Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Clair-obscure

Brigitte Le Juez's piece at the Guardian--on the lectures on French literature Samuel Beckett delivered in 1930 at University College Dublin--filled me with a mixture of delight and horror. (Horror, because as one who lectures myself, I can only imagine what sort of a narrative might be constructed from my students' notes!)
According to Burrows' notes, Beckett first defined his literary criteria by way of the contrast he set up between the 19th-century French authors Balzac and Flaubert. Unlike his Irish contemporaries, Beckett saw Balzac as the counter-example of the modern novel, and Flaubert as the great innovator. For Beckett (as he has the protagonist of his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, put it): "To read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world." He resented both the lack of confusion and the lack of self-criticism in Balzac. What fascinated him was the clair-obscure (the painterly distribution of light and shade) he found in the writers he admired, like Dostoevsky and Flaubert. Balzac, by contrast, only transcribed the surface, creating a fictional world that resembled a pool table on which balls are perfectly arranged and sent in one direction or another according to a very precise strategy of control. In Beckett's eyes, Balzac divested his fictional universe of the unexpected and the unknowable, properties which, for Beckett, lay at the heart of human experience and whose expression must find its way into fiction.

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