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Together. Alone. With Beckett.

Céline Thobois writes about the Beckett Reading Group, shared reading, and how the group moved online during the pandemic...

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began.”

- Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

I clearly remember the sensation of cold running through my body and the goosebumps tensing my skin at the reading of The Unnamable on the 13th of April 2018 in front of the steps outside of House 39. The dim dusk light, filtered by a thick layer of grey clouds, was just enough to decipher words on the page. Together, we read aloud the beginning of the novel to pay tribute to Samuel Barclay Beckett, born on the 13th of April 1906 in Foxrock, Trinity Alumnus, former resident of House 39, awardee of the Nobel Prize of literature, our unfailing companion. That day, I started the reading of the English prose with my chronic non-native speaker fear of ruining the others’ experience. As I was sometimes stumbling across some words, occasionally misplacing stresses, and mostly failing at finding the right intonation to read the initial series of questions, I realised that Nick, to my left and to Burç’s right, eyes closed, was reciting the lines. Burç, to Nick’s left and to Mary’s right, was silently reading, just giving shape to the words with the movements of his lips. Mary, to Burç’s left and to my right, was caringly watching me, graciously smiling, and pensively nodding her head. The reading went on anticlockwise until it was too dark to carry on. For passers-by, we were voices and bodies in the falling dark. For our quartet, we had grown as one by reading together, for one another, for the Unnamable, for Beckett, whose piercing eyes were fixing us from the modest black and white picture stuck to the bottom left glass pane of the window next to the entrance door of the building.

When I restarted the TCD Beckett Reading Group in September 2019, which had been founded some years ago by Mary O’Byrne, the idea of convening the group online never occurred to me. Alongside other Beckett scholars in Trinity, I had participated in a few sessions led by Mary on campus and in site-specific locations, and I soon realised that physical presence was a key component of those sessions. The small community of readers knew each other very well, and they had developed an intimacy through a generous reading practice and an authentic sense of listening. After a little more than a term of co-convening the group at the Trinity Long Room Hub with my colleague and friend Megane Mazé, cherishing the same spirit of togetherness, the pandemic briskly stopped our endeavour to read Beckett’s texts both in French and in English. We had finished the reading of Comment c’est / How It Is and Mal vu mal dit / Ill Seen Ill Said, and ironically in retrospect, we were about to start Oh les beaux jours / Happy Days. No more Thursday evening gatherings in the Galbraith Room. No more voices. No more words spoken aloud. No more togetherness. Alone. With the text. With the words on the page. Apart from friends alone. With the same text. With the same words on the page.

Early in the pandemic, we saw Beckett memes and quotes proliferating over the Internet, populating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Beckett had been dubbed the author of confinement, and rightly so as showed from an academic perspective by the not premeditated, but timely publication of James Little’s Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space in May 2020. While Beckett was resonating as never before in the twenty-first century with the situation of humanity, the possibility to enact the remainders of humanness, which are characteristic of Beckett’s texts, had disappeared for us, and even more painfully so for Beckettian artists and their peers. The pandemic forced us to find the resilience of Winnie in her mound, to redirect our attention to the little things of life, and to marvel at our abilities to adapt “[t]o changing conditions.”

In the first lockdown, I found it increasingly difficult to research, to think and to write. My brain was caught in the whirlwind of ever-changing pandemic statistics and restrictions. Additionally, the energy and the motivation, which drive me in my day-to-day work, derive mostly from the possibility to share with others orally, to listen to others, to learn collectively in the same space. The Reading Group had become fully part of this dynamic. Had I ever tried to read playscripts aloud in my desk-based analyses? I confess not. The Beckett Reading Group changed this. Hearing those familiar texts aloud, voiced by different readers, not only provoked organic reactions to the text, but also shed new light on works that I had read silently many times before. Alone, I started to read the plays aloud to myself. After some time of practice, I noticed that ideas slowly started to come back, and I was able to write again, but it was not the same as readings with others, by others, for others. Meanwhile, some friends from the Reading Group had also expressed their own struggles and how they were also missing our gatherings for similar reasons, apart from the pleasure of being with each other. The time had come to think about how to organise a reading group of our kind online.

les mots
aux mots
sans mots
les pas
aux pas
un à

Samuel Beckett, “écoute-les,” in “mirlitonnades

The main challenge that arose was to find the texts that would allow us to maintain an ecology fostering reading as a soothing practice and reading as a spontaneous experimental act. The pace and the flow of reading is not predetermined. Rather, it emanates from the energy in the room and the needs of the group. Our objective is not to cover a certain number of pages every session. We promote listening to, and experimenting with, silences, sounds, words, voices and languages. As the reading goes on, we embrace the physical, emotional and cognitive reactions that it may engender. Our discussion times, in which we process the text and sometimes recover from it, are also an opportunity to share our personal–perhaps “intimate” would be more accurate in this instance–experience of the work, one always renewed by its voicing. This slow and experimental pedagogical practice meaningfully supplements the fast-paced analytical approach to texts, which our postgraduate community is used to in the classroom, and it gives a new impulse to our research works. As we leave each other at the end of a session, our voices keep resonating in our minds, and a dialogue begins with our personal projects, research or studies.

