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Yell, Sam, If You Still Can: Audacious debut let down by Beckett bingo

Maylis Besserie’s novel on writer’s final weeks would benefit from more daring decisions

Yell, Sam, If You Still Can
Yell, Sam, If You Still Can
Author: Maylis Besserie, translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáin
ISBN-13: 978-1843518341
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €15

It was an audacious decision on Maylis Besserie’s part to make the final weeks of Samuel Beckett’s life the subject of her first novel. Especially so as she decided to portray the author by using a first-person presentation of his voice. The nature of that voice had to be her most important decision and at first, it is both a surprise and a relief to find that she does not attempt to recreate the whittled down, austere style of late Beckett.

Magnificent as his late work is, it would be too easy for any imitation to seem like a parody. But Besserie’s representation of Beckett as, at times, wistful and nostalgic seems too distant from the severity of his resolutely unsentimental work. Even more unlikely is the thought that he would regularly resort to cliches, so it is jarring to find such trite phrases as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, “throw in the towel”, “take the bull by the horns” used to indicate the thought process of such an original thinker. There are also references throughout the novel to Beckett’s best-known work (“I fail and I try again”; “Nothing to be done”; a reference to being “buried up to the waist”) that can seem a little too much like Beckett bingo.

In “Act One” of the novel – whose three acts echo the name of the nursing home in which Beckett resides, Le Tiers-Temps – voices representing officialdom and authority are introduced, which contrast well with the unregulated thoughts of the patient. Later, it is only voices overheard that intrude, and a scene in which he can hear the final, anguished cries of a woman in the next room is very well realised.

Beckett’s overpowering awareness of the limitations of the body and the eventual confinement to which even the mind must succumb might usefully have guided the author to more daring decisions regarding structure and syntax. Indeed, it becomes clear, late in the novel, that Besserie is well capable of writing to much greater effect. As death approaches, she has Beckett describing Buster Keaton’s performance in Film. Here she achieves a tautness of language that would, if used throughout, have brought both greater pathos and authenticity to the novel.

Declan O'Driscoll

Declan O'Driscoll is a contributor to The Irish Times