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His Poor Materials

Liam Harrison

Beckett’s Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1923-1987, by Julie Bates, Cambridge University Press, 248 pp, £67.50, ISBN: 978-1107167049

Sigh upon sigh till all sighed quite away. All the fond trash. Destined before being to be no more than that. Last Sighs. Of relief.
Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said

The playwright Israel Horovitz has recalled Samuel Beckett’s shock one night in 1967 upon hearing that he did not know WB Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. Before the night was out the poem had been transferred from the memory of one playwright to the other, with Beckett expressing a particular interest in the lines

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

As well as learning the poem verbatim, Horovitz was offered a note of caution from Beckett: “I don’t totally approve of that ‘Soul clap its hands’ part.” Twenty-two years later, Horovitz was visiting Beckett again, now in a nursing home in Paris. He described seeing him “dressed in a tattered old robe, working with pen and ink at a bridge table”, and he was reminded of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” once more.

Beckett’s mixed feelings for Yeats’s poem reflect the treatment of objects in his own works. The tattered coats and battered sticks are the “fond trash”, as Ill Seen Ill Said puts it, which captured his literary imagination. Yet he disapproved of symbolist readings of these coats and sticks, scorning the prospect of objects being transformed by miraculous metaphors or anthropomorphic projections. When writing to the German director Carlheinz Caspari in 1953 about interpretations of Waiting for Godot, Beckett laid his cards on the table: “That at any moment Symbols, Ideas, Forms might show up, this for me is secondary.”

In her monograph Beckett’s Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1923-1987, Julie Bates examines Beckett’s “matter-riddled” literary landscapes by tracing the development of fourteen key objects which are reused and recycled across the textual plains of his drama, prose and poetry. The assortment of bowler hats, bikes, boots and crutches are significant objects, she asserts, because of their complete absence of magical or metaphorical capacities. Rather, it is their abject material condition which gives them their significance: “it is their very ordinariness and banal utility which gives them such potential in Beckett’s and his characters’ hands”. Bates argues that Beckett’s fidelity to his poor materials, his persistent use of them when writing across different mediums, indicates that these objects held a unique position in his creative process, forming an “art of salvage” which can be traced across his life’s work.

Beckett’s use of banal objects resembles a common habit of philosophers, who, as Simon Glendenning points out, tend to illustrate the external world by populating it with “small-to-medium-sized dry goods: chairs, pens, desks, sticks and so on”. While philosophers may take this bric-a-brac and try to create worlds and symbols from it, through an aesthetics of analogy and mimesis, Beckett values the complete lack of agency in such objects, their qualities of hopeless negation. Here we can witness his dissociation from Yeatsian transformations. Beckett’s souls are not singing and his sticks are not apposite metaphors for old men – they are simply sticks. It is the very thingness of these sticks that Bates stresses, quoting John Banville: “In his work the thing shines.” Bates draws on critical work on materialism from other Beckett scholars, such as Ulrika Maude, CJ Ackerley, SE Gontarski, and particularly Steven Connor, who makes a key distinction in the difference between objects and things:

Objects are what we know, objects are things that know their place and whose place we know. Things arise when objects down tools and refuse to cooperate with us, break down, or have their functions mysteriously interrupted.

In Beckett’s texts the objects which are typically associated with assistance and utility – bicycles, wheelchairs, crutches – have their primary functions subverted. Bates notes the “bloody-minded perseverance” of Molloy, who uses his crutches to give a man “a good dint on the skull”, before using them to deal “a few warm kicks in the ribs”, delighting in the pleasure of (mis)using his crutches to propel himself forwards, delivering his violence with greater velocity and zeal.

In her analysis Bates avoids attributing to Beckett any overarching philosophy or artistic plan. She condemns a priori theoretical approaches as coercive, arguing that they enforce a pre-defined creative vision without properly accounting for the shifting, liminal experimentation which is prolific across Beckett’s work. Rather than appropriating Beckett’s characters and objects for the benefits of philosophical arguments or psychological symbolism, Bates stresses that the material elements are better understood as “recurring manifestations of Beckett’s evolving literary imagination”.

Bates compares the poor materials which riddle Beckett’s imagination to his estrangement from his mother tongue and his decision to write in French. His method of self-translation imposes limitations that can appear similar to the worn-out objects that litter his oeuvre – both act as a form of literary impoverishment, which paradoxically provide fertile ground for forming a distinctively new form of writing. Bates traces this impoverishment through a framework of material studies, noting how within such frameworks it is generally presumed that a discarded object is rubbish, that it lacks agency. However, she shows how Beckett undermines the common hierarchy of objects by finding possibilities in the derelict and marginalised. The things and people which are overlooked in everyday experience are considered as integral to his work:

Beckett recovered from annihilation marginal stories, accounts of victims, ignored and isolated things that would otherwise never see the light of day and thus made of his own sense of estrangement an imaginative home for himself, a unique space in and from which to write. Battered bowlers and old boots are crucial elements in establishing the necessary conditions for the new and distinct form of literature Beckett sought to create: a mode of writing that would not speak for any audience, and not of any society, but rather concern itself with the portrayal of dispossession, failure and confusion.

