F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Perhaps the most frequently quoted final sentence. One of those endings that suggests the opposite of an ending: you may want to "move on", but you keep getting taken back to the story you thought you'd finished.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This is the terrible one because, by the time you get to it, you realise how inevitable it is. Winston Smith's fate is not just to be defeated, but to have his will turned to submission. "He loved Big Brother."
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
"After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." At the end of this novel of love and war, hope and desperation, all passion is spent. The narrator's lover has died in childbirth and the only possible conclusion is one of those perfect Hemingway sentences, expressively drained of expressiveness.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
"I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be." A more recent example of the ending where the weight is in what is not said. If you haven't read the novel, it is banal; if you have read the novel, you'll know how eloquently desolate this is.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." Long, wordy, sententious: but Dorothea's obituary is weirdly moving nonetheless.
Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey
The best comic last sentence ever is a perfectly suggestive interruption. Yorick, the clergyman narrator, is sharing the only spare room in a French inn with a lady and her fille de chambe. In the night, the curtain dividing the room begins to come unpinned, and Yorick reaches out from his bed. But the maid servant has got into the gap between beds, "So that when I stretched out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre's -"
We must wander into French for one of the most discussed final sayings in fiction. "'Cela est bien dit,' répondit Candide, 'mais il faut cultiver notre jardin'." After everything absurd and horrific that they have seen, after travelling the globe to witness the extremes of human folly and cruelty, Candide recommends a little horticulture. Endless ink has been spent explaining what Voltaire was "saying".
Franz Kafka, The Trial
The ultimate finality, the moment of the protagonist's death. As a knife twists in his heart, Josef K realises that it is the victim who is ashamed, not the perpetrator. "'Like a dog!' he said, it was as if the shame of it must outlive him." In German, it is even more terrible.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
More ending in death, but this time it sounds like a solace after life. "I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fl uttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
"Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." Says it all, really.
Perhaps the most remarkable passage of recurring fascination to readers of Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable is the one in which the hero fully acknowledges the maniacal repetitiveness of his struggle. The courage to go on seeking his core self can only prolong agony—because speaking, thinking in words, the plying of language, disperses him.
[T]he words are everywhere, inside me, outside me . . . impossible to stop them, impossible to stop, I'm in words, made of words, others' words . . . everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows, like flakes, I'm all these flakes . . . I'm all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words.
He has only words with which to strive, he is nothing but words, and his utterance disperses him like ashes.
His torture seems to us both hideous and compelling. We root for him, enthralled by the representation of crazed frenzy—the hopelessness of having been "born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage"—because we believe the Unnamable will persevere using words as probes, though going on is like a windstorm scattering him even as he seeks himself.
He goes on searching with words, struggling against despair and keeping it at bay by attributing his torment to the agency of others and by elaborating a story of persecution in which he heroically holds out, all the while displaying so compelling a range of poetic utterance that we believe his story. "Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true," Salman Rushdie writes in The Satanic Verses. We believe the story he concocts in order to keep going because his voice has the power to convince, and because his predicament is true to the condition of our times—to a spiritual peril the novel will have us acknowledge.
Don DeLillo wrote a reply to a letter I sent working writers soliciting comments about Beckett:
Beckett is a master of language. He is all language. Out of the words come the people instead of the other way around. He is the last writer whose work extends into the world so that (as with Kafka before him) we can see or hear something and identify it as an expression of Beckett beyond the book or stage.
I think DeLillo has The Unnamable in mind, and that his intention is to bestow the highest possible praise on Beckett. Beckett is the exalted god-creator whose element of creation is the dust of words. Out of chaos come words, an explosion of words, which, says DeLillo, is a representation of Beckett authoring one of his worlds, and, I am sure DeLillo would add, of the Unnamable's authority.
