Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

A DEMENTED FORM OF THE PARTICULAR: Surrealism, Suite and Eleutheria

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

A DEMENTED FORM OF THE PARTICULAR: Surrealism, Suite and Eleutheria

Article excerpt

It has become a commonplace to note that Beckett's use of a disoriented and derelict first-person speaker in the Novellas presents a break with his technique in earlier fictional efforts. Yet there is good reason to believe that Beckett's narrators in the post-war fiction are indebted to experiments in Watt, and that Beckett's writing in that book reveals the influence of a long-suspected source: Sartre's Nausea. This essay suggests that Nausea is part of a larger body of Surrealist-influenced writing and theory which impacted Beckett's post-war work, including Eleutheria and Molloy.

There is no getting around the fact that, by the time of Suite (February, 1946), Beckett's fiction had undergone a paradigm shift which has puzzled commentators since they began reading the stories in the light of Beckett's earlier books. Yet this shift did not necessarily take place in the late winter of 1946, nor is Suite's narrator the first of Beckett's speakers to recall an earlier life from a present position of uncertainty, anxiety and dereliction. This first occurred in Arsene's short statement, a passage which indicates that this character is something of a missing link - a 'border-creature' - who helps make sense of the apparent gulf between Beckett's pre-war 'novelist' narrators, and his derelict speakers in the Novellas and Three Novels.

Arsene combines in himself traits of these different types of narrators. His speech carries striking echoes of the ironic, know-it-all 'novelists' of Beckett's first two major fictions, Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Murphy - speakers who, like the young Beckett who defended a 'Mr Joyce' in his own dazzling intellectual manner in 1929, indulge in a self-consciously learned avowal of learning's limits. ("I speak well, do I not, for a man in my situation?", Arsene coyly acknowledges (Beckett, 1998, 57).) As Dream's 'Mr Beckett' with his Belacqua, Arsene is another 'intellectual sort of chap' who describes and critiques the wanderings of a 'university man' (a 'Mr Watt') from a sardonic remove. But like the narrators of the Novellas and Three Novels, Arsene also suffers under a cloud of profound uncertainty, anxiety and even terror which is wholly foreign to Beckett's narrators prior to Watt. This aspect of Arsene's monologue - the tale of an educated man struggling with a sense of uncertain menace triggered by an ineffable 'change' - has roots in a novel Beckett read and admired several years earlier: Sartre's Nausea} In what follows I suggest that once Beckett's borrowings from this fiction are recognized, his debts to a more extensive corpus of work and theory with investments in Surrealism flicker into view.


Recall that at the centre of Arsene's short statement lies his account of a discomforting 'change,' an experience of estrangement from the world of objects and from himself. The change itself ultimately remains 'ineffable' though it obliterates Arsene's sense of purpose and nostos at Mr. Knott's and returns him to a fallen state in which the world is no longer an 'accommodating' place. "This I am happy to inform you is the reversed metamorphosis. The Laurel into Daphne. The old thing where it always was, back again" (Beckett, 1998, 4243). What can be said of the change is that it is an experience of pervasive nothingness which generates feelings of disorientation, sickness, and alienation: it is "the presence of what did not exist, that presence without, that presence within, that presence between" (Beckett, 1998, 43; emphasis added).

A similar experience of the disorienting strangeness of things and the self - also described as 'the change' {un changement) - is the central theme of Sartre's novel. So it is fitting that Roquentin begins his diary in an attempt to find some answers to Arsene's question: "The change. In what did it consist?" (Beckett, 1998, 41), just as the drama of Sartre's story is the unfolding of Arsene's loaded statement that "It is hard to say" (Beckett, 1998, 41). …

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