Life Writing: Samuel Beckett’s Literature of Disorder


ONE REASON FOR WRITING is to transmute suffering, to tame it, cauterize it with words. Naming things gives us power, reassurance. So does form. As Hannah Arendt puts it: “The story reveals the meaning of what would otherwise remain an intolerable sequence of events.” Joan Didion expresses a similar idea — paradoxically, in an essay that dramatizes the breakdown of narrative form: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Samuel Beckett’s work is unique in part because it refuses to manacle what he calls “being” into standard narrative forms. “If anything new and exciting is going on today, it is the attempt to let Being into art,” Beckett said, “to let in chaos and what is not ordered.”

Michael Coffey finds evidence of Beckett’s anti-narrative streak in a little-known text written and abandoned in the mid-1970s, “Long Observation of the Ray.” In it, Beckett meditates on the difficulty of objective observation, attempting to document a ray of light passing through a closed cube (in later drafts a sphere). For Coffey, the closed space of the sphere evokes the interior of the body or mind, a dark chamber through which light and images from the outside flicker. By choosing to model his fictional tribute to Beckett on “Ray,” Coffey foregrounds one of the most important, if uncomfortable, characteristics of Beckett’s work: its rejection of whatever salvific, soporific, or anesthetizing pleasures narrative offers. Beckett’s mode of writing drives us deeper into the restless rhythms of living, rather than whisking us off to a chaos-free world like Yeats’s Byzantium. This isn’t to say that Beckett’s work is devoid of beauty. It isn’t. But it refuses to make sense — I mean syntactical, semantic sense — of human suffering. Comedy, yes — for comedy allows us to face what is, not bury our heads in the sand — but sense, no.

Coffey opens Samuel Beckett Is Closed (OR Books, 2018) with an epigraph from Beckett: “Being is constantly putting form in danger.” The sentiment finds ample resonance in a hybrid work that blends literary criticism, personal narrative, prose poetry, and reportage. Coffey is no stranger to literary experimentation, and here he picks up Beckett’s own experimental thread and continues to spin it.

But perhaps “thread” is not the best metaphor for anti-narrative. Instead of one thread — a unified, linear story line — Samuel Beckett Is Closed features contrapuntal voices, differentiated by subject matter, style, and (thankfully) typeface. The book is delightfully aware of its metaphors — “‘Fugue in E Minor,’ please,” requests Samuel Beckett’s character. The voices in Coffey’s book are independent yet speak across to each other, creating thematic, rhythmic, and phonic areas of overlap. The book’s conceit is complicated enough to drive a reader to frustration, but Coffey is solicitous, teaching the reader his form. The book opens with an introduction to the four voices that make up its first section:

Four scenarios: 1) Samuel Beckett attends a baseball game in New York City. The Mets are playing. It is 1964. 2) A Coffey-like writer spends three years reading Beckett. 3) An unnamed narrator is asked to devise tales to put his beloved to sleep. 4) An interrogation is launched into interview tactics at Guantanamo Bay. Samuel Beckett, mentioned explicitly in two of the four sections, serves as a fil conducteur through the work as a whole. Once initiated, a reader can relish clever “cuts” between sections, humorous transitions, and returns to favorite scenes. An example:

The most congenial of the voices is also the most patently autobiographical. At the age of 62, with a limited number of reading years left — he estimates 20, if all goes well — Coffey describes his decision to spend three years reading Beckett. What the reader wants to know is also what Coffey’s narrator wants to know: why Beckett? So we’re launched on a literary quest with the affable narrator through the evolution of Beckett’s oeuvre: World War II, the postwar years, the tortuous deviations of his style, and Beckett’s troubled engagement with literary form. We encounter red herrings, critical watersheds, and academic conferences where Beckett’s works are enacted by literature professors in fugue (yes, it happens). This literary-critical journey is also an investigation into the heart of the self, as questions of identity and filiation emerge for Coffey (an adoptee) as they do in Beckett: “Yes, I was my father and I was my son, I asked myself questions and answered as best I could.” Coffey’s reading project takes him not only through the poetry, plays, and prose, but also into the voluminous “gray canon” of unpublished writings: notebooks, diaries Beckett kept during a trip to Germany in the 1930s, love affairs recorded in personal letters, self-translations, and abandoned works (including “Long Observation of the Ray,” which Coffey finds in the University of Reading’s Beckett archive).

Counter to this genial, autobiographical narrator runs a shadow voice, which, like a Shakespearean fool, inserts itself at intervals, thwarting the quest with whispers of doubt. We’re privy to the meta-monologue of a storyteller who invents tales to help his beloved sleep. In a self-consciously Beckettian style — the dangers of imitating Beckett for young and seasoned writers alike are discussed in a different section — the voice draws upon events from childhood, such as discovering the stiffened corpse of the neighbor’s cat under a porch: “Tom was dusty, yes. Hard as a suitcase, yes. Use the language, go ahead, use it all up.” With charming humor (“Love is an auditor, but not much of an editor”), the voice touches on the weather, the art of reading homes — spitiromancing, from the Greek spiti — and, predictably, The Arabian Nights, all the while probing what a story is and does: Does it put us to sleep? Stave off our execution? Perhaps in an effort to make sense of this, the narrator recounts one of Scheherazade’s tales, “The City of Brass,” in which the khalif’s explorers visit a splendid city deep in the desert. The city is full of riches, but its inhabitants are corpses, bearing signs of their destruction. Coffey’s narrator asks: “Will fiction keep the truth at bay or usher it forth? Does truth usher forth fiction or keep it at bay?”

