restricted access Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph (review)
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H. Porter Abbott. Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. xii + 196 pp.

In his innovative book, H. Porter Abbott discusses the Beckettian oeuvre through his concept of autography. This concept, first described in his 1988 article, is based on two premises: first, that, consciously or not, in writing every author leaves traces. Abbott thus offers a “counterweight” to balance a dominant critical trend which excludes the author as “unknowable and irrelevant” and, instead, locates the origin of the text in culture and the production of its meaning in the reader. Abbott locates the author and the authorial voice in the text, and revalidates Samuel Beckett’s originality, arguing that in comments, [End Page 517] notes, and questions to himself, Beckett has consciously inscribed himself in his texts.

Abbott’s second premise is that Beckett’s authorial traces are non-narrative and not autobiographical, for Beckett has progressively erased personal-historical narrative, not only in his drama, but also in his post-war prose fiction; Abbott links this erasure to that of the father’s role and presence and calls the double erasure narratricide. Erasure of his personal past immerses the autographical speaker in the present. Beckett’s supradiegetic voice is both in and out of the text, both created by the text and creating it. It speaks in propria persona through fictional narrators in the trilogy, dramatis personae Hamm and the speaker in A Piece of Monologue. Abbott stages this speaker as striking and uncanny: he not only “describes the action as it unfolds . . . at once on stage and off,” but also turns the non-fictive audience, whom the reflexive speaker addresses, into “ghosts, both in the play and out of it.” Calling this fascinating chapter “Supernatural Beckett,” Abbott insists that the strangeness of Beckett’s “virtual presence in his art” should not be “normalized.” In Abbott’s account, Beckett has crossed yet another boundary, the one traditionally separating the fictional voice in the text from the author’s.

Defamiliarization serves “to keep readers (including, while he was alive, Beckett himself) in quest of its deviser.” Just as Abbott redefines and amplifies this Beckettian issue and that of reflexivity to discover new facets, so with other issues. Abbott shows Beckett’s unusual alternation between prose fiction and drama to be “almost regular.” In this way, the two genres satisfy Beckett’s opposing drives which, Abbott says, “script and unscript the self.” In hybrid texts which cross the generic borders, these drives coexist.

Another issue is periodization. Claiming that Beckett’s autographical project is continuous, Abbott argues that the “narratricide” in Godot and The Unnamable in 1948–1950 divides the oeuvre into an early period where the predominant discourse is narrative and a later one where it is non-narrative (the focus of this book).

Abbott argues that Beckett is a “postmodern modernist,” which usefully allows additions to this autographical reading, such as structuralist, intratextual, intertextual, and Derridean analyses of marginal sentences and words (Beckett’s “spots of time”). Abbott sets Beckett’s [End Page 518] formal innovations within a historical framework to enhance their originality, taking Augustine’s Confessions and Wordsworth’s The Prelude as rare precedents for Beckett’s autography. Abbott analyses the textual history of the Victorian “onward” trope, its counterversion (the urge for stasis), and its subversion by modernists, in order to show Beckett’s variations of this trope and deconstruction of the underlying idea of his oeuvre’s progress. He also studies the Beckettian strategy of “recollection by inventing,” a technique of deliberate metamorphosis, closely connected with this “onward” trope.

The variety of critical issues highlighted in this book directs attention to the complexity of Beckett’s texts; this is certainly an enriching work, though the resulting dense writing is not always reader friendly. Abbott is occasionally inconsistent, claiming that since Beckett seeks unmediated contact with his texts, his mode of writing is not fiction (which involves authorial distance) but autography. Nevertheless, Abbott constantly uses this term which he discarded. Finally, some of Abbott’s statements are oblique: “the unmistakable voice . . . that threatens to stand for the author” (emphasis added). Both inconsistency and obliqueness may be...