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
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