Revisiting Samuel Beckett (Ill Seen Ill Said)

Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when.

Once hooked, always will be, on these writings of Samuel Beckett. On.

Sometimes referred to as “novels,” Beckett’s three later works, Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and Worstward Ho (1983) might be better thought of as pieces of short prose — Ill Seen Ill Said, for example, being around eight thousand words long. That’s right, not eighty, but eight. Not what we might expect of a “novel.” They are unimaginably spacious nonetheless.

They possess a beauty their own, and a quality of getting inside your head and staying there. A uniquely “haunting” quality. Their charm consists in adorning — or incorporating, in a sense — the dynamics of the reader’s experience of reading. They draw the reader into an intriguing game. A game of life’s drawing to a close (what fun!) A game of recognition of death, where death isn’t far away, in any sense. Merely beyond a membrane.

Well, we are already embroiled, enmired in that. “Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” the Bard put it so concisely. And what an inspired line that is, incorporating the finite and infinite dimensions of life with such a tender sense of affection for the human race. We feel that Samuel Beckett isn’t far removed from this humanistic sense.


Samuel Beckett by Javad Alizadeh ( Gallery Direct)

In his late pieces Beckett constructs a kind of prism through which one perceives the light of human existence. In reading the text, one inhabits it. There’s really no way around this if you are to read the texts properly, which is, my contention is, freely.

Although, then again, I guess it’s a free world: read or misread them as you will. Many critics, indeed, interpret them in particular and peculiar ways, write about that, and try to convince us, the reader, that their way is the only one.

That is one kind of criticism: closing the free play. The woman is Beckett’s mother May. Which she may be in a sense — the sense that reveals one’s approach to the reading as biographically orientated. What was that Beckett once said? “No symbols where none intended,” I believe.

I will try to avoid that pitfall. But I think it was Sartre who wrote that we (“man”) are condemned to be free: “because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Slightly sexist, but pretty true nonetheless, if you let the women etcetera in.

Let’s look for a second at our opening quotation from Ill Seen Ill Said. Notice one clear ambiguity out of several. First, note how in the line “Stooped in loving memory some old gravestones stoop” we may read initially that someone, some person, is in the act of stooping, and therefore is stooped, so to speak (interpolating an imaginary comma between “memory” and “some.”

That would be to say something like: someone has halted, stooping in loving memory (presumably of a lost one). Like Yeats’ epitaph: “Cast a cold eye. On life, on death. Horseman pass by.” Beckett’s gravestone phrases reduce the stretches of lives to the pronouns, “when to when”. Years compressed by the of years of weathering to a kind of equivalence. Finite time-spans don’t register in the infinity of time. And it’s not as such a “person,” as I mis-said, but more of a literary character to whom I as reader imbue certain qualities of animation — more of a figment of the imagination.

Does Beckett anticipate the figure of the reader? Definitely. Or better to say, he creates a space for the reader, in which the reader manifests and reflects upon themself. All of us have lost someone dear, or else will. Well may we be condemned to freedom, as Sartre wrote, but also to suffering. But then again, grammatically speaking, we might as well have it that the gravestones themselves stoop, or at least, some of them.

That is, some of them lean over, presumably, as gravestones are wont to do over time, in old graveyards. And to note as well, these ones may stoop also “in loving memory,” in the sense that some were initially placed there in loving memory of him or her whom they commemorate. Sooner or later, most of us have to visit a graveyard. Unless, unfortunately, we are in one already, or perhaps been incinerated, or else in some unknown, unmarked place. Fine.

On the other hand, in this piece, it may well be the gravestones themselves that stoop, interpolating the same comma, but transferring our sense of the subject to the gravestones themselves. This would be to interpret something like: these old gravestones stoop (are stooping, if we bring our reading into the present tense — which is where it probably really belongs) in loving memory of the deceased buried beneath them. Decades after the burial, they have take on a stoop. Alright, screwed the poetry. But you see the alternative sense.

We could go on. And on. That is one critical point in my reading of the “novel” (which could also be described as a play script, an extended stage direction for what the reader should attempt to imagine). There is a beautiful and mysterious sense of wonder that comes with reading Ill Seen Ill Said. You can never blithely scan this work, no matter how many times you’ve read it. Some commentators believe that the old woman, the central figure in the narrative, approaching death; others that she is already dead, like a ghost.

I would prefer to think of her with the kind of textual potency that a reader informs in encountering the text. Or one may think of her as being both alive and dead, in a sense, as in Shakespeare’s “little life” reduced to the infinitesimal.

But we need to be “careful,” as the narrative voice seems to caution itself or the reader from time to time, not to misconstrue the sense, or fixate a particular possibility at the expense of others.

Every sentence is a challenge. We can’t let critics tell us what the meaning is. They are often deluded. Do you know how, when in the midst of “reading” a novel, you sometimes look up and say “Where was I, what does all this mean?” You’ve been scanning it, taking in the words but not cogitating them. One will inevitably experience such a feeling reading Ill Seen Ill Said (or Company or Worstward Ho).

That’s at least partially because every sentence is fraught with ambiguity, or else the whole context of the piece has invested it with one. Let’s briefly examine a couple of relatively straightforward instances:

In the dark day and night.

It is clear immediately that the absence of the comma creates at least two somewhat different senses. Either the speaker or an object of the statement (an “other” or a location) is “in the dark” both day and night; or else “dark” is used to qualify either “day” or “day and night.”

Or this:

A gap time will fill.

Note the temporal or spacial alternatives in the word “gap.” And in which sense may “time” be considered to “fill” anything. How may a gap be opened up, as it were, and then filled by time?

Or again:

It too dead still.

An old woman’s white hair: either too dead, or too dead still, or “still dead” perhaps in the sense that one may answer an early acquaintance’s enquiry, “How is your mother?” “Still dead.”

René Magritte, The False Mirror (1929). Source:

Let’s  consider the scenario in more general terms. The elderly, white haired woman occupies a cabin adjacent to a zone containing white stones. There are twelve of them, suggesting a cosmic mise-en-scène, or it may be a cemetery, or an ultimately indefinable amalgam. She is being watched — by the narrator, by the reader, by the generally encompassing “eye” (in the sense, for example, “the eye lose[s] itself in the gloom.” She is “caught,” observed by this spooky “eye,” a character that is not restricted to Ill Seen Ill Said but occurs elsewhere in the short prose (and see, especially, Film).

It is as though the (objective) female figure is engaged perpetually in her motions and activities, and the (subjective) “eye” just “tunes in” or “cuts in” once in a way, happening to catch her at this or that instant. In the way that we, the reader, activate a text — a kind of perpetually moving, autonomous entity — at any instant we choose to inhabit it.

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