Translation Tuesdays: Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929 – 1989, edited and with an Introduction and Notes by S. E. Gontarski

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A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.

Known more for his plays and his novels, Samuel Beckett’s shorter prose provides a window into his creative process. Edited by Beckett expert S. E. Gontarski, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929 – 1989, offers the reader restored versions of texts culled from disparate sources. Beckett exists in a kind of Irish Modernist Mount Rushmore beside other iconic writers like Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. The latter hangs over Short Prose like a looming shadow, with Beckett having worked as Joyce’s secretary during the creation of Finnegans Wake and having courted his daughter.

The earliest pieces read like Joycean imitations. It is only after the harrowing of the Second World War that Beckett has his “Siege in the Room,” produces Waiting for Godot and the so-called Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). Shorter Prose contains short stories leading up to Trilogy (“The Expelled,” “The Calmative,” and “The End,” all 1946) and after Trilogy (Texts for Nothing, from 1955). While Trilogy was in some ways an aesthetic reaction against Joyce’s polysemic multilingual literary labyrinth Finnegans Wake, Texts for Nothing is Beckett’s own reaction to Trilogy that ended with the famous line, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Indeed, how does one actually go on? Why go on? Why bother?

Martin Esslin, in his study on Beckett and Brecht, asserts “The compulsion to speak. […] But there has been no writer so deeply possessed and compelled and, at the same time, so triumphantly detached that he could dare face the problem of the self in all its vertigo, its infinite recession of self-reflecting mirrors.”1 Beckett’s fiction explores the dissolution of the flesh and the self, yet at the same time Beckett became legendary for his reticence in explanation or interpretation of his work. This provides opportunities for the reader to formulate their own interpretative framework upon these stories without a knee-jerk reaction of it being somehow “wrong.” The play has had numerous interpretations – the psyche, a chess game, the human body, etc. – and my own personal gloss: a post-apocalyptic science fiction tale.

Interpretive malleability extends to Short Prose, as Gontarski illustrates with Texts for Nothing. He tells about how the work was conceived as a short story (and/or collection of short stories), its innate orality (i.e., it’s “spoken-ness”), has lend it to become a stage play. Other works like “neither” were misread as a poem, since it is only a few lines long on a single page, yet Beckett insisted it is a novel.

Short Prose is also a captivating exploration of the art of translation. The earliest works, the Joycean imitations, were in English. Later on Beckett began writing in French. Nothing too exciting about that, since even Joseph Conrad, a native Pole, began writing in English. Yet Beckett stands among the very few writers to translate their own works. (Shorter Prose has an example of work in French later translated by Beckett into English.) It provides an entry point into the colonialist and imperialist aspects of English and translation. Beckett, like Joyce before him, lived in the United Kingdom’s nearest and oldest colony, Ireland. England, in its conquest of Ireland, worked diligently to wipe out the Irish language and culture. Beckett abandoned this colonialist language to adopt the French language, yet there are works like Fizzles (1973 – 1975) written in both French and English. While self-translation is featured in the majority of the works, there are pieces translated by Richard Howard and Edith Fournier.

These short works exist as a necessary corollary to Beckett’s more famous plays and novels. The self-translations also beg an ontological question: In what language did these stories originally exist? In his mind, before he put pen to paper, in what language was Beckett thinking? More of a mind-teaser for an academic cocktail party, yet compelling nonetheless. Although this may reveal more of a philistine chauvinism of the reviewer, since Beckett, like many of his generation, was classically educated. He knew his Greek and Latin beyond his French and German. Did Beckett think in one language? Or was his head a polyphonic chorus of voices and languages? Perhaps, since his work is an evolution (or de-evolution) from Joycean multilingualism to a minimalism stripped bare, narratives devoid of character, setting, self, and, finally, movement. Yet even in the barren stasis, there is not Nothingness, but a voice. A voice, either the reader’s, the author’s, or the character’s (all or none?), a voice permanently compelled to speak, to make a barbaric yawp into the endless sunless void, whether or not someone or something will hear the sound.

1Mediations: Essays on Brecht, Beckett, and the Media, by Martin Esslin (Louisiana State University Press, 1980)

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