Reading Beckett on yellow paper

Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Last week we kicked off our series of guest blog posts written by students of English who have had unique access to the Library’s Beckett manuscripts collection. Our second author is Rory O’Sullivan:

One interesting thing about the essayist Brian Dillon is how he drowns his writing in quotes from others. They’re everywhere. Even the chapters of In the Dark Room have epigraphs. In the second chapter, entitled ‘Things’, he writes:

In … The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga … writes that ornamental orbs ‘evoke through visual imagery an intensity of feeling that is otherwise inexpressible: it belongs to the pre-symbolic realm of experience of the unconscious, where events organise and articulate themselves in a non-verbal language sensitive to the most subtle emotional intricacies.

As we read this, we’re supposed to be picturing Dillon’s old snow globe, an object which for him seems to enclose many worlds in stillness: the snow globe’s image; his childhood, and the Victorians, obsessed with ‘capturing and preserving whole worlds in nuce’. These objects have a meaning for Dillon.

It isn’t that simple, of course: in the beginning of In the Dark Room, he insists that much of what we call meaning is projection. In his novel Sanctuary, when we’re stepping over broken glass, and looking at a dying fox in the corner of the dilapidated seminary, it’s sometimes hard to imagine there being any meaning left at all in Dillon’s places and things.
Yet still there’s an unshakeable sense that there is something there. No matter what they see when they walk through the ruins, his characters go on.

Author and critic Brian Dillon.

Dillon is less explicit than this about his fascination with writing, but it’s always there. For Dillon, words are material things, with the same significance as an old, abandoned church. Writing can mean many things to many people, but at bottom it’s nothing more than a collection of marks that someone has made on an old, yellowing page.

Last term, I looked at a manuscript draft of Imagination Dead Imagine in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library. People talk about the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library as if it’s in a crypt. A friend told me that he had spent nearly 10 minutes wandering through tunnels, when he met a security guard, who asked: ‘Are you lost?’. ‘I don’t think so’, he said. But these things are always a disappointment. The room was green and like an office; there seemed to be a big fridge next to one of the bookcases, but the door was closed, so it wasn’t very interesting.

The manuscript, written by Beckett himself, was on a reading stand twice its size. I went through the whole process, learned how to turn the pages, opened it, and couldn’t read a word. People talk about Beckett’s handwriting being illegible, but it’s worse than that. I may as well have been reading Korean.

The experience reminded me of a holiday to Greece that I went on last Summer, with some friends. None of us could drive so we booked a day tour to some of the sites in the South, including Mycenae. Mycenae, our guide told us, is the mythical home of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks against Troy.

The mythical home of Agamemnon

It’s one of the largest, oldest archaeological sites in the world, and one of only 2 locations where archaeologists have found examples of the written script of the Bronze Age Greeks, Linear B. But now the walls are only half their original height. The great beehive tomb – the ‘Tomb of Agamemnon’, carved into a hill and marked by stones, one on top of the other, and no one knows anymore how they moved them – was empty. Our guide walked back from her earlier assertions: ‘even if he didn’t live when they say he did’, she said, ‘and even if his name wasn’t Agamemnon, it’s him, and he was buried here’.

I think she’d planned this from the beginning. She was trying to take the inevitable disappointment, the realisation that only things were left, and make it a part of the experience. We say that we’re reading Beckett, but really, we’re reading words: Beckett’s voice and his body and his mind are gone.

Beckett is, I think, aware of this. At the end of Malone Dies, he says of Lemuel that ‘he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more’. The author Malone’s death means a death for his characters, who can have no existence beyond the finished work.

There’s a thread in Beckett’s work which takes up an idea that has been in Western culture since Plato’s Phaedrus: that is, that speech is somehow living, and writing is dead. The act of writing or performance damages Beckett’s characters. Moran gradually falls to pieces in Molloy; the sand rises over Winnie in Happy Days; Pozzo becomes blind in Waiting for Godot.

These deaths and debilitations are usually inexplicable. Individually, they can of course be read in many ways, but together, they show Beckett’s awareness of how his written message will dull when it leaves him, just as paper fades and crumbles over time.
I think that in part, Beckett’s abandonment of all worldly setting in his writing represents an attempt to extend its sell-by-date. Waiting for Godot would work perfectly well if it was set in a prison, or a forest in France, but it would date more quickly. Beckett feels that by writing, he is killing things. But since it’s also the closest thing to survival, he writes anyway.

Like Dillon’s characters, shivering in abandoned buildings, Beckett goes on. Many of his characters need to say words, from the lips which babble uncontrollably in Not I, to Malone, who writes on his deathbed with a half-destroyed pen.

Consider those last sentences of The Unnamable. The voice says, ‘you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me’. The trilogy has destroyed its characters, and at the end we’re left with a mad disembodied voice, which itself will soon disappear, and all this so that the words will remain. No matter how much is destroyed in the act of transmission, some part of him will go on.

Rory O’Sullivan