Archive for the ‘beckett’ Category
I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (after I was myself alerted to it by IT) that Coetzee’s review of the new edition of Beckett’s letters in the NYRB is not to be missed. Here’s the start of it:
In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.
After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”
Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”
Ugh. Yep, another one of those stories about a brave and successful escape from academia. Coetzee slyly mentions later on in the review that “through contacts at the then University of Buffalo [Beckett] also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).” You might know or not know that Coetzee held a teaching position at Buffalo for a bit. You might know or not know something else that I can’t to get into, but let’s just say I’ve heard and reheard the story about the end of his time as an assistant professor, specializing in I suppose British modernism, over and over and over again and from those who would know. But let’s just say I really appreciated Coetzee’s little in-joke.
Really good reason why this blog can’t have my name on it: I’d like to get out, and I really can’t talk about that publically, under my own name. I have a vague plan to get out – something we refer to in my household as the “five-year plan.” I won’t go into the hows of this, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. Unlike Beckett, I actually enjoy teaching, the classroom time, and the reports back from my students would be very different from those that he received. But the damned business shreds time, absolutely shreds it. It’s not the time in the classroom that’s the problem. But lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year.
Anyway, I also appreciated the following:
Though Beckett’s literary output during the twelve years covered by these letters is fairly thin—the Proust monograph; an apprentice novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, disowned and not published during his lifetime; the stories More Pricks Than Kicks ; Murphy ; a volume of poems; some book reviews—he is far from inactive. He reads extensively in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer he reports: “A pleasure…to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification.” He works intensively on Geulincx, reading his Ethics in the original Latin: his study notes have recently been unearthed and published as a companion to a new English translation.
Twelve years of relatively thin publication, from age 23 to 34. (It’s not really that thin, is it?) Twelve years of reading and periodic publishing and abortive teaching and bouts of psychoanalysis. Coetzee brought out his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974, when he was 34, three years after he stopped teaching at Buffalo.
There’s something deformative, something that you parry with for a long time, about having spent your twenties in the stupid hothouse of New York, or more specifically Brooklyn, during the bubble, again more specifically the period literarily speaking between the founding of Tina Brown’s Talk (remember?) and the founding of n+1. What would Beckett have made of it? What would Coetzee? My wife and I are still reeling from it a bit, I think it’s safe to say. We are 31 and 32 respectively. Anyway, Coetzee writes a lot of stuff about old men lately – he makes his alter-egos even older than he is himself – but this is a valuable review focused on what it means to be a different sort of old man, a young old man, in transit between the business of teaching and the business of writing.
I promised the Voice That Whispers in My Ear at Night (hereafter VinE – I mean for this post and future posts) that I would a) read for two hours then b) write not-blogposts for an hour or two. Ooops! I will make it up by posting something serious and potentially work-facilitating.
I’m the comments to my post on macroeconomic microfictions / fiction in the aggregate, Dave suggests (if I have it right) that I work from individual focus toward panoptic aggregation via a terminal wide-angle shot, one that reveals that the selfsame story is going on for a whole bunch of people at the very same time. I could do this, and will do I’m sure, but let me show you something that I think about, unreconstructed modernist that I am.
Some of you, I know, won’t like this clip, but allow it me it as it shows something relatively quickly and clearly.
(Now: if you have 15 minutes, watch the whole thing. If you have 8 minutes or so, you’ll be ok. Watch the first 8 minutes and you’ll figure out the trick if you’re paying close attention. If you only have 4 minutes, just watch the first 2 and the last 2 minutes, you’ll still get the point…)
So it’s Anthony Minghella’s 2000 version of Beckett’s 1963 Play. I happen to think it’s pretty fantastic. OK, Minghella’s bit is OK, but the play itself is head-slammingly perfect. And I actually really like the performance by the britishy superstars involved.
Let me just say it again. I absolutely love every single thing about this play. If you’re looking for me, where my heart lies aesthetically, this is a fairly good crystallization in 15 minutes. I’ll say why, I hope, in the course of writing this post and answering Dave’s comment.
Just to keep things simple, let’s talk about Minghella’s version, as it is a bit different from the scripted version of the play. And in fact, his variations speak to exactly the question that I’m trying to get at in writing this. (Oof. Right there, all of a sudden, this fell into being something that I should write for real, not for blog. Did you see that? Started sounding like someone who actually writes about drama….)
