Category Archives: Beckett, Samuel

Beckett is not fun. Owen Hatherley on Brecht and Beckett

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.


Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Hatherley, Owen

It was like difficult music heard for the first time.

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

Murphy has one of the most arresting opening sentences I’ve read.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I’ve barely started the book and already there’s a sense of futility, of inevitability. It’s a jarring sentence, both in terms of content and structure. It left me immediately unsettled.

What follows is no more comforting. Here’s the entire first paragraph of Murphy:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

Already Beckett is ignoring many of the customary rules of fiction. The paragraph is deeply repetitive. It takes a fairly long time to tell us very little in terms of solid information. Murphy lives in West Brompton in a condemned mews in a residential area. Shortly he will have to move. That’s it. You could pull out a little more, but in terms of bare fact there’s not a lot more to say.

Dig a little deeper though and there’s something more interesting. There is the phrase “Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free”. What does that mean? Is he not free? Is there something special in how he sits? When Murphy sits “out of it” is that just out of the sun or out of it in some wider sense?

Murphy lives “in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” The only distinction between one set of cages and another is Murphy’s presence in one and in the differing aspects. But who cares what aspects they have? As a reader what use is knowing an aspect?

Then too there is the sense of routine which is created by the words “eaten, drunk, slept and put his clothes on and off”. It’s a routine that’s shortly to be transplanted to “quite alien surroundings.” If though this mews is so indistinguishable from its surroundings what does it matter if Murphy is transplanted?

So many questions from just one paragraph. The book’s barely begun.

The story here is both notional and absurd. Murphy is an Irishman living in London. He is attractive to women, though there’s no reason he should be. He and various other characters pursue each other and are pursued while holding conversations of quite remarkable irreality. Incidents may make sense in isolation, but in combination give rise to a plot which is both simple and yet hard to follow. The characters are barely distinguishable and make no attempt at credibility.

Beckett delights in language. He delights too in playing with the reader. Early on Murphy is on his own, tied hand and foot to a rocking chair. He tied himself to it, naked, and he enjoys sitting and rocking until his mind becomes quite separated from his body.

If Murphy is tied hand and foot though, and tied himself, how did he tie his last hand? He couldn’t have. Someone else must have. But nobody else is present.

Of course that’s not true. Someone else is present. Two people in fact. Beckett and me. If Murphy’s hand is tied and he couldn’t have done it and I didn’t do it logically Beckett must have done it. The author is within the book, not explicitly but necessarily.

There wasn’t a page in Murphy that didn’t contain words I didn’t know. Most books don’t have any words I don’t know. I’m a lawyer. Words are my business. Here many were deeply obscure, but I came to realise some were also just plain made up. I could stop every few sentences and research what something meant, or I could just go with the flow and accept that the language would stream around me part understood and part bearing an implied meaning from context. Sometimes the meaning, if it existed, would be (was) wholly unclear.

So then, thin characters, a flimsy plot, frequently opaque language, events that couldn’t happen as described, it’s no surprise Beckett’s not topping the bestseller lists. The traditional novel is essentially realist, and this decidedly isn’t.

What it is though is well written. Beckett apparently did better later, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. By way of example, in one passage a woman runs out on to the street having discovered a violent suicide. Beckett reflects: “Her mind was so collected that she saw clearly the impropriety of letting it appear so.”

That’s tremendously astute and for me very funny. It’s absurd that it should matter how one reacts, that one should think of such a thing at all when someone has just died. As Meursault finds out in The Stranger though how one reacts to a death can be very important indeed.

As jokes go it’s a particularly tragic one. Beckett has a vicious sense of humour. It’s not so much that he’s cruel (though at times he does tip over into cruelty) as that existence is cruel and he’s laughing at it or at us (or both) and so the laughs become uncomfortable.

Murphy is full of humour. In fact that’s mostly what makes it ultimately enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s mordant (I do love that word) observations such as in the quote above. Other times the comedy is less straightforward. I found the following paragraph again extremely funny, but I’ve read Plato. If I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d have got the joke:

Thus Murphy felt himself spit in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common. But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected nor how the two experiences came to overlap. He was satisfied that neither followed from the other. He neither thought a kick because he felt one nor felt a kick because he thought one. Perhaps the knowledge was related to the fact of the kick as two magnitudes to a third. Perhaps there was, outside space and time, a non-mental non-physical kick from all eternity, dimly revealed to Murphy in its correlated modes of consciousness and extension, the kick in intellectu and the kick in re. But where was the supreme caress?

