Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Something for Nothing: Beckett's Dream of Fair to Middling Women

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Something for Nothing: Beckett's Dream of Fair to Middling Women

Article excerpt

'Nothing is closer to the supreme commonplace of our commonplace age" -wrote Robert Martin Adams more than thirty years ago - "than its preoccupation with Nothing."1 In the work of Samuel Beckett this preoccupation is certainly sufficiently commonplace for commentators to have explored the ways in which negation operates, both within and between works, as a kind of compositional principle, and an unusually productive one, given its potentially destructive effects. But only since Beckett's death has it become clear that this principle was never more vigorously and variously exploited than at the very beginning of his writing career, in 1931-1932, in his first full-length novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which failed to find a publisher, was jettisoned, and only appeared posthumously in 1992.2 Such an extreme experiment as Dream could scarcely have been expected to find favor in the early 1930s, as even Beckett himself seems gradually, if reluctantly, to have realized; and it speaks volumes for his (in the event misplaced) ambition that something similar from an unknown writer would almost certainly fare little better in the creative climate of a new millennium.

Beckett's Dream makes use of so many negational strategies that they virtually defy classification. Their full effect can only be felt over the novel as a whole, but it is clear from the outset - the two brief paragraphs which constitute section "ONE" - that Beckett is intending to make headway without any of the conventional supports on which fiction customarily relies, or at least as few of them as may be needed to maintain the enterprise as viable. The cavalier manner of Dream's opening puts the reader at a disadvantage from the start, such that even with the benefit of hindsight it is impossible to say whether the narrative has been primed to fizzle out, at any time or for any reason, or cunningly and deliberately designed to seem as if it might do so, or is simply the victim of narrative ineptitude or creative fatigue. The issue is joined, but also left in jeopardy, by the connective around which the two paragraphs of "ONE" pivot, the "And" which will later (in the sections of the novel "UND" and "AND") be used as a kind of structural marker. This first "And" is the type and measure of all subsequent ones, since far from being a genuine connective, it becomes simply the means whereby additional material can be conveyed. By failing to supply the real ground for continuity which it "ought" to do, this "And"-clause proves in practice to be the ideal agent of temporal discontinuity. The first casualty of Dream is causality, and with it, inevitably, time, or rather the time- sequence to which narrative is typically tied. We are only a paragraph into Dream when we suddenly discover that it is already "some years later" (1), the author having mysteriously neglected to fill in the interim between two disparate narrative events, which are nevertheless contiguous and in some ways comparable. From this point on Beckett can play fast and loose with time, focusing in upon any given "Now" as if each "Now" were a law unto itself, rather than part of any continuum or durée. It is in this same spirit that Beckett also calls spatial issues into question, by making section "ONE" too brief for it to be the separate entity it is, and section "TWO" so long that we cannot help wondering why it could not have been more conveniently subdivided.

Dream claims two more victims only a few pages into section "TWO": plot, conventionally a by-product of causality (as it is even in Tristram Shandy), and character, typically (and, once again, even in Tristram Shandy) a matter of consistency, coherence and conservation. The omniscient, but far from omnipotent, narrator, who is happy to pose as a plural entity (as if he might at a pinch be on "our" side), finds himself compelled to admit:

The fact of the matter is we do not quite know where we are in this story. (9)

and this, when we as readers are only a few pages into such little "story" as we have thus far been given. …

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