Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Beckett in Purgatory: "Unspeakable" Watt and the Second World War

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Beckett in Purgatory: "Unspeakable" Watt and the Second World War

Article excerpt

In Canto III of the Inferno, just outside the gates of Hell, Dante is overwhelmed by a cacophony of cries, "such a commotion of groans and wails of woe ... outlandish tongues, and accents doloroso" that he weeps "from sheer bewilderment." "Master, what noise is this?" the overwhelmed poet asks (Carson 2002, 23-25). These, Virgil tells him, are the neutral souls who chose their own good rather than a side when it came to conflict. Their punishment is eternal envy of the decisive ones, eternal babble, and eternal censorship (not to speak of hornet stings).The neutral souls are scorned by both mercy and justice, and though they will cry out interminably, Virgil says, they are not to be spoken of again.

Dante's work is an important point of reference for Samuel Beckett. As Daniela Caselli has shown, references to the Divine Comedy pepper the Beckett canon, creating an important intertextual conversation that expands our understanding of each (2006, 2-3). Most recently, the 2014 Faber publication of Echo's Bones, the final episode of Belacqua Shua's career, has taken readers into the afterlife of the protagonist of More Pricks than Kicks (1934)."Echo's Bones"" is a nightmare," Charles Prentice wrote to Beckett in 1933, rejecting the story from the volume: "Just too terribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams" (quoted in Nixon 2014, xii). At the end of the story, the Alba, commanding a submarine of the dead, gives Belacqua up "to hell," and Beckett gives him up to indolence, to his ante-purgatory of literal fence-sitting: neutral, going nowhere (Beckett 2014, 51). (1)

But Beckett's engagement with purgatory also plays out in an earlier nightmare narrative, Watt (1953).Trying to read it may well give you the jim-jams, and it's unlikely that anyone since the typesetter has actually read every single word. The novel is so riddled with lists and repetitions--for example, the two-page catalog devoted to the daily alterations in Mr Knott's physical appearance, in which "one day" he is "tall, fat, pale and dark, and the next thin, small, flushed and fair," on and on through each possible permutation, "to mention only the figure, stature, skin and hair"--that even the most devoted reader might be tempted to skim (Beckett [1953] 2011, 209, 211). (2) In format alone, that is, the book is very nearly unreadable, and, like Dante in Canto III, one is tempted to weep from bewilderment at the cacophonic text. (3) To read Watt, then, is to be aware of reading as particularly difficult work, a sort of purgatorial quest that must be suffered through in order to come out the other side, at the end of the book.

This quest has long extended to the critical industry's attempts to make sense of this problem novel in the Beckett canon. Unlike Murphy (1938) and Molloy (1951), Beckett's major prose works written immediately before and after it, Watt is rarely even found on a course syllabus (what instructor would dare?). It appears in the Beckett oeuvre like a missed step: the last novel he wrote in English, the first he wrote in France. Confusing its position further is the fact that Watt, though written during the Second World War, was not published until 1953, and so appeared to the public after Godot (1952) and the first two novels in the Trilogy had already begun to shape the author's critical reception. Writing to George Reavey in 1947 when he was seeking help getting the novel published, Beckett described Watt as "an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs, but it has its part in the series, as will perhaps appear in time" (Beckett 2009, 55).

If Watt is an unsatisfactory book, in this essay I offer a way to approach its unreadability as a deliberate attempt to articulate the unspeakable trauma of World War II. (4) Becketts caution that Watt's "place" would "appear in time" has a stronger resonance when one considers that the novel's own historical time is often left unacknowledged by those who attempt to "place" it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.