Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bullying the Reader

My last post reminded me of the final paragraph from Hugh Kenner's chapter on Watt, in his A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett. But before I present that, let me give some background. In the chapter, Kenner is discussing the uncertainty of the narrative of Watt, its "provisional" nature. If you've read Watt, you will recall that we encounter several instances of extremely detailed uncertainty. Watt cannot be sure about anything, and Sam, the narrator, who gets most, but not all, of his information from Watt, can only be as sure as Watt is about those things that Watt tells him. For example, Watt approaches Mr. Knott's house, where he is to be employed. The house is dark, and Watt goes from the front to the back door, and back again, finding both locked, until finally the back door is unlocked:
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

Of these two explanations Watt thought he preferred the latter, as being the more beautiful. For if someone had opened the back door, from within, or without, would not he Watt have seen a light, or heard a sound? Or had the door been unlocked, from within, in the dark, by some person perfectly familiar with the premises, and wearing carpet slippers, or in his stockinged feet? Or, from without, by some person so skilful on his legs, that his footfalls made no sound? Or had a sound been made, a light shown, and Watt not heard the one nor seen the other?

The result of this was that Watt never knew how he got into Mr. Knott's house. He knew that he got in by the back door, but he was never to know, never, never to know, how the back door came to be opened. And if the back door had never opened, but remained shut, then who knows Watt had never got into Mr. Knott's house at all, but turned away, and returned to the station, and caught the first train back to town. Unless he had got in through a window.
I copied out this passage without remembering and before noticing again that Kenner had used most of the same passage as "characteristic of the narrative movement" in the novel. Indeed, elsewhere, for another example, we learn about the food that is prepared for Mr. Knott, the leftovers of which, when there are any, are given to "the dog", and there follows an elaboration on various possible permutations and historical conditions that occurred to Watt surrounding the preparation of the food, and availability of the dog, and the history of the dog's (or dogs') handlers, who may or may not be the Lynch family, about whom we learn all kinds of extenuating details as well. And this goes on for some 20 pages. Not that by the end of these pages Watt has necessarily exhausted the possibilities, but he has perhaps settled the question to his necessary satisfaction:
But it did not last long, this concern of Watt's, not very long, as such concerns go. And yet it was a major concern, of that period, while it lasted. But once Watt had grasped, in its complexity, the mechanism of this arrangement, how the food came to be left, and the dog to be available, and the two to be united, then it interested him no more, and he enjoyed a comparative peace of mind, in this connexion. Not that for a moment Watt supposed that he had penetrated the forces at play, in this particular instance, or even perceived the forms that they upheaved, or obtained the least useful information concerning himself, or Mr. Knott, for he did not. But he had turned, little by little, a disturbance into words, he had made a pillow of old words, for a head. Little by little, and not without labour.
In just this sense, perhaps the narrative can be permitted to move on, sufficient attention having perhaps been given to these matters. These passages, this scrupulous attention detail, are amusing, at times quite funny, and rhythmic, often fun to read, though at times tiring. I found it helpful to read portions of the novel aloud, though the symmetry of the paragraphs, the rhythmic flow of the details, at times allowed the sense of the words to evade my understanding.

Anyway, Josipovici in On Trust had alerted me to the narrative issues that faced the Modernists, that the certainty, the narrative control, of the 19th century novel was a problem for writers like Kafka, Proust, Beckett. And as I read Kenner's Reader's Guide, I found myself in familiar territory. Beckett would not, could not, simply write a traditional novel. With reference to Watt and these precise, detailed lists of things that didn't happen, he says, "[so] many trivia are entoiled in such uncertainty that the author cannot make with any confidence the simplest narrative gesture. And being scrupulous, he itemizes the possibilities: so much can language do, and the mind do." And so, Kenner closes his chapter on Watt thus:
The book chokes, therefore, slowly, on its own internal elaborations, redeemed however--this is nicely calculated--by the ceremony, the rhythm, in short the great formal beauty of all those gentle scrupulous sentences. Provisionality, from being a point of epistemology, becomes almost a point of etiquette, as though to affirm anything at all--to affirm that Watt passed through a door--would be a discourtesy to the reader, a bullying. Sam, the narrator of Watt, though we know him only by the manners of his prose, is excellent company, agreeable, unintimidating. Watt is like a rope of sand, dissolving before our eyes as it is narrated, but Sam is never ruffled, never ruffled.

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