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What is it that constitutes the singular appeal of the novels and narratives of Samuel Beckett? What is it about Beckett’s work that so provokes and fascinates its readers and critics, and yet so consistently frustrates their endeavors? What is it that makes ever more books on Beckett seemingly both necessary and yet superfluous? Towards the end of the second part of Molloy, Beckett’s narrator—the man who claims to be called Jacques Moran—writes, waspishly, of his desire that his son should carry on improving his still rudimentary knowledge of double-entry bookkeeping. The reference serves both as a useful emblem and a terrible warning: for what it does is to alert the reader—in figurative terms—to some of the effects of that strangely aberrant [End Page 373] structure of aporetic doubling that underlies and undercuts all Beckett’s writing and which has it that nothing is ever gained without simultaneously also being lost; the price of insight, Beckett’s narrator implies, is therefore blindness, and the cost of knowledge ignorance.
As with Jacques Moran fils, so in turn with most of Beckett’s readers, who slowly realize that each moment of apparent understanding has to be offset against the persistence of impenetrable obscurities elsewhere in the text. And as with Beckett’s readers, so, too, by and large, with Beckettian criticism. Time and again, critical accounts of Beckett’s writing pay a heavy price—in naiveté, complacency, partiality, or just plain irrelevance—for the insights they claim into the secrets of Beckett’s texts; at times, even, the price is so great as to call into question the viability of the critical operation itself. The law of Beckettian accountancy is a forbidding one, and it can be verified once more, in varying degrees, in respect of the three books under discussion. Here, each in his own very different way, three meticulous and resourceful readers of Beckett bring to the task of interpreting Beckett’s prose considerable reserves of patience, ingenuity and wit; yet in each case the end result points to a balance sheet in which, at best, the credits are finely balanced against the debits and where, at worst, the profitability of the exercise is thrown into some doubt by the extent of the losses sustained.
Rubin Rabinovitz, collecting together in this volume a series of essays on Beckett published over more than a decade, suggests, for his part, that the reason for both the difficulty and the innovative power of Beckett’s prose is to be found in the writer’s conviction “that a literary style must reflect the essence of its subject.” Beckett, he adds, “has tried to reveal the world as it is—as it is, and not as we imagine it to be—because we tend habitually to skirt or reduce complexities.” Happily, the alertness and precise attention to detail that Rabinovitz brings to his reading belie the dispiriting triteness of this statement of critical principle. Indeed, as readers of the critic’s earlier work will know, Rabinovitz has few equals in picking out recurrent structures, motifs, allusions, and figures in Beckett’s writing. At the same time, however, it must be said that the interest of his findings is much diminished by what is a strangely naive and outdated commitment on the critic’s part to a dualistic view of the relationship between style and content; Beckett here is still being seen as something of a psychological realist, as a [End Page 374] writer concerned, as Rabinovitz writes, with “depict[ing] mental experiences faithfully by representing them with all the confusion and uncertainty they might engender.” What mental experiences?, Beckett’s Molloy might rejoin; and what vehicles of representation might there be to do them (?) justice? Here, one is forced to conclude, scrupulous scholarship...