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Beckett and the Modern Novel


John Bolin


Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover.  xii+214. ISBN 978-1107029842. £50.00


Reviewed by Katherine Weiss

East Tennessee State University


An MLA database search, listing over 6,000 entries on Samuel Beckett, may frighten new scholars away from exploring the Irish writer’s oeuvre. However, John Bolin, in his first book-length study, Beckett and the Modern Novel, boldly asserts that his aim is to address what other studies have ignored – “Beckett’s place as an innovator of the novel” [2]. To make his case for this study of genre, Bolin begins by outlining the trends in Beckett studies, noting that while the philosophical and thematic approaches to the novels as well as the approaches that point to Dante, Marcel Proust and James Joyce as influencing Beckett have merit, to fully understand Beckett-the-novelist and the genre of the modern European novel, it is crucial to reflect on Beckett’s role as an innovator to the genre. For the most part, Bolin steers clear of utilising the most frequently quoted materials available to Beckett scholars (for example, the letter to Axel Kaun and Three Dialogues). Instead, to offer his readers new insight, Bolin draws on Beckett’s lectures on André Gide and other Continental novelists to argue that “Beckett’s challenge to and emulation of such Continental novelists fed into one of his key concerns: cultivating tensions between the novel’s components (for example, between its narrator and characters) and exploiting its competing claims (such as its pretence to a fidelity to reality, and its status as a formal construct)” [3-4]. Bolin successfully demonstrates that Beckett’s early novels are much less influenced by Proust and Joyce as they are attacks on the conventions of the traditional European novel.

Bolin’s first chapter, “ ‘The Integrity of Incoherence’ : Theory and Dream of Fair to Middling Women”, begins with a discussion of Beckett’s university lectures on Marcel Proust and André Gide which Bolin ties into a fascinating reevaluation of Beckett’s first novel. While “Beckett defended Proust … as a modern writer with crucial insight,” Bolin reveals, he “also criticised him for the ultimate ‘solution’ he provided to the problem of ‘indeterminacy’ confronted by the artwork” [17]. While, for Beckett, Gide was also unable to escape the conventional methods of the Continental novel, the French novelist was less “guilty of ‘coherence’” than Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu [17]. Despite the temptation to align Beckett with Proust [which many scholars have not resisted in part because of the availability of Beckett’s early critical work on Proust opposed to the more recent availability of his lectures in the form of notes his students took], Bolin looks toward Gide as a source of Beckett’s innovation. In his lectures on the French novel, Beckett described the need to preserve the “integrity of incoherence” [17]. What Beckett admired about the French writer was Gide’s defiance of conventions upheld by the Naturalists’ adherence to unification and closure. This is undoubtedly also Beckett’s issue with the playwright, Henrik Ibsen. What we find in Dream of Fair to Middling Women, according to Bolin, is Beckett’s struggle to overcome the aesthetic paradigms of coherence, those same paradigms that Gide attempts to resolve when writing about the work of Dostoevsky.

Continuing to draw on Beckett’s lectures as well as the critical and fictional works of Gide, Bolin dedicates himself to Beckett’s Murphy in his second chapter, “ ‘An Ironic Radiance’ : Murphy and the Modern Novel”. Bolin asserts that Murphy has been misread as a realist novel [45]. Setting out to correct this perception in Beckett studies, Bolin reads Beckett’s second novel as exposing “the novel as an artificial system” and the novelist as a “counterfeiter” [53], much like Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican does. Through several disorienting and deliberate techniques such as an interfering speaker, clichés, and irony, Beckett’s 1938 novel testifies to a search for a new form rather than one that plays with the realist form. Bolin concludes that through Murphy and his reading of Gide, Beckett ultimately contemplates how much freedom the novelist has.

