What do the following 14 objects have in common?
- old boots
- bowler hats
- widow's weeds
- extravagant feminine hats
- rocking chairs
They make up the creative prop-box and wardrobe on which Samuel Beckett drew throughout his writing life: the material imagination of my book’s title. These 14 objects furnish the imaginary worlds of his characters, dress and move them about, and provide them with the opportunities for digression and play that generate much of the narrative and dialogue of Beckett’s works.
Or, less grandly, this is a list of “miscellaneous rubbish”. I tried and failed to have my book published under this title. My editors at Cambridge won out, no doubt for sound marketing reasons, but the concept of miscellaneous rubbish is central to the book, nonetheless.
In these works, we see 600 years of Europe boiled down to the odds and ends of a bourgeois household and music-hall wardrobe
The phrase is Beckett's: famously, the set for Breath – a play that provocatively condenses the span of life into half a minute of light, punctuated at its beginning and end by symmetrical cries – is described as a "stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish". Beckett gave the play to Kenneth Tynan in 1969, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, for inclusion in Tynan's erotic cabaret revue Oh! Calcutta! on condition that the stage directions were honoured and the piece appeared anonymously.
Tynan, however, made prominent use of Beckett’s name in promoting the revue (alongside the names of other famous contributors, including Edna O’Brien and John Lennon), and, worse, littered the stage with naked bodies. Despite Beckett’s formidable reputation for demanding that his stage directions be honoured to the last dot, he let this one go, exasperated by Tynan, but not wanting a public argument.
Tynan may have scuppered the premiere of Breath, but its central analogy between a rubbish dump and the world recurs (free of writhing naked bodies) in several of Beckett's other works. It is evoked in Molloy and The Unnamable, the first and last of the three novels written in quick succession after the second World War in France, where Beckett had served in the French Resistance and Irish Red Cross, and he employed it again in All That Fall, his first radio play, commissioned and broadcast by the BBC in 1956. Beckett returned to this analogy once more in Ill Seen Ill Said, one of the austere, late prose works of the 1980s.
Beckett’s identification of miscellaneous rubbish with the world of his characters over many decades and media indicates how it remained a potent metaphor for him. His characters, too, treat their few shabby material possessions with a reverent attention uncommon in literature, and it is the same 14 objects that recur from one book and character to the next.
As a writer, Beckett is a model of discipline: he began writing in French in part to sidestep the easy satisfactions offered by the Hiberno-English tradition. He is also a writer of contrarian singularity: the variety of his work illustrates his refusal of the easy rewards of repeating those effects that had gained acclaim; and he is a writer, finally, of creative voraciousness: the relentlessness of his experimentation, especially on a formal level, can feel overwhelming for the reader who first flicks through a collection of his fiction or drama.
Beckett’s is indeed a bewilderingly various body of work, and yet, precisely because his writing is characterised by these qualities of discipline, contrarian singularity and creative voraciousness, I believe that it is possible to map his creative ambition (the book he was continually trying to write) and evolving practice (the many different ways he approached this challenge) by looking at the basic raw materials he used to fashion the imaginary worlds of his many novels, poems, stage and radio plays and sole film.
From the beginning, in his earliest stories and poems, Beckett signals that he has committed himself to an intense engagement with literature modelled on the commitment he so admired in James Joyce. Beckett’s adoption of the role of apprentice to Joyce’s master is well known, and the effects of this literary apprenticeship are clearly (too clearly!) legible in his early writing. Even more visible, but rarely noted, is that in these same works of fiction and poetry of the 1930s, the imaginary world that Beckett first sketches through a small number of recurring objects is the setting to which he remains loyal for the following half a century and more of writing. I believe that this eccentric fidelity tells us a great deal about Beckett’s idiosyncratic creativity.
Beckett rooted his characters in a dramatically down-at-heel version of the world he experienced as a child
The 2003 Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett is one of the few studies of Beckett to examine the materials that make up the imaginary world of his writing. It describes a world "where bicycles out-number motorcars, where theatres are lit by footlights, where clothes are fastened by buttonhooks, where parents still pass on family greatcoats and bowler hats to their offspring, hats tethered to coats – a world of chamber pots, which put humanity in greater proximity to evacuation, and oil lamps".
These marvellous lines give a sense of how Beckett rooted his characters in a dramatically down-at-heel version of the world he experienced as a child. And indeed, this is something many writers do, given that literature, particularly the novel, is naturally orientated towards the past, and that writers often seize on those imaginative materials closest to hand: the family, the first home, the first paths outside that home.
The Grove Companion goes on to link Beckett to the Anglo-Irish tradition of property, possession, and the big house. A number of distorted or ruined big houses make appearances in Beckett's work, it is true, but I think it is wrong to recruit Beckett to this tradition: his family were comfortable middle-class rather than Anglo-Irish for a start but, more meaningfully, because Beckett made such conscious efforts to write himself into a wider European tradition. He moved to Paris in 1937, adopted French as his primary language of composition and lived between languages thereafter.
Let’s look again at the list of objects with which this article began – objects that could be discovered in a forgotten room of a neglected bourgeois house anywhere in Europe in the early 20th century – when Beckett gathers these objects and restricts himself to this miscellaneous rubbish for more than half a century of writing, he aligns his many books with the cast-offs and detritus of European culture.
In these works, we see 600 years of Europe boiled down to the odds and ends of a bourgeois household and music-hall wardrobe. These 14 recurring objects are treasured by his characters because they constitute the remaining scraps of a shattered world – the modern Ireland and Europe that vanished during his lifetime. In this way, Beckett’s writing is an art of salvage that stages an encounter with the extinction facing us all, while tenderly hoarding those fleeting moments and odds and ends of which life and literature is made.
- Beckett's Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1932-1987 by Julie Bates, is published by Cambridge University Press