Friday, May 29, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Watt": Book Review

Longer than but at a faster pace than "Murphy" if not the prose trilogy that followed, this dismantled novel written during WWII in France by its underground author features less slapstick, more repetition, and lots of nothingness. Produced under stress, "Watt" reveals the ineffable beauty glimpsed amidst the mundane despair and enduring horror of never belonging, never knowing where or why we are here. It's a brisk read, perhaps since there's so much repeated!

Such an element starts to work on you like a mantra, or a dentist's drill's rhythm. It nags at you. Knott's "shadow of purpose" stalks Watt, and those who precede and follow him in serving this man on his surreal estate. There's in this verbose, plangent, picky prose a few glimpses of poignant loveliness mixed with the characteristically wry bitterness:
"for here we all seem to end by being good-natured men, and of good will, and indulgent towards the dreams of middle age, which were our dreams, whatever may escape us now and then in the way of bitter and I blush to say even blasphemous words and expressions, and perhaps also because what we know partakes in no small measure of the nature of what has so happily been called the unutterable or ineffable, so than any attempt to utter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail." (62)
If you see humor as well as heartbreak in this, it's a quick glance, as most of the work carries the increasingly hefty weight of later Beckett drama and prose. You snatch what you can amidst the squalor. "To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is something, perhaps something." (163) Aging draws us away from even these passing comforts towards acknowledgment of their fleeting, spare joys. "To think, when one is no longer young, when one is not yet old, that one is no longer young, that one is not yet old, that is perhaps something." (201)

I found this a tougher time than "Murphy" (reviewed by me earlier this week on the blog and on Amazon US) which by comparison seems rollicking. "Watt" takes us into the circle, the pot, the dog, the Lynch retainers: the familiar upended, tipping us into the existential abyss. It's a heady book, in every sense, for its nonsense reminds us of our tethered mind, trapped in the senses. Out of such circular reasoning, "Watt" begins to make sense, literally. There's such a surfeit of description and rehearsal and routine that the novel deadens from such detail, and in this rigorous mortification it stiffens into a long shout against alienation.

I'm not sure where Arsene's duck came from, I lack the ability to fill in the question marks that break the narrative, and I share the estrangement Knott and Watt both possess, claiming they need little to nothing, but still demanding that Knott "needed to be witnessed" even when "needing nothing if not, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, of himself knew nothing." (202-3) Out of such knots and whats, the tale tangles itself and you with it. It's up to you to take the challenge, for "Watt" will prepare you for the heights of the prose trilogy, the "dramaticules," and the chilling atmosphere of the later prose pieces as well as the plays. (Posted to Amazon US 5-28-2009.)

P.S. "mcap" in 1998 posted at Amazon US this insight:
"Written while Beckett was active in the French Resistance during WWII, often while in hiding or on the run and always at night, the peculiarly drawn out trivialities of the life of the servant Watt become zen reflections on a life that cannot be lived with introspection, for that might yield the madness that is for this reader suggested by the seeming (if shadowy and vague) incarceration of Watt and Sam the narrator."
Critics, amateurs as we all are on the Net and Amazon at least, appear convinced this novel's considerably tough going, perhaps less so than the rigors of the prose trilogy after the war and the comparatively light-hearted (for Beckett!) "Murphy" (also reviewed by me) before it. This novel's regarded as the bridge between his younger attempts to find his own voice to match his mind, and his later success in doing so.

The editorial condition of the work, as I mentioned in the review I posted above to Amazon, needs to be recognized; the novel's full of errors in every separate printing, and as with apparently most of Beckett's oeuvre, problems remained that increase our confusion with already formidably complicated texts. The almost instantly out-of-print (why?) Grove Centenary tetralogy boxset gave a handsomely bound Collected Works, apparently correcting the many slips between British Calder and American Grove printings.

Robert Bezimienny's 2001 Amazon review offers this stunning quote as his favorite.
'But our particular friends were the rats, that dwelt by the stream. They were long and black. We brought them such titbits from our ordinary as rinds of cheese, and morsels of gristle, and we brought them also birds' eggs, and frogs, and fledgelings. Sensible of these attentions, they would come flocking round us at our approach, with every sign of confidence and affection, and glide up our trouser-legs, and hang upon our breasts. And then we would sit down in the midst of them, and give them to eat, out of our hands, of a nice fat frog, or a baby thrush. Or seizing suddenly a plump young rat, resting in our bosom after its repast, we would feed it to its mother, or its father, or its brother, or its sister, or to some less fortunate relative. It was on these occasions, we agreed, after an exchange of views, that we came nearest to God.' Part III, paragraphs 15 & 16.

1 comment:

Tony Bailie said...

My favourite passage from Watt is the one starting:

And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and mother’s and my mother’s mother and my father’s father… etc
An excrement. The crocuses and and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep’s placentas. And the long summer days and the newmown hay and the wood pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo in the afternoon and corncrake in the evening and the wasp in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others… howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling The Roses Are Blooming in Picardy…