The plays, stories, and novels of the 1969 Nobel Laureate in Literature are, in a sense, all of a piece. Their style and demeanor are more significant than details of plot, cast, or setting, which, in every case, are spare to the point of comedy — or despair. This is not to diminish the individuality of specific works, but rather to identify the continuity of character that runs through them. Every page, and nearly every sentence, of Samuel Beckett wears the genetic imprint of its maker.
Beckett’s prose — in which, quite often, his verbal genius is given the thankless task of expressing the futility of expression itself — is one of the most resonant instruments in modern letters, possessed of a somber musicality and a lapidary eloquence that can startle the reader with its haunting beauty. (This is all the more remarkable considering the author alternated between English and French in composing his mature works, translating with painstaking attention from one to the other upon completion.) Even when the sentiment expressed is bleak and pessimistic, the phrasing is fraught with the hallowing power even the most halting words invoke. And how comic it is — really — in its dry depiction of human relentlessness in the face of cosmic indifference.
His work can be forbidding, admittedly, and the best way at it may be in reverse, starting with one of his last short prose pieces and moving backward toward his longer fiction, with an evening in the theater in between.
Company: A Voice in the Dark
Toward the end of his career, Beckett published in English a series of slender volumes, their austere proportions leavened by the stoic comedy that coursed beneath every text he ever set upon a page.
The prose of these works — Fizzles, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho among them — reads like writing stripped to a kind of current, a cable unraveled to a single filament that still carries an electric charge: on, off, shock, silence. It makes the writing of the earlier laconic masterpieces — Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable — seem loquacious. Yet despite this, or because of it, the cadences engrave themselves within one’s hearing with a permanent, peculiar beauty.
Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.
That passage marks the end of Company, a short work that stands as an almost perfect memorial to his peculiar and passionate weighing of words. Indeed, its beginning might well be an emblem for Beckett’s works entire, for it sums up the legacy of his literary labor, which had begun in absorption in Joyce and Proust and wrung itself out into pregnant quiet: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.”
His verbal genius, his unparalleled invocation of the destiny of language, even as he shuttled back and forth between English and French, restored to diction an almost sacramental gravity. In Company especially, he’s like a composer who has scraped from his scores all orchestration, all melody, indeed, almost every instrument. He pares his music back to plainchant, a voice in the dark that might find some resonance in what we think and say, and, ultimately, feel: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.”
Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree. Evening.”
Waiting for Godot was Samuel Beckett’s first performed play, written in French and then translated by the author into English. It is one of the signal accomplishments in twentieth-century theater and one of the touchstones of modern literature. It is also, as one contemporary critic said of its two acts, “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”
The play opens with what would become one of the most famous stage directions in all drama: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” That’s all the description Beckett gives us to set the scene for Vladimir and Estragon, two shabby and seemingly homeless men who wait — and wait, and wait — for the arrival of a certain Godot. While they bide their time, they try to amuse each other, enigmatically debate the nature of religion, and talk about whether they should hang themselves. They are like two vaudevillians who have no act, but whose waiting evokes a cosmic routine beyond their ken, a joke in which the punch line never comes.
Of course — here is the most unnecessary spoiler alert in literature — Godot never comes either. Eventually someone does show up: not the mysterious Godot, but the arrogant Pozzo and his servant Lucky, the latter of whom speaks only in gibberish. Vladimir and Estragon make plans to leave, and even make plans to die, but all through the first act, and then the second, they just keep waiting.
Thematically, Waiting for Godot was not unprecedented. From Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, several important plays from the early twentieth century had depicted characters who hope for change or salvation but end up lingering exactly where they started. What was revolutionary about Waiting for Godot was its extreme minimalism, from the starkness of its setting to the spareness of its speech. Paradoxically, Beckett’s paring down of existence to just two tramps by a tree has given the play both emotional resonance and enduring relevance. From Sarajevo in the 1990s to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, performers and audiences in places of crisis keep turning to Beckett’s masterpiece, which, with acuity and humor, reveals the hopes and fears of human life like few other literary exposés.
Molloy: A Choreography of Consciousness
Four years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Samuel Beckett wrote his only screenplay; it was for a project he’d conceived for the silent film comedian Buster Keaton. While the austere author’s fascination with the star of early cinema, then long past his prime, may seem odd on the surface, it becomes ingeniously obvious at depth. For just as Keaton in his heyday used kinetic movement — pratfalls, of course, but also determined nuances of gesture and gait — so Beckett took the familiar momentum of language — syntax, rhythm, cadence — and turned it to expressive and comic as well as philosophical effect. Take, for example, this passage from his novel Molloy, a diptych of two long interior monologues that are part existential rumination, all shaggy dog story:
He looks old and it is a sorry sight to see him solitary after so many years, so many days and nights unthinkingly given to that rumour rising at birth and even earlier, What shall I do? What shall I do? now low, a murmur, now precise as the headwaiter’s And to follow? and often rising to a scream. And in the end, or almost, to be abroad alone, by unknown ways, in the gathering night, with a stick.
We never find out exactly who the man with the stick is; or why Molloy, the book’s first narrator, seems confined in a room writing pages that another mysterious man arrives weekly to pick up; or why exactly the second narrator, named Jacques Moran, is on the trail of the first. All of their actions, peregrinations (real or imagined), and suppositions are enigmatic to the reader, indeterminate in both import and significance, and yet the prose leads us down labyrinthine paths that promise — and ultimately deliver — a carefully described perspective into the thicket of consciousness. By anatomizing thought and syncopating the progress of sentences with obsessive attention, Beckett creates, as Keaton did on screen, a kind of awkward poise — an anomalous grace — on the stage of narrative. It is both precise and riveting, reveling in the humors and movements of language as it explores, with comic impulse and tragic obstinacy, “the crass tenacity of life and its diligent pains.”