Bolin spends the third and much of the fourth chapter dedicated to the novel, Watt, which gave Beckett so much trouble, and the Notebooks in which we can witness that struggle. Chapter Three, “The Creative Consciousness : The Watt Notebooks” examines Beckett’s attempts to break from the strategies he employed in his novels of the 1930s. In other words, the Notebooks testify to Beckett’s struggle to divorce his voice as critic from his voice as novelist. Beckett’s several abortive attempts to write Watt demonstrate not only Beckett’s theoretical involvement with the form of the novel but also his increasing awareness that to write successfully the novelist must learn to write “blindly” [62, 78]. He deplored his earlier writing for its “theoretical scaffolding” [78], and longed to write without a conscious effort of the theories he had formed after reading Gide. In the third Notebook, Bolin notes, a significant change occurs in Beckett’s writing; the Irish writer begins to experiment with monologue. The exploration of the Watt Notebooks and novel, and the comparisons made between Watt and Dream of Fair to Middling Women offered in this book are significant contributions to archival studies, genre studies, and to studies of Beckett’s plays – many of which rely heavily on monologue (especially, Happy Days and Not I).

Midway into the fourth chapter, “ ‘Telling the Tale’ : Narrators and Narration”, Bolin reconsiders the importance of Mercier and Camier. Written in 1946, but not published until 1970, many have viewed Beckett’s first lengthy French text as a “throwback to Murphy” [107]. Rather than a regressive step, Mercier and Camier is a part of the journey forward. Bolin notes, “What is perhaps most remarkable about this novel is its style: the way that its presiding animus ironically deploys images of death, decay and abjection against any narrative expectations of renewal, betterment, or resolution” [108]. For Bolin, it is in Mercier and Camier that Beckett expresses the stylistic exhaustion his readers find in his later prose fiction.

Chapters Five, Six and Seven launch into a fascinating study of the Trilogy. In these chapters, Gide still has a presence in the discussion, but that presence, now established, is more subtle. For Beckett, too, the “theoretical scaffolding” is no longer as prominent as it once was. What Bolin suggests is that the Trilogy’s form is one of self-discovery, that of the Bildungsroman and fictional diary [forms that Gide, too, used], but these fictional diaries, as Bolin notes in the fifth chapter, “Images of the Author”, ultimately reveal the author and his authority as a construct. “[T]he games Beckett’s authors play with the novel,” Bolin asserts, “are left behind for an exploration of the way such authors are constructed by and entrapped within their own fictions” [122]. The structure of these novels never incorporates the “real” world into the fictional one. Instead, the fictions are embedded in further fictional worlds. Thus, Beckett’s “integrity of incoherence” overrides the traditional outcomes set forth by the form.

To build his argument in these final chapters, Bolin shows that through Gide Beckett is introduced to the idea of “abnegation” in which the “rejection of the European tradition’s interest in the individual in society led him to focus on the self’s relationship to himself or to God” (Chapter Six, “ ‘Oh, It’s Only a Diary’ : Molloy”). The seventh chapter, “ ‘The Art of Incarceration’ : Malone Dies”, brings to the table Beckett’s knowledge of the Marquis de Sade as a model for Malone Dies. Despite Sade’s Journées de Sodome being forbidden in 1930s Ireland, Beckett was able to read enough through secondary sources to think seriously about Journées de Sodome’s structure. Employing aspects learned from Sade and parodying Balzac and other Naturalists, Beckett helps to shape the novel as a work that “cannot resolve itself” [167].

The conclusion to Bolin’s study repeats its goal to ask scholars to look beyond Beckett’s English forefathers. We need to consider the Continental European writers Beckett was thinking through. These writers helped to shape Beckett’s novels as works of uncertainty – an aesthetic choice “at the heart of his artistic theory and practice” [168]

Not only does Bolin provide a significant contribution to Beckett studies, but also his book is honest in its limitations. From the onset, Bolin is careful to point out where he is constrained in his study, noting particularly that his choice of Beckett’s novels is not all inclusive. The study, however, sheds light on the novels not included – those that follow The Unnamable. Another limitation lies in the study of archival material. While the use of notes from Beckett’s students provides new avenues for Beckett scholars, what remains unquestioned in Bolin’s study is the reliability of such sources. The notes we now have from Beckett’s generous students are, ultimately, second-hand accounts of lectures. Despite the limitations of such materials, these notes in conjunction with a careful reading of André Gide, fill gaps in Beckett studies, and Bolin’s careful consideration of them allows for us to more fully comprehend Beckett’s significance in the study of the Modern Novel.


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