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Sum of Nothings

By Phil Patton

IT has been calculated that if books continue to be written about Samuel Beckett at the present rate then by the end of the century their sum will rival that devoted to the top figures in world publishing history: Lincoln, Napoleon and Christ.

The irony, of course, is that Beckett's own effort has been toward writing as little as possible. Throughout his career he has written, so to speak, increasingly little. And yet, because of the nature of this writing, because Beckett himself is so clearly trying to sum things up in every piece of work he produces, the project of summing up his career, especially as his voice now seems to be murmering ever closer to a final silence, is attractive. This is the impulse behind A. Alvarez's contribution on Beckett to the "Modern Masters Series," a publishing phenomenon that is in itself a mark of the paradox that has made such a lonely, distant writer as Beckett so well known.

Such series as this one, where each man of letters is capsulated between paper covers, have obvious dangers. But they also tend to come up with surprisingly insightful generalities under the inspiration of compression. In German, for instance, there is a similar book on Beckett that contains an elaborate chart of the "genealogy" of Beckett's work. The aim is to show how unified the whole oeuvre is in a movement towards its own final extinction. Molloy is a descendent of Watt, and a cousin to Mercier et Camier; Godot is grandfather to Lessness. Alvarez's book is written at a time and from a critical viewpoint that successfully demonstrate this Beckettian family of worlds in generation, and gives a sense of its underlying rhythms. For Beckett, the search for less--and finally for nothing--is the search for an art without content except itself.

Like all the best modern writing, Beckett's works are about writing itself, in process. The novels abound in descriptions of the properties and progress of writing: pencils and pens, and the quality of the line creeping across the page. Beckett's writing cultivates its own present tense, and struggles against the complications of time trying to break out of it. Time for Beckett is a kind of cancer on the whole body of existence, or else the sign of the original sin, birth. Only death can absolve that sin, and only the absence of plot can avoid the lie of a conclusive ending, happy unhappy or tragic. Beckett tries to be writing always in the middle, as in the midst of the almost endless sentences of Malone Dies toned, says Alvarez, in a "breathless, bodiless style." This writing is assembled from shored fragments, the wreckage of a writer who is continually starting over--and, in the ruins, continually summing up.

A series of late titles express the process near its conclusion: Imagination Dead Imagine, From An Abandoned Work, Lessness. Beckett tries to present the shape of absent qualities--for they do have shape, as clearly as does the character for zero. The only specifics he allows into his works are those of negation: the grey landscape, bare horizon, the tone of a silence between phrases, the quality of an incompleteness. Imagination is dead--except for the imagination of how it would be without imagination. The late Beckett works grow more and more indeterminate, and the masks of the characters more featureless. It is Buster Keaton, "The Great Stone Face", who stars in Beckett's only film script--and even the title is unwilling to commit itself to anything more specific than Film. In the thirty-five second long Breath, the only elements are rubbish and recorded cries and breaths. (This sequence, Alvarez somewhat startlingly reveals, was written for the revue Oh, Calcutta, but withdrawn by the author when producer Kenneth Tynan insisted on scattering naked bodies among the rubbish.)

Beckett's artistic paradox is that he destroys his art in the act of fully realizing it; his personal paradox is that loneliness and elusiveness should make him so widely known to the public. Such exposure presents dangers. An art of such simplicity can be easily smoothed away into cliche, but only by the auditor. There are lines in Waiting for Godot that make you squirm now. There is the danger of reading a moral into Beckett's work, as, Alvarez points out, the Nobel prize committee did in their citation of Beckett's writing as "a Misere from all mankind." This, of course, is nonsense and it is important to remember in dealing with Beckett's work not to simple-mindedly equate God and Godot. Beckett begins from a rejection of the moral of there being anything more than the daily activities of life, than the eating and excreting of his characters. His only lesson is that there is less than we would like to think and that we must learn to cut our projections and fantasies down to the real size of things.

For Beckett, it is struggle enough to be able to continue to speak. For all the bulk of criticism written about his work by others, none is as important as his own self-critical realization of the difficulty of that task. His latest work, a very short play called Not I, focuses on a spotlit mouth, a disembodied voice babbling its lines. For as words are picked more and more severely, the speaker himself begins to vanish. Words break free for themselves. Beckett has shown that it is only by being able to trick the words into saying us that we can continue to speak at all.

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