The two remaining voices seem to be in a similar relationship of opposition, foils to each other. A dialogue between Beckett and his friend Richard Seaver at a Mets game is undercut by accounts of prison interrogations and terrorist attacks. Here, Coffey blends fact with imagination. In the summer of 1964, Beckett flew to New York to help with the shooting of Film. He didn’t particularly like the United States: “This is somehow not the right country for me,” he said. “The people are too strange.” But by all accounts he enjoyed his afternoon with Seaver at Shea Stadium watching the Mets, and he asked to stay through the whole doubleheader.

Coffey balances this scene of leisure and humor with descriptions of threats to culture and civilization, threats perpetrated by military personnel and by terrorist cells. Accounts of political violence in a book about Beckett and storytelling feel like reminders of our duty to remain awake to our political reality. Such an idea is in tune with Beckett’s political conscientiousness; he wrote Catastrophe (1982) to show support for Václav Havel, then in prison for his political activities. Coffey draws on the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man cleared of terrorism charges but imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years. He follows this with survivors’ accounts of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, then tells the story of 9/11 from the perspective of a 10-year-old. The tone of this section is factual, much like a news article, yet its unflinching treatment of its subject matter points to literature’s power to excavate terror: violence, persecution, and the universal predicament of living with numbered days — in other words, what many stories shield us from.

Aside from Beckett, Coffey’s most important interlocutor is Proust. Part two of Samuel Beckett Is Closed includes animated pastiches of the Recherche, including a drawing room scene with an artist named Peter Swan. Coffey playfully creates and dismantles literary characters, evoking the work of Beckett’s Malone (in Malone Dies), who tells himself stories as he waits for death, changing his protagonist’s name from Sapo to Macmann according to his whim. Imagining a heat blast incinerating his Proustian drawing room, Coffey asks what will accompany us “at that last instant, as we know it, when the dust and nonsense hardens into glass?” Coffey’s final section is a short play, featuring a character modeled on David Warrilow, the Beckett actor best known for his innovative staging of The Lost Ones. Throughout the book, Coffey compensates for what is lacking in his story line by focusing intensely on that one question: why Beckett?

Like any good quest, Coffey’s includes red herrings. As an adoptee curious about his parentage, Coffey follows with interest the rumors surrounding an avant-garde American poet whose mother had an affair with Beckett. But DNA tests indicate that Beckett is not the father, and Coffey wisely drops the inquiry: “[I]t is her story,” he writes, “not mine.” But filiation is an interesting topic to encounter in a book so hell-bent on reinventing narrative. Narrative demands continuity and requires the passing down of tradition. Beckett’s work, on the other hand, resists futurity. What to make of this? Inspired by the French critic Pascale Casanova (author of Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution), Coffey imagines Beckett to be a paragon of literary abstraction. Yet he finds irreducibly human components even in Beckett’s most abstract work, Worstward Ho. And so he settles on a middle course, reading Beckett neither in terms of a search for origins nor in terms of austere literary abstraction. He reads Beckett in terms of a search for the self.

Indeed, the most compelling answer to the question “Why Beckett?” has to do with Beckett’s way of writing about the self, what H. Porter Abbott calls autography — selfwriting as opposed to life-writing, or autobiography. In 1945, on Dublin’s Dún Laoghaire pier (Beckett later changed this location to his mother’s room), Beckett had an epiphany about the role the self would play in his work: “[I]t was his self that would be his topic or at least the occasion for his explorations of the conditions and the impulse for expression.” But what Beckett does with this impulse is different, more radical than autobiography (I did this, I went there, this happened to me). Instead, his writing grapples with the act of living itself: what does it mean to be an I, to have a self, to look from the perspective of the self onto the world, to train one’s gaze on the within or the without, to inhabit cells that are decaying, dying, showing their age and their fragility as matter? Consider the opening of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing 4: “Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me?”

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What is it that makes Beckett an important figure for our time? Dirk Van Hulle asks this question in his introduction to The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett (Cambridge, 2015). He speculates that it is the “unsentimentalized, humorous persistence of [Beckett’s] characters,” characters who go on “in spite of themselves, in spite of the world, in spite of death.” Thinking about Beckett’s “Long Observation of the Ray,” Coffey asks whether the work’s too-perfect form led Beckett to abandon it. For how could the “high priest of failure” create a “machine […] set in such a way as to pertain forever, defeating entropy”? This leads Coffey to identify Beckett’s “key philosophical, biological, and literary insight”: “Sustaining failure is the art of living […] facing failure and not surrendering to its darkness.”

A paean to the art of failure may seem grim, but there is a silver lining to Coffey’s work, which stems from his reading of Proust and from the title of Beckett’s late novella, Company. Citing the “‘company’ of which Proust wrote, the company of art that makes death ‘less bitter, less inglorious, and perhaps less certain,’” Coffey implies that what began for him as an interest in filiation has transformed into a discovery not of lineage but of company, of a fellow poet’s inspirational willingness to confront what is terrifying and vital.

Coffey’s book also speaks to how contemporary writers might stage an unmaking and remaking of form — one that serves as an ethical reminder of authorial limitations and of the porousness between the worlds we create and the political reality in which we live. By breaking rules of genre and narrative, by embracing experimental form, Coffey’s work raises questions about how contemporary artists might work to resist the status quo through a subversive, fragmentary style that makes it impossible for us to look away from our political reality. Now, more than ever, we have much to learn from Beckett.

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Amanda Dennis earned her doctorate in literature and philosophy from the Rhetoric department at the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on the role of the body and senses in the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett.



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