Monday, December 14, 2015

Samuel Beckett at his most Beckettian

I have been reading a few of Samuel Beckett's shorter stories, "Stories and Texts for Nothing", and I never cease to be impressed by the man's idiosyncratic and virtuoso command of the English language. And then I realized that the stories, like most of his later works, were originally written in French!
Beckett moved from Ireland to France in mid-career in the late 1930s, partly to escape from the prodigious shadow of fellow Irishmen James Joyce, and partly because he fell out with his mother. He played an active part in the French Resistance during the Second World War (preferring, in his words, "France at war to Ireland at peace"), and continued to live there for the rest of his life.
Beckett wrote most of his earlier works in English and then translated them into French. His later works, from about 1948 onwards and including many of his most famous pieces (like Waiting for Godot), were written in French and only then translated into English. He claimed that he wrote in French as it made it easier for him to write "without style".
The "Stories and Texts for Nothing", which date from the late 1950s but were not published in English until 1967, are written in the usual feverish and oppressive Beckettian style, full of pathos and grotesquerie. But, oh, the language!
An example of a typically consummate sentence from the first story, "The Expelled":
"This carriage [i.e. stiff, halting, accompanied by frequent falls] is due, in my opinion, in part at least, to a certain leaning from which I have never been able to free myself completely and which left its stamp, as was only to be expected, on my impressionable years, those which govern the fabrication of character, I refer to the period which extends, as far as the eye can see, from the first totterings, behind a chair, to the third form, in which I concluded my studies."
The wording, sentence structure and vocabulary in Beckett's works is frequently obscure, eccentric or elliptic, and the "Stories and Texts for Nothing" are no exception. Once again, this is not due to poor translation, but is deliberate and wilful. Another brief example from "The Expelled".
"I saw the horse as with my eyes of flesh."
Say what? But, Beckett being Beckett, of course, you know full well that is exactly what he mean to say, as he meant to say it.
The thirteen shorter "Texts for Nothing" are even more stream-of-consciousness than the three "Stories", and if anything even more perplexing, e.g.:
"How long have I been here, what a question, I've often wondered. And often I could answer, An hour, a month, a year, a century, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being, and there I never went looking for extravagant meanings, there I never much varied, only the here would sometimes seem to vary."
Maybe this is translated from the original French, but I feel it has nevertheless a certain intrinsic Irishness about it. I'm sure I can't be the only one to find myself reading the English text with an Irish brogue.
All the unmitigated and unrelenting angst and misery does get a bit wearing after a while, though, and one story starts to blur into another. As in most Beckett stories, nothing much happens in any of the "Stories and Texts for Nothing". The protagonists simply react to some limited set of circumstances, look back wistfully on (marginally) better times, and forge ahead with the depressing business of day-to-day existence. Thus, for example, after some pages of inconclusive ramblings and reminiscences, "The Expelled" concludes:
"I don't know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another."

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