Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Notes on Early Beckett and Waiting for Godot

[The following is condensed from two posts begun last year, closer to when I actually read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Watt, and Mercier and Camier. I think I had larger purposes in mind when I began the posts, but was unable to find the time to do anything further with them. I'm posting it here in part because they seem related to my recent entries. The words have been modified and updated for clarity, though it necessarily remains more scattershot and unfinished than I would like.]

Imagining Samuel Beckett to be a particularly difficult writer, I'd long delayed my reading of him. Then a couple of years ago, I eagerly snapped up a used copy of A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett by Hugh Kenner. I expected I would begin reading Beckett soon and wanted some company. I began at the beginning, with Murphy. I always like to begin at the beginning, when I can. Beckett at this time may have still been in thrall to Joyce's influence, as I've seen said a few places, but I enjoyed the novel. I love its famous opening line: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Like I said, I love the line, though I can see what might be overly precious about it, overly poetic. In any event, I found Murphy by turns hilarious and bewildering. Part of my bewilderment, I'm sure, stemmed from my unconscious insistence that the world of the book conform to the world outside the book. Beckett will have none of this. Here is Kenner on this point:
A novel, in short, is a novel, not a map of the familiar world, and Beckett's novels differ from most in the consistency of their insistence upon this principle. If God wrote the script of the familiar world, he laid down also the principles that govern in it the possible and the impossible. Beckett's covert suggestion appears to be that these principles are as arbitrary as the rules of chess, which likewise state what is possible and impossible.
"Arbitrary": this word jumps out at me these days, very likely because of the influence of Gabriel Josipovici (other words jumping out at me lately: "certainty"; "trust"; "tradition"; "faith").

Again Kenner: "Clearly the author of Murphy had insufficient faith in 'the novel' to return to that form with any ambition of improving his management of it."

I think it was my bewilderment with parts of Murphy that held me back, along with what I still perceived as Beckett's "difficulty". But, more than a year after reading Murphy, in the wake of reading Josipovici's On Trust, I decided it was time to get on with reading Beckett. So, I decided to read Kenner's book from the beginning. I'd noticed that the first chapter is about Waiting for Godot. Finally reading the introduction in full, I learned why:
. . . Beckett was a long time finding his way, and beginning at the beginning is a mistake. To make anything at all of his earlier work one needs to sense the quality of his mature imaginings. Fortunately, there is a sanctioned place to begin. Nearly everyone encounters Beckett through Waiting for Godot, so my commentary does the same.
Ok, so beginning at the beginning is a mistake. I can see that. If a writer took a while to get going, his or her early work could put a reader off from tackling the good stuff. Fortunately, Murphy is entertaining enough, though it's evident that it wasn't quite what Beckett was about. So, on Kenner's advice, I read Waiting for Godot. As ever, it's strange reading a play. We forget to remember that the words are meant to be performed on a stage. The temptation to read the words too quickly is strong. And reading the actor instructions is not the same as seeing an actor following them (assuming the actor manages to follow them correctly). And the play is so famous that the temptation to look for significance is strong. Yet Kenner compares the play's Vladimir and Estragon to Laurel & Hardy, which seems to undercut that temptation. Though he also notes the similarity of the play's setting to occupied France under the Germans, the waiting in the play to that waiting that must have been endured by Resistance operatives:
Here is perhaps the playwright's most remarkable feat. There existed, throughout a whole country for five years, a literal situation that corresponded point by point with the situation in this play, and was so far from special that millions of lives were saturated in its desperate reagents, and no spectator ever thinks of it. Instead the play is ascribed to one man’s gloomy view of life, which is like crediting him with having invented a good deal of modern history.
He is not, of course, suggesting the play is about the Resistance. In fact, he specifically argues against the tendency to make it be about anything larger than what it is: a play, that is, about waiting.

Readers of this blog may have noticed that for months now I've quoted a line from Waiting for Godot at the top of the blog: "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?" It's the kind of line that, taken out of context, seems to say something about our complicity in the world, especially the complicity of those of us living relatively well, while others suffer. I say this, knowing that it's perhaps not right to quote such a line from this play in this way, and yet the line appeals to me, speaks to me, so I take it and use it for my own purposes.

Incidentally, the short novel Mercier and Camier, which I also read last year, and which was written in French in 1946, soon after Watt, but not published until 1970, very much seems to me to be a rough draft of sorts for Waiting for Godot. You have the same sort of Laurel & Hardy-ish banter, this time in service not of waiting, but of planning a sort of journey, that never quite comes off.

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