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From Bicycles to Widow’s Weeds: Beckett’s Creative Prop Box

New book traces Beckett’s creative development to fourteen material objects

18 August 2017 -  A new publication from Assistant Professor Julie Bates, School of English at Trinity College Dublin, looks at the material culture behind Samuel Beckett’s creative career, identifying a list of recurring objects which feature prominently throughout his works.

Beckett Art of Salvage

Beckett's Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1932–1987 is a new reading of Beckett that spans the writer’s entire career and maps important shifts in his approach to his characters.

Material Imagination

‘If you’re talking about the material imagination, you have to resign yourself to reeling off at least one eccentric list. Here’s mine – the fourteen objects that recur with great frequency in Beckett’s writing across decades and media and that offer a new way of thinking about his work: old boots, pockets, bags, greatcoats, widow’s weeds, bowler hats, extravagant feminine hats, beds, rocking chairs, bicycles, wheelchairs, sticks, crutches, and stones.’

Throughout his career, Beckett made a point of never repeating himself, says Dr Bates. However, she was interested in tracing a pattern of those aspects of his creativity that remained constant from the 1930s to the 80s; this was what led her to identify the 14 objects that Beckett repeatedly turned to during more than 50 years of writing.  To understand why he limited himself to this ‘’prop box’’ of items, Dr Bates adopted a phenomenological approach in order to gain a fresh perspective on Becket’s creative process and to better understand the types of questions the author was seeking to answer in his writing.  

‘If you pay attention to everyday objects and habits that are normally overlooked you can tell a huge amount about what the fabric of life was like in a particular place and at a particular time. I think phenomenology is a really helpful way to gain this type of access - especially for writers that tend to be considered intimidating, like Beckett.’

One of a kind

‘A big part of the focus of this book is that Beckett is a lot more creative and imaginative as a writer than his reputation would have us believe,’ explains Dr Bates. The book also challenges the perception in scholarship of Beckett as a ‘unique case, and as a monstrously perfect writer that just fell out of the sky with a stack of already written books in his hands.'

Julie Bates

‘In much of the writing about Beckett, the focus is on a small number of texts that were written in the same medium or the same few years – apart from the biographies, there is little acknowledgement of the many different types of writers that Beckett seems to be, in his many different works of fiction, poetry, drama for the stage, radio and television, and a lone film. On top of this, because he is thought of as “the last modernist”, a phrase used by his biographer Anthony Cronin, that is now widely accepted, he tends to be considered apart from other writers.’

In this book, Dr Bates suggests that it is helpful to imaginatively place Beckett’s work alongside European authors of his time. Robert Walser is a modern Swiss writer whose characters, according to Dr Bates, are ‘as isolated, marginal and quietly eccentric as Beckett’s,’ and who similarly lavish affection on inanimate objects in a way that they would not dare with another human character. ‘I think it’s very helpful, particularly for readers or students coming to Beckett for the first time, to think of him in relation to other modern writers all over Europe who, as a result of the convulsions of the two world wars, found themselves unable to draw on this European heritage from the Enlightenment in a confident way – once you do this, he doesn’t seem so strange a writer after all.’

New Insights into Beckett’s work

The greatcoat is a scruffy old coat worn by many of Beckett’s characters and originally sported by his father for his long walks on which he would have been accompanied by Beckett. The greatcoat is then passed on from character to character in Beckett’s writing, following the death of his father who habitually wore a bowler hat, but, much to the disapproval of his wife, pulled on this ‘walking coat’ when he returned home after work.  

‘After his father’s death, this greatcoat appears on the back of one of his characters and then it’s the same greatcoat that’s handed from one character to another. Beckett takes great care in describing the changing colours of the coat and in lavishing a certain attentiveness to every detail of the coat, from buttons that have fallen off or that are mismatched and made of various materials, to the worn lining.’

On the other hand, Beckett had a very complicated relationship with his mother. Dr Bates notes a shift from an ‘intensely male and quite misogynist’ strand in his writing until the death of his mother in 1950, after which we begin to see the introduction of a different order of female character. ‘When his father died in 1933, his mother adopted widow’s weeds, which was really quite an eccentric thing to do at that time; she dressed in black for the rest of her life. After she dies, you start to see this old maternal figure in widow’s weeds appear in Beckett’s work and instead of women being associated with a lot of fear and anger, you get this tenderness with women, and a refinement in Beckett’s attitude to the relationship between women and life.’

Dr Bates says that the shift is witnessed in Beckett’s increasing identification of the writer with the mother and an acknowledgement in his writing of the ethics and responsibility of bringing something into existence or into life, including fictional characters.

Towards the end of his writing career, there’s a very different attitude to female bodies in Beckett’s writing: ‘I like to think there’s a development of awareness of the materiality and physicality of the female body from his increased attention to details of their clothing, and the way in which they are embodied and take up space in the world. One of his biographers described how Beckett approached the writing of Happy Days – the play with the woman embedded in a mound of earth onstage: buried alive up to her waist in the first act, and her neck in the second. James Knowlson described how Beckett took his wife’s handbag and mimed out the actions, putting on the lipstick and emulating her various mannerisms to figure out how the actions should be represented on stage. I think we would do well to picture Beckett in this pose, and note the curious ways in which his creativity was bound up with his material imagination.’

Beckett's Art of Salvage: Writing and Material Imagination, 1932–1987 is published by Cambridge University Press.

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