Sunday, July 3, 2011

Christopher Murray's "Samuel Beckett: 100 Years": Book Review

Thirteen scholars revisit his work. They each have 29 minutes on Irish radio. They sum up why we still read his often baffling fiction and watch his sometimes plotless plays a century after his birth.

Drama professors Christopher Murray, Anthony Roche, Gerry Dukes, J.C.C. Mays, Katherine Worth, and Declan Kiberd represent leading scholars. Historian Terence Brown, actress Rosemary Pountney, actor Barry McGovern, philosophers Dermot Moran and Richard Kearney, and novelist John Banville offer equally elegant entries. None of these are weak; despite the time constraints and implicit expectation that the listener's already familiar with Beckett's formidable work, the essays avoid cant, jargon, or tedium.

I'll briefly sum up each contribution. Murray introduces the collected Thomas Davis RTÉ lectures by emphasizing Beckett's notion "never less alone than when we are alone." (7) His anti-heroes "aim for Nirvana and miss." (3) They're captivated by the captive voices we all have within, the consciousness which never rests, which "is really conscience in disguise."

Dukes explores the early, unpublished play "Eleutheria" alongside "Waiting for Godot" to attend to the evolution of Beckett's most famous work. "En attendant Godot." Dukes notes how 'attentistes' as those who (in French) wait had been used during the Resistance in WWII as a put down for those who (unlike Beckett), put up with the Occupation rather than fight against it. Beckett chose to act, to resist authoritarianism, at great risk.

His characters attempt to understand life's cruelty. Kiberd finds in "Murphy" a protagonist enamored by The Other, in an insane asylum, but in this relationship, he fails to escape his own mental and physical isolation. The novel attempts to delay such reckoning, and as an aside, Kiberd finds in a convoluted sentence a delay shared "with many Irish politicians" Wylie's "ability to rob his own sentences of the meaningful climax of a finite verb." (38)

Later, Kiberd looks at Murphy's relationship with the prostitute Celia: "He fears, like many men, that his partner wants to change the very thing in him with which she originally fell in love." (42) Beckett's often unfairly targeted by casual readers for his inhumanity, but as this theme reveals in this early tragicomic novel, beneath the odd learning and puzzling jibes, the ideal of emptiness, of utter self-sufficiency, beckons as its moral and its caution.

Both Mays (on poetry and prose poems) and Moran (on philosophical contexts) quote the same early verse, "Gnome," and who can blame repetition of: "Spend the years of learning squandering/Courage for the years of wandering/Through a world politely turning/From the loutishness of learning." Beckett's cutting of what his mentor Joyce compiled, his gradual whittling away in his prose and drama of easy resolutions, thematic digressions, and plots themselves, makes him astonishingly central to the past century's confrontation with our legacy of learning.

Anthony Cronin, in a magisterial lecture on the prose trilogy, speaks of how Beckett "by reducing his characters to the extremer simplicities of need and satisfaction and the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions."(88) "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable" strip away narrators and leave us with voices. But, how can we relate to such severity?

Cronin-- whose masterful biography "Beckett: The Last Modernist" (reviewed by me on Amazon US) remains my favorite of the three lives to date for Beckett-- concludes that he exaggerates to make his comic, tragic point. Heroes and lyrics fade, and poetry leaves empty air.
"Deep in our collective soul is a collective unease about the contrast between the traditional ecstasies, nobilities and romantic passions of literature and what most of us actually feel, the state of mind in which most of us actually live most of the time. And indeed between our portraits of our supposed selves as decent, kind, caring and unselfish and what is actually our psychology, actually our outlook. In its exposure of these gaps, Beckett's trilogy has a profoundly cathartic effect." (91) It may not say all that must be said, but what it says may liberate us from pretension.

Other academics share Cronin's careful estimation of Beckett's difficulty. Anthony Roche tells how he saw "Breath" as a teen on tv, and how its strangeness contrasted with the enjoyment of seeing "Godot" on stage. He later connects talking on RTÉ about the intriguingly titled "Krapp's Last Tape" the afternoon he learned of the 9/11 attacks. Somehow even the emotions buried in that play managed to inform Professor Roche's review on the air that day.

Beckett's power can unsettle. Rosemary Pountrey describes her own stage performance of "Not I," requiring her to be bound into a dark box. Richard Kearney compares his student reactions to Beckett as a "pompous bore" with his encounters with the plays performed live. Barry McGovern as a skilled speaker of Beckett's lines shows their energy in his plays for radio. Katherine Worth reminds us of their global impact, and the battle between the estate which demands fidelity to Beckett's directions with those who wish to free his drama for interpretation to keep it relevant.

John Banville, whose novels combine often hints of Joycean abundance and Beckettian austerity, can be as serious and unstinting as Beckett. But Banville sees humor within our habitual unhappiness, and so does Beckett. He's not a pessimist any more than an optimist, Banville decides after pondering his work: "like all true art, it simply is." (127) He adds, in a fashion Beckett would have admired: "By its very existence it affirms, but affirmation is not always positive."

Kearney stresses "Beckett's own refusal of easy solutions to life's ultimate questions-- life and death, theism and atheism, meaning and absurdity, self and other" as "one of his most abiding gifts." (121) The more I reflect on him, the more Buddhist (a term I have not found mentioned explicitly in his 1929-40 letters or any of his texts published [but see my speculations]) he seems. Perhaps by his honest elision of what constitutes the conscience, the voice, the mind, the self, Beckett in his passing over any conceptual definition or conventional approach (such as Buddhism, appropriately) proves truest to those few authors who attempt to articulate what noise and what silence lies within us all.

P.S. Posted to Amazon US & Britain, and 9-16-10 But without those hyperlinked speculations to their source, my "Beckett, Buddhism, and the Void" from Horizon Review 4 (2010).

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