restricted access Sails of the Herring Fleet: Essays on Beckett (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1048-1050



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Book Review

Sails of the Herring Fleet:
Essays on Beckett

Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe

Herbert Blau. Sails of the Herring Fleet: Essays on Beckett. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000, viii + 214 pp.

As Herbert Blau indicates at one point in these dozen essays and interviews written over a period of forty years, Samuel Beckett turned from writing novels to plays because he wanted the creative challenge of working on a less expansive canvas, within a more "contained space." Yet, as is true for other contemporary authors as well, the boundaries between and among genres increasingly have become blurred. When Gao Xingjian, the exiled Chinese writer recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in an interview that "[e]ven if you change the pronouns--I, you, he--a novel is still like a long monologue," he was essentially echoing Martin Esslin, who has written importantly about absurdist drama, and who suggested over a decade ago that "the dividing line between a [End Page 1048] dramatic text and narrative fiction become[s . . .] tenuous" when one of the literary forms in question is the dramatic monologue. Although Blau has directed landmark productions of Beckett's plays--such as the Waiting for Godot performed at San Quentin prison--and read deeply in his fiction, he claims, in fact, that "the one unarguable apparency is that Beckett is a poet whether he works in theater, prose, video, or film."

Blau also sees Beckett, in his early study Proust, as a forerunner of poststructuralist thought; what scholars and teachers of narrative might, in turn, find of greatest import here are Blau's lengthy theoretical musings that link Beckett primarily to Derrida and Barthes, but also to Lacan and Baudrillard, among others. Although not without numerous brief references to much of Beckett's prose--fiction and nonfiction alike--this volume, understandably so given Blau's lifetime in the theater, focuses primarily upon the drama, and then most extensively on Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The former he regards as evidence that Beckett is one of the most "consequential" political writers of the 1950s, linking the tramps' "passive resistance" to the nonviolent civil rights movement; the latter play (which serves as the source for his title) he canonizes as the "most profound" work of the modern theater and the "consummation" of the vision of twentieth-century writers from Conrad on.

Without recourse to Brian McHale's theoretical distinction between the epistemological dominant of modernism and the ontological dominant of postmodernism, Blau similarly positions Beckett as "the pivotal figure" between the two: modernist since he is "the last holdout of humanism," valuing poignancy and pathos--as seen, for instance, in his presentation of Waiting for Godot's Didi and Gogo as sufficient unto each other, even if no one else ever comes; postmodernist in his use of astringent parody, dispersed and recursive plotting, musical connectivity, and subversion of conventions, as well as in his emphasis on the dissolution of character and lack of a stable self. Blau also reflects interestingly on multiple permutations of the look and the gaze: on the drama as something that "disappears" in the very act of being perceived; on the characters as suffering the horror of being seen; on the greedy voyeurism of the audience (denoted here as "the specular accretion that materializes in the space between the look and the gaze") that functions simultaneously as a "transposition of the primal scene" and a "reversal" of having been center stage as infants. Along the way, Blau reiterates Beckett's [End Page 1049] recurrent thematic motifs as a post-Bomb, post-Holocaust author who pens a "text of mourning," "lamentation," and the "almost void": alienation and abandonment; impotency and extinction; violence and grief; the price of freedom, the terrible burden of being loved, and the "remorseless continuity of self-excruciating memory."

Blau memorably characterizes Beckett's minimalist language as "austere, hermetic, constrained like the vow of poverty," yet finds in it "the long, unendurable sentence" as well; and unendurably long and...


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