We are lucky to be united by an extremely prolific artist who has worked across many borders, including genre. While Beckett is widely remembered for his theatre, and later experimented with technologies of his time such as radio and television, his first literary ventures happened in poetry, a genre that he returned to at the end of his life. Faithful to the author at the core of our activities, Beckett Studies is extremely dynamic and prolific with numerous book publications every year, not to mention online and print journals, and the field still attracts a lot of early-career researchers. However, apart from the various critical editions of the poems, there is only one critical monograph solely dedicated to Beckett’s poetry dating from 1970–Samuel Beckett Poet and Critic by Lawrence E. Harvey–few journal issues, and currently, to my knowledge, there is only one PhD student in the world, working on Beckett’s poetry, Mar Garre García at the University of Almería (Spain). We thus saw in the poetry both a form that would be easier to read and discuss in the virtual environment for its conciseness, and the opportunity to delve into a corpus which remains under-explored.

In 2019-2020, we were a small group of five to six readers, including students and professors from the English Department, the French Department, and the Department of Drama. In order to preserve the intimacy of the group, which is essential to its good functioning, and to promote discussion and participation, we decided to limit the number of readers to ten. After sending the call for expressions of interest in college, we received an unexpected number of emails testifying to the need for such activities, even more so in times of pandemic and isolation. This is how our encounter as a community of readers and our encounter with Beckett the poet began in September 2020 on Zoom. Practically, in the first session, after trying to switch our microphones on and off in a Beckettian fashion, we realised that it was disrupting the reading and the flow of the poems. Hence, we agreed to keep our microphones on and welcome white noise and home background sounds as part of the experience. We also quickly realised that our democratic practice of not setting an order of reading was not working online. A new approach consists of entering our names in a randomiser to shuffle the reading order in every session, letting technological odds decide on the meeting between lines and voices. The order is posted in the chat and guides us throughout the session. If our experience of reading “Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates” soon confirmed that poetry is a genre easily approachable online, we also rapidly met with the difficulty of Beckett’s poems: one reading  was not enough to absorb and digest a piece. We therefore started to read each poem twice before discussing it. Each reader goes for about ten lines before the next reader carries on. In that way, we never hear the same lines with the same voice twice, enriching our sonic, linguistic and cultural experience of the poems.

In spite of the challenges both with the material and with the new online environment, the readings brought us closer to the young Beckett’s life–his loves, his losses, his pains, his surroundings and his imaginary world–and to his soundscapes. But our bi-weekly encounters have also brought together a strong community, which partakes in supporting its members’ social, mental, academic and creative lives. Moving online has provided a unique opportunity to maintain or revive relationships with visiting students gone back to their home institutions or with Trinity alumni exploring new shores. We have also been contacted by fellow postgraduate students abroad, whose institutions do not have a Beckett Reading Group, expressing their appetite and need for such activities. As we begin our second term online with the “Uncollected Early Poems from the Leventhal Papers” and the “mirlitonnades” in French and in English, we are grateful to have this community of readers, and we believe that small-scale initiatives such as this one have an impact which needs to be more supported, valued, and promoted within academia. From Trinity College in Ireland, from the Sorbonne in France, from Oxford University in England and from the University of Almería in Spain, we will go on together, alone, with Beckett.

Céline Thobois

Céline Thobois is an IRC-funded PhD student in the Department of Drama at Trinity College Dublin. After two years of Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles in Clermont-Ferrand (France), she obtained a B.A. in English Studies and an M.A. in Anglo-Irish Studies from Lille III University (France). Her current research, supervised by Prof Nicholas Johnson, is looking at the relationships between the human, technology and the environment in Samuel Beckett’s drama through the prisms of behaviourism and neuroscience. She has developed an interest in thinking creatively about new ways of reading and performing Beckett’s oeuvre in the twenty-first century, particularly in the context of the Anthropocene. Céline has worked as an assistant dramaturg, voice coach and French translator with Dead Centre on Beckett’s Room (Gate Theatre, 2019), and as dramaturg and French translator with Pan Pan Theatre and the Beckett Laboratory on Before Endgame (online broadcast, 2020). She has published in Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui and she is also a contributor of The Beckett Circle. Céline is a co-convener of the Samuel Beckett Reading Group at the Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies and a co-organiser of the Beckett Brunch in Dublin.