Whilst emphasising the distinct and radical qualities of Beckett’s work, Bates is also keen not to lose sight of him as a European writer. Taking up the late Anthony Cronin’s characterisation of Beckett as “the last modernist”, she sees in Beckett’s works “six hundred years of Europe boiled down to the odds and ends of a bourgeois household and music-hall wardrobe”. She is critical of the exceptionalist tendency of casting Beckett adrift from the broader corpus of European culture and literature, out of which his work arose. But she deftly swerves away from the conventional modernist comparisons, citing Beckett’s own criticism of “Proustian involuntary memories”, “Joycean epiphanies” and “Woolfian moments of being”. The influence of involuntary memory in particular, explored in Beckett’s own early work Proust, is too often evoked as a master key to unlock the assumed secrets of Beckett’s work.

Through an emphasis on material cultures and histories, Bates uncovers unexpected resonances across Beckett’s objects and those in the works of Gustave Flaubert, DH Lawrence and Charles Dickens – although she notes that the crutches of Tiny Tim are utilised somewhat more violently in Molloy. Even more surprising and welcome are her convincing points of comparison for the two texts she spends most time on, Malone Dies and Happy Days. The incarcerated Malone and castaway Winnie sustain themselves by speaking of their possessions with an uncanny primitive delight, naming and listing them in a similar fashion, Bates remarks, to the imprisoned Antonio Gramsci and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the stranded Robinson Crusoe.

Bates’s diverse cultural comparisons are not limited to writers. Beckett’s relish for battered boots is explored in relation to the habits of Vincent Van Gogh, who would buy old boots at Parisian flea-markets for his still lifes, only to find them not grubby enough. The painter would slip on the boots and trudge back and forth through the muddy streets of Paris until they were sufficiently degraded to suit his aesthetic pallet. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh captures the art of lessening, of diminution, which echoes throughout Beckett’s own work: “What matters is to grasp what does not pass away in what passes away.” Bates links the two artists through their logic of material and physical decay, the ways in which both carve out an aesthetics of salvage through their works, nowhere more so than in their boots, which hold the shape of the previous bearer and distinctly manage to capture the forgotten history of the object.

While digging through the materials in Beckett’s work, Bates explores the socio-historical background of the Becketts, and their petit-bourgeois, Protestant, Foxrock lifestyle. The histories of individual objects are intriguingly raised, while Bates draws expertly on the biographies of Deirdre Bair, James Knowlson and Anthony Cronin. However, she makes it clear she is not rummaging through the Becketts’ belongings in an effort to understand their lives but attempting to write a biography of things where these subjects support the emergence of the fond trash in Beckett’s mind and work: “These objects are emphatically not symbols, and neither are they part of a project in which Beckett deliberately seeks to comment upon his personal life or social history.”

Separating the life and the work is an old argument, one which has been adeptly explored in relation to Beckett’s letters by Benjamin Keatinge. At times Bates lingers too long on the inheritance of particular traits and objects Beckett received from his parents. This is difficult terrain to negotiate when Beckett himself possessed an unshakable nostalgia for the memories of his parents and images of his childhood. However, any attempt to unravel this in relation to the work risks straying into the grey area of misplaced “confessional readings”. Bates largely avoids these pitfalls, stating her own concern in tracing how Beckett “uses objects with maternal associations to establish a distinctive set of maternal portraits [rather] than in speculating about his personal relationships”.

Yet for someone who consistently claimed not to want to discuss his work, Beckett dropped many tantalising hints about them in his letters and conversations. Bates recounts how in 1962 Brenda Bruce was rehearsing for the British premiere of Happy Days, desperately asking Beckett questions about the character Winnie and receiving only the stern reply “Tis of no consequence”. Beckett was eventually banned from rehearsals for undermining Bruce’s confidence, but he did redeem himself in her books offering invaluable advice over dinner, going into the bare bones of Winnie’s predicament: “all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life”.

This little parcel of paltry things provided ample material for Beckett’s art of salvaging, an art which Bates makes a compelling case for as crucial to his creative imagination, in her thorough, nuanced and highly readable monograph. Of the various rich sources she cites, one of the most remarkable is the obituary John Banville wrote in 1989, laying the foundation of Bates’s argument that these fourteen objects resemble the “remaining scraps of a shattered world”:

It is the humble things that attract the greatest attention: a knife-rest, the belly-band of a horse, pencil stubs, ear-wax, odds and ends. I picture an old one, a stravager of the roads, clutching a little hoard of valuables polished by age and use: so Beckett with his wordhoard. ‘I love the word, words have been my only love / not many.’

1/9/2017

Liam Harrison is a Bristolian writer living in Dublin. He is currently developing a digital exhibition with emeritus professor Nicholas Grene on the plays of Tom Murphy for Trinity College Library.

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