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Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies
Lois Oppenheim

Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
$ 34, 95, 288 pages, ISBN 1-4039-0353-0.


Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio



Lois Oppenheim’s Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies explores how to analyze a writer who seemingly writes about nothing, but yet has remained an important canonical literary figure for over forty years. The answer lies in what Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot stressed about language and poetry: “that reading is an art of filling in” [Abbott 12] that requires an informed reader that can fill in the egregious gaps. Samuels Beckett’s egregious gaps create a narrative structure that is largely contingent on an unstoppable human desire to fill in what is always missing in order to decipher what is actually occurring and being said. The Palgrave Advances series is meant to show graduate and upper-level students the influential developments that have emerged in literary criticism about prominent literary figures and historical periods. These developments are noteworthy as they have come to determine that a consensus can never truly be derived in literary studies because researchers are constantly discovering new ways of approaching texts and eras. Lois Oppenheim brings together some of leading scholars in Beckettian criticism including H. Potter Abbott, Enoch Brater, Elin Diamond, Leslie Hill, Anna McMullan, Peter Boxall, Linda Ben-Zvi, Mary Bryden, Angela Moorjani, S.E. Gontarski, Katherine Worth, and David Pottie. Oppenheim along with her twelve contributors compile a valuable study on the development, progression, and continuing presence of Samuel Beckett studies.    

Elin Diamond’s essay “Feminist Readings of Samuel Beckett” argues that “the central tropes of feminist theory, the hysteric, the maternal semiotic, and the reformative parler-femme (speaking [as] woman)” [45] rely on French feminist theories advanced during the 1970s and 1980s by Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva. Furthermore, Diamond believes that language has traditionally been defined by a masculine terminology that inherently eliminates women from discourse. The main dilemma with language is that “[t]here is no maternal order of language that allows her to say ‘I’ as a woman” [47]. Even though Beckett was a male author, he nonetheless provided his texts with a female voice that defined itself in opposition to the masculine. Women can therefore gain an identity when they are being described in opposition to men.  Mouth from The Unnamable has been labeled a female voice struggling for placement. Feminist critics have noted that Mouth’s refusal to utter “I” refers to a persona that is neither present nor absent but identified in four fragmentary dialogues. Diamond lists Mouth’s fragmentary dialogues as follows: “lying face down on the grass; standing at the supermarket; sitting on the bench noticing her own tears; and ‘that time at the court’” [50].  Mouth’s frantic defiance to utter the engendered “I” pronoun has been classified as a rebellious act against conforming to existing gender norms that empower male standards.

Poststructuralist Leslie Hill’s stance is closely related to the contention advocated by Pound, Hemingway, and Eliot that reading is based on exploring the narrative gaps. Beckett’s work is filled with apprehension concerning “an incalculable future” [Hill 75] that essentially

calls upon us, its readers, to seek to give it a name, while also respecting in that writing what resists naming, because what it lays bare is the singular namelessness at the core of the name as such, of which namelessness is simultaneously the condition of both possibility and impossibility. [75]

Hill sees a conflation of oppositional terms that always obliges the reader to deconstruct the nameless until a root origin of the nameless is attained. The reader ultimately discovers that the nameless is unnamable given that the root origin of any term stems from an undiscoverable sub-conscious desire. Desire then becomes dependent on a drive to establish a set understanding in a universe where few undisputable facts exist.

Anna McMullen’s “Irish/Postcolonial Beckett” examines how recent studies have uncovered a growing interest in Beckett’s Irishness. McMullen bases her contention on David Lloyd’s Anomalous States: Irish Writing in the Postcolonial Movement. Lloyd’s thesis avers that

in the context of a critique of hegemonic nationalism’s drive to integrate ‘a highly differentiated’ population into a modern nation state, a project which has always sought to transcend antagonisms, contradictions and social differences for the sake of a unified conception of political subjectivity. [McMullen 91]

The narrative gaps that normally structure Beckett’s oeuvre and its exhausting dismantling of mainstream culture’s conception of identity formation are the principle elements that maintain a postcolonial tenor in Beckett. An insistence on opposing “ ‘authentic’ origins, history, and language “[95] as well as “all crucial elements of national identity formation” is what McMullen considers postcolonial about Beckett’s writing. McMullen maintains that Beckett’s work is approachable through a postcolonial lens because it focuses primarily on how imperial regimes historically dislocate the “other” from positions of power so that the dominant culture remains the leader. Moreover, McMullen’s attestation that “Imperial systems of knowledge, identity, perception, and classification are therefore central to Western domestic, intellectual and social histories as well as to its colonial histories” [102] becomes central to understanding Beckett’s use of narrative gaps since the “imperial system of knowledge” is always the source of any political discourse. Beckett’s subversive characters must mask their language and intentions in narrative gaps if they are to avoid punishment from the ruler. Endgame’sClov, Nagg, and Nell represent the dissident “other” that defies the ruler/ruled dialectic by investigating into the truths about the psychology and criticism involved when dealing with the implications associated with metaphysical contradictions.  

Beckett’s plays have been staged thousands of times since their publication. S.E. Gontarski has noted that “the author no longer stood entirely out of his work, but inside and outside simultaneously, a part and apart from the narrative” [194] signifying that Beckett intended to play a silent quasi-character in his drama. Narrative hence serves a preformative function that completes the printed text. Beckett’s “Pseudocouple” or “double representation of a single being” [198] has become a crucial term for Beckettian critics. Auditor from Not I speaks the play’s actions whereas Listener from Ohio Impromptu reflects the audience to establish a doubling effect. Such a narrative technique invites the reader into the play while at the same time binding the viewer to their seats.

The past fifty years has seen a great expansion in Samuel Beckett studies. Large audiences swarming into theatres to watch several short and flexible Beckettian plays in one night added to Beckett’s growing popularity. In her essay entitled “Sources of Attraction to Beckett’s Theatre,” Katherine Worth argues that Beckett’s staged “plays can still convey to audiences sitting in the same room with the actors something of their dramatic force” [213] for the reason the plays tend to invite the spectator to assume a dramatic role. Although Beckett’s stage plays were tremendously successful, the printed texts would never include any stage changes. Samuel Beckett was not always in accordance with the changes that theatre directors would bring to his plays. One such instance was Beckett’s discontent with the San Quentin Drama Workshop cast. Another reason for Beckett’s long popularity are the film adaptations of his works. Worth warns readers that films are often “at a distance from the stage original” [224]. Film audiences must consequently remember that even though films are an effective mode of mass communication they could misrepresent an artist’s original purpose.  

Graduate and upper-level university students as well as professors will find that Lois Oppenheim’s Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett an invaluable guide to examining Samuels Beckett’s ongoing impact in contemporary literary criticism. Oppenheim and her contributors offer insightfully fresh ways of reading Beckett that shed new light on a writer that has already had volumes written about him. I must mention that even though this review did not cite every contributor in Oppenheim’s study, every scholar included in the volume plays an equal role in demonstrating that a text’s true value usually lies in its hidden meanings and unspoken language.           



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