ELECTRONIC REVIEWS OF FRENCH & ITALIAN LITERARY ESSAYS
No. 9, June 17, 1991 ________________________________________________
Please note the *short* survey following this review. ________________________________________________
Review of Leslie Hill, Beckett's Fiction in Different Words. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. xii, 187.
Leslie Hill's Beckett's Fiction is a lively study of incomprehensibility. The author draws heavily on what Maurice Blanchot called the "neuter" in Beckett, redubs it "indifference," and analyzes often with great cleverness how Beckett obscures the differences upon which meaning is based. In his chapter on Murphy, Hill shows the importance of chiasmus and oxymoron in blurring distinctions (mind/body, sane/insane, yearning/fulfillment, movement/stasis). Murphy is apathetic in the face of indistinguishability, whereas Beckett's next hero, Watt, panics as he tries to differentiate what seems radically indeterminate. Watt is unable to call the unique object he perceives a "pot" even though it has all the appearance of a pot. Hill suggests that Watt's inability to assign things to categories bespeaks a dilemma of incorporation, a disquiet caused by the process whereby the body ingests foreign matter, perhaps only to expel it. Thus the anally named Arsene warns, in a paean to indifference: "When you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it" (Watt 43, quoted Hill 27). Hill points out the ways Beckett's text itself reflects this ambivalence. For example, the final section of Watt, entitled "Addenda," contains fragmented material neither incorporated into nor expelled from the novel.
The best passages in the book extend this Kleinian interpretation of ambivalence to other objects such as Molloy's sucking-stones, testicles and bicycle; Malone's inventory; and voice in The Unnameable. Noting that "the most ambivalent object of all . . . is language itself" (73), Hill shows that Beckett's use of two tongues, his shift to French and shift back to English, partake of the contradictory impulses of incorporation and expulsion. Thus the Unnamable says: "I'll fix their gibberish for them," "I'll fix their jargon for them," "I'm all these words, all these strangers." Careful attention to the originals and translations allows Hill to make some of the most interesting remarks to date on our author's bilingualism: "Beckett's English seems to make more use of implied quotations, dead metaphors, or ironic puns, while the French offends against rhetorical convention more readily by exploiting shifts in stylistic register, by repetition, or by the extensive use of parataxis (49).
What is most specific to a literary text --its relationship to its own language --is what is most difficult to translate. Names, writes Hill insightfully, "provide literature with a metaphor of its own status as an untranslatable idiom" (53). Insofar as names function as vectors designating individuals, they cannot be translated. However, a name is not simply a label. It is also a signifier, central in the life of its bearer, laden with obscure, repressed, resonances. Thus Hill is not content, as are most critics, to examine the names of Beckett's characters; he also analyzes the surreptitious presence of the author's name within the text. Beckett's first name is implicit in allusions to the story of the prophet Samuel, read as a figure for Jesus. "Samuel" is also reworked into the name Lemuel, borne by a character in Malone meurt who kills all with "une hache," which suggests the letter *h* as well as the "hatchet" by which Beckett translates the word. Hill associates this hatchet with Moran's mention of "les editions Hatchet" (for "Hachette") and with the character Mr. Hackett in Watt. "In the place of a certain Samuel Beckett, what the text inscribes, or encodes, is a cryptic other name for that author, one which might be read as: Lemuel Hatchet" (Hill 108). Beckett's last name is inscribed as well in Molloy's "becane" and "bequille" and in the Unnameable "bec de perroquet."
Hill writes: "More than meaning or intention what begins to count in Beckett's work is the body and letter of the text, the fabric of the writing as it weaves the name of the author like a filigree through the text as though it constituted an irreducible and singular signature" (116). Even though it is a question here of Jacques Lacan's notions of the primacy of the signifier over the signified and of the insistence of the letter, like most British and American commentators Hill fails to mention Lacan. He prefers to invoke Jacques Derrida, Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, who came considerably later. Equally disturbing is the lack of reference to Melanie Klein in the long discussions of incorporation and expulsion. Likewise, speaking of the author's name "woven" through the text and "constituting" a signature, Hill fails to recall the Mallarmean dictum: "Le nom du poete mysterieusement se refait avec le texte entier".
Speaking of Beckett's relationship to French, Hill claims that "Beckett has no birth certificate in the language, no identity outside of the words themselves" (39). He thus overlooks what Deirdre Bair points out in the first pages of her biography: that the name Beckett, originally "Becquet," bears witness to the French origin of the family, descended from Huguenot refugees to Ireland. This omission is most curious, as Hill discusses at length the echoes of the French word becquet. Other flaws in Hill's book concern his writing. They are all the more regrettable as they may keep one from enjoying his attentive analyses and novel ideas. One such fault is a certain wordiness. For example, in a sentence from which we quoted earlier (and which we shall quote more fully here: "in the place of the name of the author, then, in the place of a certain Samuel Beckett, what the text inscribes, or encodes, is a cryptic other name for that author, one which might be read as: Lemuel Hatchet" ), we wonder why Hill could not simply have written: "in the place of 'Samuel Beckett,' the text inscribes a cryptic name: Lemuel Hatchet." There are moments of preciosity, as in the subtitle, "In Different Words" (for "indifferent words"), or in a declaration that the French and English versions of the trilogy "reflect (and reflect on) one another" (51). We are also treated to hackneyed phrases, such as "perpetual nightmare" and "hazardous undertaking" (48).
Far more grave are immense forays into metalanguage, occurring, for example, when Hill opens parentheses: "(A parenthesis or digression is necessary here to examine what is at issue . . .)" (8), "(It is worth opening another parenthesis at this point to recall . . .)" (25). He also needlessly restates axioms of present-day critical practice. Since we have all read Wimsatt's and Beardsley's article on the "intentional fallacy," it is hardly necessary to tell us that "no moment, no allusion in Beckett's writing is ever gratuitous" (34). In fact, put that way, the notion becomes untenable; the ultimate relevance of everything in a literary text is an assumption, not a truth. Similarly, we have come to view literary language as fairly autonomous, so that we are perplexed at the necessity of reading that "it is . . . implicit in Beckett's project that no external discourse, like, say, that of scientific validity, is at hand to legislate on the question of success or failure" (123). Despite these flaws, Beckett's Fiction: In Different Words is a success. The bibliography on Beckett is immense, unreadable in its entirety by one individual: over 200 volumes exist with the word "Beckett" in their titles. Yet it would appear that Leslie Hill has managed to say much that is new.
San Antonio, Texas
The above review is a pre-publication and will appear in Substance 66 (Winter, 1991). It is pre-published with the permission of Substance, University of Wisconsin Press and the author. For further information on subscription to Substance (19.00 individuals, 13.00 students) write to Journal Division, University of Wisconsin Press, 114 North MacHenry, Madison, WI 53715.
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