptied hands. This mind ignoring”, etc. We also get series of iterations spiraling out of control…as if the narrative has become subjected to mathematical functions intent on churning out every possible variation. Exhaustion begins to pervade the text. Chapter 4 recounts Watt’s journey to Mr. Knott’s house, thus screwing up the temporality of the novel. He watches a sunset. The final addenda includes scraps that were supposedly meant to be a part of the story, ending, famously, with “No symbols where none intended.”


In contrast to the many novels and poems that have their reference to grounding historical events, psychological trauma, and other transcendental signifiers, Watt seems to reverse this by giving us too much. Rather than sparseness of image, richness of symbol (however fractured), Beckett trivializes the idea of referentiality all together by taking the Signifier and twisting and contorting it until it longer functions. [Interesting in terms of the contrast between Freud and Lacan…the latter taking the Signified as that which produces something like the It…] The final line, “No symbols where none intended” takes on a certain ethical force; could be read as “No violence where none intended.” Thus the “over-production” of prepositions, participles, conjunctive combinations, etc subverts what would normally be thought of as literature’s productive, metaphoric function: the symbol.

A caged beast born of cages beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.

Such a formulation displays what it takes to make a simile work–and by showing this, the simile both functions and dysfunctions. Carrying language’s “possibility” to absurd extremes dramatizes language’s self-closure.

Also interesting is the epistemological limits set by the modes of transmission: Arsene tells Watt, Watt will someone else, and all of this will be relayed to this by way of Sam (the name of the author should not be missed, since Sam is always making excuses for his incomplete and imperfect portrayal of Watt):

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what i know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, and it should be know that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because some told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me. And Watt knew nothing, on this subject, but he was told, ot found for himself, in one way or another. (128)

In other words, when all the secrets out, the function of the secret is shown to be arbitrary, constructed, fabricated, unreal. The secret has secreted, taken on a form, and dissipated (cf. Deleuze, Henry James).


Samuel Beckett – Murphy (1938)

Murphy sits most of the day in his rocking chair, to which he ties himself, restricting his body in an attempt to free his brain. He is a student of Wylie, who has supposedly mastered the art of stopping his heart. Much of this novel will focus on the break down of this Manichaeism. He is romantically involved with Celia, who wants him to get a job. A troupe of minor characters are looking for him throughout the entire book, each with their own reason: romantic, financial, sinister, etc. Chapter six, which is constantly referred to beforehand and after, deals with intricacies of Murphy’s brain: quite simply, a paradoxical fantasy of solipsism that cancels itself out. Eventually Murphy gets a job at an insane asylum through his friend Ticklepenny. He is really good at his job because he can identify so well–too well–with the patients. However, before something goes awry–he loses a chess game to a madman (recounted in full detail)–which leads him to go to his room (resembling a cell), and rock his chair until he dissolves into “superfine chaos.” His remains are entrusted to the drunkard Cooper, who gets into a fight in a bar which leads to Myphy’s ashes being used as a soccer ball, before exploding and integrating with “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spit, the vomit.” The final scene shows Celia taking care of Mr. Kelly before the final refrain closes: All out.

The opening line: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.” The two sentence mirror one another, thus implicated language itself in the cycles of repetition and habit that structure our lives and determine our possibilities. The reference to Ecclesiastes performs that staleness of the reference. Yet this time–historical time–is offset by Murphy’s existential time, which runs deliberately counter to these objective structures. The fantasy of Murphy being able to establish his own time is held out throughout the novel until he is eventaully dissolved by the forward moving mill of the plot itself. He is metabolized by time.

The caress vs. the kick – Murphy delineates the demands of objective mediation–the violence of bringing the fantasy of the caress into the real world. The caress can never be anything but a kick.

Talk about the dissolution of the body in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

The heart – relate to Yeat’s portrayal of the heart (Innisfree, Circus Animal’s Desertion), and Ford’s “heart problem.”

Ann Banfield – Beckett’s Tattered Syntax (2004)

Beckett’s work accuses this compensatory wisdom of preventing “suffering…[from] open[ing] a window in the real (Proust, 28). But it is inly via conception of history, both personal and literary, that runs counter to the myth of progress–“in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation”–that all can “change utterly,” that an individual might escape the round of generation, that “the object of desire might be perceived as particular and unique and merely the member of a family” (proust, 22), that art can find a language to say something new…Beckett’s linguistic crisis is hence one of the mother tongue. (7)

Here we are returned to the theme f generation. Beckett pares down the reproductive organs  over and again to the digestive processes of the most primitive and rudimentary  organism, ‘‘Worm’’; generation is ‘‘a question of elimination’’ (Unnamable, 365).  The model is a conduit with an aperture—mouth, ear, eye, or the hole Molloy’s  ‘‘muse’’ makes him mention—at either end, for the entrance or exit of substances:  variously air, liquid, or solid. Moreover, there is no difference between entrance and  exit. This gives ‘‘the anatomy the geometry’’ of  How It Is (55), where the series of individuals in the mud are linked by ‘‘contact of mouth and ear’’ (140). Engender- ing is ‘‘pumping one’s likes,’’ the infinite series of‘ ‘brotherly likes,’’ Murphy, Molloy,  Malone, Mercier and Camier, Pim, Pam, Bem, Bom, Kram, Krim, Skom, Skum: ‘‘We are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts  till one wonders…if we shall not end…by being shat into the open air’’ (How It Is, 124). (9)

This same model produces language similarly via the conduit, speakers ‘‘launching their voices, through the hole, there must be a hole for the voices too’’ (Unnamable, 359). ‘‘Two holes and me in the middle, slightly choked. Or a single  one, entrance and exit, where the words swarm and jostle like ants.’ ’Words ‘‘keep pouring out of my mouth,’’ the Unnamable says, ‘‘dribbling,’’ or, alternatively,  ‘‘ramming a set of words down your gullet,’’ you are ‘‘branded as belonging to their breed’’ (Unnamable, 310,324). (9)

We can hypothesize that the minimalism of Beckett’s late style is a result of an attempt to create an art made largely out of syntacticon, while scarcely exploiting the dictionary–forming what Beckett calls “tattered syntaxes” or “syntaxes up ended.” (17)

For it is the proper name that fails first. Only a language weaned of such productive categories, like that of Swift’s Struldburgs, can “back unsay” and write the elegy for the lost mother tongue in a pure grammar, accomplishing the revolution of the syntax. It produces a work of memory in which the series of fathers and mothers is replaced by a losswards history. (23)