The literary imagination is a choice, a left fork off the quotidian. If the splitting were only in the mind and not the world, deep imaginative reflection would be schizophrenic. But Kafka locates the commonplace in that deep realm of the imagination. In the work of Kafka and Beckett, the barrier between the imaginative and real worlds has dissolved. K. of The Castle strives in the imaginative world while acting out his desire in the quotidian. The same in essence is true for the Unnamable. We interpret and understand his struggle as though it took place in the mind of someone in our world desperate to keep the intimations of his uniqueness from being smothered. Wordsworth's Intimations Ode provides a useful analogy: "trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God"; "Shades of the prison-house begin to close"; "And custom lie upon thee . . . / Heavy as frost." In Beckett, life extinguishes any intimations of the sacred. The self—the soul—is extinguished, and would be for the Unnamable if he were not crafty-wise and indefatigable.
We pull for him, impelled by our recognition of different aspects of the hero, and the different planes on which his representation has a powerful significance. The Unnamable, as epic hero for our times, merges into the aspect of the condemned Jew, one of the vanquished, repelled by life yet clinging to it, as if his ghostly existence constituted an act of responsibility to those already murdered. The hero also reflects the plight of the writer: repelled by the world and by his death-in-life withdrawal from it, dimming out, his witness and his art in any case worthless, he feels incomprehensibly driven to go on trying to create. Implied as well is the manifestation of the hero as the rebellious Son refusing to serve a world irredeemably cursed, yet who believes in the fairy tale of the Good Master esteeming his bravery and intending to reward it.
By contrast, Beckett criticism, by and large, reads the work not for narrative meaning but for Beckett's aesthetic strategy and its metaphysical implications. As a poet, Leslie Scalapino is unique in her application of Derridean assumptions to a reading of Beckett. In a letter to me her discourse about Beckett is in part performance, imitative of Derrida—play in the service of explication. She summarizes the originality of Beckett (thinking of The Unnamable) as follows:
The separation between language and "being" always entails a conventional use of language which substitutes an outside framework describing the meaning of an experience, rather than being itself a separate experience. Beckett broke down that separation by enhancing the separation, demonstrating language and life and real-time as equally fictional (in the sense of illusion-making). He exploded real-time so that it is also the time of the text. The speaker in The Unnamable is not a character making a representation of his life. Hearing is not arising there in a virtual picturing of oneself (the reader) as if moving in Beckett's landscape animated as mind, which is then spoken (by his speaker) as gone—it is in relation to literal hearing of a sound only that's the text's sound. Not virtual, actual. His examination of "being" as text is basic, laying a ground for our continuing to write in a way that could undertake what's real.
But who else is reading the trilogy? Nobody much teaches the great prose, with the occasional exception of Molloy and Malone Dies. The recent Longman Anthology of British Literature (2003) printed eighteen pages of Beckett compared with almost two hundred pages of Woolf. The implication couldn't be plainer: having surveyed the field, the editors and reviewers of the anthology would insist that professors aren't interested in teaching Beckett. And what about fiction writers and poets, are they familiar with the great prose? In my mind there isn't a more masterful work on the personal costs that go into writing fiction than How It Is. Do working writers know and read the novel? I am sure that The Unnamable and How It Is have seldom if ever been introduced to a college class on any level, and remain unknown to the most literary of general readers. (After all, one has to read these books with a pencil in hand. Until a reader has a conception of the work, a construct of how things hold together, the tissue of words remains inert. The sparking has to happen in just the way it does with the writer searching for the poetic idea of a new fiction, whose prayers to the muse are answered only when the writer is on the move, like the journeyer in How It Is. The reader must grope his way to an imaginative perception of the form of the novel and of the story. What's in it for the reader obliged to work up a point of view, a stance toward the fiction before it can come to life, and who requires a poised pencil and something like undistracted privacy for the task? Did I say task? For cognoscenti like Richard Howard, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Josipovici, and Don DeLillo, the groping is play, and ideas and perceptions coalesce soon enough.)
I make these remarks by way of a preface to a letter I sent forty-six writers (with thirty-four I had had previous correspondence) soliciting their feelings about Beckett. I wanted to know if they read the prose and whether it was important to them. Behind these questions was a key question: had Beckett taught them the acquired taste for his work? And these questions I cloaked in a larger one that asked for their reactions to the experimentation and difficulty encountered in reading modernist and postmodern texts. Here then is the verbatim letter I sent, which begins with reference to my having completed a book in manuscript, and continues as follows:
At one point in my long infatuation with Beckett, I thought of responding to Philip Larkin's antagonism to writers like Beckett. I was set going by a passage in Martin Amis's recent memoir, Experience, in which he imitates "characteristic" Beckett prose (over dinner with Rushdie). That demonstration amounted to an ugly, meaningless, repetitive quaqua of sounds. I think Amis—like his novelist father, and their close, family friend, Larkin—dislikes writing that is "unnecessarily" complicated. But even more salient, I think he confuses Beckett's prose with the academic praxis meant to explain it. In my manuscript, I run with that supposition—that in part if Beckett's great prose has become writing for professors, it's the professors' fault for writing about it like Masons guarding some secret power from the public. (Beckett's power, by the way, is in my view found in the intimacy of a story; my Beckett is a writer of stories—a characterization in sharp contradiction to the Beckett of the critical establishment.) I do not deal with the issue of "unnecessary" complexity anathematized by Larkin in Required Writing (1982), especially in the "Introduction to All What Jazz"—because it seemed absurd to be defending Joyce, Eliot, Lowry, and Beckett. "Art loves leaps." "A writer is either new or an antiquarian." I did not look beyond these Beckettian formulations, which mount a sufficient defense. However, I do wish (after all) to confront Larkin's antagonism to modernism, and especially from the point of view of practicing writers, with an eye to including a variety of opinions in an essay. Perhaps the first question to ask is who's reading the trilogy and How It Is anyway? Have you read them?
In the excerpts below from All What Jazz (1970), you find a succinct formulation of Larkin's objection to works like the trilogy, Endgame, and How It Is.
This development, this progress, this new language that was more difficult, more complex, that required you to work hard at appreciating it, that you couldn't expect to understand first go, that needed technical and professional knowledge to evaluate it at all levels, this revolutionary explosion that spoke for our time. . . . Of course! . . . Of course! . . . Of course! . . . There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don't believe about art. (292-93)
My own theory is that [modernism] is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material, and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. . . . He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machines during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. . . . And parallel to this activity ("every idiom has its idiot," as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. (293)
No, I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism . . . it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power. Hence the compulsion of every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity. (297)
I received answers to this letter from twenty-five writers, mostly men. Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Drabble replied that they scarcely have read any Beckett. Le Guin asked in turn, "have you read Jose Saramago?" Doris Lessing wrote, "I don't care enough about Beckett—I like Waiting for Godot. Forgive me."
Julian Barnes, Richard Powers, and Richard Wilbur answered tersely. Barnes: "[I] find that Amis-Larkin-old fogey 'Picasso's a fraud' line on modernism tedious, and haven't read as opposed to seen Beckett for a while." Powers: "I'm actually a bit amused at Larkin's anxiety in that [I feel] we are again at a moment that can use an art capable of the wildest leaps." Wilbur: "I suspect that, despite its large fundamental themes, his art is narrow."
Here are further excerpts from the correspondence:
I think I count among the "antiquarians." I would not trade the antiquarianism of E. M. Forster in A Passage to India for two or three Samuel Becketts—because, as a reader, I want to feel and to wonder.
I hope you'll forgive me for fossildom!
Who cares what Martin Amis likes or doesn't like? Let them make fun of Beckett; he certainly doesn't need their approval; by "their" I mean the fuddy-duddy Brits, who of course have their American allies—just take a look at that ghastly New Criterion for poets who tout the very forms they can't master.
Larkin wrote some wonderful minor poems, truly wonderful, but his taste was hideously crabbed. His enemies for life were "The Three Ps," Picasso, Pound, & Parker. The first two I could live without (though I recognize their contributions), but Bird I need frequently.
I'm afraid I don't care what the academics do or don't do with Beckett. He hardly requires their interest, much less their approval. He's not just on the scene, for decades he's been the scene.
But Larkin's response to Modernism doesn't seem to me so suspicious because I find that I share it in some measure. It is likely he is a product of his time, i. e., a survivor of the terrible war years who wants stability, a middle class bloke who wants respect, a conservator in many ways. And of course his tutor at Oxford [F. R. Leavis] was well-known for hating Eliot, which I take to mean the ways of the fragment-master. But I am hard put to argue with Larkin since I have no feeling for Beckett at all. I do admire Joyce but think that was learned into me by my professors, and can't abide Finnegan. If we could limit the modernists to Conrad and Faulkner and Eliot and Williams, I might be able to speak sensibly, but I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for Woolf.
As to Beckett, well, I read or read at the Molloy/Malone novels back in the late sixties, and they bored the crap out of me. I thought you could pretty much have edited them all down to one sentence or two. I can't get behind Larkin's blunt-force-trauma attack on "modernism," or any such pseudo-issues as "lasting power," "violence," "obscenity," "irresponsible exploitations of technique." That's just all blah, blah, blah to me—trumping up as judgment what's really only a matter of taste. But I have no taste for Beckett—at least not the prose. He's maybe plenty smart, I guess, but he hasn't been worth the effort to me, doesn't husband my precious attention interestingly or pleasurably; and he fails to renew my sensuous and emotional life and teach me a new awareness, as Leavis asked of literature. I feel sort of the same way about Ulysses, though not Lowry, whom I like. Put Beckett in the time capsule; his work will certainly have anthropological value to future generations interested in figuring out how we got off the rails. (If there are many future generations.) But, just don't make me read him now.
I think him to be one of the few great writers of the second half of the twentieth century. I admire the trilogy immensely, of course. My personal taste brings me to reread the earlier Beckett and the plays—particularly Murphy and Watt, which I continue to find remarkable and in many places uniquely hilarious. And Murphy, with one of the very great opening sentences in the history of the novel, and the magnificent ascent of the kite at the end, came alive yet again on my rereading it last year. Generally speaking, given my own inclinations, perhaps I can love Beckett (and in, fact, Borges) more than I could if I were a British or American novelist. . . .
As for Larkin, the passage you quoted seems to reflect a characteristic distrust of extraordinary language.
The theatrical idea is striking in Beckett, but there is no evident depth to his understanding of life. You cannot believe in his characters as characters, but only as exemplars of the theatrical idea as a brilliantly staged event (the language itself in Play is a farrago). The experience in Beckett is often frightening, or funny, but is not "real" in the sense which Larkin demands. It is not about the shared problems of living. I don't think that complication or complexity is quite the issue here. The English tradition takes readily to difficulty and cleverness and showing-off in the theatre, but we do like to recognize the situations that give rise to it. That's why we prefer the civilized inventiveness of Tom Stoppard or Caryl Churchill.
But to come to the Beckett novels: I have read the Trilogy, but not How It Is. Molloy I find richer than Malone Dies, but when I was asked to contribute to a programme, at a Cheltenham Festival of Literature, of short talks on favourite books one could enthuse about to an audience, I chose Malone Dies. I do find its emphasis on the sheer detail of daily living in that desperate situation so painfully authentic and at the same time so funny that I am convinced that it is going to keep me cheerful if I reach such an extreme old age. The early passages about Saposcat I find hilarious, and the day's outing towards the end of the story is a wildly funny, if very frightening, episode.
I agree with all you say about Beckett—especially that he is a storyteller, which I think absolutely obvious to anyone outside what you call the critical establishment. I also love Larkin's poetry, which I suppose makes me forgive his Little Englander attitudes to anything from Abroad. I read all of Beckett in my earlier years. I think the trilogy is his masterpiece. As is usual when a great writer dies, Beckett's reputation as a prose writer has gone into a decline in the past decade or so, but it will come back, I'm sure. . . . I think some of Beckett's finest work is in the late pieces, especially Ill Seen Ill Said, which is surely his late masterpiece, and one of my favourites of all his works.
Larkin bitching about Sam Beckett is like the gnat annoying the ox. Pretty soon, it's not even an annoyance unless it begins an infection somewhere. Beckett is the author of a dozen certifiable masterpieces in several genres. Larkin wrote a dozen great poems and some decent jazz criticism.
Now, as to Beckett . . . Yes, I read him. Couldn't do without him. His "Try again. Fail again. Fail better" has been my solace and encouragement for many years. I read, especially, the Trilogy and the plays. Haven't re-read Comment c'est since I made my local library get it for me when I was seventeen. He is a wonderful writer, every sentence a pleasure. Yes, a great storyteller and also one of the funniest. Things from Beckett occur to me at the oddest times and make me laugh out loud. So that for a start: Beckett is very very funny, in a way appropriate to our reality, blackly. . . . I view Beckett, Joyce, Lawrence, the exiles and travelers, as saints and heroes of the struggle for a wider humanity. And, according to the biographies, Beckett's life matched his best writing. That's another great thing in his favour.
I have always liked Beckett but never found him as compelling as others seem to—especially in the later works. Much of what Larkin says about Modernism is a deliberate exaggeration—a dramatization of his own real reactions. (Remember that Larkin's father was a devotee of Modernism.)
I have read Beckett's trilogy (as well as his plays and poems) but not the other prose titles that you mention. I loved the trilogy, and have loved Beckett—and not, I guess, enough to have read everything, or even to have reread. . . .
I don't think that Ulysses, much less Ezra Pound, gets much attention from English intellectuals, or just a corner of them who "go in for such stuff." I can love "Aubade" (and read much of Martin and a good bit of Kingsley with pleasure) and still brush off their obligatory Philistine reactions to modernism. I don't get outraged, I don't take it seriously, I call it silly. I don't feel the need to defend Beckett or Joyce or Pound or Eliot against these good writers with limited taste. . . .
As for Beckett, I haven't read the prose since college years, and in college I adored everything my professors set before me. But I can tell you that the plays meant and mean a great deal to me. I arrived in New York in 1956 from provincial California and among the wonderful things on stage (My Fair Lady, Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey) were Krapp's Last Tape and Zoo Story in one billing. It wasn't like going to sleep; it was like waking. But the greatest influence was Waiting for Godot, THE great play of the last century. Indeed, the last little scene of King of the Jews, especially the last page, is written the way it is because of Beckett's play.
Frederick Turner responded to my letter with a short essay, "The Earthly Paradise and the Heavenly Paradise," a manifesto attacking modernism and post-modernism "as a huge mistake" in language similar to Larkin's—"alienated the arts from their audience, left them aesthetically rudderless," and "robbed artists of their own virtuosity." Based on the essay, it seems Turner would sum up Beckett as mere "cleverness," and the prose as "an unscrupulous enterprise" robbing art of "an artistic conscience."
This mixed bag of replies seems on the whole negative and lukewarm (and lukewarm is equivalent to spewing him out) and might suggest that working writers little read or revere Beckett. Despite these criticisms from fellow writers, Beckett's books remain in print, his plays continue to be performed, and the industry of Beckett criticism is thriving. And after all, these findings are based on a mere sample. Had a few more of Beckett's cognoscenti drifted into the correspondence, this negative impression would have been stood on its head.
In fact, I might have solicited writers whom the poet Mark Rudman encouraged me to contact, when I shared with him the gist of my observations. He was angry. "You're hitting the wrong writers. These are nineteenth-century writers with twentieth-century .' But you must get other writers." And Rudman proceeded to name ten women, adding, "women love Beckett," and, "Can point you to a zillion women (at least three of our best novelists) who adore Beckett." The following day, Rudman shot off a series of missives by e-mail:
What poet and writer of my generation, currently in the fifties' zone, hasn't read Beckett's trilogy and How It Is? Who hasn't been intoxicated by Molloy? Who has not struggled to both incorporate the implicit lessons of these masterpieces and yet not become a disembodied echo, using nameless characters, archetypal places, and essential landscapes, as opposed to work that contains proper nouns and some sort of specificity? The problem offered by a writer like Beckett is that he's so fine and so contagious that it's hard to resist the temptation to imitate him. . . .
The writers of my generation have had to attain an identity while retaining an awareness of Beckett's impact. . . . A writer like Beckett, or an artist like Giacometti, is not there to be followed, but to force the artists who come after them to consider seriously the nature of their enterprise. . . .
When I was first reading Thomas Bernhard, Irving Howe referred to his books as "punitive." I think the word punitive is more to the point than Larkin's retro sally. Beckett's work points to a punishing reality, an existence which is never free from existence. Some of us find this purifying, redemptive.
Inevitably, I went ahead and wrote those potential Beckett enthusiasts listed by Rudman. I sent them the same letter; in all I received two responses, from Heather McHugh and Carole Maso. Heather McHugh sent a delightful jeu d'esprit which plays with language in a Beckettian vein. Finally, Carole Maso's passionate appreciation underscores the debt that many writers today must owe Beckett.
Beckett's trilogy, (and particularly The Unnamable), Texts for Nothing, How It Is as well as all the late prose and of course, the plays, stand as the single most significant literary influence on my own work. In what way you ask. The question is daunting. Where to begin? Perhaps with its sheer beauty: the way form and content are so utterly melded, so utterly wed as to produce a sublime and resonant prose unlike anything else in English or in French. This fusion of form and content make the work wholly accessible to my mind, as it allows us into a genuine experience, not simply the record of an experience. It is the most intimate, poignant and pressing enactment of the instability of self and world I know of and is achieved through syntax, through design finding something like the actual shapes for emotion and thought. All we need do is surrender a little to form as a way to meaning. It's easy once you try. Who could say, if they for one moment sloughed off some of the old expectations and ways of reading, say they do not "understand" lines such as this: "Little body same grey as the earth sky ruins only upright. Ash grey all sides earth sky as one all sides endlessness." More than most so-called accessible prose it directly approximates the anxiety. Who could really think that the arrangements of sound, rhythm, pattern in Sans for instance, the piece these lines come from, are nonsensical, gratuitous—that they obscure? One wonders . . .
The sheer musicality of Beckett has been an enormous consolation as I have tried to write. Beckett's work nears the consolation of music. Each line of Beckett is quietly, gorgeously cadenced, each novel, as well as the other prose pieces, is composed using music's deep structures. Incantatory, hypnotic, rhythmic, fiercely lyrical this work creates an additional kind of experiential space, at once concrete and abstract—something usually kept outside fiction's domain.
I am constantly moved by the poignancy of Beckett's project—by its simplicity on some level—the way it creates space for the philosophical, and new positions for the narrating self: a hybrid voice with a new and distinct kind of utterance. He has opened, even in the darkness, a new door. And before our eyes in the most riveting of ways we have watched it happen: the discarding bit by bit the "old style," his soliloquizing narrator struggling to create a place where he might speak from the center of a wholly different consciousness. We witness the potential and limitations of story and language enacted before us. And as if this is not enough (and it is) there are the many other pleasures in Beckett that give me courage and audacity—the irreverence for one—the dark hilarity everywhere, the parodying of the novel as a form, its mocking of the plotted "ending." It[s] delirious black-humored set pieces. I am also often struck by the tenderness in Beckett, by the rawness of the concerns, the surfeit of emotion, the fondness for story. And the sensuality—does anyone mention it?—the state of dirge and lullaby we are cradled by.
In a post 9/11 world it seems to me Beckett's oeuvre (yet again) is one of the most resonant and relevant there is—with its disembodied voices, its figments, its extraordinary solitude, its uncertainty, its self-dissolution, its profound sense of loss, its scraps and relics (a bicycle, a pair of crutches, the mother's voice), its chatter and babble, its absurdities and absences, its silence, its terrible sadness, its strange hope, its resilience, its ravishing beauty—a heartbreaking chronicle of the "life said to have been mine above in the light before I fell."
None of the writers, I would suspect, with the exception of the language poet Leslie Scalapino, read Beckett the way his experts write about him—implying that his prose is a specialized taste for a highly cultivated readership alert to philosophical allusion and speculation. Carole Maso's response testifies to a more accessible and engaging Beckett.
Beckett's power, especially in The Unnamable and How It Is, is felt in the process of imaginative discovery. The words, as DeLillo says, give rise to something that is nourished by the reader's imagination. Like the journeyer in How It Is who is discovered to be the cognoscente telling his story in its eternally recurring stages, soon enough one finds the world of the fiction—and the intimate story. Beckett's are bare, caustic, hygienic fictions, craved when one feels no patience for scenery and preparation. It is perverse to criticize him for not rooting his work in some accessible reality, and thereby giving us a deep subjective experience. He is special in that the world of his novels comes into being in the imagination of the reader, and because of that the reader's discovery may be deeply personal and punitive—about, for example, one's cowardice (The Unnamable) or the avidity with which one inflicts pain (How It Is).
