- Reviewed by
In Samuel Beckett's 1957 play Endgame, Clov asks Hamm: "Do you believe in the life to come?" Hamm responds: "Mine was always that." Beckett after Beckett, a new collection of essays devoted to Beckett's work, bears witness to the Irish author's own enjoyment of the life to come. In death, his vital signs are good. As Harold Bloom recently remarked, "It's fair to say now in 2006 . . . at the time of his death he was certainly the major—in terms of real aesthetic eminence—living [End Page 205] western writer. And were he alive today he would still be the major living western writer" (interview with the author).
The essays in Beckett after Beckett explore why and how Beckett maintains his eminence. The volume grew out of the 2003 After Beckett/D'après Beckett symposium in Sydney, Australia, where critics and scholars gathered to celebrate, among other things, the fiftieth anniversary of Waiting for Godot. Yet, as with the symposium, Beckett after Beckett moves well beyond discussions of Beckett's most popular play, delving into his early poems, short prose, major plays, novels, and late writings. As the title intimates, the book focuses on the theme of afterimages, ghosts, and traces in—and left by—Beckett's work. The editors of the volume, S. E. Gontarski and Anthony Uhlmann, offer an impressive and well-written introduction that sets the stage for some of the world's most respected critics and scholars—among them Herbert Blau and Luce Irigaray. The collection demonstrates Beckett's international acclaim, with contributors from Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States.
The book divides into two sections: Beckett and Theory and Beckett and Praxis. The first section includes essays by Blau, Irigaray, Steven Connor, Paul Davies, Uhlmann, Stephen Barker, and Bruno Clément. I'm an instant fan of any book that includes work by Blau, a theoretician of tremendous insight and intellect. He has written some of the most stimulating criticism on Beckett (see, for example, his discussion of Endgame in his essay "Notes from the Underground: Waiting for Godot and Endgame"). Here, as Gontarski and Uhlmann helpfully abstract in their introduction, Blau discusses Beckett and his relationship with and influence on other artists. I'm not always sure I follow what he's saying, but I'm pretty sure it's true. What one misses in reading, rather than listening to him read in Sydney, is Blau's pounding on the podium when reciting lines from Endgame, which he has called the greatest play of the twentieth century.
In her essay, Irigaray focuses on why and how human beings must travel the "path toward the Other" to create more powerful and tolerant modes of existence. I only wish she would have said a bit more about Beckett in what is an otherwise poignant and clear discussion. Connor and Davies both consider the atmospheric conditions in Beckett's writing, and Uhlmann invokes meteorological terminology in his work on occluded images in Beckett (80). Barker's essay is perhaps the most challenging and, some might say, frustrating in the collection, in which the reader encounters aporias such as this: "for Beckett time is both a phenomenological spectacle and a mystical quest for presence—and neither of these" (105). Clément's essay poses provocative and essential questions about the nature of criticism, while exposing how three major French theorists (Didier Anzieu, [End Page 206] Alain Badiou, and Gilles Deleuze) use, manipulate, and contort Beckett for their own purposes. Clément is quick to point out, however, that this is something all critics do, "perhaps not to fictionalize, but to create. To re-create" (130).
The second half of the volume begins with Gontarski's theory of Beckett as a performer, a writer whose contradictions and schizophrenic responses to directors and critics of his work are evidence not of a confused man but of an actor playing roles. Beckett's varied comments, according to Gontarski, grey the canon, ensuring that the texts of the "white canon...