Yesterday evening I came close to finishing my current read, Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley. It’s a wonderfully polemical book about Brutalist and Modernist architecture. It’s opinionated and passionate and full of little asides which are often as provocative as the main arguments. It’s a surprising amount of fun to read.
Anyway, I’ll be reviewing that soon, but in the meantime I came across this quote which I thought some of the Beckett fans who follow this blog might enjoy. It’s from a chapter where he’s debating the merits of Brecht and Beckett:
Really, Brecht has so little going for him here it’s almost comic: Marxist, German, Hegelian, his innovations rummed up as either the rather grand sounding ‘Epic Theatre’ or theorised in impossibly Teutonic terms as the ‘Verfremdungseffekt‘ which is seemingly designed to be oppressive: whether you translate it as ‘alienation’ or ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement’, it isn’t a phrase that promises a whole load of fun. But what is so frustrating about this is that it simply doesn’t square with any of what Beckett or Brecht actually wrote. Beckett’s Late Review devotees seem to have an idea of him as some sort of amalgam of Zeno the Stoic and Father Ted, yet one can’t imagine Tom Paulin or Bonnie Greer relishing being assaulted by the panic attack of Not I or wading through the thick impenetrable tangle of repetition and horror of How it Is. Beckett is not fun. For all his virtues, he is a supremely difficult writer, almost all of his mature works extremely forbidding: one might extract a quote or two from Worstward Ho, but few try reading the bastard thing. To be crass, people think they would like Beckett but wouldn’t, and think they wouldn’t like Brecht – but they would.
I don’t know Brecht enough to comment on the accuracy of how he’s perceived (which perhaps supports Hatherley’s point), but I do know Late Review and I absolutely sympathise with Hatherley’s attack on that. Depressingly, it’s probably the best arts programme on British tv. It’s sandwiched in after general news, full of middlebrow emphasis on culture as phatic diversion rather than something which challenges or disturbs. It’s not that I think Late Review should aim to challenge, it is what it is, but it’s a great shame there’s nothing on television that does.
It is strange too how Beckett has become a rather cuddly figure in British culture. I admit so far I’ve only read one book (Murphy) and seen one play (Waiting for Godot), but he doesn’t seem the grand old man he’s depicted as. He seems stranger than that, more troubling. Perhaps though making him cosy is just the easiest way to ignore what he was actually saying. Beckett becomes, like Joyce, a Guevaran figure fit who can safely be referenced as an image but whose actual work is ignored for its failure to fit a convenient narrative.