Espresso Shots: Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, by Samuel Beckett

Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.


Russell Dalrymple: So what have you two come up with?

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, we’ve thought about this in a variety of ways, but the basic idea is, I would play myse…

George Costanza: Uh, may I?

Jerry Seinfeld: Go ahead.

George Costanza: I think I can sum up the show for you in one word. Nothing.

Russell Dalrymple: Nothing?

George Costanza: Nothing.

Russell Dalrymple: What does that mean?

George Costanza: The show is about… nothing!

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, it’s not about nothing.

George Costanza: No, it’s about nothing.

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, maybe in philosophy, but even nothing is something.

Seinfeld, “The Pitch” (Season 4, Episode 3) 1992

“AYIN means No-Thing. AYIN is beyond Existence, separate from any-thing. AYIN is Absolute Nothing. AYIN is not above or below. Neither is AYIN still or in motion. There is nowhere where AYIN is, for AYIN is not. AYIN is soundless, but neither is it silence. Nor is AYIN a void – and yet out of the zero of AYIN’S no-thingness comes the one of EIN SOF.”

— Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi from A Kabbalistic Universe (1977)

In the 1980s Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and dramatist, produced three short novels. Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1981), and Worstward Ho (1983) formed a kind of parellel “trilogy” with his earlier group of three novels produced in his “siege of the room”: Molloy (1955), Malone Dies (1956), and The Unnamable (1958). Like these latter novels, the plots are simple and the three novels explore the concept of narrative negation, where Beckett performs the task of writing stories that will be stripped of characters, plots, and settings. The works from the Fifties stem from a reaction to the novelist’s dilemma faced after the publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s polysemic polyglot dream epic. Joyce’s twin works, Ulysses and Wake, represented literature on a massive scale, enlarded with meaning and references culled from everything from classical literature, mass culture, advertising, and the streets of Dublin. In response to this Rabelaisian capacious bloat, Beckett stripped down literature to its essentials and spent his entire career stripping more and more off the corpse of modern narrative.

Company begins with a voice to “one on his back in the dark.” Ill Seen Ill Said is about “an old woman in a cabin who is part of the objects, landscapes, rhythms, and movements of an incomprehensible universe.” Worstward Ho has character, plot, and setting pared down to a skeletal form, on barely resembling a novel in any traditional form. In the Introduction, S. E. Gontarski relates how these three novels involve Beckett wrestling with the notion of writing nothing. But even if he could distill the concept of nothingness in literary form, he faced the paradox of nothing still being something. A creative failure, but a better failure. As the oft-quoted passage from Worstward Ho states, “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Unlike Beckett’s earlier works, which focus on an incessant movement, these three novels represent his late-career shift to works focused on stillness and inertia. Gontarski also explains how, despite the seemingly autobiographical content, these novels shouldn’t be seen as autobiographical. “But such autobiographical emphases ignore the anti-empiricism that runs through these works, the rejection of the ‘verifiability’ of immediate knowledge since in Beckett’s fictive world all is re-presentation, always already a repetition.” Biographical matter is just that, another kind of raw material for building these anti-structures.

The three novels display how one can remove more and more from a narrative text and still retain a kind of aesthetic momentum. Meaning and outside reference may vanish, leaving one with sentences with words barely held together by grammatical principles, yet one is compelled to read on. In Company, we get fragmentary reminisces:

“A small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand. You turn right and advance in silence southward along the highway. After some hundred paces you head inland and broach the long steep homeward. You make ground in silence hand in hand through the warm still summer air.”

Childhood memories, descriptions of place, etc. Seemingly straightforward narration using the second person singular. But who is the “you”? Who is speaking? This isn’t a nineteenth century Voice of God omniscient narrator. Is it the author? Or is the voice, whoever and whatever that is, speaking to itself? Is this unknown voice making up stories to pass the time? Constructing narrative scenes to alleviate the nothingness surrounding it? As YouTube creators so aptly put it, “making content.” Is this poignant childhood nostalgia … or space-filler? Boyhood memories or packing peanuts to fill up a box?

Ill Seen Ill Said focuses on an old woman in a cabin. The rest is an incomprehensible universe.

“From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when she skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair she watches for the radiant one. Her old deal spindlebacked kitchen chair.”

A repetitive incantatory prose at once lulls and frustrates the reader. The passive-aggressive “On.” goads one forward, combined with the initial rhyming singsongy “… from where she lies … Venus rise.” While the context clues point to Venus as a planet, not the goddess of beauty, the subsequent lines add a frisson of ambiguity and violence, “… she savours it’s stars revenge.” The prose, so stripped-down and barren, creates the vacuum of meaning, leading the reader down the primrose path of personal interpretation. Like Company, the text gives no obvious clues as to who is speaking or how meaning is made. Is it just the mad ramblings of an old woman in a cabin? Does the old woman and the cabin even exist or this another confabulation manufactured by an abstract voice?

Worstward Ho represents the pinnacle of Beckett’s creative genius. It could be classified as part of a family of works I’d call “terminal literature.” Literature at the very end, either in form or technique. These works would include: The Unnamable, Endgame, How it is, and Worstward Ho. While Ill Seen Ill Said has some semblance of character and setting, Worstward Ho abandons it all, leaving only a voice saying words into a void.

“The eyes. Time to—

“First on back to unsay dim can go. Somehow on back. Dim cannot go. Dim to go must go for good. True then dim can go. If but for good. One can go not for good. Two too. Three no if not for good. With dim gone for good. Void no if not for good. With all gone for good. Dim can worsen. Somehow worsen. If not for good.”

Hard to say what is happening or who is saying these words. But that is all we are left with. Words. But do words have meaning even if we attempt to strip them of meaning? Even in this random snippet, Beckett wrestles with emptying words of their meaning, yet he doesn’t wholly succeed, since these sentence fragments still contain meaning, even if it is a tired catchphrase or cliché. The passage keeps repeating variations of the cliché “gone for good.” “One can go not for good. […] With dim gone for good.” Meaning here is like if one has a pesky piece of tape of a finger and the tape can’t seem to come off, despite all the picking, flailing, and struggling. Because even as Beckett approached the apex of his craft and his mission, to write about nothing, to saying nothing, no-thing is still a thing. Like matter itself, it can change form, but it cannot be destroyed.

Nohow On is about nothing. But like Jerry Seinfeld said, “Even nothing is something.”


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