Academic journal article Style

Periodizing Samuel Beckett's Works: A Stylochronometric Approach

Academic journal article Style

Periodizing Samuel Beckett's Works: A Stylochronometric Approach

Article excerpt


Probably best known as the author of En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot], Samuel Beckett was not only a bilingual playwright, but also a poet, translator, essayist, and novelist. Notably his prose fiction will be the focus of this article, in which we propose a quantitative method to delineate a periodization of Beckett's oeuvre. In art studies in general, there is a tradition of distinguishing an "early" and "late" period in an artist's work, sometimes with a distinct "middle" period in between. The late Beethoven sonatas are a good example, or the early Rembrandt's "smooth" style versus the rough paint surfaces of the late Rembrandt. In literature, the "early" novels of Jane Austen (such as Elinor and Marianne, First Impressions, and Susan) are distinguished from their published counterparts (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey), and even earlier works are referred to as "youthful writings" by "Young Jane" (Byrne). Shakespeare's plays are commonly grouped into the "early" "middle," and "late plays." But it is often difficult to determine exactly when an author's work moves from, say, the "early" to the "middle" stage.

In Beckett studies, we find the same pattern of periodization, ending with the "late style" (Gontarski). But we also observe the difficulty of clearly determining where one period ends and the next one begins. Peter Boxall problematizes the idea of periodizing Beckett's oeuvre, because the neatness of such a narrativization entails the danger of doing injustice to the singularity of the individual works. But he admits that it is hard not to parcel them into a beginning, a middle, and an end. And his version of this narrative runs "from the Joycean extravagance of his early, mannered work, through the comic agony of frenzied becoming in his middle period, to the bleached impossibility of his later prose" (34). He sketches an outline of these three phases: the early period up to and including the novel Watt, written during the Second World War; the rich middle period up to and including The Unnamable-, and the later, "stunted" and "halting" prose after the close of The Unnamable (33).

In "Early Beckett," the opening essay in The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett, John Pilling suggests a break that is marked by Beckett's decision to write in French:

Eventually, though it took a long time to emerge, it became expedient for Beckett to insist upon a break between his pre-war writing and his post-war writing, as expressed not only in conversation with Charles Juliet but with many others. By abandoning his native English, the line became easier to draw. (28)

This periodization, however, is more complex than it may seem. During the war, Beckett wrote a novel in English: Watt is therefore neither "prewar" nor "postwar." Moreover, the (end of the) Second World War did not coincide exactly with Beckett's decision to start writing in French. He had already written several poems in French in 1937 and 1938. This essay will concentrate on Beckett's prose fiction, and--with this focus in mind--"early Beckett" can be said to consist of the collection of stories More Pricks than Kicks (which Beckett started writing in 1931, published in 1934), Dream of Fair to Middling Women (written in 1932, published posthumously in 1992), and the novels Murphy (started in 1935, published in 1938) and Watt (started during the War in 1941, published in 1953).

The "middle Beckett" is often considered to start with the Nouvelles (La Fin, L'Expulse, Premier Amour, Le Calmant) and the novel Mercier et Camier. But again, this should be nuanced. Beckett started writing the first of the Nouvelles in English. He "drew the line" between English and French by literally drawing a line in the middle of his story La Fin (originally called Suite). The manuscript held at Boston College (BC MS 1991-001, ref 53, 3ir) shows how Beckett first started in English and, after about 28 pages, suddenly drew a line (in March 1946) and continued writing in French. …

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