Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Existence I Ascribe': Memory, Invention, and Autobiography in Beckett's Fiction

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Existence I Ascribe': Memory, Invention, and Autobiography in Beckett's Fiction

Article excerpt

Beckett, modernism, and aesthetic autobiography

This essay takes as its starting point what I suggest is a seminal moment in Beckett's fiction. In his 1946 novella, First Love, the narrator draws attention for the first time to an opposition between two categories of thingness which persists as a foundational structural distinction for the remaining four decades of Beckett's prose writing career. Talking of the objects, people, and places that form the subject matter of his stories, the narrator claims: 'I have always spoken, no doubt always shall, of things that never existed, or that existed, if you insist, no doubt always will, but not with the existence I ascribe to them.'[1] From this point on, the movement of Beckett's writing is structured around this reluctantly conceded distinction. His narrators repeatedly claim absolute imaginative control over the non-existent world that they invent, whilst equally repeatedly, if unwillingly, allowing that the things of their stories share their existence with objects that are located in a remembered world beyond them. It is this vacillation that becomes one of the most characteristic features of Beckett's fiction. The prose is caught, from First Love onwards, in a ceaseless oscillation between remembrance and invention as a form of storytelling, and this oscillation controls the peculiar mode of reference that Beckett develops throughout his mid and late work. As the narrators vacillate between memory and invention, they seek both to refer to a remembered landscape, and to invent a new landscape that owes nothing to a reality that precedes it or constrains it. The things of the stories are both identical with the 'existing' things to which they partly refer, and different from them, as the narrators declare their simultaneous belonging to and freedom from the world of which they write.

This adoption, in First Love, of a mode of reference which is to become a major characteristic of Beckett's fiction coincides with another sea change in his writing: the adoption of the monologue form in which almost all his remaining prose is written. These departures in Beckett's writing are finely interwoven, and are related in turn to the tenacious but subtle autobiographical register that stretches throughout his fiction. The narrator's claim that he invents the things of his stories, his insistence that he is able to drag the objects on the storyscape to a new literary geography where they are freed from the reality that they share with things that exist, is complicated by the monologue form. As the narrator himself acts as an object upon the storyscape, his tendency to deny his own existence as character threatens to undermine the very reality effect upon which the primacy of his narrating voice is based. The freedom of the narrator's vacillating movement between memory and invention as a mode of storytelling is compromised and limited in important ways by his own presence as character upon the storyscape whose mimetic status he seeks to manipulate. This freedom is further compromised by the relationship between the writing of memory as a formal strategy, and its characteristic autobiographical connection with the geography of Beckett's own memory. The autobiographical status of Beckett's fiction, at least from Watt onwards, is always subject to narrative uncertainty, but that the remembered selves and objects that people the majority of his landscapes have some autobiographical content is beyond serious doubt. This essay seeks to address the political implications and possibilities of the relationship between memory, invention, and autobiography as it plays itself out in Beckett's fiction. If the things of his stories both share their existence with a political reality, and negate political referents in a statement of the narrator's imaginative freedom to invent a non-existent world, what is the political value of this dialectical movement between statement and denial? …

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