Only Banville can advance fiction beyond Beckett
With his new book, Samuel Beckett’s friend and publisher, John Calder, an economist by training and an atheist by conviction, locates the spiritual concerns of the agnostic Beckett’s work within a human search for meaning
Sentimental journey: John Hurt in the Gate Theatre production of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ by Samuel Beckett. Photograph: Ryan Miller
Speaking to John Banville some years ago about Samuel Beckett’s work, I asked if his view of it had changed as he had matured as a novelist. He said it had: as a young man he had been awestruck by what he had considered the inhuman brilliance of Beckett’s prose, “Whereas now I sometimes think: `Easy on the Grand Guignol, Sam.’ ” He emphasised that he was not saying Beckett had feet of clay –“Perhaps the odd clay toe” – and he underlined his admiration for the later prose, particularly Ill Seen Ill Said, which he has described as the book he wished he had written.
A mysterious, apocalyptic text in which an old woman apparently sits alone in a cabin in a wilderness, watched over by a dozen sentinels outside as she looks out to Venus and makes occasional sorties to a grave. Ill Seen Ill Said, at once diaphanous and dense with references to Dante, Milton and the Bible, is the least accessible of the three novellas published between 1980 and 1983 that completed Beckett’s work in fiction. Lacking the autobiographical shards that popularised Company, or the snappily Beckettian catchphrase that secured the place of Worstward Ho in the canon – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – it is the least well parsed piece of Beckett’s fiction yet perhaps the most significant.
Such is its impenetrability that Beckett’s authorised biographer, James Knowlson, dealt with Ill Seen Ill Said in three pages of erudite, admiring bafflement in Damned to Fame, in which he acknowledged the novella’s emotional force but could speculate only vaguely as to its meaning.
Even Banville, whose life’s work has been directed towards inching fiction on even infinitesimally from Beckett, had to return to the text repeatedly before it yielded one evening as he returned home to Howth on the Dart. “It opened like a flower in front of me,” he told me. “It was the most extraordinary experience.”
Beckett’s literary reputation rests largely on the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable that emerged, along with Waiting for Godot, from a seven-year frenzy of creativity in Paris that began in 1947. However, the philosophical inquiry Beckett began with Murphy in 1939 and continued for the rest of his life reached its apotheosis only with Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho.
The significance of that investigation, unpicked by Beckett’s friend and publisher John Calder in his indispensable book The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, was that it pushed the interrogation of being as far as it apparently could go within a narrative fictional framework.
By the early 1980s, however, the idea that fiction was a suitable vehicle for ontological inquiry had become unfashionable to the point that it was widely considered outmoded and even faintly decadent. Such was the retreat that the philosophical frontier Beckett reached is now worked only by outliers such as Banville and the monotonously scabrous but ontologically curious Michel Houellebecq.
With his new book, The Theology of Samuel Beckett, Calder, an economist by training and an atheist by conviction, locates the spiritual concerns of the agnostic Beckett’s work within a purely human search for meaning, in which creativity is seen as analogous to the workings of a deity; and he argues that Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho occupy a place in Beckett’s work similar to that occupied in Beethoven’s by the late quartets; oblique pieces that advanced the form so radically they were incomprehensible to the composer’s contemporaries.
In Ill Seen Ill Said he identifies the narrator’s voice as that of both God and Beckett, completing not only Genesis but also the New Testament in a feat of theological invention; and he detects autobiographical echoes such as that of Beckett’s mother, May, in the central figure, along with palimpsests of the Christian faith he says Beckett left in adulthood “logically but not emotionally”.
These echoes give the novella much of the emotional power that differentiates it from Beckett’s earlier work. Though sure-footed when dealing with ideas, Beckett frequently lurched into sentimentality when it came to feelings, as with Company and Krapp’s Last Tape. He also tended to displace emotion on to landscapes; hence what he described as his obsession with Co Wicklow in his work. And while Ill Seen Ill Said follows that pattern, the carefully contained way in which it taps into areas such as maternal archetypes gives it a unique power.
On the only occasion they discussed the novella Beckett was, Calder says, “not pleased” that he had apparently cracked its code in relation to one of those archetypes, the Virgin Mary. To return to the text after reading Calder is, however, to marvel not at the latticework of its references but rather at the resilience of its hermetic beauty. The final full point of 20th-century modernism, a totem for Banville, perhaps the only living writer capable of advancing fiction beyond the point reached by Beckett, it places in their proper philosophical contexts all of Beckett’s work that had gone before it and all others’ work that has come since.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave