Desert Island Reading: A Return to Beckett
Right before Thanksgiving, I came down with some kind of one-off swine flu and convalesced at my parents’ house before leaving with them to spend the holiday in coastal Florida. The day we left, I had to teach all afternoon and leave directly after, leaving no time to collect the books from my house that I so dearly wanted to read at the beach (my glory box of 10 for $65 from Dalkey had just arrived). Instead, I had under 5 minutes to grab whatever I could from my parents’ house.
This seemed a bit like a realer, truer version of those desert-island lists people make. For if you were actually stranded, you wouldn’t be able to come up with an ideal reading list; you will be stuck with whatever is at hand. Luckily, my brother and I have both stashed at our parents’ books that we’d bought forever ago and hadn’t gotten around to reading or taking to our own places, so there were some good options–just zero time to pick carefully among them.
I ended up with, among other volumes, two French Dual Language books and Samuel Beckett’s Watt. By the time I arrived at the beach, my ambition of trying my hand at translating by covering up the English side of French books and then checking had dissolved. I felt a bit unequal to Watt, too. I’ve loved Beckett since I first saw some productions of his plays in Paris, and since then I’ve read a few other plays. But I’ve only read his novels in grad school, where the blows of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable were softened by my most excellent teacher, David Gates.
Since then, I have felt, somehow, as if I couldn’t withstand Beckett’s prose on my own, the dead weight of his sentences, his spine-twisting anti-proverbs, the desolation, the threat. But there I lay, on a brilliantly sunlit balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, staring into Beckett’s considerably less sunny universe. And now I’m going to try to convince you why you, too, should turn, or return, to Beckett, Watt specifically.
There’s no windup to Beckett; the joyride of Watt begins directly on page 1, where we meet Humpy Hackett (only to say farewell to him for good on page 32, when the narrative, such as it is, bends toward Watt entirely). For readers of Beckett, Mr Hackett is immediately recognizable (as is Watt): “This seat, the property very likely of the municipality, or of the public, was of course not his, but he thought of it as his. This was Mr Hackett’s attitude toward things that pleased him. He knew they were not his, but he thought of them as his. He knew they were not his, because they pleased him.”
It’s this quality of syllogism, this kind of ultra-logic, that simulataneously thickens and lightens Watt a bit compared to the trilogy. The protagonists, if you can call them that, in the trilogy seem to be after precisely nothing, or at least nothing overarching, whereas Humpy Hackett for the first little bit and then Watt for the bulk of the novel exhibit, constantly and exhaustively, a kind of gleeful and grotesque drive to account for every single possibility when faced with the most mundane of questions. Watt is, no less than say Molloy, myopically tuned in only to what is just before his view, but he has a kind of grand project of probing the logical depths of everything concerning his immediate surroundings. An example:
The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.
Of these two explanations Watt thought he preferred the latter, as being the more beautiful.
Other questions that occur to Watt have many more than two possible explanations, and any number of variables, and each permutation is described in full. At a certain point, I began to skim a bit when I got to these behomoths of repetitive prose, but then I realized that the true jewels of Beckett’s wit were often to be found therein. To rip one out of context: “7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.”
There are also classic Beckettian moments, like the following, spoken by Watt’s predecessor at Mr Knott’s house (his place of employ): “And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it.”
Beckett avails himself of charts, scores, unyieldingly uninterpretable question marks set between paragraphs, and, memorably, this footnote: “(1) Hemophilia is, like enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male disorder. But not in this work.” Beckett also waits until quite far along to reveal that the book has been first-person narrated from the get-go by someone to whom Watt has told his story. Beckett is, in Watt, at play as I’d never seen him before. I won’t give away his final playful touch, but know that you have it to look forward to all along.
Too, I found in Watt a surprising sublimity of description. In this way Beckett softens his own blows, to be reductive about it, with these startling supple images and a kind of tough, dry, dirty hope. As in:
For it if was really day again already, in some low distant quarter of the sky, it was not yet day again already in the kitchen. But that would come, Watt knew that would come, with patience it would come, little by little, whether he liked it or not, over the yard wall, and through the window, first the grey, then the brighter colours one by one, until getting on to nine a.m. all the gold and white and blue would fill the kitchen, all the unsoiled light of the new day, of the new day at last, the day without precedent at last.
There is so much more of all the kinds of things I have shown you. Watt must be Beckett’s most generous book, and his truest. I’d like to think so, at least. Not that it isn’t bleak. Not that it isn’t a fresh whiff, a cough, of hell on earth. But we have this life to live and nothing else, and it’s a better life for this murky glass mirror of it.