Friday, June 23, 2006

The fiction issue of the NYRB

(not that it's all fiction-related, of course, not by any manner of speaking) is on the newsstands and some of it's available online without a subscription.

Jonathan Raban has a thoughtful essay on Updike's new novel that made me feel with a clean conscience that I really do not need to read it myself; ditto Gabriele Annan on Irene Nemirovsky and Christian Caryl on Gary Shteyngart, in both cases novels that sound good-quality but not for me.

More immediately appealing: a very good piece by John Gray (subscribers only) about Isaiah Berlin; Darryl Pinckney on black minstrelsy, Bert Williams and Caryl Phillips' Dancing in the Dark (Pinckney concludes that "as academic theorists become ever more triumphalist concerning the elevation of vernacular culture, the black novelist as alternative historian is free to return to the nobility of defeat as a grand theme"); and
Tim Parks on Beckett's prose.

I must admit (it's morally low) that I could hardly enjoy this one as the Grove Beckett volumes are sitting reproachfully on my shelf and I must not read them until I have finished drafting my book manuscript, but it's an interesting and highly thought-provoking essay:

For those of us who were long ago enchanted by this prose and believe it second to none, there will always be a certain sadness in the reflection that Beckett achieved fame through the theater and will be remembered by a wider public only for his plays. Yet there are obvious reasons why Beckett's peculiar aesthetic was more immediately effective on stage. Some of the most intriguing pages of Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett come from actors who recall the author traveling to theaters all over Europe to follow productions of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days, telling them not to play their parts realistically, never to inquire about the characters' lives outside of a text, and, in general, to deliver their lines so far as possible in a flat monotone. "Too much color" was his frequent, head-shaking objection during rehearsals. Once again he was uneasy with the potential for sentimentality in what he had written.

Yet the actors often felt he was quite wrong and that the plays worked better with a lively, realistic delivery, a position to which Beckett himself eventually began to come around. The fact is that the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors on stage creates for the spectators a sense of reality and identification which the absurd plots and dialogues then undermine, so that the tension behind all of Beckett's work between affirmation and denial is dramatized for us in the contrast between the believable actor and the inexplicable, disorienting world he is in. At the same time, the conventions of the theater, which trap us respectfully together in an intimate space for a pre-established time, make it far more likely that the skeptical will follow a Beckett work from start to finish and have time to be enchanted by the rhythms of his writing. If few get through The Unnamable or How It Is, almost everybody can watch Godot to the final curtain.

But most importantly of all, the theater allows both silence and physical movement to come to the fore in a way they cannot on the page. A blank space between paragraphs simply does not deliver the anxiety of a hiatus in a stage dialogue. Only in the theater, as the audience waits in collective apprehension for the conversational ball— between Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov—to start rolling again, could Beckett's sense that any deep truth must be located in something, or nothing, beyond speech come across with great immediacy. Likewise the actors' interminable and pointless movement back and forth across the stage is a more immediate statement than the words of a page-bound narrator telling us of his aimless daily wanderings. When we watch the plays, the impotence of language to explain the characters' experience is powerfully evident. Conversation serves above all to pass the time.


  1. I think I'm with Tim Parks on this one. I had a moment of deep love for Beckett a few months ago when I saw the videotaped production of Krapp's Last Tape, with Jack Macgowran. Watching the close-ups of his face as he said the word "spoooonn," for instance, it was impossible not to watch the play without in some sense "believing in" Krapp as human. I don't think it undermined the play a bit.

  2. As soon as I posted that, I realized that it should be "spoooollll."

  3. Spooon is better, you must not have eaten breakfast yet! I do love Beckett...