If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
(Kafka, in a letter Oskar Pollak)
Perhaps certain books can be redemptive—can open the future. In Cesare Pavese's Dialogues with Leucó, an immortal says of humans that our fates are determined by "the imaginative shape [we] give to [our] terror of tonight and tomorrow." We go like sleepwalkers through an inalterable existence—except (Beckett would feel obliged to add) for brief instants at a time when "all is not dead," and we know by another's tortured cries that we still exist: "one drinks one gives to drink goodbye" (How It Is). The shock of recognition some get from Beckett feels purifying because, for a moment, we lose our illusions.
John Banville is the author of thirteen novels, including The Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He served as literary editor of The Irish Times from 1988 to 1999 and has most recently published Shroud and Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City.
Julian Barnes writes in a variety of genres, from mystery and crime novels to literary criticism and history. His noted recent works include England, England, which received a Booker Prize nomination, and Love, etc.
Alan Brownjohn has published ten books of poetry, including the recent The Cat without E-mail, and three novels, including A Funny Old Year. A new collected edition of his poems is scheduled to appear in 2005.
David Constantine, poet and translator, has published half a dozen collections of poetry, the most recent being Something for the Ghosts, as well as a novel and a volume of short stories. He is currently translating Goethe's Faust for Penguin Books.
Don DeLillo, author of thirteen novels and two stage plays, has won many honors including the National Book Award for White Noise, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II; he is also the first American recipient of the Jerusalem Prize.
Leslie Epstein has written nine books of fiction, most notably King of the Jews, Goldkorn Tales, and the more recent Pinto and Sons and Pandaemonium. His latest novel, San Remo Drive, appeared in 2003.
Richard Ford is a novelist, story writer, and essayist. He is probably best known for his novel Independence Day, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
John Fuller's first novel, Flying to Nowhere, won a Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker; his sixth, The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole, appeared in 2001. His most recent collection of poems is Now and for a Time.
Dana Gioia is known for such poetry collections as The Gods of Winter and Daily Horoscope. In 2003 Gioia was named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Donald Hall's books of poetry include Without, Exiles and Marriages, The Happy Man, and The One Day, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. A collection of short stories, Willow Temple, was published in 2003.
Sam Hamill, founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, is also the author of thirteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays, and two dozen volumes of translations. He recently edited a best-selling anthology, Poets Against the War.
John Hollander, author of eighteen books of poetry, including Figurehead: and Other Poems, is currently the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University.
Philip Levine has won numerous distinguished writing awards, including two National Book Awards for Poetry as well as the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.
Carole Maso is the author of nine books including the novel Art Lover, a book of essays entitled Break Every Rule, and Beauty is Convulsive, poems in prose.
Cynthia Ozick has authored five novels, three collections of short stories, and four books of essays. She won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Quarrel Ex Quandary, essays. She is currently completing a novel entitled Lights and Watchtowers.
Richard Powers, MacArthur Fellow and author of numerous works of fiction, is probably best known for his novels The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. His most recent work is The Time of Our Singing.
Mark Rudman has written seven books of poetry and three books of prose. His recent poetic trilogy includes The Millennium Hotel, Provoked in Venice, and Rider, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was awarded the Columbia Translation Center's Max Hayward Award for his translation of Boris Pasternak's My Sister—Life.
Leslie Scalapino, poet, novelist, essayist, is an experimental writer and is associated with the language school of poets. Her works include the novel Defoe, a book of essays, and such poetry collections as The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence, and most recently, Zither & Autobiography.
Dave Smith has published numerous books of poetry, including Floating on Solitude: Three Books of Poems and The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems. He also served as editor of The Southern Review from 1990 to 2002.
Frederick Turner is a poet, literary critic, essayist, translator, and former editor of The Kenyon Review. His recent books include Hadean Eclogues and Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics.
Richard Wilbur was for many years an English professor, retiring in 1986 and soon thereafter serving as our second Poet Laureate. His latest book of poems is Mayflies. He has also written criticism, comic opera lyrics, children's verse, and translations of Molière and Racine which are frequently performed here and abroad.