Later there is a reference to the “beatific idols of [Murphy’s] cave”, underlining the Platonic motif. Descartes is another frequent reference point here with his famed mind-body duality (which it’s fair to say Beckett here seems unpersuaded by). I’ve read too that Spinoza is referenced, but I’ve not read Spinoza so can’t speak to that.

I’m going to digress for a moment. Murphy is a book containing an awful lot of references. I got the ones to Plato and Descartes, I didn’t get the ones to Spinoza (if they’re there). I’ve no doubt there were some I didn’t even realise I wasn’t getting.

That’s obvious here, but it’s potentially true of any book. Apparently Lee Rourke’s The Canal on some views has references in it to Leda and the Swan. If you read my review you won’t find any mention of that – I didn’t notice them. So it goes. I like to see the currents beneath a book’s surface, but I have to accept I won’t always do so. That’s not a problem. It’s a good thing. If we saw everything what room would there be for rereading? For later consideration?

Beckett plays then with language, with propriety and with philosophy. He plays too with his own role as author and with the reader’s as reader:

Miss Counihan sat on Wylie’s knees, not in Wynn’s hotel lest an action for libel should lie, and oyster kisses passed between them. Wylie did not often kiss, but when he did it was a serious matter. He was not one of those lugubrious persons who insist on removing the clapper from the bell of passion. A kiss from Wylie was like a breve tied, in a long slow amorous phrase, over bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers. Miss Counihan had never enjoyed anything quite so much as this slowmotion osmosis of love’s spittle.
The above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader.

That last sentence breaks out of the fiction. The book becomes curiously self-aware. It recognises its own artificiality. It blocks the possibility of escape into the text because as reader you cannot pass through the text into the story. Even if you could get past the tied breve (no idea) and the bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers (seriously, no idea) that final sentence makes it quite apparent that none of this is real.

I wouldn’t call Murphy an easy read. I had to think about each paragraph, often each sentence. I had to pause to consider what words meant, or might mean here. Beckett uses intentional misspellings, created vocabulary, motives so alien as to be near horrific (Murphy becomes an attendant in an insane asylum and dreams of one day himself becoming a catatonic).

At times in fact Beckett rather overdoes all this. One conversation between three characters goes on for several pages (several too many) with everything almost making sense but none of it ever quite doing so (except apparently to them, but they don’t exist and the sense they make of nonsense underlines their impossibility). Pynchon pulls that sort of thing off well. I wasn’t wholly sure Beckett did. Often the book is a delight, but occasionally one has to eat some linguistic Brussels sprouts to get to the playful literary chocolate mousse.

As the novel continues Murphy seeks to separate the mental and the physical. To retreat from the shared world into his own internal world. There is though no lasting retreat possible. If you’ve seen Waiting for Godot you know the territory. There is literally nothing to wait for. There is literally nowhere to escape to.

I said above that I understand Beckett went on to write better books. Here there is still some recognisable version of our world. There are hospitals, cafes, parks. Beckett is at his best though when playing with language and thought alone. None of his characters are, or are intended to be, sympathetic but that doesn’t excuse his rather doubtful (distasteful even) observations on, and portrayals of, women. If Murphy were to be improved it would be by less contact with Beckett’s external reality. Ironically it is when it attempts to show our world that it is least convincing.

Murphy as a character is in a sense engaged in a quest for meaning, for self-realisation even. The problem is that there is no meaning to be found. The mind is not in fact separate from the body. The world of forms does not exist. There is nothing to be realised.

Murphy the book struggles to break free from the inherent constraints of its own form (as Murphy the character tries to break free from his). The author’s invisible hand implied in tying Murphy to the chair, the asides direct to the reader, the made-up words, all of it acts to tear the novel down from within. Perhaps the last joke of Murphy though is on Beckett.

Murphy tries to undermine its own authority as a text, but ultimately it can’t do so because it relies on that very authority to make the attempt. Perhaps in the end Murphy says too much to be able to talk about nothing. Godot says less, and so more.


Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Irish fiction, Modernist fiction