Now, Beckett / Minghella’s Play drives at the generic from two different angles, in two different ways. The first way is the Minghella addition. Those panning shots that reveal, most strikingly at the end, that we’re in some sort of place where everybody is chattering on in just the same way, perhaps about exactly the same sort of thing, except, we are led to imagine, in their own way. Same yet different. What other sort of story do we expect these other urn-dwellers would tell?
(This runs a bit far from Beckett’s script, which does call for a chorus, but it seems to be a chorus composed of the three characters – the two women and the man – themselves. They are to speak a sort of barely discernable scattershot redux of their previous language. But, no, in Beckett’s version, there are no other urns, no other urn dwellers, there is no whole world or hell of similarity in difference… Minghella’s retraction of the camera to see all these others is his own addition to the work….)
I think Minghella’s tactic actually does work, if cheaply, but works only as an underscoring of what we already should know from what we’ve seen of the three characters themselves and their words. And here is where we find the second, and ultimately more satisfying, mode of rendering the generic available here.
For it is the story itself that we’re bound up in here – this tawdry, ultimately boring story of some sort of utterly predictable love triangle, and the emotional atmospherics that are concomitant with it – that is the first and best vehicle of the genericness of the play. People, Beckett seems to say, get caught up in these things, the things spur endless amounts of chattering solipsism, we cannot stop spitefully talking about them, about ourselves, even if there is no one left to listen, nobody who would possibly stay to listen to what we have to say. The amazing false profundities on display, the cliche takeaway – Adulterers, take heed: never admit! – already tell us all we need to know, before the pan, before the wide shot, about the play’s take on the ostensible subject matter at hand.
The formal devices of the play and the stage-directions work to intensify this effect. First, and most obviously, there’s the fact that the play turns at midpoint only to repeat itself in its entirety, which brings a hellishness to bear that preempts Minghella’s setting of his film version in the place that Clov can see out the windows in Endgame. Whatever individual interest, whatever romantic frisson, is left after the first go-round is decisively killed off when we hear the same damn thing again in full. And the mode of delivery indicated by the directions (and, I think, impeccably followed by Thomas, Stevenson, and Rickman in this version,) only make things worse…. that is to say better.
Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated.
Rapid tempo throughout.
It’s all fast and underbreath – the voice of neurosis, or of prayer said rote in order to finish quickly and get on to something else. Thy kingdomcome, thy willbedone, on earthasitisinheaven. The impassivity of the speakers signals that the words, the words that press up for no interlocutor, press up to be said because they, situationally, have to be said, the situation requires their saying. So florid, so ostensibly full of emotion and relevance, uttering them (and that’s what they’re doing here – uttering) undercuts them, leaves them as all too human psychopathology, the stuff you say when your mind is out of your control because you’re caught in an altogether familar situation.
Ack. I need to get to sleep! But for now, let’s just put it this way. The panning move on Minghella’s part would be worthless, a false suggestion of true genericity, if not for all the steps that Beckett’s already taken to make sure that the foregrounded stuff is what it is, is generic. The pan, the wide shot, forces the point – but one should only force (right, VinE?) what’s ready and appropriate to be forced. This is the capacity that I’m looking to develop – the widening out works, but only when there’s generic ready there for the widening. Or in fact, as with Minghella’s version, the widening shot works mostly – only – when it’s there to reindicate, to underscore, to clarify, to intensify. We can see all the other cars in the parking lot, in other words, but that only does what I want it to do once it’s clear that the foreground story is, in a sense, the story of behind all the other cars in the parking lot. I have no problem tipping my hand, but I want to be sure first that I have a hand worthy of being tipped.
Anyway, a post that is not likely to come – as it’s a part of my book that I will dutifully revise MTWTF this summer, has to do with the initial and literal announcement of the generic as the principal issue of what will become modernism at the start of Madame Bovary. This bit, and sorry for the French, but it’s untranslatable, sets it out in writing:
Nous avions l’habitude, en entrant en classe, de jeter nos casquettes par terre, afin d’avoir ensuite nos mains plus libres; il fallait, dès le seuil de la porte, les lancer sous le banc, de façon à frapper contre la muraille en faisant beaucoup de poussière; c’était là le genre.
Now remember, the word genre has a triple meaning in French. Here it’s “the way things are done,” but of course it also means literary genre. Further, it also means gender. But that’s another story altogether, he whispers to the VinE, whom he hopes is pleased that he didn’t totally fuck his night, even if he didn’t quite do what he had promised her he would….